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:

“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.

Furlough Journal: The good, the bad, and the stupid

Surely this is happening all around the country, as we’re in the fifth week of a totally avoidable shutdown of parts of our federal government.  (Including the part that employs me.)  But I know it’s happening here in Houston, because this morning Houston’s Leading Information Source tells me it is.  Of the 800,000 or so federal employees who are out on furlough and learning to do without paychecks—because, essentially, a girl on Fox News challenged the manhood of our tiny-fingered president and that led him to renege on his commitment to sign a bill funding the government—more than 200,000 of them are in Texas and 30,000 of those in the Houston area.  It’s heartening to read about the local businesses taking action to help neighbors and customers who are strapped for cash.

There are restaurants offering free meals to federal employees; pharmacies charging discounted prices on prescriptions; banks waiving late fees or allowing customers to miss a payment with no penalty; a credit union offering interest-free loans to furloughed workers to cover their missing paychecks; phone and internet companies and utilities offering payment plans.  I’m keeping a list of these good neighbors so I can patronize them in the future, and maybe take them up on their offers if I have to as we wait to see where this unprecedented national hostage-taking leads us.

In the meantime, what’s being done to end this nasty situation and get us back to our normal routine of overeating and underexercising, staring blankly at cat videos, and worrying about whether our favorite social media influencers are getting enough online attention?  Well, after more than a month of not even talking about a single damn thing that the president hadn’t already said he would agree with (BTW, why should that be a concern with a president who never keeps his word?), the leadership in the Unites States Senate plans to take a couple of votes it already believes are doomed to failure.  But at least they’re trying, right?  Because that’s what a co-equal branch of government charged by the Constitution with providing checks and balances on the other branches of government is supposed to do, not act like it has no authority or free will or good judgment of its own and shout over and over again “Thank you, sir, may I have another?”.

The White House appears to have come to a complete and safe stop about any and all other issues—except for the president’s yes-I-will-oh-no-you-won’t fight with the House speaker over a State of the Union speech next week, and the president’s laughable “threats” to the family of former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen that have given Cohen a laughable excuse to cancel his scheduled testimony on Capitol Hill about…what was it again?  Oh, yeah, about his financial crimes and possibly the campaign finance law violations in which he implicated his former boss.  Good times.

But there is some targeted action in the Senate intended to keep this jackassery from happening again in the future, and for that I am very glad if not downright giddy:

“Biggest con job since the Trojan horse”

The phrase jumped off the obituary page in Houston’s Leading Information Source last June: Elene Davis passed away from “…complications due to congestive heart failure and the 2016 Presidential campaign.”  Imagine if she’d seen what’s gone on in the past week!

Late last month I saved the link to this Garrison Keillor column punching again at Donald Trump, noting that “a panhandler in Times Square sat holding a sign reading, ‘Give me a dollar or I’ll vote for Trump,’ and people laughed and reached into their pockets.”

His bucket overflowed. He stuffed the bills into his jacket, and other panhandlers looked at him with admiration. The man could’ve sold franchises and retired to Palm Beach.  The panhandler knows what every New Yorker knows, which is that the biggest con job since the Trojan horse is taking place in our midst. Millions of Americans are planning to cast their votes for a man who has lived his life contrary to all of their most cherished values. They are respectful, honest, generous, loyal, modest, church-going people with no Mafia connections and good credit records who try not to spout off about things they know nothing about.

The same week USA Today did something it had never done in its thirty-four years of publication: it took sides in a presidential race:

This year, the choice isn’t between two capable major party nominees who happen to have significant ideological differences. This year, one of the candidates — Republican nominee Donald Trump — is, by unanimous consensus of the Editorial Board, unfit for the presidency.

From the day he declared his candidacy 15 months ago through this week’s first presidential debate, Trump has demonstrated repeatedly that he lacks the temperament, knowledge, steadiness and honesty that America needs from its presidents.

