Telework Journal: Irrational exuberance

Another week working from home kicks off with a few changes.  My wife is also working remotely but is spending this week helping her mother who just got out of the hospital, so I am working from the house by myself, unless you count the two dogs.  They are not working at all, except for pouting because I won’t feed them treats all day long.

The “new” in the “news” is coming from here in Texas and other locations where people are ignoring stay-at-home warnings and social distancing recommendations to express their…their what, their unhappiness with the pandemic, I guess.  I don’t know anyone who’s pleased with the situation, but some folks are taking a threatening stance to “demonstrate” their desire that government officials ease restrictions that have—no doubt about it—cost millions of Americans their jobs and others their businesses, in an effort to fight the spread of a deadly disease for which we don’t have another effective weapon.

Let me get this straight.  There have been some 42,000 deaths from COVID-19 in the United States to this point, out of almost 800,000 confirmed cases.  When the medical experts called for social distancing and self quarantine to fight the spread of the novel coronavirus, they warned that if we didn’t take these drastic steps there could be deaths in the hundreds of thousands.  Right now it seems there will be far less than that…emphasis on “seems,” since nothing’s for sure.

And people are taking to the streets, wearing their camouflage and carrying long guns, making the argument that the relatively few deaths suffered so far, an amount comparable to a season of the flu, are prima facie evidence that the dramatic actions taken to curtail COVID-19 are not needed?

No.  It’s because of those actions—the social distancing, the restaurants and bars and all manner of places of business shut down to prevent us from infecting each other with a virus for which we have no vaccine and no immunity—that we have not had the hundreds of thousands of deaths that had been predicted.  They are arguing that the results of the preventative actions they oppose are evidence that those actions are no longer needed (if they ever were), but it’s the opposite: the results of the actions they’re protesting are pretty clear proof that the actions were successful, were necessary, based on the best medical evidence as interpreted by the medical experts.  The same experts who are warning us that if we’re not patient, if break this quarantine too soon, the virus will surge through the population.  Listen to the doctors, not the other dopes.

Trump is angry that “he wasn’t told” there was a problem?  No one mentioned the pandemic, huh?  Is that the same pandemic that he told us he knew all about even before everyone else did?  That pandemic?  Jeez…

Telework Journal: What we have learned

Whether out of productive curiosity or an early onset of ennui bureaucratique, the people leading teleconferences and remote-by-video meetings I’ve been on in the past week are kicking the responsibility for meeting content over to the crowd.  The most common kick-off lately, as we finished our first four weeks of special circumstances, has been the question, “what have you learned so far from teleworking” that could conceivably be of value to others.

If that’s value to others who are teleworking, I don’t have too much to offer besides “get a comfortable chair.”  I think my biggest problem with teleworking is figuring out a new routine for how and when things are to be done, and that routine is going to be particular to me.  Whatever I finally figure out for myself is unlikely to be of too much help to you…I’m kinda quirky in how I work, and I don’t want to visit that on you.

The great philosopher Lawrence P. Berra once noted (or probably, more than once), “You can observe a lot by just watching.”  What I’ve been watching in the past week seems to be something of a steadying of our reaction to this great disruption in our lives.  Not that Americans are happy about being asked to put their lives on hold and stay inside; I think we get why that’s necessary, and we’ve started to look to the next level and the one after that, to try to make sense of this whole situation.  It appears that what more and more people are coming to realize is that America’s handling of the novel coronavirus outbreak could have been so much better.  And to identify those responsible.

That the pandemic occurred is not [Donald] Trump’s fault. The utter unpreparedness of the United States for a pandemic is Trump’s fault. The loss of stockpiled respirators to breakage because the federal government let maintenance contracts lapse in 2018 is Trump’s fault. The failure to store sufficient protective medical gear in the national arsenal is Trump’s fault. That states are bidding against other states for equipment, paying many multiples of the precrisis price for ventilators, is Trump’s fault. Air travelers summoned home and forced to stand for hours in dense airport crowds alongside infected people? That was Trump’s fault too. Ten weeks of insisting that the coronavirus is a harmless flu that would miraculously go away on its own? Trump’s fault again. The refusal of red-state governors to act promptly, the failure to close Florida and Gulf Coast beaches until late March? That fault is more widely shared, but again, responsibility rests with Trump: He could have stopped it, and he did not.

