On My Mind | February 2020
As of this writing, there are still a couple of days left in February but I figure I should probably get this written and proofed so it’s posted by March 1st. It’s been another eventful, albeit increasingly unusual month. We had a couple of games, I took a short, last minute vacation, and I even hopped on a podcast. Still, much of February has been dominated by a long break from playing and the ongoing COVID-19 crisis (much much more on that later).
Our last game was a painful road loss way back on Feb 9. Since then, we’ve been on a break from games due to the Italian Cup (if you remember from last post, we just missed qualifying) followed by another week long break for national teams.
A few quick thoughts on that loss while we’re here. First, all losses are painful. Second, it’s only an insult to injury when you spend that game in foul trouble and register a regrettable performance. And third, no one wants to sit on those former two points for three weeks waiting for the next opportunity to play. But whether I like it or not, that’s life and the nature of this career sometimes. Even though it’s quite rare to have more than 1 or 2 days off, I headed into the break disappointed and with no solid travel plans.
A few factors slowed my decision making on that front. Jumping multiple time zones to the USA didn’t interest me. And with the then just burgeoning COVID-19, did I want to be in any airports at all? At the same time, I knew staying in my apartment here in Italy and letting the last game fester for a week was out of the question; that would be both unhealthy and unproductive. I figured the best thing would be to get away and clear my mind for a few days. I weighed the coronavirus risks, penned a back-of-the-envelope itinerary, and hopped on a flight to Egypt the next day.
Without turning this into a travel blog post, I’ll just say Egypt is amazing. Go. Preferably not in the summer when it’s 45º+C. Though not planned, in retrospect it feels highly appropriate that I visited during black history month. I had an unforgettable 3-day learning experience split between the beautiful chaos of Cairo and the ancient tranquility of Luxor. Sure, I wish the new Egyptian Museum had been open, but I’ll just add that to my list of reasons to go back in the future.
Since returning from Egypt, it’s been a mix of getting back to business on the court and navigating this COVID-19 outbreak. Over the last few days I’ve received a stream of messages and calls from concerned family and friends regarding how I am doing in the wake of Italy’s coronavirus contagion.
I’m obviously no virologist, pathologist or any other type of healthcare professional, but I thought I might share how I am thinking about the virus as more data flows in daily. If you’ve read too much about the virus already and don’t need another opinion, feel free to stop reading here and to skip ahead to the book reviews. If you’re interested in some broader contemplations of the virus and its impact, continue on.
SOME CONTINUED THOUGHTS ON COVID-19
I almost didn’t go through with any travel plans because of COVID-19. At the time, data was limited, there was rampant circulation of misinformation, and the premise from health organizations seemed to prioritize containment within China. I needed context and perspective for the data--for the numbers. Yes, people are getting infected, but how many of them are dying? Yes, people are dying, but what are the demographics of those deaths? Is it reasonable to compare this pathogen to EBOLA, SARS, or MERS (like this infographic I saw circulating numerous times) or should we also consider something like the common flu? As for the containment, I only had a hypothesis.
Here’s a virus that started showing up sometime in December (if not earlier). Health organizations and news outlets started covering it in mid to late January. On a conservative basis, that's a policy response lag of 2-3 weeks. Put another way, that’s a 2-3 week head start (overlapping with China’s largest travel holiday) for this virus to begin hopping undeterred on planes (trains, metros, cruise ships) with visiting tourists, international businesspersons, and of course, local chinese citizens.
Before I left for Egypt, there were already a small handful of cases in Rome. Popular tourist city. Makes sense. Under my hypothesis, I figured there must be a wider spread of unreported cases. Perhaps because of absences or shortages of testing supplies. Maybe people are not going in to get tested (I thought about home in the USA and the unwillingness for many people to miss work and use expensive healthcare. I’m actually quite interested to see what impact this outbreak has on the healthcare debate going forward). Looking to avoid panic, there might be suppression of case reporting. Or it's plausible there’s a lag in how the symptoms present and that a vast majority are very mild. All of these possibilities combined with the 2-3 week headstart left me pretty bearish on containment.
