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: