Monday, October 24, 2022

Observations on my trip to Hong Kong

When I lived in Hong Kong, I found it amusing that visitors would often and repeatedly comment on how striking they found the clusters of skyscrapers of housing estates. So I find it amusing, now, that on the ride in from the airport, I, too, found the clusters of 30-plus story skyscrapers notable. The fact that I notice these buildings which I once took for granted shows that I no longer belong in Hong Kong. And yet, everything seems so familiar, like I never left.

The Covid protocols are a mixture of the efficient and nonsensical. I was tested by PCR test 4 times: on arrival, and 2, 4 and 6 days later. Each time, I received the results at around 8:30 pm, which is the time they notify people who have been tested before noon. I don’t know why the notifications are sent out as a batch and are not sent out as they are received. In addition, I had to take a Rapid Test every day and post the results (honor system). Half of these tests, then, were duplicating the PCR test. I tried to make it more useful by doing the Rapid Test in the evening, since I took the PCR test in the morning, but that meant I got the results of both tests at about the same time.

The PCR testing process itself was amazingly fast. I simply walked in, showed the staff member my Hong Kong ID and the appointment confirmation SMS text message on my phone. The staff person, who was behind a plastic barrier, entered my ID number and a code number from the SMS text on their keyboard, and my personal particulars (including my phone number) then appeared on a screen that was set facing me (none of the silly swiveling of the screen as in doctors’ offices in St Louis). She gave me a vial, which I then took down a line about 20 meters, and a “dispatcher” told me which of about 20 cubicles (temporary cloth medical stations) to go to for my test. Each time I arrived, the tester was still finishing up from the previous test and putting on new gloves. They took a swab of both sides of my nose, and with a second swab took a sample from my throat (“Say ‘Ah’”), and then, “You’re done, thank you” and I could leave. I don’t think it even took 3 minutes.

In theory, everyone entering a store or building has to scan a QR code on their “LeaveHomeSafe” app, which brings up the visitor’s health status in a QR code. Until a person’s QR code is blue, one cannot eat in a restaurant. (A friend who has resisted getting a cell phone for years was finally forced to get a smart phone!) I found that while restaurants followed this faithfully, most stores and buildings ignored it. I entered a Watson’s pharmacy and saw the QR code and scanner at the door but noticed that no one was using it. On the other hand, when I entered the Chinese University Library, a staff member was at the barrier where you scan your university ID to enter, and she gently called me back to have me sanitize my hands. (In my defense, I did not recognize the new, alcohol-spraying hand sanitizer as a sanitizer, and plus, didn’t we discover that Covid spreads not from contact by in the air?).

Surgical mask holder
Everyone, and I mean everyone, wears a mask. The only exception is when exercising, and on the beach. People walking on a promenade along the water, which could technically be considered exercising, were wearing masks.

Hong Kong residents also have a handy plastic mask holder, which allows you to fold a surgical mask and put it in your purse or pocket while you eat in a restaurant. I also discovered a "touchless elevator pad" 

Days before leaving for HK, I received the Congressional-ExecutiveCommission on China  report on human rights in Hong Kong titled Hong Kong’s Civil Society: From an Open City to a City of Fear. As a cover letter put it:

The report, entitled Hong Kong’s Civil Society: From an Open City to a City of Fear, draws on interviews with 42 current and former members of Hong Kong’s civil society and details how the draconian enforcement of the National Security Law crushed democratic institutions and a once vibrant civil society in Hong Kong.

The report is depressing reading, describing the jailing of politicians and activists for organizing a primary (which the government claims is “subversion”), the disbanding of many NGOs, children coming home saying their teachers told them to report if parents criticized China’s flag, and journalists forced to leave because of police harassment.

Touchless elevator pad
In contrast to the report, which focuses on the worst cases, I found people trying to live a normal life. Some professors have left Hong Kong because of the political situation and the National Security Law, but it has not been a mass exodus. Recent statistics show 1.6% of HK’s population (116,000people) left HK in the past 12 months (see here for more analysis on emigration and Covid departures). Professors that remain try to continue teaching as before; since they taught critical thinking and presented different sides of issues, and not one side, they see no need to change their approach. Especially because many courses still have to be offered on Zoom, and so are recorded, teachers also warn students to be cautious, but one colleague noted that some students do not hesitate to talk about what they did in the protests, despite teachers' warnings.

One friend, who had been quite supportive of the protests when I saw him three years ago (and probably would still be considered “yellow”), has traveled to the UK for work and commented that the Hong Kong friends who have emigrated are, in his view, overly negative on Hong Kong. It seems everyone needs to justify their choice: those who stay say it is not so bad, those who left emphasize how much it’s changed and how bad it’s become.

Now that the protests have been suppressed, perhaps it is easier to add some nuance, and not see them in simple bipolar terms of good versus evil, or democracy versus autocracy. Already in 2020, a special section in the anthropology journal HAU (issue 10[2]) offered some nuance on the protests. Many of the protesters were xenophobic and anti-Mainland Chinese, and a large number loved Trump (because of his anti-China stance). And though authorities will not admit it (because they “won”), much of the violence was caused by the government’s intransigence and by the police. The violence from a minority of the protesters probably doomed the protest movement.

I can see that people who, for family or work or other reasons cannot or do not want to emigrate, are coming to terms with the new reality. One Chinese friend (who is my age and who had emigrated to Australia in the 1990s to get his citizenship and then returned to Hong Kong) was surprised that his sons’ friends all supported the protests. He is relatively moderate and sympathized with aspects of the protests, but the protest movement appealed especially to youths. Yet, neither he, nor his sons (who graduated from university in Australia) are considering moving to Australia. My friend said he is disgusted with the “Mainlandization” of the government, with officials now speaking like CCP officials. He commented that because they did not do so right after 1997, when perhaps it could have been logical to make such a change, the patriotic language and public service announcements on TV in 2022 are quite jarring. But he’s not leaving.

Another young friend, educated in the US, complained bitterly of the government bureaucracy and rigidity with Covid regulations, but he admitted he would not leave Hong Kong, because his skills and bilingualism are only an advantage in Hong Kong.

The fact is, we all live in flawed societies. I live in a city that still has a gaping racial divide, where White kids in the suburbs go to excellent public and private schools while Black kids in north St Louis go to schools that in the recent past were so bad that the state had to take themover. Guns are so common that I sometimes hear shots fired at night. On the social network NextDoor, I read last week that two teenagers drove up to a gas station near my neighborhood, and one of them jumped into a car and stole it (here is a video of a similar incident at the same station). One of the first replies on NextDoor was that the owner should have had a gun! (Right, so she could shoot her own car and perhaps kill the teenager and maybe some innocent person walking by.) Today there was a mass shooting in a St Louis high school: three dead, six injured. I live in a country that is also entering a deeply xenophobic phase, where minorities are attacked and immigrants who have worked here (usually also paid income taxes) for decades have no path to citizenship. I live in a country where supposedly intelligent people continue to assert, without any evidence, that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump (despite the fact that Republicans did well in all the other races). I live in a country that claims to be a democracy and yet corporations and the wealthy can spend unlimited amounts in political ads and lobbying (see e.g. Leonard Leo’s $1.6 billion fund). And I live in a country where most people are going to vote for their tribe (red or blue) rather than based on the qualifications and policy proposals of candidates.

Americans like to think that the US is such a great country that everyone wants to come here, but according to a report titled Caught in the Crossfire: Fears of Chinese-American Scientists, government harassment of scholars of Chinese descent has led to an exodus: 

“The China Initiative caused panic and an exodus of senior academic researchers of Chinese descent in the US.” The number who dropped their American academic or corporate affiliation in 2021 in favor of a move back to a Chinese institution jumped by 23 percent over 2020. In 2021, 1,500 Chinese scholars who were educated in the United States left to go back to China."

Many Americans seem to believe the political rhetoric that the US is the greatest country in the world, and believe everyone wants to come to America. In fact, the vast majority of people want to stay home close to family and friends, and most refugees who come to America are driven out by violence and other problems at home.

It is easy, from the US, to imagine it is hard to live in an authoritarian place like Hong Kong. Yet many Americans are perfectly willing to retire to an autocracy like Dubai:

A sunshine-filled city, Dubai offers an outstanding quality of life for retirees. The city is famed for its friendly, multicultural population and array of lifestyle experiences that put convenience at the forefront – think on-demand home services and food delivery at the touch of a button. (From Retire in Dubai website)

Retire amid sunshine and cheap labor; all you need is US$500,000 in the bank, and an income of at least US$60,000 per year. Why worry about freedom?

The CECC report quotes an anonymous professor as saying “Hong Kong has changed from an open society to one in which people are gripped by fear. And the fear is encompassing.” This is certainly true for some. But most people are not activists or directly involved in politics. It is startling to realize that for many people, life seems to go on as before. Even if they are not happy about the National Security Law, what can they do?

Science Park: new buildings
Because many people are carrying on as before, the changes to Hong Kong will be gradual. Several people mentioned the way pro-Beijing papers identify an issue or a person and then attack them in concert. That riles up pro-Beijing supporters who add to the attacks online. That is how Beijing tries to bring about change. It is a bit reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution, though less intense (although it is plenty intense if you are the target). But most Hong Kong residents are not involved in politics and do not fear being attacked. The authorities have created a flag raising ceremony at schools, and added required patriotic education, but I heard ways that people get around them (e.g. by assigning a few Mainland students to attend on behalf of a department). Over time, these ritual may have an effect, or they may become empty rituals. Beijing is making Hong Kong students sing the national anthem; Americans sing the national anthem before all sports events. Does it have an effect?

People get used to almost anything. My sense is that people in Hong Kong will adapt. Like many in China, they will continue to hope that the government will reform, will open up. They will push at the margins; no street protests, but passive resistance, like the non-compliance with scanning the QR code in entering buildings. Hong Kong survived fairly draconian crackdowns under the British. Many hope it will survive this round of crackdowns, too.

Thursday, October 06, 2022

Back in Hong Kong

This entry is about details of travel to Hong Kong, and about airport/airline efficiency, and may be of limited interest to readers, since it is written mostly to record my experiences and to help me get over jet-lag. Mostly “1st World Problems.” Feel free to skip it, unless you want the details.

I came back to Hong Kong for a brief visit; I need to set foot in the SAR at least once every three years to maintain my “permanent” resident rights (this requirement only applies to “non-Chinese,” a concept that one could write an article about—American-born Chinese technically are “non-Chinese” because they are “born American” but in fact many manage to get the real permanent ID). I was already looking into how to fly back to HK when the government reduced the quarantine from three days in a hotel and four at home to just three at home, so I quickly bought my ticket. The website was so busy that I was not able get into the Cathay Pacific website to select my seats until the following day.

Repulse Bay
I flew on Cathay Pacific because 1) my accumulated miles would have expired on Dec. 31 if I did not fly a leg on the airline, 2) it was the only direct flight from the US to HKG, 3) I like Cathay’s service (politeness and efficiency—you’ll see below). But of course, Cathay does not fly to St Louis, so I had to fly STL to LAX on a code-shared flight operated by American Airlines (AA).

