2020 vision

If we were to treat this like a “regular” election between “regular” candidates, it would be sensible to compare the candidates’ core beliefs and positions on important issues.  The problem with that, in this case, is not only that Donald Trump is not a regular candidate, he has no core beliefs or strong positions on any issues.

Very important to remember (and I’ve been harping on this, I know): Trump lies.  About everything.  Virtually every word out of his mouth.  There is no good reason to believe anything he says.  The Washington Post Fact Checker documented 20,000 lies by Trump as president, and that was back in July.  (As they say, the hits just keep on coming.)   If in any moment Trump needs his audience to think that he believes A, because he thinks the audience members believe A, he will say he believes A.  If in another moment he needs another audience to think he believes not-A, he will say he believes not-A.  It doesn’t matter to him whether he really does like A or actually prefers not-A, or if he’s even given the whole A/not-A dichotomy any real consideration: he will say anything if he wants it to be true in that moment.  What’s more, he thinks we are too stupid to realize that he has taken both the position of A and not-A at one time or another.

Also important to remember is that Trump has demonstrated he is not good at presidenting.  I mean being president of the USA—don’t even talk about his record of business bankruptcies.  He touts his handling of the economy, but he denies that he took office with an economy that was in pretty good shape and managed not to screw it up.  (By the way, the stock market is not “the economy.”)  He quickly reminds you about passing a tax cut bill…one that primarily benefitted the already-wealthy, AND which he doesn’t want you to remember is only temporary, AND WHICH was contributing to a big increase in government debt even before pandemic relief.

Oh yeah, the pandemic.  Any government effort to protect Americans from an insidious virus that was spreading across the country and killing thousands of people a week would have started by asking people to isolate themselves, and that was what forced so many businesses to temporarily close and shocked the U.S. economy back in the spring.  Once medical researchers identified the transmission path AND a simple and efficient way to block it—yes, the mask—a good president (and governors and mayors) would have been working like hell to get people to voluntarily help themselves and their neighbors by wearing the damn mask.  Other countries did, and they did not suffer the rates of infection and death that America has; they have not suffered the economic hardships that we have.  Trump’s willful mismanagement of the government’s response to COVID-19 is likely to be his legacy: his public denial of the problem, which contributed to the expansion of the problem, which led to more than 9 million infections and the deaths of more than 213,000 Americans (so far) along with the prolonged weakening of the economy.  You’ve probably heard: a third wave is already underway.

(Recently I read a woman’s complaint about wearing the mask; she feels she should not have to do that because “they have already taken so much away from us.”  Honest to god, lady: no one set out to take anything away from you.  There is an attack against our country underway right now, and our best response to the threat—which will help protect you, your children, your neighbors—calls for you to make a tiny sacrifice.  Why is this a problem?  It almost couldn’t be any easier.  Also: who is “they?”)

Very important to keep in mind—maybe most important—is that Trump does not believe in America, or its Constitution, or the rule of law, or our rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, or in racial or gender equality, or supporting the sacrifices of our fellow citizens in the armed forces, or in any type of service to country.  He doesn’t believe in Truth, or Justice, or the American Way.  He says he does, but he doesn’t.  (Remember, Trump lies.)

He ran for president as a publicity stunt, and was as surprised as anyone when he (barely) won.  He has used the office to enrich himself and his businesses, he’s alienated our allies, and he’s used the government itself to attack protesters and political enemies—he was impeached for doing that!  He wasn’t removed from office for it because he has also, somehow, managed to drag the Republican Party and a lot/many/most (?) of its leaders down to his level.  They talked themselves into believing that protecting Trump is what “real Americans” want them to do, because…why again?  Because with Trump as president they will get judges who will incorporate their political and religious beliefs into American law?

There was an ad on television the other day (please, Jesus, end the TV ads!) in which the candidate looked sincerely into the camera and told me “this election is about getting our economy moving again.”  No; no, it’s not.  I understand why you say that, and that would be a very good thing to get the economy back up to speed…also, to be able to go to a restaurant or a ballgame again, or even back to the office.  But no, that’s not what this election is about.

This election is about saving the United States of America from the chaos and fascism and authoritarianism that is undoubtedly right around the corner if Donald Trump wins re-election.  Even if Joe Biden is not everything you want in a president, he is one thing you need in a president: he is not Donald Trump.  He is a patriot, and he will govern with the best interests of this country at heart.  Just ask these Republicans:

You could also ask yourself, when was the last time I remember a president promising me that the next election was going to be rigged…unless he wins?  The last time a president running for re-election, and his political party, spent so much time making it harder for people to vote, and laying the groundwork to overturn the results?

He’s a clown…a cartoon.

