Author Archives: jonochshorn

Mixed Metaphor Alert! Cornell Rolls the COVID Dice

Parody image showing Cornell Provost Kotlikoff bowling with a COVID shpere.

Cornell Provost Kotlikoff takes a chance bowling with COVID while Operations Research Professor Frazier provides the expertise and President Pollack looks on with approval. Photoshopped image by Jonathan Ochshorn.

I’m not arguing against Cornell’s decision to reopen with in-person instruction for the fall 2020 semester (although it does seem like an incredibly dangerous strategy), but rather against their public relations campaign spinning this decision as something “based on the science.” The “science” turns out to be a study undertaken by Operations Research Professor Peter Frazier and his graduate students that models health outcomes resulting from various scenarios defined, as they must be, by making numerous assumptions. Aside from the uncertainty intrinsic to such models, the basic flaw in this pandemic restart analysis is that only two options are studied—(1) opening up Cornell and offering in-person instruction with required asymptomatic testing; or (2) closing down the campus and offering online instruction but without any asymptomatic testing for any students, even those in the Ithaca area.

It seems clear to me that a third option should have been considered: to close down the campus, offer virtual instruction, and require asymptomatic testing for students in the Ithaca area. It seems likely that this third option would result in the fewest COVID-19 cases, for the following reasons:

The model created by Frazier doesn’t mention the threat of superspreader events, which research suggests are extremely important in understanding how this virus spreads. Cornell’s protocols may reduce, but will not necessarily prevent such events, since students are tested only every five days (1/5 of the students get tested the first day, 1/5 the second day, and so on). Because such testing produces up to 40% false negatives even four days after infection, a student could become infected, say, three days before their scheduled test, receive a (false) negative diagnosis, and become extremely infectious four days later, before their next scheduled test. During this extremely infectious period, the student may well remain asymptomatic while attending classes over the course of two or three days (depending on the timing of the onset of extreme infectiousness) and potentially infecting many others. By the time the student is tested, and the results become available, and contact tracing begins, a superspreader event could already have materialized and metastasized. [Update, Aug. 14, 2020: An Addendum to the original report by Frazier et al. adjusts testing frequency to once or twice per week, depending on the assumed risk. So, undergraduates may well be tested twice per week rather than every five days. Even so, it is still possible that an infected student can pass undetected through two asymptomatic tests and come to class highly infectious. Frazier also counters that superspreader events are built into the model, which is based on “real-world” numbers. However, the model still discounts classrooms as special sites of potential superspreader events; in fact, because of the 6-foot distance between chairs, classmates of positive-testing students will not be considered close contacts, and will not be subject to contact tracing!]

In fact, a recent Harvard-Yale study suggests that testing every two days, not every five days, would be necessary to adequately control infections in college settings. But even that scenario creates enormous complications (and expenses): “The greater difficulty lies in managing the overwhelming number of false positives that will inevitably result from repeated screening for low-prevalence conditions. False-positive results threaten to overwhelm isolation housing capacity, a danger whose gravity increases with screening frequency.” In more recent communications, Cornell says that “students … will be tested either once or twice a week,” which is slightly better—or slightly worse—than the 5-day frequency originally modeled.

And this is precisely why the third option would likely have better results than an in-person model with testing every five days or every week: with virtual instruction, it is not possible to have in-class superspreader opportunities. Of course, people can still behave badly and break the rules outside of the classroom, but such misbehavior would apply equally to all the other scenarios as well. The main difference—that was not considered in Frazier’s model—is precisely the risk of superspreading events in classrooms, especially in those classrooms without operable windows and with modern HVAC systems that are designed to minimize the amount of fresh air (in order to be more energy-efficient). Cornell has not released detailed building-by-building assessments of ventilation systems in all its classrooms, so we cannot know how serious they are about providing adequate fresh air changes per hour (ACH), and whether their HVAC systems can even reach optimal ventilation targets. And Cornell has not even stated what their ventilation targets are.

Evolving research on the efficacy of mask wearing indicates that wearing anything other than N-95 respirators, while better than nothing, is not nearly as effective: “The general public should be educated about mask use because cloth masks may give users a false sense of protection because of their limited protection against acquiring infection.” And six-foot social distancing guidelines, while helpful, are also not necessarily adequate when aerosol transmission in indoor settings is factored in. None of these contraindications are considered in Frazier’s model.

