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.

Another day, another shrug

I’ve found a handy application for Twitter is using it to stockpile reminders about things that our president has done, things that we once would have said were unbelievable about any president but that in the last few years we have found all to easy to believe about this one.  Things that make us nod our heads and say “there he goes again.”  (I think Ronald Reagan would approve of us quoting him in this way, don’t you?  I think so.)  Just this afternoon there was this:

…in which maybe there is actually the possibility that a president can take this action, but not clear that he can do so.  And Congress does have room to fight back (not that today’s Congress is going to do that, of course; that much is a given).  Also today I saw this item, which I’m sure is just a coincidence (right?):

It feels like every day the Stable Genius invites disbelief and ridicule by making up something, something clearly false and easily disproved, just so he can praise himself:

If you care about the government’s budget deficit—I know this is of no concern to you any more, Republican members of Congress—we got the news this week that the deficit is snowballing toward record highs, thanks in large part to the Trump tax cut:

In fairness, Trump didn’t do this one all by himself—he had the cooperation of the Republican majorities in the House and Senate.  The trade war with China, the one that’s got the stock markets around the world concerned: that one’s all on him.

All of this is just from this week, and this list is far from exhaustive (and we don’t know yet what he’ll do at the G7 meeting, other than campaign for his boy Putin):

Furlough Journal: Once more into the breach

It never would have occurred to me when this partial government shutdown started more than four weeks ago that it would still be going on today, the day that it turns out is the day before I start on furlough myself because of the inaction of my government representatives obstinacy of my president.  (Lookie there, me being nice to Mr. Trump; let’s see if it lasts.)  Truth is, what really never would have occurred to me was that he would be the president.  Of the United States.  Of America.  Unless maybe it was bizarro America.

Nope, not even then.

I’ve worked as a contractor for NASA at the Johnson Space Center since the summer of 1995, just a few months before the Gingrich Shutdown that had been the longest shutdown in history until last week.  The only other serious shutdown in my experience was the one in October 2013, which sent us all home for a couple of weeks; we were allowed to do things related to our regular jobs, but we were not allowed to work in the office.  I started the Furlough Journal then and found it therapeutic for a guy forced to sit home on an unexpected vacation…yes, I was allowed to use my accrued vacation so I didn’t miss a paycheck.

When this PGS began my civil servant colleagues were sent home without pay and that’s where they’ve remained, except for a few who had permission to come in to do important work for which they would not be paid.  (Until, hopefully, they are reimbursed after the shutdown ends…which would be good for them, but doesn’t help them now with no income to spend on the little extras that make life worth living, like food, and rent, and electricity.)  At that point our contract had already received periodic funding in advance, so we were allowed to continue to do our regular work in our offices so long as it didn’t require a civil servant to participate.

Late last week the bosses gathered us all to let us know the advance funding was about to run out and our furlough was about to begin.  Since I don’t usually work weekends, and today was a funded holiday, tomorrow feels like the first day of furlough for me.  But my company is allowing us to use accrued vacation to keep getting paid, at least for a couple of weeks.  After that, we’ll see.

Let’s give the president a little credit here. After a full four weeks of government shutdown that was caused by him changing his mind and refusing to sign a funding extension passed by the Senate which he had promised to sign (and which the House has subsequently also approved) he made a counteroffer last weekend which Democrats have not embraced (shall we say).  I think “a little” is about as much credit as he should expect for offering to give back something he took away in the first place and which he isn’t now promising to return permanently, in exchange for a down payment on a wall that he promised us Mexico would be paying for anyway but which it says it won’t, and who can blame them.  I think we should also note that the president has proven over and over again that we should never take him at his word, about anything, which of course makes it harder to negotiate a deal and surely says it wouldn’t be smart to agree to the first thing he offers.

(Is the therapeutic-ness kicking in yet?  Keep keyboarding.)