Vote him out of office next week.  Do it for America.  A landslide may not be enough—let’s make it an avalanche that will also defeat whatever nonsense he pulls to try to ignore our votes and hold onto office (and stay out of jail).  That will make America great again.

Five weeks

The job of president of the United States was meant to be a manager who would lead the executive branch to efficiently carry out the business of the nation’s government.  It still is that, but it’s also become a symbol of the battle between competing claims to exercise a moral imperative: on one side, those who want government to enforce upon the rest of us their idea of the one right way Americans should live their lives, and on the other those who have a broader view of the meaning of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”  The situation is tedious, and divisive, and destructive of our ability to get along with those of our fellow citizens who have different opinions of the proper role of government in our lives.  What’s worse is, the campaign for the job never stops—thank you, sir, may I have another!

Right now, five weeks before the election, is when we should be starting the campaign.  That’s time enough to review information about the candidates, time for reflection…and after election day it would be time to go back to regular life, where if you choose to you could escape the obsession with the daily minutiae of politics.  Time enough to make a reasoned decision, and move on.

The two major party candidates for president have their first side-by-side appearance tomorrow night (I’ll be surprised if they actually engage in debate), to talk about issues and make the case why we should give him the responsibility of managing—just for starters—our national defense; our response to global pandemics and natural disasters; our relationships with our allies and with our enemies; the delivery of our mail!  Someone we can trust to look out for our country’s best interests, and to obey its laws.

So, I’ll watch the debate tomorrow and I’ll think, which of these guys do I want representing us…me…for the next four years?  Will it be the guy who

(There are plenty more where those came from.)

No, it will not be that guy.

You get to make your own choice, and you’re pretty smart, and there are five weeks left to think it over…before you get to make a secret choice, and no one will ever know who you voted for unless you tell them.  Just sayin’…

Teleholiday Journal: Eyes on the prize

More American deaths than were suffered in the Vietnam War—less than a month ago, that was the comparison meant to shock us into the reality of the depth and breadth of the COVID-19 pandemic.  But it didn’t.  It was too little too late: for the tens and tens of thousands of the sick and the dead, and the millions and millions of Americans who got the message when they lost their jobs, because a significant portion of American businesses had to shut their doors as part of the effort to halt the spread of the novel coronavirus that causes the disease.  Since this started, U.S. unemployment has moved from a level that was arguably full employment across the country to now 14.7% actively looking for work—”Employment fell sharply in all major industry sectors, with particularly heavy job losses in leisure and hospitality”—just in a matter of two months!

Today, the day we honor the more than one million of our fellow Americans who lost their lives in military service in the defense of our country, we are told we are days from seeing the COVID-19 death toll in our country pass 100,000.   Worst death toll in the world; also the most total cases in the world, with new ones still added every day.

Americans are not particularly known for being overly patient.  It’s kind of part of the ethos that when we want something, we go get it.  Or make it.  Sometimes we take it.  But we don’t like being told we can’t do something we want to do.  Our initial cooperation with directions from federal, state and local area governments to stay home and keep our distance from one another, as our best defense to fight a virus for which we had no medical weapon, had a positive impact, lessening the out of control spread of the virus.  It also caused the economic crisis.  And we are tired of that.  Understandably so.

America, and Americans, have a well-deserved reputation, for generations now, for generosity toward others in the face of natural disaster or economic crisis.  The orders to stay home, and to shut down businesses, were a call to us all to help us all: if we can keep from spreading the virus, it will die out when it has no one new to infect.  The urge to put an end to the hardships of social distancing and self-isolation, and to the self-inflicted damage to shuttered businesses and their laid-off employees, is a strong and an understandable one.

How then do we reconcile the apparent contradiction between the recognized generosity and civic-mindedness of the American people, faced with the sacrifice needed to defeat this generational challenge to our society, and the blindered selfishness of those few who are demonstrating against the restrictions because…because what, actually?  Because they are tired of it?  Because they don’t want to be told what to do?  Because they have long guns and Confederate flags laying around, and a desire to intimidate others that is going unfulfilled?

Or maybe it’s because they’ve fallen for a subversive attack:

Carnegie Mellon University researchers analyzed over 200 million tweets discussing COVID-19 and related issues since January and found that roughly half the accounts — including 62% of the 1,000 most influential retweeters — appeared to be bots, they said in a report published this week.

That’s a far higher level of bot activity than usual, even when it comes to contentious events — the level of bot involvement in discussions about things like US elections or natural disasters is typically 10% to 20%.

The researchers identified bots using artificial-intelligence systems that analyze accounts’ frequency of tweets, number of followers, and apparent location.