Cornell is already requiring all students, whether taking classes in-person or virtually, to sign a behavioral compact and provide their Ithaca address, if they have one. Yet Cornell refuses to consider the option of testing such students taking online courses in the same way that they test students taking in-person courses: “Frazier said the university still could choose to ask [online-only] students where they are living and attempt to enforce asymptomatic testing for those living in Ithaca. But students could misrepresent where they are residing, and the spotty enforcement could result in outbreaks. The model assumes students in Ithaca are entirely outside the university’s testing purview.” It is this assumption—that “students could misrepresent where they are residing”—that is offered without evidence; i.e., pulled out of thin air. And it is on this shaky foundation that Cornell’s entire conclusion about the superiority of in-person instruction rests.

Cornell clearly wanted to reach this conclusion even before Frazier’s report was published. Just read what Provost Michael Kotlikoff emailed to the entire Cornell Community at the end of April, 2020, two months before Cornell’s announcement of its re-opening based on “science” and one and a half months before Frazier’s report was completed: “As we engage in detailed planning, we are very mindful of the ways in which residential experiences are a hallmark of campus life and provide students with crucial opportunities for formative personal growth. Significant efforts are being devoted to planning aimed at enabling our residence halls to reopen in the fall. As President Pollack noted in her message from last week, the university has established four planning committees to help us to determine the best path toward reopening. We remain hopeful that, working with public health and other scientific experts, we will be able to resume campus operations and welcome students back to our campuses for the start of the fall semester.”

Links to all my Cornell-COVID articles are here.

Cornell’s COVID research on human subjects

Example of human subject research (smog chamber breathing) at the Stanford Research Institute in 1956 (photo by Jack Carrick).

Cornell University is organizing an enormous research project involving human subjects that appears to violate its own guidelines—based on the so-called Common Rule promulgated by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HSS)—as well as principles embedded in the Nuremberg Code of 1947 and the Belmont Report of 1979.

Specifically, Cornell is bringing together thousands of students, faculty, and staff during a global pandemic and subjecting them to in-person instruction where the risk of contracting and spreading the SARS-CoV-2 virus are high. Cornell acknowledges the risk and likelihood of serious consequences: President Pollack wrote, in her June 30, 2020 announcement of Cornell’s reactivation plans that “there is simply no way to completely eliminate risk, whether we are in-person or online; even under the best-case projections, some people will become infected with the SARS-CoV-2 virus, and some will develop the severe form of the COVID-19 disease.” The Nuremberg Code directly prohibits such activity, stating: “No experiment should be conducted where there is a priori reason to believe that death or disabling injury will occur.”

Cornell’s own Institutional Review Board for Human Participant Research (IRB) would, in principle, evaluate such “experiments” with human subjects, but the Board has come to the conclusion that no such evaluation is required. Why? Because they claim that Cornell’s proposal to expose its human subjects to these known risks is not “research.” In an email to me on July 30, 2020, the IRB justified this conclusion as follows:

The regulatory definition of “human subjects research” has two components: the “human subjects” piece and the “research” piece.  While Cornell will be obtaining information and biospecimens from living individuals through intervention and interaction (so, meeting that “human subjects” piece of the definition), the activities are not being performed for the purposes of research. Here is the “research” definition from 45 CFR 46 (the “Common Rule”): 

  • 46.102(l) Research means a systematic investigation, including research development, testing, and evaluation, designed to develop or contribute to generalizable knowledge.

Cornell’s surveillance activities are not designed to develop or contribute to generalizable knowledge, but rather, to track the transmission and prevalence of SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19 in the Cornell community, and develop practices to help curb that transmission. In addition, there is a public health surveillance activities carve-out from the Common Rule (i.e., deemed not to be research):

  • 46.102(l)(2) Public health surveillance activities, including the collection and testing of information or biospecimens, conducted, supported, requested, ordered, required, or authorized by a public health authority. Such activities are limited to those necessary to allow a public health authority to identify, monitor, assess, or investigate potential public health signals, onsets of disease outbreaks, or conditions of public health importance (including trends, signals, risk factors, patterns in diseases, or increases in injuries from using consumer products). Such activities include those associated with providing timely situational awareness and priority setting during the course of an event or crisis that threatens public health (including natural or man-made disasters).

The HHS Office for Human Research Protections also published guidance on COVID-19 this past spring, which might interest you.

I hope this helps clarify our determination that Cornell’s current proposed surveillance activities do not meet the definition of “human subjects research.”

In other words, the IRB argues (1) that Cornell’s activities are not “research” because they are not “designed to develop or contribute to generalizable knowledge,” and (2) that public health surveillance activities are, in any case, exempted from review. Both of these arguments, however, can be challenged. On the question of whether Cornell’s proposed activities constitute research, compare the HSS definition of research to Cornell’s own research statement, embedded in its reactivation plan, in which Cornell describes behavioral surveillance and surveying strategies that are designed to “provide valuable insight on subsequent guidance that could be provided to students to reduce transmission”:

Behavioral surveillance is an important tool for monitoring compliance with these directives. A standard survey instrument will be developed to observe adherence in public places (only) on campus, such as classrooms, libraries or dining facilities. In addition, Cornell will monitor infections on a daily basis. In collaboration with TCHD, Cornell Health will receive identified information of positive students and will determine activities or practices associated with becoming COVID-19 positive. Using this information, the university will be able to correlate clusters of infections in individuals sharing residences, classrooms or other activities. This may allow for the identification of places or behaviors associated with an increase in risk of transmission and provide valuable insight on subsequent guidance that could be provided to students to reduce transmission.

In an email reply to the IRB on July 30, 2020, I argued that Cornell’s intended surveillance and survey activities do constitute “research” and that the HSS public health exemption does not apply to these research activities:

First, it seems to me that Cornell’s surveillance and surveying activities are designed to develop or contribute to generalizable knowledge. In their reactivation plan document, Cornell draws upon the results of research conducted elsewhere (for example, Cornell writes that “experiences at other institutions of higher education indicate that there will likely be individuals positive for COVID-19 among those returning to campus” — p.4). In the same way, it can be safely assumed that the results of Cornell’s surveillance and surveying will not merely be used internally but will also be disseminated. This is, by definition, a contribution to generalizable knowledge.

Second, the public health exemption does not seem to apply to Cornell’s research since Cornell’s activities are not “conducted, supported, requested, ordered, required, or authorized by a public health authority.” Cornell is collaborating primarily with Cayuga Medical Center, which is not a public health authority. It is true that Cornell is coordinating some of its reactivation planning with the Tompkins County Health Department (and TCHD is a public health authority), but this relationship is not connected to Cornell’s research on human subjects: TCHD will provide counseling to students who test positive (p.5), TCHD is conducting its own independent “syndromic surveillance system among outpatient providers in Tompkins County” (p.13), and, per state law, TCHD will conduct contact tracing. Similarly, Cornell has consulted with the NYS Department of Health Wadsworth in order to use the Animal Health Diagnostic Center (AHDC) at the College of Veterinary Medicine to expand PCR testing capabilities in Ithaca (p.3). But such ad hoc contact with public health authorities is entirely separate from the independent research—the behavioral surveillance and surveying of their human subjects—that Cornell is undertaking. And these independent research activities are not “conducted, supported, requested, ordered, required, or authorized” by TCHD or by any other public health authority.

The OHRP Guidance exception for “actions taken for public health or clinical purposes” does not seem to apply to the research activities Cornell is undertaking on its human subjects. The example given, of a hospital implementing “mandatory clinical screening procedures related to COVID-19 for all people who come to that institution” is clearly not research, as its purpose is simply to identify patients carrying the virus. Cornell’s surveillance and surveying, on the other hand, is undertaken as research, to enable “identification of places or behaviors associated with an increase in risk of transmission and [to] provide valuable insight on subsequent guidance that could be provided to students to reduce transmission.”

Third, the OHRP Guidance document, in response to this global health emergency, states: “Given the current circumstances, the research community is encouraged to prioritize public health and safety.” Yet Cornell is not reacting to a health emergency, as it was when shutting down the campus last spring. In the present case, Cornell is actually creating the public health emergency for which it has organized its research program with human subjects. The campus was shut down, and Cornell has decided to open it back up knowing that infection, disease, and—possibly—death will inevitably follow. This was a choice Cornell made, not one forced upon it. Other universities have opted not to engage in in-person instruction.

But this should not be a debate about whether Cornell made the right decision, or whether other options would have an even worse outcome. The only question here is whether Cornell’s research on human subjects should be evaluated by the IRB. I believe that the facts and definitions cited above show that Cornell’s planned activities constitute research and that this research involves human subjects.

On July 31, 2020, the IRB sent me the following reply:

The IRB staff have discussed this together with the IRB Chair, and using our collective knowledge of U.S. human subjects research regulations and the compliance community’s accepted interpretation of them, we have determined that Cornell’s surveillance activities are not research, as defined by the Common Rule. As I noted in an earlier email, if any human subjects research is proposed in conjunction with or using data from these surveillance activities, those research projects will require an IRB review.

