Category Archives: NYC Area

From COVID Vaccines to Library Cards, Government is Failing Us. Here’s the Way Out.

It’s bigger than party.

The Problem

This all started when I had to renew my library card.

I got an e-mail requesting a picture of a photo ID with my current address on it. I got my driver’s license and passport before I moved here two years ago, so I asked how else I could renew my card and continue to experience the joys of reading. The friendly folks at the library demanded a photo ID and two (!) proofs of residence.

This got me thinking about how a lot of things in this country are working. In short: not well.

We are carefully following rules and accomplishing nothing. We put in place an arcane system of regulations and lose sight of our overall goal. And it goes way beyond your little local library.

The Problem is Everywhere

Early in the pandemic, getting a COVID test was next to impossible. I volunteered to schedule them at a nearby hospital in March, and the desperation in the voices of the callers struck me.

Why was it so hard to get a test? The CDC first required all labs to use their test, which did not work, rather than letting labs develop their own.

The University of Washington sought to make a COVID test on its own in February. Widespread testing at that time might have stopped the pandemic in its tracks. They made a test, filled out the mountain of documents the government required, and sent them off.

One problem: regulations required they also mail a USB drive or CD-ROM containing the documents. Here’s the lab’s director, Keith Jerome:

We’ve got a lot of scientists and doctors and laboratory personnel who are incredibly good at making assays. What we’re not so good at is figuring out all the forms and working with the bureaucracy of the federal government.” Jerome said that Greninger had to call and e-mail the F.D.A. multiple times to figure out what they needed to secure an E.U.A. “At one point, he was very frustrated because he’d e-mailed them what we were doing so they could review it,” Jerome said. “But legally you also had to mail a physical copy. Here we are in this SARS-CoV-2 crisis, and you have to send them something through the United States Postal Service. It’s just shocking.” (The F.D.A. has since dropped the requirement to send a CD-ROM or USB drive with a copy of the application.)

The New Yorker

Frankly, as much as I try to stay calm, reading this sort of thing makes my blood boil. Still not convinced? Well, let’s mosey over from the CDC to the Pentagon.

The Department of Defense took a year to get cloth masks for our soldiers. A year! But at least they got a great deal. Each one comes at the bargain price of $45:

It took a full year for the service to design, approve and distribute a face mask — called a Combat Cloth Face Covering, or CCFC — for its soldiers, an effort that required an additional $43.5 million in contracts to provide temporary solutions. That comes out to about $45 per mask, if you assume every active-duty, National Guard and Reserve soldier received one. A pack of 20 N95 masks at Home Depot costs about $20.

And yet, the Army congratulated itself on the “expedited” timeline, compared to the 18- to 24-month procurement cycle such an effort would normally take.

“The system worked as designed,” tweeted a former Marine.

And that is precisely the problem.

This from Defense News, by way of the excellent Alex Tabarrok at Marginal Revolution.

If you’re still unconvinced we have a problem here, I’ll give you one last example. Here are some of the ways you can get a COVID vaccine in Hudson County, NJ where I live. Each one has a separate website, and some have no website at all! I haven’t been able to find an appointment on any of them yet:

An AirBnB engineer in New York, Huge Ma, made his own website for $50 that aggregates the similar patchwork of vaccination sites in New York into one slick system. Government had most of 2020 and millions of dollars to do something similar, but never saw fit to do it.

How We Can Fix It

Huge Ma shows us what one capable person can do, freed of constraints. What government needs to do is to get some capable people together, give them an overall goal, and let them do the work.

What might that look like? Get together a few of the best IT people in the New Jersey state government, call in a couple outside experts (perhaps Mr. Ma!), and tell them “We need to get people vaccines. Make it happen.”

Getting together a group of capable people, giving them an endpoint, and letting them figure out how to get there is how the best organizations work. The superb book Good to Great details how that process has succeeded at one organization after another.

In addition, we need all the Huge Ma’s we can get. Let’s have private citizens make things without permission, and also agitate to get government to work better.

With that in mind, I will now politely submit all the required documents for my new library card, but also enquire how we might make this process easier for others in the future. 🙂

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Photo: “President Trump Meets with the Governor of New Jersey” by The White House is marked with CC PDM 1.0

I Ate the Best Burger of My Life Outside in the Dead of Winter

Find this and eat it!

I celebrated my 35th birthday this weekend! My wife very kindly arranged for a hotel staycation in New York City, along with an outstanding meal. But there was one little problem. All indoor dining is closed in NYC. And it’s January.

I used my winter camping experience to my advantage, swaddling myself in a base layer, down jacket, winter coat, and a fur hat fit for Siberia. We hustled to the Upper West Side.

I was afraid we’d freeze solid, but we arrived at Bar Boulud to find a beautiful outdoor setup. They basically built a building on the sidewalk, with one side open for ventilation. That side faced the sidewalk, not the street, so no wind entered, and we were surrounded by huge heaters that kept us very comfortable. I was encouraged to see every table booked!

We both ordered the outstanding Frenchie Burger. The flavor of the beef was intense, especially for someone like me who rarely eats meat, and it was topped with unctuous pork belly and oozing melted raclette cheese. A triumph! If you’re in the New York area and like burgers, this is a must-have.

As we sipped coffee, I looked across the street to Lincoln Center, where my wife and I had enjoyed ballets and symphonies in the past. It occurred to me that being outside right now was not a hardship, but rather a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. There will be no outdoor dining next January. This beautiful structure will be taken down and never seen again. This was our one chance to enjoy this winter wonderland. And we savored it.

I encourage you to think of today’s situation as not merely negative. To be sure, many are suffering now, and we must do what we can to help. But there are also unique experiences available today that will probably never be seen again. Get out there and enjoy them! Make some memories!

Outdoor dining, even in the 28 degrees we found ourselves in on Saturday, is very doable and really quite fun. We were only slightly chilly, which was quickly overcome by hot coffee and delicious food. The fancier restaurants in particular have amazing outdoor setups that make the experience comfortable and memorable. My friend Jim* recently had a business dinner at Peter Luger Steakhouse in Brooklyn in a private little cabana and found himself entirely comfortable.

Give it a shot and make a happy memory in this unique time!

*Not his real name

The Best New Thinking on COVID

Today, I came across two new articles that provide a great perspective on the COVID crisis.


“State Public Health Laboratory in Exton Tests for COVID-19” by governortomwolf is licensed under CC BY 2.0

What Christmas Is Like in New York City Now

On Tuesday, I walked through Central Park and down Fifth Avenue, past Saks (great free bathrooms!) and into Rockefeller Center. I saw the tree, decorated with lights and perhaps more beautiful than ever before. I saw something else too: people loving the tree and each other, and being resilient in the face of the biggest challenge we have faced in our lives.

Everyone walking up to the tree wore their masks, joined arms to take a picture, briefly pulled them down and put them right back up. No one had to tell them. And they looked as joyful as any other year. Maybe a little more so.

Some say New York City is dead, empty, a wasteland. Have they been there lately? I see problems, but I also see enormous perseverance and hope.

Our snow is fading in the warmth, and 2020 is fading as well. We will face 2021 with renewed dedication to overcoming our challenges and improving our home. And our home is the New York area, the United States, and this planet.

With confidence in our armed forces with the unbounding determination of our people we will gain the inevitable triumph so help us God.

Franklin Roosevelt, 1941

We got through that crisis and we are well on our way to beating this one too. We will celebrate the holidays with a renewed appreciation for life, family, friends, and the chance to be together. That’s my plan, anyhow.

Merry Christmas everyone!