There is an interesting paradox about many of these demonstrators that is also found among others of the conservative right these days, including President Trump.  Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo put this way:

From time to time when hearing a new complaint from the president, it has occurred to me to wonder, why is he bitching about unfair treatment again?  Has he lived his life to this point in a world where he has received, and has dispensed, only fair treatment?  In any case, there has always been what seems to me to be an inordinate amount of whining coming from Trumpworld, totally at odds with it being the source of so much winning that we can’t stand it.

Yesterday Trump tweeted that the number of new cases of the disease and the number of deaths are all down; in all fairness, not so much:

While total new cases nationally have begun declining, hospitalizations outside New York, New Jersey and Connecticut have increased slightly in recent days, as Mr. Trump’s own former Food and Drug Administration commissioner, Dr. Scott Gottlieb, pointed out.

Altogether, cases are falling in 14 states and Washington, D.C., but holding steady in 28 states and Guam while rising in eight states plus Puerto Rico, according to a New York Times database. The American Public Health Association said the 100,000 milestone was a time to reinforce efforts to curb the virus, not abandon them.

“This is both a tragedy and a call to action,” it said in a statement. “Infection rates are slowing overall in the U.S., but with 1.6 million cases across the nation in the past four months, the outbreak is far from over. New hot spots are showing up daily, and rates remain steady in at least 25 states.”

And even that grim total barely begins to scratch the surface of the pain and suffering endured by a country under siege by the worst public health crisis combined with the worst economic crisis in decades.

I know that in some ways this crisis feels like it’s over, or at least has turned the corner.  That probably is due at least in part to seeing restaurants and bars begin to re-open in states where governors are saying enough is enough, let’s get back to business.  I think that feeling comes mostly from us wanting it to be true.  But it’s not true, and it’s up to us to do our part.  All of us.

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: Stage 1, we hardly knew ye

As of this morning NASA Headquarters and all of the field centers across the country went to what is called Stage 2 of the response framework.  That tells you everything you need to know, right?  Cutting to the chase, it means work for me enters a new phase.

Because it’s NASA we’ve got at least our share of jargon, and in this case apparently no need to specify what we are responding to much less provide clarity as to why such response needs its own framework.  But given the context of the news of the world, you can probably guess that we are responding to the threat of COVID-19, and Stage 2 means that all NASA civil servants are “strongly encouraged” to work remotely if possible.

Caveat 1: if your work cannot be done remotely, you can still come to the office anyway.  Caveat 2: contractor employees “should reach out to their contracting officer’s representative” to find out what we’re supposed to do.  In this case, we’re teleworking, too!

There are some things I do at work that have to be done at work, things involving both the recording of episodes of a podcast and the live broadcasting of a little weekly television show (which we lovingly and with full irony refer to as “the big show”), so right now I’ll still be going to the office.  Not every day, and even then not all day.  But this is a big deal for me: with only a few exceptions (search “Furlough Journal” blog posts in that box over to the right), “going to the office” for work is what I’ve been doing since the Carter Administration, so this could take some getting used to.

Not complaining…I know this whole situation is going to get worse all across in America: today more localities are asking, or ordering, restaurants and bars to close except for takeout or delivery to cut down on our chances of being in large crowds, whether we want that or not; here in Texas the state education commissioner is warning that public schools could remain closed for the rest of the school year; although there have been no deaths reported in our area (yet) the first area man who was reported positive without a travel-related cause is in very poor condition.  So I’m very lucky that my biggest problem (so far) is getting smart about working from home, and a friend at work has helped us all by finding a list suggestions how to make the most of that.  It starts by arguing in favor of wearing pants.

Perhaps the most harmful decision I made in those early years was the embrace of the “No Pants Freelance” lifestyle. I took it literally, often only working in a t-shirt and underwear. Hey, I never saw clients, why get dressed? Well, turns out that was a terrible decision.

Not only does your personal hygiene suffer, your mental clarity will too. Over days, weeks, and months, I became a shell of a human. Depression and anxiety start to take over, and before you know it, you’re a complete mess both in and out of work. This was precisely what I wanted to avoid this time.

I’ve now built a morning routine, which I’ll get to shortly, but the culmination is getting dressed for work. I put on pants everyday. Pants. Not shorts, not pajama pants, but a pair of pants. I’ll wear a button down shirt or t-shirt each day, but the pants are essential. This is my brain telling my body that I am going to work.

I’m trying to keep in mind that whatever hardship I think I’m enduring now (1) isn’t so hard, and (2) has a damn good reason behind it.  Matt Pearce off the Los Angeles Times put it very well:

So did this elementary school principal:

I also love this…if you love “Schitt’s Creek,” so will you: