Category Archives: madison

Dredging as good government

A few summers ago we had really bad floods in Madison. There were a lot of reasons. The proximate reason was it rained a lot. But also: we keep the levels of the lakes artificially high with dams, in part because not doing so would make the lake levels fluctuate a lot, and that is a problem for people who have houses on the lake. It’s hard to have your dock reliably terminate at the shoreline if the shoreline keeps moving. Another problem is that the waterways joining the lakes in the chain are choked with sediment and vegetation — so even when we DO open the dams and let the water flow southward towards the Rock River and eventually the Mississippi, the water is pretty slow to drain and it eventually overtops Lake Mendota and washes into the streets of downtown.

(Which, by the way, it was 10 years I lived in the Upper Midwest before I realized that Rockford, Illinois was a place where you could ford the Rock.)

Anyway, I was happy to see that the county is spending a few million dollars to dredge those connecting waterways so the lakes can drain more easily. This is not a headline-making move or an internet sensation; as far as I can tell, the number of times this effort has been mentioned on Twitter is in the single digits. And the effect won’t be dramatic — there’s no shiny new building or bridge or factory at the end of the expenditure. The effect is on what doesn’t happen, or at least is less likely to happen: another flood causing hundreds of millions of dollars of damage.

We pay pretty high property taxes in Madison, as things go, but what’s good about our local government is that I truly feel a lot of this kind of thing happens here. We fix things before they break. It’s something governments mostly don’t get credit for. But they should.

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The Milwaukee Bucks are the champions of the National Basketball Association

First of all, let’s be clear — I am a bandwagon fan. Despite having lived in Wisconsin since 2005, I only got into the Bucks three years ago. I feel a real envy for the long-time fans I know here, who, if they are old enough, have been waiting for a Bucks title since the year I was born. They feel this in a way I can’t.

That said: what a run! Bucks getting revenge on the Heat, who knocked us out early last year … then beating the Nets, the kind of super-team Giannis could have jumped to but didn’t… coming through and winning those key games against the Hawks without Giannis (including a superhero game from my favorite Buck, Brook Lopez) — and finally, Giannis coming back and being so huge in the finals, scoring 50 in the closeout game; and best of all, Giannis got there by hitting 17 out of 19 free throws — it was like, he said “I have one vulnerability and I think tonight is the night to turn it off.” You couldn’t write a better story.

Giannis, the philosopher:

And the text, if that link dies:

When I think about like, “Yeah I did this.” You know, “I’m so great. I had 30, I had 25-10-10,” or whatever the case might be. Because you’re going to think about that … Usually the next day you’re going to suck. Simple as that. Like, the next few days you’re going to be terrible. And I figured out a mindset to have that, when you focus on the past, that’s your ego: “I did this in the past. I won that in the past.”

And when I focus on the future, it’s my pride. “Yeah, the next game, Game 5, I’ll do this and this and this. I’m going to dominate.” That’s your pride talking. Like, it doesn’t happen. You’re right here. I try and focus in the moment. In the present. And that’s humility. That’s being humble. That’s not setting no expectations. That’s going out there and enjoying the game. Competing at a high level. I’ve had people throughout my life who have helped me with that. But that’s a skill that I’ve tried to, like, how do you say? Perfect it. Yeah, master it. It’s been working so far, so I’m not going to stop.

Parade tomorrow in Milwaukee.

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Equinox

Spring arrived right on schedule, just a little snow left in the shady places, sunny out and windy in the high 60’s. AB and I did our first real bike ride of the year, going out about 15 miles to the very agreeable Riley Tavern where you eat outside on picnic tables. A lot of people are watching Wisconsin’s basketball season slowly sputter out as the Badgers fail to mount a comeback against the much higher-seeded team from Baylor. Riley Tavern serves amazing ice cream sandwiches with two chocolate chip cookies instead of the rectangular brown things; they’re not made there, they’re from Mullen’s Dairy Bar in Watertown. The thing about an ice cream sandwich is, they use the rectangular brown things which are soft and not very interesting because you can bite right through them without messing up the ice cream. Any cookie with a little more of a resistance to the tooth tends to smoosh the ice cream out the side when you bite down. That’s unacceptable. Mullen’s has somehow found a way to use a cookie with a real bite but give the ice cream itself enough structural integrity to hold itself in place while you eat it. Extraordinary!