 My flight was supposed to leave STL at 19:45, and at 15:45 I got an email telling me my flight was on time. To make sure there were no problems (and because CX was not able to assign me a seat on the first leg, which was run by AA), I arrived at the airport more than 2 hours early. I tried to check in at the kiosk, but it did not work. The attendant came over, also tried, and then sent me to the service desk. No problem: I got two boarding passes, one STL-LAX, and the other LAX-HKG. So far, pretty smooth (except that CX does not participate in TSA PreCheck, so I had to do the shoes-off computer-out routine).

Change or no change?
Shortly after I got to my gate, C6, I thought to check where my plane was. My Flight Aware app then told me that my flight was going to be two hours late, but there was no indication on the monitor. Finally, about a half hour later, the monitor indicated the late departure, but it said we would only be 1:15 hr late, leaving at 21:00. But an email they sent at 18:02 said that we would depart at 20:29. (Before that email arrived, they sent me at 17:34 an email that my seat had changed from 17D to 17D—yes, that is not a typo! See screenshot.) Since I had a three hour layover, I was not too worried. 

At 20:26, they said they would start boarding in four minutes, so I got up and went to the restroom, about 30 yards up the hallway. When I came back a few minutes later, I was stunned to see that gate C6 was completely empty! Everyone had left, and the monitors at gate C6 still had my flight to LAX displayed.

I knew there was no way everyone boarded the plane that quickly, so I looked around, and I could see a family that had sat next to me was walking down the corridor. It turned out AA had changed our gate to C10. I got there after everyone had found places to sit, and so decided to stand, thinking we were about to board, but it took another 30 minutes, because people had to get off the airplane first, and then they had to clean it. All this time, there was not a single announcement about what was going on. The only announcements were that there was only space for 45 roller bags, and so everyone in groups 7-9 had better check them in now, to avoid further delaying our flight.

Finally, at about 21:00, they asked us to board. I got in my group (#4 of 9!) and once we were in the jetway, we just stopped. We waited in line in the jetway for 10-15 minutes. I heard staff in the front talking, asking passengers if the jetway was full, if people were still coming. One passenger went up and asked the staff woman at the head of the jetway and I heard them saying something about the pilot not having enough hours left to complete the flight. She sent an assistant to get a wheelchair (oh no, are we now disembarking the wheel-chair assisted passengers who are already on the plane?!) but just as the assistant was returning with the wheelchair, the staff woman said we could board, and told her assistant she did not need the wheelchair. Whew!

 Again, at no point did they announce what was going on. By now it was getting to 21:40, and I was worried about making my connection. The flight was scheduled to be 3:50 hrs, so would land around 23:30 LA time, and my CX flight was supposed to board at 23:50.

The flight itself was fine. I did, however, ask a flight attendant if they would make an announcement to ask passengers to let travelers with tight connections get off first, and she replied that they can do it, but that it depends on whether other passengers will cooperate. In my mind, I was thinking that passenger cooperation depends a lot on how the announcement is phrased, but, whatever. In fact, however, they did not make any announcement. I timed the disembarkation: the plane doors opened at 23:13, and I got off at 23:18 (since I was in row 17). Not bad. But again, pretty poor service. I’ve noticed AA does this; they seem to agree to do things to get a customer off their back, but then don’t follow through.

I was worried I would have to go through security again to get to the international terminal (like at Chicago’s ORD), which could take time since I did not have TSA PreCheck, but I did not, so I arrived to my CX flight gate with plenty of time. I was astonished to see that Cathay did not use the boarding passes for boarding the airplane: they used face recognition. You can see in the video below. Passengers are told to step on two green footprints on the ground and look at the monitor. The program identifies the face and then turns green and opens the gate. I was shocked that they used it, and that it seemed to work. In my case, the screen did not recognize me; it said to take off my mask (it was already off! Did they want me to take off my beard?) or see an attendant. The attendant was very patient as she dealt with me, and with a French passenger who had done something wrong with his quarantine statement and might not be allowed to board. She multitasked, and calmed him down, and took care of my my problem. I think the issue was that I had bought the ticket using my passport, but had submitted the quarantine information using my HK ID. After showing the ground staff my passport, ID and green quarantine QR code, she told me I was being upgraded to business class and gave me a new boarding pass, which I did not need to use, because now the computer recognized my face. I do wonder what picture(s) they have of me. And why are they doing this? Are people sneaking into Hong Kong with fake documents? One thing is for sure: this does remind every traveler to Hong Kong that Big Brother knows what you are doing. On the other hand, it is not just Hong Kong; today's NY Times has an article that says of the US, "Around 85 percent of the 221,000 daily visitors arriving from abroad are now verified by face, according to C.B.P. [Customs and Border Patrol] officials." In fact, it may be the US that wants Cathay Pacific to use facial recognition, not Hong Kong!

It is not fair to compare economy class on AA to business class on CX, but I do want to point out that my reading light on the AA flight did not work (it was not that they were all off; the reading light over the boy at the window seat did work). Not everything on my CX flight was perfect; if I plugged in my phone charger, the headphones had a loud buzz. But I have to say that the Airbus 350-1000 was so quiet that I could hear people near me crinkling a bag of potato chips or the flimsy water bottles; the crinkling made an annoyingly loud noise. (OK, now we are really descending in 1st World Problems.) In a moment of boredom, I decided to measure the background sound of the airplane, and it was only 70-71 db, which the app says is the sound of traffic. (For comparison, “Conversation in restaurant, office, background music” are 60 db, which is half as loud as 70 db, and a garbage disposal is 80 db [twice as loud, though that would depend on the model; see quiet Insinkerators here]).  