With that, I was comfortable with the calculated risks and decided to go on my trip. And now seeing the spike in cases here in Italy (and elsewhere in Europe), I’m not necessarily surprised.
EVERYONE KEEPS TALKING ABOUT THE FLU...
All of this is to say I’m curious where we go from here. I’m curious about context. A few days ago I read a tweet from a financial journalist lamenting about how this virus isn’t like the flu at all because the flu doesn’t have the same global economic impact from manufacturing and trade disruptions. This gave me a moment of pause. I think given the novelty of this crisis, we’re quick to conflate different areas of concern as we search for broader understanding.
In the case of the journalist’s tweet, I think that would be mixing primary health concerns of the flu and the secondary systemic concerns. Those, in my mind, are two very different things. Yes, there have been many people throwing around influenza comparisons but I don’t think the average person is thinking about how this coronavirus compares to the flu in shutting down factories in China and slashing revenue forecasts for American companies. (If it was our first time ever seeing the flu, hell, it probably would.) My guess is they’re thinking comparatively about survival odds and whether if they catch this virus they’re going to die. That’s my hunch.
At the moment, on a purely statistical basis perhaps the flu is a fair, ballpark comparison. Sure, the mortality rate for COVID-19 is magnitudes higher, but that number is highly sensitive to reported cases. Again, if mild cases aren't being reported, you end up with a smaller base and higher mortality rate. Either way, I’m still of the mind that we don’t have enough data to understand the true health risks of COVID-19. It's still early. This is a new virus in humans after all. How does the virus work? Just how contagious is it? Can it lie dormant and re-present itself? It’s an RNA virus so how do mutations factor in? Again, I’m not a virologist. For many of these questions, only time (and a lot of hard work by health organizations and professionals) will tell.
...AND SUPPLY SHOCKS
Still, while I don’t agree with its presentation in the previously mentioned tweet, I think there is a salient point to be made about economic impact. I think this virus will rattle supply channels around the world. We're already seeing the first signs of this.
Look at global equity markets. They're already in correction mode as economic forecasts respond to government imposed quarantines and contagion fears. As mentioned before, if people can't work, businesses can't open. If, for example, manufacturing (for which China is global leader) is shut down for an extended period of time, that means revenue forecasts must be slashed, which means lower profits and stock prices follow. A supply shock.
(Personally I think the current severity of the market volatility has more to do with irrational exuberance and risk-on fed policy that has undermined fundamentals over the last 18 months, but that’s neither here nor there and probably deserves a totally different post). Fortunately, in the long run, markets recover right? Still doesn't make this chart any easier to look at.
In hindsight it's easy to ask whether aggressive government interventions (trying to stem contagion) and early media coverage induced some panic and self fulfilling economic disruption. But in the near term, I also don't think you can fault these actions when you're talking about a brand new virus possessing unknown risks. Better safe than sorry right?
Perhaps more important than these primary disruptions will be looking forward to potential shocks to healthcare systems as contagion spreads in the future. Even if the virus is not as deadly as some may fear, I imagine a highly contagious virus could create enough mild to severe cases--enough volume-- to overwhelm hospital resources. In this case, system effects could circle back and worsen health outcomes. Think people wanting and needing treatment, but unable to receive it. Those health outcomes could again put pressure on the longer term economic picture. Again, we’ll just have to wait and see.
LIFE IN A REGIONAL COVID-19 HOTSPOT
In the meantime, my northern Italian city is on a bit of a self imposed quarantine (a "schools shut down and don't go out if you don't need to" kind of thing) after COVID-19 cases spiked near Milan a couple days ago. For the time being, I’m only drinking acqua frizzante (water with gas) because my grocer surprisingly sold out of regular water (along with many non perishable foods). I like acqua frizzante and all, but I’m hoping this supply shortage was just a temporary, overreaction to the news. I’m guessing it is. (Update: it was).
On the basketball front, I’m unsure when we’ll play again. This break that started innocently with the Italian Cup and FIBA national team window just keeps getting longer. We’re back to practicing after one day of cancellations, but the league is otherwise suspended until further notice.
It’s been an unusual month. And this has been an unusually long post. I hope your February has been a bit less chaotic than mine. If you’re worried about COVID-19, I encourage you to stay informed (some helpful links to WHO here and CDC here) and take appropriate cautions. The goal of my thoughts was more a search for context and not at all to downplay any risks. Wash your hands. Cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze. Avoid touching your face. If you’re sick, for everyone else’s sake, wear a mask. If you’re not, save the money (assuming you could find a mask in the first place) unless it just makes you feel better.
If you made it this far in the post, thanks as always for stopping by. There’s only a bit further to go. I read four books this month and I think one of them is a must read. Guess what? The must read is about pathogens... Go figure. More on that below. Please feel free to drop any thoughts or recommendations for improving this space or future posts. Have a blessed and safe start to March!
“Men Without Women” by Haruki Murakami
The Rundown: Murakami weaves together loss, solitude, and loneliness to tell seven short stories of different men and their relationships with women in their lives.
Some Thoughts: Oddly enough, the first work by Murakami that I read was not fiction, but his memoir “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running”. After reading some of his fictional work, I was quickly attracted to his ability to dive into details and events that one might otherwise consider normal and mundane. I picked up this collection after his book “Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman” reminded me how much I enjoy short stories. Maybe it’s the satisfying sense of incompletion I feel at the end of them. Maybe it’s the ability to dive head first into a situation without too much laborious character development. Whatever it is, I have enjoyed them ever since I took a short stories english elective my senior year at Phillips Exeter Academy.
I enjoyed a majority of the stories in this short, seven piece collection. Murakami explores the emotional breadths and depths of different men navigating their relationships with and without women. There are those who’ve lost and those who’ve never had. While the theme throughout the collection is quite literal, what I appreciated most was how the last piece (the title story) tied all the characters together and spoke to a subtler but equally present theme throughout the book. Murakami lightens the load of loneliness and loss by speaking to the unexpected, often unusual companionships found in others experiencing the same pain--the other Men Without Women.
Review: A creative exploration of shared grief and wonder. (4/5)
Did You Know?: Before he became an award-winning writer, Murakami ran a small jazz bar for seven years much like one of the characters from “Men Without Women”.
“Spillover: Animal Infection and the Next Human Pandemic” by David Quammen
The Rundown: Quammen investigates the zoonotic origins of different pathogen outbreaks around the world. He analyzes the factors that facilitated those spillover events and explores what role humans might play in the next big pandemic.
Some Thoughts: Perhaps it’s pretty easy to guess the motivation for reading this one. With all the recent news (and misinformation) about COVID-19 going viral (sorry I had to), I wanted to deepen my understanding about pathogens and pandemics. This was a long, but very valuable read. I appreciated it because it gave context to real world current events. I had been asking myself how a zoonosis--animal born pathogen-- like COVID-19 spills over into the human population. I wanted to know how we avoid such spillovers and also what the scientific community (and humans in general) can do for protection in the future. This book answered those questions.
Quammen masterfully weaves together the stories of well known viruses like HIV, SARS and Ebola, but also lesser known pathogens like Hendra. In the process he skillfully breaks down concepts from both epidemiology and pathology for the reader’s easy understanding. But what I personally found most interesting was how he wrestles larger questions like why these spillover events don’t happen more often and what human factors influence them.
We learn that given humans’ encroachment into previously undisturbed habitats (think Athropocene) and ever closer contact with animals (think commercial livestock), these spillovers probably happen more often than we realize. Why only some of them catch our attention (or that of WHO, CDC, etc.) is largely by chance.
Perhaps the pathogen doesn’t cause noticeable symptoms. Perhaps it goes misdiagnosed as some other disease. Perhaps an individual dies before any patterns can be drawn across cases. Perhaps the pathogen does not spread easily from person to person. Whatever the combination of factors, it was interesting to see how something like HIV (or COVID-19 for that matter) circles the globe and Hendra or Marburg (both quite deadly) are stifled in isolated, geographic pockets. I closed the booked fascinated by the role of chance and randomness, but also with the understanding that those opportunities seem to be increasing. When it comes to pandemics, it doesn’t take much once the “the wrong” pathogen gets on, let’s say, a plane.
Review: A must read (especially if you ever wondered what a “Thanos event” might look like in modern times). (5/5)
Did You Know?: The 1,116 species of bats account for 25% of all recognized species of mammals on the planet. Scientists believe this range of diversity is one of a few key factors in why bats are a reservoir hosts to so many zoonotic pathogens.
“Sixth Man” by Andre Iguodala
The Rundown: Andre Iguodala tells his basketball story arc from small-town, midwest kid, to touted college prospect and Arizona Wildcat stand out, all the way to 6th man of one of the best teams ever assembled and 3 time NBA Champion.
Some Thoughts: I get a bit wary any time I pick up a “basketball” read. As a professional myself, sometimes the last thing you want to read about in the middle of the season is more basketball. This memoir was a pleasant surprise though. Early in this read I learned that Andre, much like myself, is very much a quiet and observing person. This made the read fly by as I found it easy to follow his mind and thought process.
While I found some of the basketball details a bit of a drag, there were plenty of moments where I think he deftly dissects some of the nuances of the professional athlete life. As he tells his story, he dives into some of the less obvious challenges of finding balance, identity and a voice in a profession that can be suffocating. I appreciated his willingness to open up about both internal and external conflicts with money, the business side of collegiate and professional sports, the media, but most of all, the black male experience; some might call it a willingness to “keep it real”.
Review: An enjoyable read for basketball players of all levels and fans alike. (4/5)
Did You Know?: In 1963 Curt Flood refused to abide by the MLB’s reserve clause and paved the way for modern day free agency in pro sports. He sacrificed his career and later sued the MLB over the clause which essentially handicaped player rights and gave a drafting team ownership over an athlete even after his contract expired.
“Zero to One” by Peter Thiel and Blake Masters
The Rundown: Paypal Mafia member, founder, and investor Peter Thiel outlines a framework for creating the future with technology and startups.
Some Thoughts: Since its release a few years ago, I’d been recommended this book a number of times and seen it on plenty of reading lists. Still, I avoided (or maybe it’s better to say I procrastinated) reading this book up until now. I’d been turned off by some of these business bestsellers for a while as I preferred memoirs and biographies about business leaders and the companies they’d built; I felt I learned more from these case studies. But I’d recently been thinking about startups so I figured I’d finally give it a chance. It’s a short read after all.
In this part manifesto, part guidebook, Thiel offers insights from his silicon valley experiences for designing the future and evaluating startups. The book leans heavily on two core ideas (1) building the future requires vertical not lateral (incremental) progress, and (2) competitive environments stifle technological innovation. With the help of numerous diagrams and anecdotes, Thiel frames what makes a startup primed for success in the future.
While Thiel offers some valuable perspective on startups strategy (for both founders and investors), I found myself expecting more from this book. The two foundational points were pertinent, but in my opinion not necessarily novel. As is the case with other business books of this nature, I found a good amount of the content (especially that regarding incentives and “the right people”) rehashed in countless other business reads. I was also put off at times by the tone of writing which seemed too often to pass opinion as fact. What I actually appreciated most from this book were the chapters on selling and cleantech. The latter serves as a case study of sorts aggregating some of the looser points made throughout the book. All this is not to say it was not a bad read; given its brevity I think it’s certainly worthwhile if you’re looking for an introduction to thinking about startups, tech and the future. Perhaps I would’ve been more impressed with this read if I had read it a few years ago.
Review: A short, valuable read, but I expected more. (3/5)
Did You Know?: Each year in the US, less than 1% of new companies receive VC funding. That yearly venture funding amounts to less than 0.2% of GDP. Still, the aggregate of VC-backed companies produce annual revenues equivalent to 21% of GDP.