I’d figured it had been warm enough long enough for the bike trail to be dry, and that was sort of true, but in many places it was badly rutted from the people who’d ridden on it when it was muddy, and even though it wasn’t really muddy anymore, it was soft for a couple of miles, so that your weight pushed your back wheel down into the dirt, which clutched your tire so that you were perpetually in a kind of low-grade partially submerged wheelie. We fought our way through at about 5mph for the whole stretch. So a more strenuous 30 miles than the usual. But the last 5 miles home, on pavement, felt like absolute gliding.

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Pandemic blog 44: white Christmas

Just above freezing today, a light snow falling. I took a walk down to Wingra Park, reading He Knew He Was Right, one of the funny parts where a hapless clergyman attempts vainly to not get married (I know that describes a lot of Trollope but the joke lands every time.) The near shore of Lake Wingra was a hockey rink for parents and their kids, on the last day of the long Christmas weekend. Last night, as the holiday requires, we ordered Chinese delivery from Ichiban (in Madison, for reasons lost to history, Szechuan restaurants have Japanese names) and watched the new Pixar movie, Soul. There are very few movies all four of us are willing to sit down and watch in full; I think this year it was just Soul and American Pickle, so I guess we only like to watch sappy movies about hapless comic figures who return from apparent death. The kids and I agree that cumin lamb should be one of those Chinese dishes on the permanent shortlist of American menu standards, like kung pao chicken and ma po tofu and beef lo mein; why isn’t it? Is it hard to make?

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Pandemic blog 43: bluster

Blustery day in Madison; windy and wet, light snow falling, but not sticking. An unwelcome reminder that the constrictedness of our current way of life is going to be harder to handle when the ground’s frozen solid and you have to Hoth up to go outside. Still: this wave of cases has clearly crested in Dane County, which even at the severest moments has been spared the worst of what’s hit Wisconsin these past few months.

And bluster in the State Capitol, as legislators, whether they actually believe this or just feel constrained by political realities to say so, are arguing that my vote and the votes of my fellow Wisconsinites shouldn’t count, and that those legislators should be empowered to choose our Presidential electors in our stead. I prefer the sad wet snow.

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Pandemic blog 35: Updates

What’s going on with some of the topics previously covered?

Slimming: The initial weight loss reported slowed down, but hasn’t stopped, even though I started eating take-out from restaurants in July and have been doing so pretty regularly. Now at about 18 pounds below pre-pandemic weight. Why, I wonder? Is it really just the lunch out at work and the snack at the coffeeshop forgone?

Pandemic elections: 100,000 people in Dane County have already returned their absentee ballots for November. The city is setting up “Democracy in the Park” events where voters can turn in their ballots to city pollworkers; Republicans are trying to have those events declared illegal, because (this is me editorializing) they make it easy and convenient for people to vote whose votes they’d rather not see cast. There is a lot of noise about slowness of the mail, but it’s been fast here, and I mailed my ballot in; received by the clerk in just two days. The underlying worry here is that political actors will try to retroactively have legally cast ballots invalidated after Election Day, leaving voters with no recourse. The fact that mailed-in absentees are expected to be predominantly Democratic (only 44,000 ballots returned so far in Crucial Waukesha County) creates an obvious means of attack. I don’t really think that’ll happen but people are thinking about it under their mental breath.

Writing: The book is almost done! A draft is written, I’m going through and revising and putting in more endnotes now. To me it seems completely different from How Not To Be Wrong, while Dr. Mrs. Q says it seems exactly the same, which seems a kind of sweet spot: I can hope the people who liked the other book will like this one, while feeling for myself that I’m not putting out the same product again and again like a hack.

Impossible Meat: We’re still eating a lot of it! I have absolutely learned to read it as meat and no longer think of it as a substitute. But we’ve converged on using it exclusively in sauces; as a burger, it still doesn’t totally satisfy.

Smart Restart: After the big surge with the opening of classes, UW-Madison shut down in-person instruction for two weeks and put the two first-year dorms where cases were concentrated into isolation. The positivity rate on campus has dropped back down to around 1% and the campus outbreak doesn’t seem to have created sustained exponential growth in Madison’s general population; but it does seem to have brought our daily case load back up to where it was months ago, from which it is, again, only very slowly dropping. When R_0 is a little less than 1, even a brief bump up in prevalence can be very expensive in terms of long-term cumulative case numbers. Now we are starting football again. Is that smart? There won’t be any fans in Camp Randall (which means the economic catastrophe for local businesses of a year without a football season is going to happen unblunted.) Then again, there’s something hypocritical about me saying “Hell no, why take the risk” since I’ve been watching and enjoying baseball. The enjoyment of millions of fans actually does have value. MLB, because lots and lots of money is riding on this, has mostly kept its players and employees from suffering outbreaks. The Big Ten can probably do the same — if it cares to. What I worry about is this. By all accounts, in-person teaching hasn’t been spreading COVID either. But when we had in-person teaching, everyone felt things were more normal, and thinking things were more normal, they relaxed their social distancing, and that generated thousands of cases. There was indirect spread. Will football generate the same?

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Pandemic blog 33: Smart Restart

I thought it was gonna work.

Really! I thought we could sort-of-open college again and not cause a big outbreak. Most of our students live here year-round. By all accounts, there have been fraternity parties all summer. We had a spike of cases in the campus area when bars opened back up at the end of June, which subsided when the county put back those restrictions (though never back down to the levels we’d seen in March, April, and May.) At the end of July I wrote “statewide, cases are growing and growing, and the situation is much worse in the South. I would fight back if you said this was a predictable consequence; nothing about this disease is predictable with any confidence. It could have worked.”

And maybe it could have; but it didn’t. As soon as school started last Wednesday, the percentage of student tests coming back positive, started growing, about 20% higher every day. On Saturday, nine Greek houses were quarantined. A week into school, with about 8% of tests positive, the University halted in-person classes and completely quarantined two first-year dormitories with two hours notice. Food is being brought in three times a day. Hope you like your roommate.

A lot of people, unlike me, saw this coming.

Maybe we can beat this back. Who knows? We did in July. But this outbreak is bigger.

Public schools in Madison are fully online right now. With a summer to prepare it’s working better than it did last spring. But it’s not great, and I would guess that for poor kids it’s a lot worse than “not great.” Private schools are allowed to be open in grades K-2, and a court decision that came down today has, at least for now, allowed them to open to all grades. More outbreaks? To be a broken record, who knows? The argument for opening K-2 sounds pretty good to me; while it’s not definite, most people seem to think younger children are less likely to spread and contract the disease, and that age range is where having kids at home limits parents most. Schools in Georgia have been open, and there have been lots of school outbreaks, and those schools get closed for a while and then reopen, but it doesn’t seem to have created big wave of cases statewide.

This article is good. Beating COVID isn’t all-or-nothing, but people seem to see it that way. If the bar’s open, that means it’s safe, and you can drink with whoever you want, as close as you want. No! Nothing is safe, if you mean safe safe. But also nothing is a guarantee of disaster. If everybody would do 50% of what they felt like doing, we could beat it. Or maybe 75%, who knows. But it feels like if we don’t insist on 0%, people will understand us to mean that 100% is OK. I don’t have any good ideas about how to fix this.

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Pandemic blog 31: farmers’ market

First trip back to the Westside Community Market, which in ordinary times is an every Saturday morning trip for me. It feels like a model for people just sitting down and figuring out how to arrange for people to do the things they want to do in a way that minimizes transmission. We don’t have to eliminate every chance for someone to get COVID. If we cut transmissions to a third of what it would otherwise be, that doesn’t mean a third as many people get COVID — it means the pandemic dies out instead of exploding. Safe is impossible, safer is important!

They’ve reorganized everything so that the stalls are farther apart. Everybody’s wearing masks, both vendors and customers. There are several very visible hand-washing stations. Most of the vendors now take credit cards through Square, and at least one asked me to pay with Venmo. It’s easy for people to keep their distance (though the vendors told me it was more crowded earlier in the morning.)

And of course it’s summer, the fields are doing what the fields do, the Flyte Farm blueberries, best in Wisconsin, are ready — I bought five pounds, and four containers of Murphy Farms cottage cheese. All you need is those two things for the perfect Wisconsin summer meal.

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Pandemic blog 30: opening day

I have been generally feeling: it is OK to start relaxing restrictions on in-person contact, because there seems some decent chance that barring the most infectiogenic scenarios might be enough to keep outbreaks small and manageable. And that still might be true, in some contexts; in Dane County, we had a big spike of cases when the bars re-opened, and when the bars shut down again, the case spike went away, and hasn’t come back, though people are certainly out and about. But statewide, cases are growing and growing, and the situation is much worse in the South. I would fight back if you said this was a predictable consequence; nothing about this disease is predictable with any confidence. It could have worked. But I wouldn’t fight you if you said it was an expectable consequence, the consequence you thought most likely.

Similarly, if you rigorously jettison everyone with a demonstrated ability to play baseball from your team, and sign a collection of promising young players but keep them off the roster in order to avoid starting their service time, and then put that team on the field against major league competition, you might find that the nobodies and never-weres and used-to-bes find it within themselves to go on a scrappy “Why not?” run of success; or you might, as an expectable consequence, give up eight doubles and get beat 13-2.

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Pandemic blog 28: Smart Restart

What’s going to happen to school in the fall? Madison schools are talking about having two days on, three days off, with half the kids going on Monday and Tuesday and half on Thursday and Friday.

I think if we open anything it has to be schools. And it seems pretty clear we are not not opening anything. If there’s no school, how are people with young kids supposed to work?

There’s decent evidence that young kids are less likely to get infected with COVID, less likely to spread it, and drastically less likely to become seriously ill from it — so I don’t think it’s crazy to hope that you can bring kids together in school without taking too much of a hit to public health.

What about college? UW-Madison is proposing a “Smart Restart” plan in which students come back to dorms, on-campus instruction starts in a limited fashion (big classes online, small classes taught in big rooms with students sitting far apart.) A lot of my colleagues are really unhappy with the fact that we’re proposing to bring students back to campus at all. I’m cautiously for it. I am not going to get into the details because more detail-oriented people than me have thought about them a lot, and I’m just sitting here blogging on Independence Morning.

But three non-details:

  1. Given the high case numbers among college students in Madison now, just from normal college student socializing, it’s not clear to me that asking them to come to class is going to make a notable difference in how much COVID spread the student population generates.
  2. Any plan that says “Protect the most vulnerable populations, like old people, but let young healthy people do what they want” that doesn’t include “vulnerable people who can’t safely do their jobs because their workplaces are full of young, healthy, teeming-with-COVID people get paid to stay home” is not a plan. We can’t make 65-year-old teachers teach in person and we can’t make diabetic teachers teach in person and we can’t make teachers with elderly relatives in the household teach in person.
  3. Any plan for re-opening schools has to have pretty clear guidelines for what triggers a reverse of course. We cannot figure out what’s safe, or “safe enough,” by pure thought; at some point we have to try things. But a re-opening plan that doesn’t include a re-closing plan is also not a plan.

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