In other words, the IRB is willing to let Cornell expose its human subjects to a highly contagious and dangerous virus, knowing that—in President Pollack’s words— “some people will become infected with the SARS-CoV-2 virus, and some will develop the severe form of the COVID-19 disease”; is willing to let Cornell implement behavioral surveillance and surveying tools that, in Cornell’s own words, are intended to “provide valuable insight on subsequent guidance that could be provided to students to reduce transmission”; but does not consider any of this to be worthy of IRB review unless the data gathered from these activities are used in what the IRB determines is human subject research, i.e., after Cornell’s human subjects have already been exposed to a virus that is likely to cause severe disease or even death in some of the human subjects. To repeat, the Nuremberg Code states: “No experiment should be conducted where there is a priori reason to believe that death or disabling injury will occur.”

There is certainly some potential ambiguity between what constitutes research and what constitutes ordinary practice, and Cornell’s behavioral surveillance and surveying may well fall into this gray zone. However, it is precisely this ambiguity that makes IRB review essential. As argued in the Belmont Report cited above: “The general rule is that if there is any element of research in an activity, that activity should undergo review for the protection of human subjects.”

Links to all my Cornell-COVID articles are here.

Cornell’s pandemic reactivation plan

There are many problems with Cornell’s reactivation plan. Consider the following (page numbers refer to the PDF linked above):

1. Probably the most serious problem with Cornell’s plan is its stated intention to conduct research on its own human subjects, in apparent violation of protocols established by the Institutional Review Board for Human Participant Research (IRB): see the IRB’s “decision tree.”

Cornell outlines its human-subject research goals in the plan itself, describing how behavioral surveillance and the use of survey instruments will enable researchers to determine which activities or practices—that Cornell itself has put into place—are associated with viral infection with SARS-CoV-2. Knowing that its practices will have a high probability of spreading infection (Cornell President Pollack wrote, in her June 30, 2020 announcement of Cornell’s reactivation plans: “There is simply no way to completely eliminate risk, whether we are in-person or online; even under the best-case projections, some people will become infected with the SARS-CoV-2 virus, and some will develop the severe form of the COVID-19 disease”), Cornell seeks to gather statistically valid information that can only be obtained by placing its human subjects in jeopardy (p.12–13):

Behavioral surveillance is an important tool for monitoring compliance with these directives. A standard survey instrument will be developed to observe adherence in public places (only) on campus, such as classrooms, libraries or dining facilities. In addition, Cornell will monitor infections on a daily basis. In collaboration with TCHD, Cornell Health will receive identified information of positive students and will determine activities or practices associated with becoming COVID-19 positive. Using this information, the university will be able to correlate clusters of infections in individuals sharing residences, classrooms or other activities. This may allow for the identification of places or behaviors associated with an increase in risk of transmission and provide valuable insight on subsequent guidance that could be provided to students to reduce transmission.

[Updated July 29, 2020: Not surprisingly, Cornell’s IRB has determined that “the public health surveillance work currently proposed by Cornell does not meet the regulatory definition of human subjects research, and, therefore, does not require IRB review or approval.” (Email to me from Senior IRB and COI Administrator, dated July 29, 2020). Added July 31, 2020: see my detailed blog post on Cornell’s human subject research.]

2. In describing local medical capacity (p. 3) Cornell states that “Cayuga Medical Center has 212 beds and its three-phase surge plan would increase capacity for a total of 318 critical care and ICU beds and 50 ventilators.” Yet, it is well known that effective treatment of COVID-19 is not only constrained by the number of beds or ventilators, but also by the number of doctors and nursing staff. Cornell does not say how many such trained personnel are available locally.

3. Cornell suggests that “faculty who wish to meet with advisees in person may do so, provided they are able to maintain strict distancing, wear masks and keep their office doors open (for air flow and to increase compliance with health precautions).” (p.6) While modern building codes have eliminated the requirement for fire-rated corridors and self-closing fire-rated doors in many cases, there are still instances where such advice (to “keep office doors open”) would violate fire-safety regulations.

4. Cornell references the ASHRAE guidelines for restarting operations—dealing primarily with HVAC and related systems—but both ignores and contradicts their recommendations in at least one of Cornell’s linked (and restricted1) documents, stating: “Restore all set-points and scheduled modified during NY-pause.” In other words, the advice is to return to “business as usual” by restoring default set-points, rather than disabling certain default conditions to provide more fresh air circulation. The ASHRAE start-up checklist mentions things like flushing out buildings, and so on, which are not mentioned at all in Cornell’s version.

Where Cornell does repeat some of the AHRAE guidelines that contradict this advice to return to default settings—for example, to disable demand control ventilation (p.8)—there is no mention of the fact that providing sufficient outdoor air in some buildings may not even be possible, since existing HVAC equipment may be incapable of dealing with the extra loads caused by the use of more effective filters (MERV-13 or better) and high humidity associated with the conditioning of outside air (at least in summer; this problem could be reversed in the winter). Where are the actual metrics on a building-by-building, or even a space-by-space basis? Faculty, students, and staff have no idea about the number of air changes per hour (of fresh air) that will be provided in academic buildings and classrooms.

