Mask On

If I were an old grandpa and not someone who’d recently been recently teaching the youth, I’d say “kids today are spending too much time listening to their ‘Mask Off’ and not enough time putting their mask on.”

How long before there’s a parody with “chloroquine, hydroxychloroquine” instead of “percocets, molly percocets”? I hate to be the bearer of bad news, because I don’t want to see it any more than you do, but, like the upcoming coronavirus hospital surge, it’s already baked into the present reality and it’s only a matter of time before it busts loose. (On a serious note, please don’t ask for chloroquine, besides the dangers they’re needed for people with malaria, lupus, and other things and we shouldn’t put a run on them).

On the former, I’d be out of touch. Kids today don’t know nothing about no Future. They’re busy listening to Lil Baby and DaBaby and any other Babies who put out a record these days. Or probably, by now, even the Babies have grown old and they’re on to something new, something beyond my fathoming.

But on the latter I’ve become convinced that once masks become widely available again, we should all start wearing them. Not the N-95s that medical professionals and construction workers and other highly exposed people need, but regular-degular-less-than-a-dollar-back-in-normal-times face masks. We should probably be making some homemade masks before then, and there are maybe already even good mask suppliers that won’t deplete the supplies coming in to medical people, I just haven’t sourced them yet.

Basically, masks work to some level for the general public. They’re very effective at preventing the wearers from transmitting to other people – almost all of us may be asymptomatic carriers and not know it. They also have a significant protective effect for the wearers. The fact that they’re much less than 100% effective doesn’t mean you shouldn’t wear them – just that masks won’t make otherwise risky exposures safe. If you’re going to take an exposure risk anyway, you are safer to some level with a mask than without. You being safer also makes everyone you come in contact with safer. We’ve seen much better results from countries with widespread mask-wearing than without.

Zeynep Tufekci, a technosociologist with a long record of being right about systemic risks that are underreported, has a great summary of the pro-mask argument in this Twitter thread (click and you’ll see an ongoing case she’s been making, spanning back to March 17 when she published an op-ed on the subject in the New York Times. It’s paywalled, but heavily self-quoted here:

I find her arguments, and the evidence cited, to be strong, clear and persuasive.

I think there’s a few reasons a lot of people don’t feel we should be wearing masks. One, as Zeynep says, is that a lot of top-down information reads as “masks don’t work,” and this is very clearly wrong. They reduce risk to some level, and reduction and mitigation is a thing that we know helps. Just like there’s always a difference between two candidates, there’s always a difference between relatively higher risks and relatively lower risks.

Another is that wearing masks sucks, and we’re pretty stubborn about our “ways of life.” This is where I think public normalization, and cheerful normalization, plays a big role. A big part of why wearing a mask (a thing to do not all the time, but when you’re in a place where you can’t control your spacing) sucks is that people are weird about it when they see. If people aren’t weird about it, it won’t suck as much. It will just be kind of uncomfortable, but a little fun if it becomes a cheerful solidarity thing and we get silly masks with cool designs and maybe like Snapchat filters that give you awesome smiles or vampire teeth or whatever but only if you got your damn mask on.

And a third reason people aren’t into wearing masks is that a lot of people are self-conscious about seeming too paranoid, and are made to feel stupid for being out ahead of official recommendations. Here it’s worth noting that public, media, and official consensus were WAY behind where we should have been throughout this entire crisis. My fave, Zeynep Tufekci, wrote about it in The Atlantic here, analyzing our lack of systemic thinking. She’s very technical, but right on the money and pretty clear. It’s easy to point out how bad Donald Trump is on this response, because he’s egregiously awful and actively pushing for us to lag far behind even the general consensus on COVID-19, but we might miss how far this general consensus was behind the problem in the first place. Thus always with Trump; he’s an especially awful outlier on a lot of problems where the status quo American response is also pretty backwards. If you frame things only in anti-Trump terms, you doom the victims of systemic problems to the kind of suffering we’re prone to accept. In this case (as in the upcoming case of massive climate change), the victims are potentially anyone, not just vulnerable groups with less political power, and maybe this can provoke general outrage that will carry into a broader reform.

This is a pretty easy lesson to learn for me, since I grew up in the age of the disastrous, and consensus-driven, response to the 9/11 attacks (I previously wrote about how that influenced my perception of satire here) and I have a hunch and have heard it said that experiences growing up are pretty formative. But generally it seems we repeatedly fail to learn the lesson, maybe because of our collective instincts for mocking outliers, that consensus-driven mistakes are still harmful. We still seem slow to learn that when things “everyone thought” were repeatedly wrong, we always might be in the middle of that process, even today. This is understandable; it took me a long, long time to even start unlearning a lot of my repeated mistakes. But also, you gotta acknowledge it and start.

But that’s an ongoing fight. Zooming back in to what we can control, I just think it’s good practice to give thumbs ups to people wearing masks in public, and put on your own when you get a chance to. Also, stay happy and such and keep having fun. Things will not be back to normal, but much of what we love about the world will still be in it.

Speaking of which…

Goodbye, and thanks for all the chips

On Twitter today, a comedian named Josh Gondelman came out with a question about an opinion:

He is, I regret to say, just from Massachusetts (or, as I accidentally typed it, “Massachusett’s,” which is something I might use in the future, because I like that it makes the state sound like a restaurant chain.) I’ve had those chips, and they’re solid with a good crunch, excellent dipping chips if you got your flavored sour creams, but what they lack is flavor. When it comes to potato chips, flavor is king. The problem for Cape Cod chips in the modern era is that there are now very good flavors in the kettle-cooked chip lane. Kettle brand is common, and their flavors, while not universally great, still kick Cape Cod’s ass all around the field. Miss Vickie’s* and the underrated Route 11 beat them as well. But if you really want flavor in that lane, Zapp’s is the way to go. Voodoo chips, Cajun Dill Gator Tators, whatever you pick you can’t go wrong. It’s possible for someone to try Zapp’s and go back to eating Cape Cod chips, just as it’s possible for someone in England to eat Indian food and go back to bangers and mash, but it’s not a good idea.

*best known for being the default chip at Potbelly’s, a flavor-aware franchise that built its entire value in my book on the strength of its giardiniera-style hot peppers, which are really giardiniera but they call “hot peppers” either to avoid making people think of giardia, to avoid the delays caused by pronunciation kerfuffles, or to hide its trade secret from moderately lazy, unfamiliar-with-Chicago customers.

I just now took up to order some Zapp’s, and I found that the company is now owned by Utz, which makes complete sense. Utz brightened my childhood with cheap, large 99-cent bags of some of the best flavors on the market.

The iconic Utz chip is, of course, the crab chip.

Utz Potato Chips "The Crab Chip" | Potato | Matherne's Market

The crab chip, officially “The Crab Chip”

The Crab Chip does not taste like a crab, but instead like Old Bay. I say “like” Old Bay because they didn’t shell out for real Old Bay seasoning. They needed to keep the chips 99 cents for us. But they’re delicious, and representative of the DMV area. When the Nats were in the World Series and I was watching the last two games from Brooklyn, I ate the crab chip both times and that’s why the Nationals won what was possibly the last World Series ever played.

Another Utz standout chip is the Red Hot

Utz Red Hot Flavored Potato Chips — Really, Really Good | The ...

These are pictured in the 25 cent bag instead of the 99 cent bag because you only need a little bit of the Red Hots to get your flavor kick. This is because they’re red hot. They’re also a little sweet. The secret to both the redness and the hotness is that they’re flavored with paprika extract, which gives you a different kind of heat than cayenne or something.

But my favorite, most underrated Utz chip is the Carolina Style BBQ

Utz Carolina Style Barbeque Potato Chips, 9.5 Oz. - ...

These are pictured in the large family size because you need a lot of these. The BBQ style is kind of a hybrid of East Carolina and South Carolina styles, I think. It’s vinegar-heavy, but also has mustard, and once you have these you’ll never accept ketchupy sweet barbecue chips or simple two-flavor salt-and-and-vinegar chips again. They’ve got it all. Vinegar tang, mustard backing, a creaminess somehow, a little spice, a little sweet, and a light crunch.

And here’s the other secret of Utz - you can eat ‘em all day, because the chip itself is garbage. Somewhere inside the chip was a potato, once, but it’s very abstracted from the thing itself. It has just become a perfect, efficient, flavor delivery device, and you’re not spending a bunch of time crunching through a damn potato you can tell is a potato, you’re just focused on the flavors, which I would reckon are enhanced with MSG.

I’d like for the same country that makes delicious Utz chips to be the same one that takes care of its people and such things, but I guess you can’t have it all these days. Still better to have Utz than not. I’m sure I’m wrong about it, and that they’re made with terrible ingredients and terrible labor practices and that they’ll kill us all in miserable ways if we eat too many of them, but for 99 cents or sometimes 25 cents you can have some great flavors and be happy for a while, and for that I’ll always be grateful.