I want the government shutdown to end as soon as possible, for myself and the hundreds of thousands of people who do work that makes our country run…no doubt you’ve got examples of your own of things that aren’t happening because of the shutdown, or have read stories filled with those particulars.  Our representatives in Washington can do their jobs and negotiate about a border wall while the people who process tax returns and staff the national parks and control our air traffic and advance our exploration of space get paid for doing their jobs.  I have confidence that Congress can find a deal that will allow all sides to claim a little victory, maybe even agree to build more border barrier.

But don’t you dare cave in to this crazy man.  If Congress gives Trump this border money, in this way, you and I both know that the next time he doesn’t get something he wants he’ll take hostages again.  We don’t negotiate with terrorists.  And we’re not afraid of bullies.

Dear Jon Stewart,

Thank you…you and the little army of writers and television gypsies that came together for good, at a time when your country, and I, needed you.  When we were lost, trying to rescue truth from the clutches of the radical political conservatives, and the evangelical Christian extremists, and the political organizations they controlled, you went to the front of the column and screamed, “Seriously?”

Journalism was little help in those dark times.  The major outlets were swampedjon_stewart3 by calls that blamed the “liberal media” for always taking sides against good honest conservatives, so they fell back to reporting controversial stories as little more than “he said/she said” exchanges and refused to identify blatant falsity as such.  They were outmaneuvered by the opposition; they were (and are) cowards, willing victims to what David Shaw of the Los Angeles Times beautifully referred to as “the four horsemen of the journalistic apocalypse: superficiality, sensationalism, preoccupation with celebrity, and obsession with the bottom line.”  So it was left to comedy, satire, to ride to our rescue.

The objection to Puritans is not that they try to make us think as they do, but that they try to make us do as they think. – H. L. Mencken

Almost any sect, cult, or religion will legislate its creed into law if it acquires the political power to do so. – Robert A. Heinlein

It didn’t help that the barbarians at the gate, intent on replacing the tolerant democratic civil society we were aspiring to with a theocracy of their own religious beliefs, decided to unlevel the playing field and refuse to acknowledge any truths that didn’t support their worldview.  The “reality-based community” stood dumbfounded, scrambling for the proper reply to “No, the sky is not blue, and you can’t prove that it is.”  But you found a way.

You like to say that you were just a comedian; true enough, but on The Daily Show you were more than just jokes.  You aimed a most potent weapon—sunshine; the light of day; their own words; common sense—at people who were full of shit and assured us all that the smell was coming from somewhere else.  They deserved what they got from you, and we got to laugh.  And in the process—in pointing out that the emperor indeed did not have on any clothes, that what politicians said quite often was at odds with demonstrable truth, that the 24-hour news channels weren’t worth the paper they were printed on—you reassured a lot of us that there was still hope.  For that, thank you.

Fact is, you did a great job of it just this week and I grabbed the link.  So for old time’s sake, just once more, let me suggest—click the pic, ya maroons.

image

The odd obsession of CBS Sports

There is so much going on right now; what should I write about:

Yeah, that’s it: what is it with CBS Sports and the wives and children of PGA golfers?  It’s seemed to me for some time that Jim Nantz and the CBS golf broadcast are inordinately interested in naming, and showing, the wives/girlfriends/children of PGA pros when they win a tournament.  Frighteningly so.  Obsessed, even.

Not that I paid as much attention to golf on television then as I do now, but I don’t remember seeing Nicklaus’ and Palmer’s wives and kids showing up on the 18th green to hug daddy after a win.  Maybe it started with Tiger.  Tiger was such a phenomenon: so young, and so good, a new kind of golfer.  Way back when, the revered amateur golfer Bobby Jones* offered quite a compliment when he said young Jack Nicklaus played a game with which he was not familiar, and Nicklaus famously said the same about Tiger.  And when young Tiger would win, he’d walk off the green and hug his mom and dad.  It was kind of heartwarming, yes…but the TV couldn’t stop there.  Next it was Tiger hugging his bikini model-girlfriend du jour; then it was his fiancée, then his wife, but still his mom and dad.  And then after his dad died, just his wife.

(By the way, the CBS guys only ever call him “Tiger,” no need for last names…it shows they’re tight, I guess. Even if some bluenoses like me think it’s inappropriate for people covering a news event—even a sporting news event—to be quite so familiar with the people they’re covering—or even worse, to appear to be fawning over the people they’re covering—for fear that the presumption of objectivity and fairness will disappear.  Others say it’s better to be honest and not feign objectivity or pretend they don’t have favorites, and that may be the most charitable explanation I can offer for the overly familiar references from CBS, and the rest of the golfing press and TV, too, to be fair.)

Or maybe it was Phil (again, no need for a last name here) because he was hugging and kissing his pretty blonde wife, and later his pretty blonde kids which called to mind the legacy of the 1999 U.S. Open when he lost to Payne Stewart just before his first child was born.  And then even more so when Amy (yes, even some of the wives are first-name only) was being treated for cancer and she showed up to congratulate him at the 18th after a win, and that was sweet, too.

Somewhere along the way, the CBS golf producers got it stuck in their heads that the money shot from any tournament coverage was the winner being greeted by children and wives after sinking the final putt.  Eventually I realized it was happening at every tournament, every week, seemingly without exception.  Yes, some golfers have their wives/girlfriends/families with them on the road all the time; some of them are lucky enough to win a tournament being played near where their families live; but for the wives and kids to be there ever single week?  Too much.

Yesterday at The Barclay’s, the first playoff event for this year’s FedEx Cup, and Hunter Mahan is winning…yep, Cinderella story, comin’ outta nowhere…and Jim Nantz slides into that here-comes-the-fairy-tale-ending tone of his as he almost giddily whispers to a national TV audience that “hey, Hunter’s wife and daughter are HERE—I mean, they ACTUALLY FLEW HERE FROM ANOTHER STATE last night or this morning when it looked like he might win.  Have you ever seen such a thing in your whole life ever?!”  He even managed to slip in that she “NetJet-ted in.”  Imagine, if you can, the frontier grit it took for that woman to actually go to a local airfield and climb aboard a private luxury jet operated by one of her wealthy husband’s sponsors and ride in it all the way from Dallas to Teterboro?  (Yep, Nantz even told me which New York area airport she utilized!)

Mahan made his last putt, congratulated the others in his group, turned to walk off and you could see a little smile of surprise and recognition when he saw his wife and daughter on the other side of the green.  He was also trying to be a considerate competitor and get off the green as quickly as possible because there were still golfers on the course behind him waiting to finish the hole, but the cameras were in his way, hawking around waiting to capture the de rigeur heartwarming image of the man picking up his toddler and kissing his wife.  The camera even followed behind the little family as Mahan walked to the official’s tent to sign his scorecard, and we got to overhear as Mrs. asks “Weren’t you surprised to see us?”  A few minutes later the last group on the course finishes up and Mahan’s win is official; so, cue the CBS reporter for the perfunctory post-tournament “interview,” and damned if Peter Kostis didn’t make it part of the premise of his first question!

Today on my way to lunch I heard on CBS radio that Mahan won the Barclay’s AND OMIGOD HIS WIFE AND LITTLE DAUGHTER WERE THERE TO GREET HIM WHEN HE CAME OFF THE 18TH GREEN—WOWSERS!  This afternoon I was checking facts for this post, and this was the prominent picture on the front page of CBS Sports’ golf section:

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Pul-leeze, give it a rest.  You’re trying way too hard to prove…what is it that you’re trying to prove again, exactly?  Look, the journalism bar is much lower for sports than for news, but there still is a bar, or there should be.  We tune in to watch a golf tournament, not a reality show/soap opera about the golfer and his family.  Nobody’s buying what you’re selling here…not even you, I bet.

(*updated: quote originally, and inaccurately, attributed to Ben Hogan — PR)