The lying about the coronavirus by hosts on Fox News and conservative talk radio is Trump’s fault: They did it to protect him. The false hope of instant cures and nonexistent vaccines is Trump’s fault, because he told those lies to cover up his failure to act in time. The severity of the economic crisis is Trump’s fault; things would have been less bad if he had acted faster instead of sending out his chief economic adviser and his son Eric to assure Americans that the first stock-market dips were buying opportunities. The firing of a Navy captain for speaking truthfully about the virus’s threat to his crew? Trump’s fault. The fact that so many key government jobs were either empty or filled by mediocrities? Trump’s fault. The insertion of Trump’s arrogant and incompetent son-in-law as commander in chief of the national medical supply chain? Trump’s fault.

For three years, Trump has blathered and bluffed and bullied his way through an office for which he is utterly inadequate. But sooner or later, every president must face a supreme test, a test that cannot be evaded by blather and bluff and bullying. That test has overwhelmed Trump.

Trump failed. He is failing. He will continue to fail. And Americans are paying for his failures.

If you’re sitting at home trying to get smarter about how we got here—more cases of COVID-19 and more deaths from the disease than any other country in the world, still not enough testing capability to truly get a handle on how and where the virus is spreading so we can marshal our efforts to fight it more effectively, sending our first-line medical care providers into the fight without enough of the right weapons—David Frum’s article is a very good place to start.   David Remnick’s story in The New Yorker is another.

And here we are, playing a tragic game of catch-up against a virus that has killed thousands and left millions unemployed. At Trump’s State of the Union address on February 4th, he pledged, “My Administration will take all necessary steps to safeguard our citizens from this threat.” Three weeks later, Kayleigh McEnany, a loud promoter of birtherism and of Trump talking points during the 2016 campaign, cheerfully told the Fox Business audience, “We will not see diseases like the coronavirus come here, we will not see terrorism come here, and isn’t that refreshing when contrasting it with the awful Presidency of President Obama?” Now McEnany is the President’s press secretary.

The coronavirus has inflicted a level of pain that is deep and global. And yet many nations, from South Korea to Germany, have done far better at responding to it than the United States has. The reasons for the American failing include a lack of preparation, delayed mobilization, insufficient testing, and a reluctance to halt travel. The Administration, from its start, has waged war on science and expertise and on what Trump’s former adviser Steve Bannon called “the administrative state.” The results are all around us. Trump has made sure that a great nation is peculiarly vulnerable to a foreseeable public-health calamity.

Just how deeply and profoundly does Trump not get it?  His smug response to criticism that he’s not doing all he could is to point out that the TV ratings of the daily White House briefings—the ones he commandeered from his vice president after seeing that people were paying attention but not to him—are so very high.  Even a lot of Trump’s loyal defenders can’t sit still for that level off ignorance.

As for his insistence that the blame lies with the way things were left for him by the Obama Administration…

…or the hearty chestnut that the whole thing is a hoax:

What have we learned after four weeks of national semi-lockdown?  Doctors and nurses in a pandemic, and the people who keep their hospitals and offices running including the people who keep them supplied with the vital materials that make me better when I’m sick, are as brave or braver than anyone.  TV broadcasts that traffic in easy emotional manipulation and call it “news” should always be shunned.  Those who insist that human activity is not impacting global climate should have a quick look at the images taken from space that show dramatic changes on the planet—changes for the better—after just a few weeks of reduced driving and factory operations.  When working from home it takes longer to do things than it does when we’re at the office, at least until we figure out how to do things when we’re working from home.

And, we’ve done a sufficient job of coming to grips with a very necessary and dramatic change in our way of life, in a comparatively short period of just weeks, that we’re starting to be able to shift focus from our individual needs and see the bigger picture.  To assess the reasons why we are where we are.  To make rational choices about what we should do next.