5. Cornell states that “vulnerable” faculty are being “urged” to avoid in-person instruction (p.9): “According to the World Health Organization, people of all ages can be infected by COVID-19. However, individuals over 65, as well as individuals with preexisting medical conditions (such as asthma, diabetes, and heart disease) or compromised immune systems are considered to be at higher risk. While the university cannot compel individuals in higher-risk categories to avoid in-person instruction or other work, the university will urge these individuals to do so.” This is, simply, not true. Faculty (myself included) have never been “urged” to avoid in-person instruction, neither at the university, college, nor departmental level. I’ve received scores of emails from provosts, presidents, deans, and department chairs, none of which suggested that I should not teach in-person because I’m 68 years old. In addition, the statement ignores the obvious fact that even younger faculty who become infected face serious risks to their health, and also risk spreading infection to other household members who may well be more vulnerable than they are. The truth is that the various administrative missives I’ve received often contain an implicit request that more faculty volunteer to teach in-person, since the university’s financial model depends upon having enough in-person instruction so that they can promise students who return to campus that they will have at least one in-person teaching experience.

6. Cornell claims to have booked 1,200 local hotel rooms “for various blocks of time” to provide for isolation or quarantine if needed. But what does this actually mean? Over the course of the summer and the fall semester, there are approximately 100 or more days (let’s say 100) which means that Cornell could have booked a mere 12 hotel rooms per day and met its goal of reserving 1,200 hotel rooms “for various blocks of time.” So how many rooms are actually available on any given day? Is the number 12 rooms per day, or 24 rooms per day, or something else? Cornell doesn’t say.

7. Cornell, in one of its bullet points (p.16) talks about how often its buildings will be cleaned, referring to “frequent cleaning and/or disinfection of high-touch surfaces …” This “frequent” cleaning turns out to be just once a day, except that “high-touch items such as light switches, door handles and push bars, elevator call buttons and handrails … will be sanitized twice per day” (p. 10). One has to wonder about the seriousness of Cornell’s reactivation plan if they can state that wiping down a door handle twice a day is part of a viable strategy for controlling this virus.

Actually, my own experience with Cornell and hygiene, in a related context, may be of interest. See Appendix below.

I raised the issue of poor sanitation practices in Cornell’s fitness centers more than a decade ago, in September, 2009. After more than two years of follow-up complaints, Cornell’s solution was, and remains, highly problematic. There are still no sinks for hand-washing in Teagle or Helen Newman Hall fitness centers, and no mandatory wipe-down protocols for equipment. The paper towel dispensers and Simple Green All-Purpose Cleaner that were provided are patently inadequate, especially since this particular cleaner is useless against transmission of the virus causing COVID-19. Here is my initial email complaint from 2009:

On 9/8/09, 7:29 AM, “Jonathan Ochshorn” <> wrote:
TO:; Thomas W. Bruce <>; Gannett Health Center <>
The fitness centers at Cornell (I only refer to Helen Newman and Teagle) should take more account of hygiene, especially given the incidence of flu this season. Gannett has written: “HELP STOP THE SPREAD: Watch for seasonal flu vaccine late this month or early October. Currently, flu prevention consists of getting adequate rest and nutrition, and practicing excellent hand hygiene.” ( <>
There is no access to water for washing hands in the two fitness centers refer to, and no non-water hand-washing options are made available.
There is no systematic process for cleaning the equipment after each use. The current policy of intermittent cleaning is useless. It is essential that the equipment be cleaned after each use. This cannot be voluntary or discretionary.
At the point where uniforms and towels are issued, “fresh” towels are placed on the same counter as “soiled” towels. Personnel do not seem to have a systematic protocol in place for the sanitary transfer of soiled uniforms so that they do not contaminate the fresh ones. They also seem to put themselves at risk.
If Cornell is serious about reducing the spread of disease, please don’t just issue emails: take productive and effective action.
Jonathan Ochshorn
Associate Professor

After two years of repeated follow-up emails, Cornell, in early 2012, finally agreed to set up a committee of in-house people to figure something out, which ultimately resulted in the paper towel dispensers and Simple Green Cleaner. I responded to this “solution” later in 2012:

From: Jonathan Ochshorn <>
Date: Thursday, November 29, 2012 at 12:17 PM
To: Beth McKinney <>
Cc: Janis I Talbot <>, Tisha Lea Tipping <>
Subject: Re: Fitness Follow Up
Some follow-up on the issue of sanitation practices at the Cornell fitness centers:
Providing cleaning materials for fitness center users is an improvement. However, by leaving it as a voluntary activity, the transmission of infections — which affects the entire Cornell community — is not addressed. This is because very few users seem to be using the available cleaning material. It really needs to be made mandatory, and an educational component needs to be built into Wellness (or other) memberships.
The actual materials provided are not satisfactory. The paper towels fall apart when used; the blue cloth towels work much better, but I was told yesterday that they are not available for users, only for staff. And no cleaning materials have been provided for the floor mats.
Finally, the poor sanitary practices at the issue rooms (at least in Teagle) persist: clean towels and gym uniforms are placed on the same counter surfaces with soiled uniforms and towels. While the issue rooms may not be within your jurisdiction, it seems to me that sanitation practices should be coordinated centrally — someone needs to take the initiative to provide a consistently safe exercising and fitness environment.
Thanks again for your interest in these issues.
Jonathan Ochshorn

In the end, Cornell just said no: supplying paper towels and Simple Green Cleaner was all they were prepared to offer:

From: Beth McKinney <>
Date: Friday, November 30, 2012 at 2:35 PM
To: Jonathan Ochshorn <>
Cc: Janis I Talbot <>, Tisha Lea Tipping <>, Kerry Howell <>, “Frank A. Cantone” <>, Mary J Adams-Kucik <>, Mark Joseph Bilyk <>
Subject: RE: Fitness Follow Up
Dear Jon,
I am happy to reply to your concerns on behalf of Cornell Fitness Centers, Gannett Health Services and Environmental Health and Safety.
We appreciate your conscientious efforts to help the fitness centers minimize the spread of infections. The team that was created to address these concerns consisted of representatives from the Cornell Fitness Centers, Gannett Health Services, CU Wellness Program, Recreational Services, and Environmental Health and Safety. After several meetings, these subject matter experts agreed the most effective way to mitigate the problem was to provide what you currently see in the fitness centers.
At this time, we remain firm that the current procedure has improved the situation and is working well for our members. There is nothing more that our group plans to change at this time.
I will, however, let Mark Bilyk, who oversees the issue rooms, know about your concerns regarding the issue room procedures. 


1 Following the link on p.7 to “please visit Cornell’s Environment, Health and Safety website,” we are taken here.  I went to the “Facilities Start-up Checklist” since it seemed to correspond to ASHRAE’s start-up advice, but the site required a Cornell netID. Yet, where ASHRAE’s start-up advice was comprehensive and nuanced, the Cornell start-up advice was generic and incomplete.

Links to all my Cornell-COVID articles are here.

Cornell, capitalism, and the coronavirus

Cornell claims to be following “the science” in its response to the coronavirus pandemic. Upon closer examination, the science turns out to consist of studying and comparing two scenarios: allowing students back on campus (where those that return will be tested, isolated, and contact-traced as needed) vs. holding all classes online. I’m not interested in scrutinizing the models used by operations research specialists at Cornell who concluded that holding in-person classes is the safer scenario. Cornell already admits that there are great uncertainties in these modeled outcomes and that, in any case, they expect a certain amount of infections and disease. What is most troubling about Cornell’s approach is not the “science” embedded in their modeling, but rather the self-serving manner in which they frame the problem in the first place.

Cornell health workers: “We stay here for you; please stay home for us.”

Confronted with a global pandemic which can best be contained and eradicated through international agreements to coordinate lockdowns, testing, contact tracing, isolation, treatment, research, and travel, Cornell instead takes the fragmented, inept, and inadequate U.S. response to the pandemic as its unexamined starting point, and never bothers to consider alternatives, or ask questions, that might point to a more effective, coordinated, and cooperative global solution.

Of course, Cornell cannot single-handedly organize a cooperative and coordinated international effort to eradicate this virus; to do so would entail abolishing or suspending the rules and ideologies governing international capitalism. Rather, Cornell is a part of the infrastructural basis that supports the capitalistic organization of human society, so that even the suggestion that it might contribute to a viable solution to this pandemic—one that challenges capital itself—is purely rhetorical. In fact, Cornell’s attitude and behavior with respect to the pandemic is remarkably similar to its attitude toward that other well-known crisis: global warming. In both cases, Cornell abstracts from the global nature of the problem, and instead looks primarily at what it can do for itself. Of course, there are researchers at Cornell who address the negative impacts of global warming on third world and impoverished populations, but such research inevitably works within the framework of global capitalism, as it must in order to attract funding.