Hong Kong still tests everyone arriving in the SAR. There are temporary stations set up in the airport arrival hallway, with plenty of people directing passengers. At the first station, I was given a green lanyard with a green card with a bar code on it (there were twelve desks for this, and the entire procedure of submitting travel document and receiving the lanyard took half a minute. Then I went to the next station, where there are over 30 cubicle’s separated by temporary sheets, like in a hospital. I sat down, pulled my mask down, and they took a sample from both nostrils with one medical swab and a sample from the throat with a second swab (the first one did not go that deep, but the second one nearly made me gag). Then I was given the samples in a bag (I don’t remember whether there were two vials or only one) and I went further down the hall and handed them to another team that took them, and scanned the bar code. And I was done! Granted, I was among the first off the plane, but there were so many stations and so many helpers, I’m sure everyone got through very quickly.

Efficiency in moving people is one thing that Hong Kong excels in. The plane touched down at 5:55 am, and I got off the plane at about 6:05. I was at the luggage claim area by 6:19, and that includes taking a train from the far end of the terminal to the arrivals area (and a 5 minute wait for the train). The luggage came out right away (I’ve never understood why it is so fast in this enormous airport, and so slow in STL, which is very small). I was in a taxi on my way to my friend’s apartment at 6:40. Amazing: 45 minutes from wheels on the ground to in taxi, even with all the quarantine protocols.

And I received a text that my covid test was negative at 10:10. I now have to do a rapid test daily, for seven days, and go to a health center for a PCR test in two, four, and six days. It seems a bit extreme (especially doing a rapid and PCR test on the same day) but Hong Kong authorities can be a bit enthusiastic about safety. I've always wondered how many people actually get injured on escalators, because in Hong Kong (including today in the airport), there are announcements that say "Please hold the handrail and don't walk." Not "Stand on the right and walk on the left" as in the Taipei subway system.

One thing that Hong Kong does is load 8 taxis at once. The taxis pull up in 8 spots, and staff guide passengers from the single queue to load at the 8 spots, so people don’t have to wait as long. After experiencing the HK system, I get impatient when I go to other airports and I have to watch one or at most 3 people get into their taxi, while we just wait. When you are as crowded as Hong Kong is, you develop tools to move crowds more quickly and efficiently. The assistants even ask you where you are going, and give you a “Taxi information card” with an estimate of what it should cost, to help avoid cheating. (I noticed that I paid a $3 “Airport fee” on my Uber ride to the STL airport, but I don’t see that I got anything from that; it looks more like a troll fee).

I don’t mean to complain. It is a thrill to be able to travel again. And when you are in a place, you read and learn about things you would never hear about while outside HK, because there, you are paying attention to a different place's local news. The SCMP (which I don’t usually trust, but often does have interesting information) has an article about Beijing’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs asking all HK consulates to provide a list of their properties in Hong Kong, and when and how they bought it. Apparently, many consulates have ignored the missive, which had a Sept. 22 deadline. Most consulates declined to comment, so this part of the article caught my attention:

A former Asian diplomat said the request was ‘clumsy’ and could be ‘counterproductive’.

‘I think it is probably to intimidate and unsettle the diplomatic community and as a not-so-gentle reminder that Hong Kong’s boundaries of acceptable conduct by diplomats have changed.’ The envoy said. ‘I doubt it will work—those very few, mainly Western consulates, inclined to behave in the way the Chinese fear are not going to stop supporting ‘democracy’ or calling out Chinese violations of human rights in Hong Kong, while the majority of consulates who never had any intention of doing so will just get irritated.’ (Ng Kang-chung and Jeffie Lam, “Beijing seeks details on HK assets owned by consulates.” Oct. 6, 2022, p. A3)

HK taxi, with multiple phones, and sanitizer. Orange box is air purifier. 
The article right next to it (“Slight increase in arrivals since easing of restrictions” by Rachel Yeo) notes that on Oct. 3, 768 tourists arrived in Hong Kong, and 471 left (this would not include me, since I enter with a HK ID). On January 24, 2020, before the coronavirus crisis, 22,872 visitors arrived. The article concludes with an economist saying that

It is possible to see air passenger capacity rebounding around 10 per cent at the moment to 30 percent of the pre-pandemic level by year-end. Still, there is a long way to go for Hong Kong to catch up as Singapore will reach 80 per cent soon.

Hong Kong is always competing with Singapore. And now, the terms of the competition are much less in its favor.

Monday, August 22, 2022

On Migrants and Immigration

I often wonder what later generations will “see” as obviously irrational, immoral, or unjust practices in our culture, and ask themselves how we could have accepted these, the way we look back at enslavers today. Some are obvious: even before I die, expect my grandchildren to ask me why we were so careless in burning carbon, what with all the airplanes, heating and air conditioning, and big cars. Some people argue that future generations will look in horror at our carnivorous practices; I’m skeptical, though I assume we’ll eat a lot less meat, especially beef.

So I was fascinated to hear Mohsin Hamid on the Ezra KleinShow podcast say that he thought we today are as barbaric today for preventing migration ("enforcing the limits of geography on people’s lives") as slaveholders were for enforcing birth hierarchies 150 years ago. He points out that humans, like all animals, migrate. In fact, the enforcement of borders is actually fairly new.

[N]one of us are, in a sense, indigenous to where we live.… [W]herever we are, in a sense, we are migrants. And up until quite recently, this idea of the nation-state with such impermeable borders and passports and this entire mechanism didn’t exist. Of course, there were tribes that wouldn’t let members of other tribes live among them. There were wars, there were all kinds of things. But the human record is of movement, incredible amounts of movement.

Europeans migrated to the New World with almost no restrictions until the early 20th century. The Qing dynasty tried to prevent Chinese from moving to Taiwan and the Philippines in the 17th century, but pretty much failed. But today, Hamid notes, we have governments attempting to use industrial technology to stop any movement. He continues:

And I think that, while I fully understand and can empathize with the idea that, well, if we let everybody come, it will change everything and we can’t do that, I can understand that. And there needs to be some navigation of how do we manage this tussle of what those who wish to move and those who do not wish others to move to where they are, how do we manage the balance between those two things.

But what I think is very stark is that it cannot be that the moral right is simply to say that people mustn’t move, they are criminal if they move, they should be criminalized if they move, because in a world where there will be, I think, enormous flows of people, due to climate change and environmental disruption, but also wars and other things, if we say to people that they just can’t move, we’re, in a sense, handing out death sentences to millions and millions of our fellow human beings. If you can’t leave a country where there’s a war underway and where people of your particular group are being killed, or if you can’t leave a country where there is enormous starvation and crops have failed, we are basically deciding that these people now need to die.

And for me, that decision should be revealed in its correct moral complexion, which is to say it isn’t the person who wishes to move who is the criminal here. If somebody is drowning and we can help them and we don’t, it’s not the person who drowns that is the criminal here. 

The same day that I heard this podcast interview, I also heard news from an IPSOS poll that Americans are very misinformed about immigration. 

Over half of American adults believe it is either completely or somewhat true that the U.S. is experiencing an invasion at the southern border, according to a new NPR/Ipsos poll. Moreover, half believe there is at least some truth to the view that migrants bringing fentanyl and other illegal drugs over the southern border are responsible for the increases of overdoses in the U.S.

The idea of an “invasion” is hyperbole at best, and the migrants are not bringing drugs, but trying to save themselves. Though half of all respondents believe migrants are smuggling drugs, Republicans who watch Fox are most likely to believe this (89%), compared to 64% of Republicans get their news elsewhere.

The survey also shows that support for giving citizenship to Dreamers (people brought to the US by their parents as children) has fallen from 65% in January 2018 to 51% today. And “Fewer Americans today (56%) believe that immigrants are an important part of our American identity than in January 2018 (75%).” This represents a significant rightward tilt in the country. 

I’ll admit I’m biased; I am the child of immigrants. My father’s family migrated to the US in 1920. My mother survived Allied bombing near Argenta, in Emilia-Romagna, and relied on distant relatives and strangers to survive. Her beloved great aunt, virtually her only relative on her father’s side, was killed in a bomb shelter in Ferrara. She always said that in wars, everyone suffers. My parents taught me that refugees needed help and that we should help them. They lived those values by sponsoring a family of Vietnamese refugees in 1979. 

In another coincidence, this week I also heard Malcolm Gladwell’s last podcast of the 7th season, “I Was A Stranger and You Welcomed Me,” which tells the story of how his parents and their friends sponsored three Vietnamese refugees in 1979 (I highly recommend listening to this podcast; excellent, as usual). He makes the point that many people contributed to the effort, and there was little or no organization; many of the people Gladwell assembles for his interview were not aware of who did what or how things got done. It was all a series of small acts of kindness. No bravery was necessary; like the “Good Samaritan” of the Bible, who does not fight off hoodums or sneak the injured man past a military checkpoint, but just tends his wounds and pays an innkeeper to restore him to strength, a number of people donated money and time to help refugees start a new life in Canada.

The group in Canada was in part motivated by their Christian faith, and the podcast has them reciting these verses from Matthew 25:

For I was hungry and you gave me food. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was naked and you gave me clothing. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me.

I have to wonder at these people who consider themselves Christians, or even "Christian Nationalists," and yet spread misinformation about migrants at the border, and are able to turn their backs on their suffering. And I worry that the poll shows this country is turning Rightward, becoming more intolerant and fearful. What will our grandchildren say?

Sunday, August 14, 2022

Observations on Working as an Election Judge on the Aug. 2nd Primary

The people who serve as election judges work part time, only on election days. Most are retired; a few are elderly, some are stay-at-home moms. I worked with a woman, who I’ll call Pam, who has lived over 50 years in the neighborhood, and knew many of the people who came to vote. She herself was a Republican, but many who came to vote requested the Democratic ballto. They would say they wanted to go to Pam, so would wait until her position was open. Neighbors, fellow church members, and even her daughter came to vote at her station. Later, while fellow election judges were teasing her about knowing so many voters, she mentioned she also knew the man who had just come in. Pam said to him, “Your wife came earlier.” Him: “Yes, I heard.” I later figured out he was her son-in-law! My colleague was the nicest, kindest person, and wore a perpetual smile. I’m sure she made a good impression on most voters.

Earlier, while we waited for polls to open, I spoke with another judge I had met working the local election last April. He told me that he once worked in polling a place where everyone was very nasty. He said if the manager saw a voter lingering “too long” at a check-in station, he would yell, “What’s going on there!” That is ridiculous because it is not uncommon for there to be an issue with the voter’s ID or registration. He said another station was staffed by two older and very short ladies who were not visible to voters in line, because they were so short and hidden behind the poll-pad and printers. They would yell, “NEXT!” and get angry that voters did not step forward, but he said people could not even tell where the voice was coming from. He says he told the Election Board that he would not serve if he had to go back there. That is how he’s ended up at my location.

We ourselves had one new election judge who was described by a voter as “alarmingly perky.” She said “HELLO!” and “WELCOME!” to everyone who entered as if they were long-lost friends, and was always laughing and smiling. She was very pro-active and helpful, but sometimes intervened where she was not needed and thus complicated matters (like causing a queue for us to print out ballots, which can cause problems if we’re not careful to give the right ballot to the right voter, because every voter’s ballot can be different, since the county allows voters to vote at any polling place in the county.) But Miss Perky was very organized and pro-active, and got us packed and ready to go home just 30 minutes after polls closed, by starting the tear-down process early and assigning everyone tasks (though technically that was not really her job). It takes informal leaders to make individualistic Americans work as a team.