Telework Journal: Two realities

It turns out that getting a better chair wasn’t the whole answer.

Two weeks ago I wrote about getting a new desk chair to ease my ability to work from home since my employer and the surrounding cities and counties had ordered those who were able to do so to start right away in order to fight the spread of the novel coronavirus.  That first order expired last Friday; they have all been extended.  This isn’t going away like I thought it would.

At first, subconsciously, I think many of us in the Houston area treated the stay-at-home orders as a direction to do what we do when a hurricane comes: get your house ready, lay in supplies if you’re not going to evacuate, stay alert.  That might explain the inexplicable run on water and meat and soft drinks and toilet paper at every grocery store, drug store, convenience store and purveyor of paper products all across God’s creation.  When we lost electricity during Hurricane Ike it took three long days to get it restored here, but I have friends for whom it took three weeks, or longer.  In the meantime we all assessed the damage and made repairs, or started to, and life was returning to normal.

No hurricane lasts this long.  I think we didn’t really understand what we were in for when this started three weeks ago.

I work in television production for NASA’s Johnson Space Center, and we’d been directed to come to the office if that’s what was necessary to keep making the products we make.  Since I do a weekly live television broadcast, I would have to come to the office, at least on that day, because that’s how you do these things.  Well, we did that once, although we put me in a studio by myself instead of the International Space Station flight control room, as usual, to support a plan to protect the flight controllers who fly the station from exposure to the virus.  By the following Monday our boss directed us all to figure out how to do the show without anyone having to come on site; we weren’t able to meet that goal, but we did scale it down to just one person and that wasn’t me—hence, the first episode ever in which America got to see a slice of my entry hallway at house.

It wasn’t that we couldn’t figure out how to do our jobs differently, it was that—at least for me—I didn’t get that I would have to.  Now I do.  And I have realized that, had this happened a few years ago, the technology that’s necessary would not have been available to us.  It wasn’t that long ago that most of America wouldn’t have had easy access to the audio and video conferencing hardware and software that we’re using all day every day right now.  The Houston Chronicle’s technology editor Dwight Silverman has a great story in today’s paper making the case that “Working from home, learning from home and getting your entertainment at home will become the newer normal when this is over”.

Within my own family there’s an instructive cross-section of how America is dealing with COVID-19, which at this point does not include anyone who has become sick.  There is a communications consultant, an accountant, a corporate manager, a salesman, and a customer service support specialist who, like me, are mostly doing their jobs routinely from home.  There are a couple of elementary school teachers who are learning how to teach their classes online, and other parents who are teaching their own kids at home.   The ones who work in restaurants and in-home child care are at work as usual, as are the banker and the computer chip manufacturer supervisor and the school district police officers and the owner-operator long-haul truck driver, and the one who has breast cancer finished her chemotherapy right on schedule.  The dental assistants have reduced hours because their bosses are only handling emergencies, and the real estate agent says “work for me has come to an almost complete standstill,” as it has for her son who she recently brought into the business.  Those who are retired are trying to adjust to not having the house to themselves any more.

I’m not complaining; for most of us, so far, this is an inconvenience.  Honestly, I’m having some cognitive dissonance trying to reconcile my experience with the one I’m reading and hearing about across the rest of the country and the world.  Three times as many dead in the New York City area as were lost on September 11; more than 9000 dead across the U.S. so far and nearly 70,000 across the world; more than 10 million people in the U.S. have filed for unemployment assistance with concerns of revisiting jobless levels not seen since the Great Depression; Queen Elizabeth addresses the United Kingdom on television for only the fifth time in 68 years (not counting Christmas addresses); no baseball or basketball or golf tournaments.

It was no surprise, sadly, to read this morning’s Washington Post story that lays out the damning timeline of how the Trump Administration has bungled the response to the threat of this virus right from the start.

By the time Donald Trump proclaimed himself a wartime president — and the coronavirus the enemy — the United States was already on course to see more of its people die than in the wars of Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq combined.