In the case of global warming, Cornell buys into the discredited LEED rating system, damages Cayuga Lake in order to cool its own buildings while using less fossil fuel, and threatens the seismic stability of the region with its plans to essentially “hydrofrack” earth-source energy to directly heat its campus buildings. Cornell has petitioned the Public Service Commission to get more money back for its solar power and, more recently, petitioned the New York Supreme Court to overturn a tax ruling that considered its solar farm an “improvement” to the land rather than as merely personal business property. Cornell’s motivation in all such “sustainable” practices is, naturally, to compete for eco-sensitive students, faculty, and donors, but it only acts when doing so is consistent with its financial goals: each sustainable intervention needs to “pay off” or it won’t be implemented. Yet while Cornell churns out its public relations news articles and tweets, the amount of global warming gases in the atmosphere continues to rise and the planet continues to spiral into an ecological catastrophe for many of its species, including the human one.

In the case of the pandemic, Cornell similarly looks primarily at its own campus, not bothering to examine and critique the systemic and ideological basis for the inept international response. Even countries, like China, that take necessary, effective, and appropriate (or, to use the preferred adjective of liberal media like the NY Times, “draconian”) measures to eradicate the virus are still at the mercy of a competitive and uncoordinated global response that—because of the international movement of goods and people—compromises their own best efforts.

The ideological content of freedom—most often characterized as a “culture war” pitting individual liberty against governmental mandates to wear masks and maintain social distancing—is especially potent in the U.S. and goes a long way to explain why the U.S. response to the coronavirus is less effective than the response of most other capitalist nations. But the problem is not simply ideological: the reality of capitalist freedom also undermines human wellbeing. Of course, freedom has many meanings, but the most relevant here involves its relationship with property: freedom, in this context, is the opportunity—more accurately, the compulsion—to use one’s property as one wishes to advance one’s individual desires, as long as doing so does not infringe on the property rights of others. That this freedom benefits those with lots of property—that it supports and perpetuates a class society and forces those without property to sell their own labor power for some degree of subsistence—can only be disputed by charlatans and corporate sycophants.

Such freedom to use one’s property, whether to accumulate wealth or merely survive, is the sine qua non of capitalism. So what could possibly go wrong in a society where wealth, and thus the very conditions for existence, are not only privately owned but owned to a great extent by a tiny fraction of the planet’s population? For one thing, corporate and national decisions end up being made with an eye on profit: disease and death enter into such calculations as mere entries in the corporate ledger. Yet it is also clear that the ideological framing of property (the American dream, and its many variants) can prevent those people damaged by the enforcement of property rights from criticizing property itself.

Both the development of vaccines and the procurement/production of necessary medical equipment are held hostage to the needs of capital, rather than organized cooperatively (i.e., globally). And the focus on vaccine development, rather than on global eradication of the virus, is probably best understood as an open-ended multi-billion-dollar profit opportunity for both well-entrenched drug cartels and high-tech startups for whom eradication of the virus—and the international cooperation this would entail—appears as a threat to their investments. In the U.S., the federal structure consisting of largely independent states, designed to foster competition, unsurprisingly frustrates coordination and cooperation. The same competitive framework frustrates any attempt at international cooperation and coordination. Yet cooperation, rather than competition, is clearly required in order to eradicate a virus that is so easily transmitted through commerce and travel.

So, where does this leave us? Many people have written about the likelihood that the virus will more thoroughly infiltrate both the Cornell and greater Ithaca communities, especially once students arrive in large numbers from outside Tompkins County. No one knows whether the inevitable outbreaks will be controlled (limited to relatively few cases) or turn into “superspreader” events that will wreak havoc on all Cornell’s optimistic plans. No one knows whether people will suffer debilitating illnesses or death as a result. But it is likely that Cornell’s testing and screening protocols will prove inadequate, for several reasons.

First, tests for Covid-19 are simply not that useful at the early stages of infection. Even four days after infection, the rate of false negatives is as high as 40%. Second, some students may be unwilling to truthfully answer screening questions after being exposed, since doing so would place not only themselves, but all their recent contacts, into quarantine or isolation. Third, some students are simply reckless, and will not comply with guidelines for social distancing and mask wearing, especially after drinking (“What?” you respond in amazement, “students drink?”). Fourth, there will be infected people—whether staff, faculty, students, or visitors—who inevitably break through Cornell’s bubble and trigger big or small outbreaks. All this is quite frustrating, not because Cornell is necessarily acting in bad faith, but because our lives are at the mercy of corporations and nations, all competing for survival or supremacy within an unforgiving capitalist framework, and all incapable of cooperating to deal effectively with the pandemic or, for that matter, any other existential global crisis.

Links to all my Cornell-COVID articles are here.

Love Song for a Pandemic

[Updated May 31, 2020: I embedded a new, more elaborate version of the song and video below; the original “live” performance can be seen here.] I wrote and recorded this song—Stuck Here in a Box—over Memorial Day weekend, 2020, locked down at home during the covid-19 pandemic. The “box” in the song’s title references the multiple frames in a Zoom meeting, within which one eventually begins to feel trapped.

Two new papers: “Utility’s Evil Twin” and “Sullivan’s Eagle”

Images from “Utility’s Evil Twin” (left) and “Sullivan’s Eagle” (right)

I’ve posted two new papers for your reading pleasure. “Utility’s Evil Twin: The Function of Venustas and the Fear of Reality” was first published in the Cornell Journal of Architecture: 11 (March 2020). “Sullivan’s Eagle: Form and Function Artistically Considered” was accepted for the Proceedings of the 108th Annual Meeting of the ACSA but that San Diego conference, originally scheduled for March 2020, was postponed/canceled because of the coronavirus.

Lawyers, guns and money

I was only marginally aware of Warren Zevon back in 1978 when he released his Excitable Boy album, which contained the song, “Lawyers, Guns and Money.” However, I did become a fan later, and I offer this more-or-less acoustic cover consisting primarily of vocals, guitar, and harmonica. I did add a bit of kick drum and bass to provide some propulsion in certain places; also I added some organ and piano in the bridge and some piano in the fade-out. These instruments (kick drum, bass, organ, and piano) are actually so-called software instruments played live on my midi-enabled Yamaha P-60 digital piano. I mixed it all using Logic Pro X and shot the video with my new iPod Touch, edited using Final Cut Pro. Oh, and the hand claps are really just my hands clapping.

Links to all of my songs can be found here.

Squints on a triple: live and acoustic

I decided to enter the NPR Tiny Desk contest by submitting a video of an original song. My entry is a song I wrote in 2008 based on a game of Scrabble. In fact, this was the first time that my daughter Jennie beat me, and she beat me on her last turn by placing the word “SQUINTS” on a triple-word square, with the letter “Q” on a double-letter square. As all Scrabble players know, “squints,” being a seven-letter word, gets you 50 extra points; doubling the value of “Q” gets you 20 points; and placing the whole thing on a triple-word square, well, that gets you so many points that—although I was comfortably ahead at that point and assured of victory—I actually lost the game in dramatic fashion on the last play. So, here’s the new video, live and acoustic (the original video and recording from 2008 can be found here).

Update on life- and fire-safety violations in the Mui Ho Fine Arts Library at Cornell

I have identified nine serious life- and fire-safety violations in the newly-opened Mui Ho Fine Arts Library at Cornell University and am still unable to appeal the ruling of New York State’s Division of Building Standards and Codes (DBSC) because the DBSC has not completed their “re-opened” review of the case. Here is what I wrote to them today:

It has been three months since our last conversation in which you said that some aspects of the Rand Hall Fine Arts Library case had been “re-opened,” that you were not “leaving any stone unturned,” and that your work was close to being done (i.e., that you would likely be finished before January 2020). I have also been told … that “there has been a request by DBSC for additional information from the consultants that provided the smoke control modeling for the project.” As I wrote in my email copied to you on Feb. 11, 2020, I believe that my complaint should be adjudicated based on whether the City of Ithaca appropriately granted a building permit, irrespective of whatever documentation may have been provided after my complaint was filed.

It has been eleven months since I submitted a formal code complaint with the City of Ithaca Building Division and nine months since I filed a formal complaint with the New York State Division of Building Standards and Codes. In all this time, I have still not received a single substantive response to any of the nine code violations that I described in my complaints.

The Mui Ho Fine Arts Library in Rand Hall at Cornell University remains unsafe, noncompliant, and presents a clear danger to its occupants. For that reason, I am eager to appeal the ruling of the DBSC Oversight Unit (Complaint #4660). Please let me know (1) the status of my complaint, (2) when your “work” will be completed, and (3) your specific reasoning for discounting each of the nine code violations that I described in detail. Please provide answers in writing: your prior requests to “give me a call at your earliest convenience”—on Nov. 5, 2019 and Dec. 3, 2019—have proven to be unsatisfactory.

Links to all of my writings on Cornell’s Fine Arts Library can be found here.

Updated Sept. 22, 2020: I finally got the go-ahead to file an appeal. Details here.

Upskirting at Cornell’s Fine Arts Library

I asked about the upskirting potential of the Fine Arts Library at Cornell University before it opened, and was told that the issue had been carefully studied and that the architects insisted that the floor grating could not be seen through. Well, reality has a nasty habit of correcting such obvious falsehoods, as you can see in this video I took of myself in February 2020.