Early in the morning, while I was managing the scanner (standing aside so I could not see the ballot, but giving voters instructions on how to scan their ballot: “Insert it in any direction, except sideways!”), a woman stood in front of the scanner and called out, “How do I know that this machine is not going to change my vote? Is it connected to the Internet?” I explained that it was not connected, that we had to take a USB drive out and bring it to election headquarters at the end of voting, and that the original ballots would be available for checking. She continued on, saying that she knew that votes had been changed by machines in other states, though not in Missouri. The Republican judge working with me looked at me with her eyes open wide in shock, and also added a few reassuring words to the voter, but after the voter left, she commented, “Oh my goodness, some people….” She did not have to finish the sentence.

I was surprised by the number of people who complained that we did not offer computer voting (that is, voting on a touch screen). Sometimes, if I was not busy, I explained that this system was more secure, because each voter marked the paper ballot which remained as a record, and a machine scanned and counted the ballots, whereas the other system was viewed as less secure because you voted on a machine which created a paper record that you could not see. About five voters complained that we were going backwards, that this was not modern, and at least two of them were registering for Republican ballots, which surprised me since I would have thought Republicans would be in favor of more ballot security. The most vociferous complainer was a man with a police shield hanging on a chain around his neck, and a gun (looked like a Glock, but I don’t really know guns) in his holster on his right side. He was not in uniform; in fact, he was wearing an irreverent T-shirt that read “Breaking News: I Don’t Care” which I found a bit disconcerting on a police officer with a gun. Guns are not allowed in the polling area, but my Democratic manager claimed officers wearing a badge were allowed to carry a gun at all times and everywhere. He said that in any case, he does not argue with police. I told him I was not arguing with the police, but that was why I raised it with him.

Very few people tried to vote with anything but a driver’s license. I saw one woman vote with a Wisconsin driver’s license; I don’t really understand why that is legal, since to get a Wisconsin license, you need to be a Wisconsin resident, but to vote in Missouri you need to be a resident of Missouri. That issue is above my pay grade. Nobody tried to vote with a bank or utility statement, which is still allowed. I saw two people vote with a paper “Board of Elections ID” which did not have a photo on it; we had to tell them that in the November election, they would not be allowed to use that as a form of ID. Both of them knew that already, suggesting they were choosing not to use their driver’s licenses, for whatever reason. The state legislature has made voting “safer” according to Republicans, or “more difficult” according to Democrats, by requiring a photo ID.

One woman very apologetically said she was going to cause us trouble, and pulled out a “safe voter” ID. She said she did not know how it would work since this was the first time she tried to vote with it. This is for voters who need to hide their residence from stalkers or estranged partners. I had actually just learned how to handle this type of voter by reviewing the training video the day before, and it was no problem. The video said that there were less than 100 such IDs in St Louis County, but that it was good to know about it just in case. That turned out to be true. I was glad to be able to tell—and show—this voter that it was not a problem.

One of the more disappointing cases was of an elegant African-American woman, perhaps 25-30 years of age, first said she wanted a Democratic ballot, which we printed for her. Most minorities picked the Democratic ballot (except the Vietnamese, who all chose Republican), so thus far, she fit a stereotype. But then before she had even left our desk, said, “Wait, I want to vote for Vicky, because she is the only candidate I know, but I don’t know what party she is in.” She also did not know Vicky’s full name. We established that she meant a senate candidate, and so it must have been Vicky Hartzler. So we spoiled the Democratic ballot, and printed a Republican ballot for her. She brought to mind the criticisms of people like Walter Lippman that most people are not smart enough to know how to vote. I wonder what made her want to vote for “Vicky,” and how well informed she was of Vicky’s extremely conservative views, given that she did not even know what party she belonged to. Ignorant voters like this make decisions based on media images rather than policies, and can tip election results in our closely balanced and very polarized electorate.

Voters are also not allowed to wear clothes or hats that promote a candidate or party. At one point, while we were putting up a sign on our door and could see outside, we saw a man approaching with a t-shirt that said “Trump Lost” in large bold letters. We had a quick discussion and decided that since Trump was not on the ballot, that shirt was not a form of prohibited electioneering.

Voters have to sign on an electronic screen with a soft tip on a pen, and use the other end of the pen—a black ball-point—to mark the ballot. Nearly everyone finds this confusing. They use the wrong end to try to sign, and then they can’t figure out that you need to twist the pen to get the ball-point to come out. And nearly everyone feels foolish for being confused. It is a classic example of something that is easy once you know it, but can fluster you the first time. Fortunately, all of us judges were patient with the voters; I suppose we’ve also been there, done that. Nearly everyone leaves the process embarrassed.

The county results for both parties mirrored results across the state. No major surprises. The beer heiress Trudy Busch Valentine won the Democratic nomination for senator, despite not debating her main opponent or taking any press interviews. St Louis Public Radio made the Democratic primary look like a three-way race between Valentine, Kunce and Toder, but Spencer Toder did not raise much money and ended up getting less than 5% of the vote. It is clear that the Democratic Party establishment mostly was alarmed by Lucas Kunce’s populism and thus got behind Valentine, even though many commentators noted that only someone like Kunce has a chance in Missouri. Now, no one thinks the Missouri senate seat is in play.