The country has adopted an array of wartime measures never employed collectively in U.S. history — banning incoming travelers from two continents, bringing commerce to a near-halt, enlisting industry to make emergency medical gear, and confining 230 million Americans to their homes in a desperate bid to survive an attack by an unseen adversary.

Despite these and other extreme steps, the United States will likely go down as the country that was supposedly best prepared to fight a pandemic but ended up catastrophically overmatched by the novel coronavirus, sustaining heavier casualties than any other nation.

It did not have to happen this way. Though not perfectly prepared, the United States had more expertise, resources, plans and epidemiological experience than dozens of countries that ultimately fared far better in fending off the virus.

The failure has echoes of the period leading up to 9/11: Warnings were sounded, including at the highest levels of government, but the president was deaf to them until the enemy had already struck.

The Trump administration received its first formal notification of the outbreak of the coronavirus in China on Jan. 3. Within days, U.S. spy agencies were signaling the seriousness of the threat to Trump by including a warning about the coronavirus — the first of many — in the President’s Daily Brief.

And yet, it took 70 days from that initial notification for Trump to treat the coronavirus not as a distant threat or harmless flu strain well under control, but as a lethal force that had outflanked America’s defenses and was poised to kill tens of thousands of citizens. That more-than-two-month stretch now stands as critical time that was squandered.

What could have been done in 70 days?  Read the story, remember the details: the leaders of our government ignored the warnings and refused to take the actions that very likely would have saved lives.  Thousands of lives.  Thousands of American lives.  The Trump Administration did not cause the virus, and shouldn’t have been expected to stop it from entering this country.  But hoping it would just go away on its own was not the right answer.

A week on his HBO show, John Oliver had a good summary of how I feel today. (Start at 15:16)

We can all do our part to help, if only by keeping our distance from each other.  As Oliver said, what we do out here to fight the spread of this virus will have an impact inside the hospitals where real heroes are at work fighting to save the tens of thousands of people who have been infected.  Since they don’t (yet) have the medicine and the hardware they really need to keep those people alive, the best thing we can do to help them is to try to keep more patients from flooding in.  Let’s do what we can.

Telework Journal: That didn’t take long

When it comes to fighting a deadly virus, it appears that we are all learning that sooner is better than later.  That’s the stated reason why at my workplace, NASA Johnson Space Center, and at the other NASA centers around the country, we moved from Stage 2 to Stage 3 of a response plan in just two days, even though there was no significant change in reported cases of COVID-19.  Administrator Jim Bridenstine’s message to the troops employed some of the same boilerplate we’re all getting pretty familiar with, in emails from every credit card and department store and restaurant and car repair shop and golf course with which we have ever had digital congress: a sincere declaration that they are “closely following the advice of health professionals” and that “Implementing best practices early and quickly will increase likelihoods for better outcomes.”

Despite there being verrry few cases at NASA of people who have come down with COVID-19, and no one at all here in Houston, the agency has gotten in line with the latest recommendations from the White House and moved to a stricter standard for allowing people to come to the office to do work.  As you can see in the chart (below) Stage 3 means that as of this morning only people with mission-essential tasks were to come to work, and the on-site day care is now closed, but the hardest part for many people will be, I fear, that in-person meetings are prohibited.

IMG_0656

Everybody is getting smarter about the best way to fight this crisis, even the president himself—and his favorite TV news channel, where they seem to have come around to the fact that science is real and have stopped imagining it as an attack on Dear Leader.  The mental flexibility of is just amazing!

I did have to go to the office today to take care of some things I couldn’t do from home but left as soon as I could and headed home, stopping on the way to get my car washed.  (It needed it, I promise.)   I chose the medium-priced of the three packages, advertised at $24.99.  But when I went inside to pay, the cashier asked for $18.49; assuming I’d just misread the sign, or that I had caught an unexpected sale, I gave her my card, signed the slip, and headed for the window to see my car transformed back to its original beauty.  Standing there across the waiting room from another menu board, I saw the advertisement that Wednesdays are Senior Days, with special pricing on the regular wash or any of the packages; I pulled out my receipt and looked more closely.

IMG_0658

They didn’t even ask.

Damn.

“Spectacular in its horridness”

This was not what I was talking about when I said

Fellas, you owe it to the fans.  We may not forgive you and get over it right away even if you mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa all over the place, but I can promise you that a hell of a lot of us will never get over it if you don’t even try.

What happened today in West Palm Beach is much closer to “don’t even try” than to a real, honest explanation or apology.

After months of investigation by the Office of the Commissioner, Major League Baseball released a report last month finding the Houston Astros guilty of cheating for using technology to steal signs from their opponents in 2017 and 2018.  Astros owner Jim Crane fired the manager and general manager for not stopping the player-driven scheme, and a week later he ran interference for his players—who at that point hadn’t yet said anything—by saying they would all talk when they got to together in spring training and then offer a public apology.  That meeting happened last night, and the big apology came in a news conference this morning.  Here, courtesy of KPRC-TV in Houston, is the entire pathetic performance.

No doubt the Astros in-house public relations folks consulted with outside experts in crisis management to come up with a plan; Crane needs to be asking for his money back from all of them.  Putting the owner front and center speaking on behalf of his team seems the start of the right response, but the script they gave him to read was, as the kids say, an epic fail.  Over the course of about half an hour Crane (1) repeatedly made the point that he personally was not responsible at all, even though (2) he hired the general manager and the manager who were assigned blame in the commissioner’s report because (irony alert) they did not properly supervise their subordinates, (3) acknowledged that his players broke the rules but refused to say they “cheated,” at one point (4, in answer to a question that starts at 8:04 into the clip) said his team’s rule-breaking actions did not impact any games, and then (5, two questions later, starting at 9:39) denied that he had said what we all heard him say.  Over and over, his answer to every question that tried to start getting some into specifics became a variant of “the report says what it says, and that is what is right, and we will say no more than that.”  He looked stupid.  As an Astros fan, I am embarrassed by his ignorant performance.

Consensus of the crisis management pros consulted by the Houston Chronicle today was that this event made things worse:

“The core of the problem is that the team’s owner and players tried to declare the crisis over before it’s really over,” [Gene] Grabowski [of crisis communications firm kglobal]  said. “They sounded arrogant when they said they are moving on. That’s for the fans and sports writers to say — not guilty players and owners.”

(snip)

Mike Androvett, who owns a public relations, marketing and advertising firm that works with attorneys in Dallas and Houston, said the news conference failed to put the past to rest and, instead, “reinforced that the 2017 World Series win will likely be forever tainted.”

“I felt like the apologies by Mr. Crane and the two ballplayers seemed a little begrudging and lacking in specificity,” Androvett said. “If the intent was to nip this controversy in the bud, I think it will have the opposite effect.”

Crane, he said, “was not willing to share specific details, and he seemed only too ready to defer back to the commissioner’s report.”

Androvett said [Alex] Bregman and [Jose] Altuve, each of whom spoke for less than a minute at the news conference before giving more detailed answers in the clubhouse, “were placed in an unwinnable position, and as a result, their apologies rang a little hollow.”

(snip)

Marjorie Ingall with the website sorrywatch.com, which tracks and rates messages of public contrition, said the Astros news conference “was spectacular in its horridness. It’s the way not to apologize. It’s every example of terrible corporate policy.”

Among Crane’s failures during his news conference, Ingall said, was refusing to acknowledge the damage the Astros inflicted on their opponents.

“You have to apologize to the people you’ve harmed,” she said. “If you’re not doing that, you’re not really apologizing.”

You can see Bregman and Altuve at 2:56 and 3:45 of the news conference: they said little, but did seem taken with the seriousness of the moment if not truly sorry for what they did to cause it.  They did a bit better later in the morning inside the clubhouse, when they and a few teammates—Carlos Correa, George Springer, Justin Verlander, Josh Reddick and Lance McCullers—seem to really start to express some contrition for this illegal plan:

As I’ve put the pieces together, the story is that a team intern showed up with an Excel-based program (“Codebreaker”) that helped the front office decode a catcher’s signs, but that effort was denounced as pedestrian by Carlos Beltran when he was signed as a free agent before the 2017 season.  (The original story from The Athletic is here, a version out from under a paywall is on Sports Illustrated here.)  Beltran and bench coach Alex Cora, both now “ousted” as managers of the Mets and Red Sox, respectively, because of this affair, reportedly got the scheme rolling to route a center field camera video feed to the clubhouse/dugout area so the catcher’s signs could be deciphered and a short message—sent via bangs on a trash can in the tunnel behind the dugout—could be sent to tell the Astro-at-bat what kind of pitch was coming.  And, we are given to believe, many of the Astros players and coaches opposed this scheme but “felt powerless” to stop it.

Clubhouse dynamics came into play, and Beltrán, a 20-year veteran, reportedly didn’t take too well to players approaching him about the operation. Players described him to The Athletic as “El Jefe, the Godfather, the king, the alpha male in the building.”

A half-dozen former Astros players spoke with The Athletic on the condition of anonymity and said some players were afraid to approach Beltrán and express their disdain for the cheating scheme. At one point, veteran catcher Brian McCann approached Beltrán and asked him to end the operation.

“He disregarded it and steamrolled everybody,” one of the team members said. “Where do you go if you’re a young, impressionable player with the Astros and this guy says, ‘We’re doing this’? What do you do?”

(Beltran retired after the 2017 season; the Astros players reportedly stopped using the system to steal signs sometime in the 2018 season because they felt it was not productive.)

To this point, I have not heard a single Astros player, coach, executive or team official try to make a case that the charges are false, that the Astros are innocent.  (We’re starting to hear rumblings that there are plenty of other teams that are guilty, too, but that’s irrelevant to whether or not the Astros cheated; no one is saying the Astros didn’t do it.)  Nobody I’ve heard has tried to pardon any of the players individually, make us believe that this guy didn’t participate in the cheating.  They are publicly accepting the accusation that they violated the rules of the game, that they cheated in a way that effected the outcome of games.

Today Jim Crane and his players spent a lot of time reminding us us that they are have said they are sorry, that they have expressed remorse, as if that is all they need to say for us to be honor-bound to start to forget the whole sorry affair and rightfully turn attention to who will be the fourth and fifth starters this year, and whether or not Myles Straw can adequately replace Jake Marisnick as the designated late inning pinch runner.

What the Astros haven’t conveyed so far, at least not to me yet, is that they really “know why they’re supposed to be sorry” about this.

The players and owner Jim Crane held a team meeting on Wednesday to plan a course of action for the next day of camp. On Thursday, they severely underwhelmed. Astros hitters Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman provided roughly two minutes of insincere, vague remarks, while Crane issued a strange denial that the team’s cheating actually affected the outcome of the games.

“I am really sorry about the choices that were made by my team, by the organization, and by me,” Bregman said, squeezing as much out of the passive voice as he could.

(snip)

The Astros’ talking points all had heavy overlap. The players said most of them didn’t speak out earlier because they wanted to get together and address it as a team. (Or maybe they wanted to get their stories straight and not admit any more than what was in MLB’s investigation.) They were sorry that they didn’t do more to stop it. They hoped to move on and be better in the future. They also didn’t specify what exactly they were supposed to be sorry for.

One more thing: it occurs to me that there is a way that the Astros could still make this even more annoying.  If—despite all we’ve learned so far about the Astros cheating and whatever may still come out—if the team and the players come out tomorrow, and the next day, and next week and next month, and for however long it is that people in and out of the game are still pissed off and/or disappointed about this sorry episode…if they now take the attitude that they have done all the apologizing that is necessary and have nothing more to say on the matter…if one of them looks down his nose at a reporter and huffs that he has “already addressed that issue” and refuses to say another word…

And if the reporters let them get away with that?  If they don’t “chase them ‘round the moons of Nibia and ‘round the Antares maelstrom, and ‘round perdition’s flame” to get a honest answer to a legitimate question…well, that’s a whole ‘nuther blog post.