In the Republican Senate primary, the establishment also worried that Eric Greitens (who is always described as “the disgraced governor”) would win the primary but be unable to win what should be a safe Republican seat. A PAC was formed to attack him, and polling showed that within one week of the PAC starting to show TV ads highlighting his ex-wife’s claims of physical and mental abuse, his numbers tanked. Eric Schmitt, who filed aquixotic suit against China for causing COVID (in case you were wondering, it did not work), and sued school districts who tried require students to wear masks, was able to get a plurality of votes in a crowded field. People who knew him 10 years ago say he is a good man, but to win the Republican nomination he has had to veer far to the right, as can be seen from his victory statement, where he still harps on fighting socialism and "Critical Race Theory." One of the more dispiriting criticisms against him is that he tried to create a logistics hub at the St Louis airport for trade with China--that is being portrayed as somehow being pro-China and disloyal. 

Screenshot from KMOV news broadcast
The only odd result on the Republican side was the loss by veteran politician Shamed Dogan in the race for the nomination for St Louis County Executive. He was defeated 44%-56% by a candidate who did not raise any money or campaign, and who even Republican officials say they don’t know and have never met. This news report expresses the surprise and mystery over her victory, and notes that her blog indicates she believes there are microchips in vaccines, and believes QAnon and global conspiracy theories. The obvious reason for the surprise result is race: Dogan is Black, and Pinner is White. Amazingly, KMOV and other news reports fail to note this—maybe they don’t have to; everyone already knows.

The best news from Missouri is that there are efforts to change the primary system from a party primary to non-partisan primary, as has been introduced in California and Washington state. That would make it less necessary for candidates in each party to appeal to their vocal and most committed fringe. In heavily Democratic areas like St Louis, the primary effectively decides the winner. A non-partisan primary would take the two most popular candidates of any party, and have them run against each other in the general election. It would make both the primaries and the general elections more interesting, more fair, and more representative of public opinion. In Election Judge training, they told us not to ask voters which ballot they want, but to turn the poll pad around so they can see the choice of parties, and they mark the poll pad with the stylus. They recommended doing this because many people don't like to have to announce what party they belong to. That suggests that a non-partisan primary would be popular with the public. 

Wednesday, July 27, 2022

The July 26 Floods in STL

Many friends have reached out to check that we are OK, given the news coverage of the flooding in St Louis, so I thought I’d write a bit about our experience. (BTW, it is a sign of America's influence [hegemony?] that people from all over the world know about flooding in my city, but floods have to be very serious before we in the US hear about it.) (You can see some pictures from here  from the National Weather Service here.)

First of all, I slept through the entire storm, which started late at night. So either I sleep very soundly, or, more likely, the storm was not very noisy. But I did wake up to find an emergency notice on my phone (which had not rung because it was in “Do Not Disturb” mode) saying to stay home because of flooding on many roads. My wife spent the day working from home.

Early in the morning, my wife had gone to the basement to exercise, only to find water pouring from a small hole in the wall. 

Our basement is not finished and has drains in the ground, so the water drained out or collected in shallow puddles that we were able to clear out. At first, I wanted to use a mop, but we don’t have one. Then we realized we have a “wet/dry vac” (AKA “shop-vac”, which is a brand name--that company announced it was closing down in 2021, but then was bought by a Chinese company), which is like a vacuum cleaner that can pick up water. This is a pretty standard American home appliance that I don’t think is very common in Asia. Worked great.

Our house is not in a flood-prone area, but when there is this much water in the ground, some water can seep into the basement. While we were in the basement, I also heard our sump pump go off for the first time ever; glad to know it actually works. (Sump pumps are water pumps placed in the lowest place in a corner of the basement to pump out into the back yard any extra water that collects from below). It only stayed on for a few seconds. Since the previous owner’s sump pump had been broken when we bought the house, and she had not noticed it, I was not sure we even needed one, but I guess we do.


Previous floods that I know of have occurred because of rising rivers, with the rain and melting snows coming from much further north. In this case, we were victims of a very strange weather pattern. You can read more about it at the government weather website here, but basically, the rain was trapped between weather patterns to the north and south of us, so the rain, instead of passing through as a vertical band from west to east as usual, became what they call a “train” (as in railroad train), with constant rain for over 6 hours. That is why we were dumped with 6 to 12 inches of rain in about 15 hours. You can see the moving radar map at website


As always, it is the poorer neighborhoods that suffered most. They tend to be in lower areas. And in our town, there is a river, River Des Peres, that has been channeled and actually goes underground through Forest Park. Except that with so much rain in such a short time, it could not drain fast enough. It ended up filling the train track of the MetroLink, our subway system.

In another neighborhood nearby, the water reached up to a stop sign! The weather service said that we had the equivalent of all of July and August's rainfall in just one day, and of course we broke all records for precipitation. It may not be due to climate change, but it is not normal. So yes, we are fine. But maybe the earth is not.

Sunday, July 24, 2022

Athletes Are not Heroes

One of the impressive aspects of the St Louis Cardinals baseball organization is their farm system, meaning the organization they have in place to select, train and prepare their young players for the Major Leagues. As a result, the Cardinals are never a bad team; they are not like the Marlins or Cubs, who have sold all their good players once they win a championship. Being consistently above average maintains fan interest in the team: St Louis has been second or third in attendance in the National League in most years, which is pretty good for a small-town market.

 The Cardinals’ two stars, however, are actually on the team as the result of trades. First baseman Paul Goldschmidt was traded from the Arizona Diamondback in 2019, and 3rd baseman Nolan Arenado came from the Denver Rockies in 2021. They were both named to the All-Star game last week, and are having phenomenal seasons. Goldschmidt is batting .333, and Arenado .299. Both are outstanding defensive players, with Arenado making unbelievable off-balance throws all the way to first base.

Equally important to me, both are humble and team players. When Goldschmidt had streaks of 25 games with a hit and 46 games on base, he repeatedly told journalists that he did not care about these personal accolades and that all that mattered was that the team won the game. Both seem to be team players.

So it is with great sadness and disappointment that I read today (also here) that both Goldschmidt and Arenado will not be traveling with the team to play against Toronto because they have not been vaccinated. Canada requires all people who enter the country to show proof of vaccination. They will forfeit their pay over those two games, but given their importance in producing runs for the team (a desperate need for the team), they will sorely be missed.

But what disappoints me is not that the Cardinals will more likely lose the games, but what it says about the players. The Cardinals did not give an explanation for Goldschmidt’s vaccine refusal, but apparently he’s an evangelical Christian, so perhaps he’s influenced by that community’s vaccine skepticism (though Tommy Edman is also an evangelical, and is vaccinated). In Arenado’s case, the team president, John Mozoliak said Arenado “was hoping to begin a family with his wife and for him it was a personal decision, and we honor that.”  Of course, there is no evidence that getting vaccinated against Covid has any effect on fertility or a baby.

I believe in being civil and polite, so try to respect other people’s opinions. But I always struggle with how to react to opinions that are illogical and/or unscientific. I do realize that today’s scientific consensus may turn out to be wrong, so we cannot be doctrinaire about science. But how are we supposed to react to people who thumb their noses at not only at science, but also at the rest of society, because by not being vaccinated, they undermine “herd immunity.” They are making their bodies available for the Covid virus to spread and mutate (hence Canada’s immigration rules). At what point do we start condemning people for their irrational and anti-social beliefs?

They will both be penalized financially. “Arenado will forfeit $384,615 of his $35 million annual salary for the two missed games, while Goldschmidt will lose $285,714 of a contract that pays him $26 million in2022.”  I respect people who stick to their beliefs despite financial costs. But in this case, given that there is no evidence to support their skepticism (but plenty of political misinformation and pseudoscience), how do we balance respect for other people’s beliefs with an insistence that the truth matters, and that social responsibility is important?

My respect for the two of them has plummeted. This is a reminder of why athletes are poor role models: they are lauded for performance in a sport, and that has little or no bearing on other aspects of life. They may be famous, but they are not heroes. They may even be knuckleheads.

Tuesday, April 19, 2022

An Individualistic (and Ridiculous) Ruling on Masks

 When I lived in Austria, my Hausfrau (landlady) would hear stories about America in the news and say, "Nur in Amerika ist es möglich!" (Only in America is this possible!) I remember she once used this expression when telling me that a local Austrian band that was touring the US was stiffed by their American promoter and had no money to come back home.

I could not help but think of this expression when I read yesterday that a federal judge in Florida overturned the CDC’s mask mandate. There are three aspects of this story that make it unbelievable, and culturally significant.

1) The political. What kind of crazy country is this that a 35 year old judge, one appointed by then President Trump after he had lost the election, can declare that the nation's top health officials do not have the authority to require people to wear masks? Judge Mizelle had been rated not qualified (for lack of experience) by the American Bar Association, but she was rapidly confirmed by the Senate along party lines anyway. Our public health measures are decided by her? Republicans and the group that brought the lawsuit (Health Freedom Defense Fund) complain about unelected officials making rules (“Unelected officials cannot do whatever they like to our personal freedoms just because they claim good motives and a desirable goal”), but the judge was also not elected, and was named to the bench in a most unseemly manner, too.

2) Mask science: Opponents of mask mandates often say that wearing a mask should be voluntary. This misunderstands the science of masks, which shows that they primarily work to prevent sick people from spreading the virus, more than protecting the wearer from others who are sick (though it helps in that too). Here is the CDC’s current view:

Masks are primarily intended to reduce the emission of virus-laden droplets by the wearer (“source control”), which is especially relevant for asymptomatic or presymptomatic infected wearers who feel well and may be unaware of their infectiousness to others (estimated to account for more than 50% of SARS-CoV-2 transmissions). 

Of course, masks alone are not the perfect protection, but they do work by reducing transmission.

3) Individualism. I have always bristled when Asians comment that Americans are individualistic, because Americans are also joiners and are not selfish, as is often implied. But in this case, I have to agree that it is American individualism that is distorting Americans’ understandings of masks. It has long been noted that the Sony Walkman was developed in Japan so listeners would not disturb others, while Americans bought the Walkman to socially distance (if you walk around with headphones on, no one will disturb you). The judge’s ruling that the Public Health Service Act of 1944 covers only “sanitation” and not “hygienic steps” like masks a) treats masks as an undue burden, and b) seems to prevent any public health measure. She's quoted in the NY Times as ruling:

“If Congress intended this definition, the power bestowed on the C.D.C. would be breathtaking,” she wrote. “And it certainly would not be limited to modest measures of ‘sanitation’ like masks.”

If the government’s broader interpretation of the agency’s powers were accurate, she added, the C.D.C. could require businesses to install air filtration systems, mandate that people take vaccines, or even require “coughing into elbows and daily multivitamins.” 

Of course, health authorities have required vaccines for decades. There is an individualistic, indeed, selfish, streak in her logic that is truly amazing to me.

It is shocking, and very disturbing to me, to see Americans unable to understand that wearing a mask is not primarily to protect yourself, but to protect others. This type of individualism is a dysfunctional, anti-social perspective, that when combined with a lack of scientific understanding of mask use, and a hyperpartisan political environment in which unqualified judges are named and then can make major decisions, bodes ill for the US. Nur in Amerika ist es möglich!