Then it went on to spell out the record, that Trump is erratic, ill-equipped to be commander in chief, traffics in prejudice, has a checkered business career, and more.  The Atlantic quadrupled-down when it comes to historical precedent, making only its third endorsement since 1860 and the first since recommending Lyndon Johnson over Barry Goldwater:

Today, our position is similar to the one in which The Atlantic’s editors found themselves in 1964. We are impressed by many of the qualities of the Democratic Party’s nominee for president, even as we are exasperated by others, but we are mainly concerned with the Republican Party’s nominee, Donald J. Trump, who might be the most ostentatiously unqualified major-party candidate in the 227-year history of the American presidency.

(snip)

Hillary Rodham Clinton has more than earned, through her service to the country as first lady, as a senator from New York, and as secretary of state, the right to be taken seriously as a White House contender. She has flaws (some legitimately troubling, some exaggerated by her opponents), but she is among the most prepared candidates ever to seek the presidency. We are confident that she understands the role of the United States in the world; we have no doubt that she will apply herself assiduously to the problems confronting this country; and she has demonstrated an aptitude for analysis and hard work.

Donald Trump, on the other hand, has no record of public service and no qualifications for public office. His affect is that of an infomercial huckster; he traffics in conspiracy theories and racist invective; he is appallingly sexist; he is erratic, secretive, and xenophobic; he expresses admiration for authoritarian rulers, and evinces authoritarian tendencies himself. He is easily goaded, a poor quality for someone seeking control of America’s nuclear arsenal. He is an enemy of fact-based discourse; he is ignorant of, and indifferent to, the Constitution; he appears not to read.

This week the Republican Party’s nominee added something new and bizarre when he repeated to CNN his belief that the Central Park 5 are guilty of a famous 1989 rape and beating of a jogger in Central Park.  That is, he claims that the five men (who were teenagers in 1989) originally convicted of the crime but “exonerated in 2002 when an investigation by the Manhattan district attorney found DNA evidence linking the vicious crime to a previously convicted rapist. That man admitted to acting alone in the crime” are, nevertheless, the guilty parties.  DNA evidence to the contrary, and the confession of the actual guilty party notwithstanding, Trump today insists those five men are guilty of the crime.  It’s one thing to have taken a stand on an issue and then have time and the facts ultimately prove you to be wrong; it happens.  But Trump is incapable of acknowledging the facts laid out for everyone to see, and rather than admit a thoroughly human error–or even, God forbid, just shut his damn mouth–he repeats his error.

Dumb ol’ me, here I am thinking that should be enough to shock some more Trump supporters into realizing just what a moron he is…but then the issue completely disappears when the Washington Post’s David Fahrenthold publishes the Access Hollywood videotape that has dozens of high-ranking Republicans elbowing each other out of the way to jump off the Trumptanic.  (Fahrenthold is the reporter who’s dug into the Trump Foundation and found it to be far less than the charitable organ that’s advertised.)  I won’t pretend to be horrified by Trump’s comments, which on their face do resemble an admission of numerous instances of sexual assault (if you assume he was telling the truth and not just “bragging”), since they reinforce my previously-held belief that he’s a genuine creep, as well as an ignorant narcissistic megalomaniac with the attention span of a three year old.

Question for those now changing their minds on Trump: why now?  Does this incident just seem to be a good excuse that also allows you to pander to the puritanical element of your constituency?  It seems like you’ve passed up plenty of chances to do the right thing…

The Deseret News, among others, is now calling on Trump to drop out; I hope he keeps his promise not to withdraw from the race because I think he’s now on an irreversible slide to a yuuuge loss and I want the Republican Party and the crazy right-wing element that nominated this yutz to feel the pain of what they’ve done while they consider their future…yesterday Craig Mazin storified a Tweetstorm that pretty well sums up the path forward for the GOP.

I’d also like to see NBC News pay for its role.  Producers for Access Hollywood, which is a corporate relation of NBC, brought the tape to the network last Monday and they sent it to their lawyers; while a legal review was prudent, withholding permission to publish out of fear that Trump would sue is plain old cowardice: in real journalism, being sued by powerful people over a big story is sometimes just part of the deal.  So far Trump has apologized and he’s started to accuse others of being bad guys, but he hasn’t threatened to sue anyone.  It appears that someone in NBC who was frustrated at the delays leaked the tape to the Washington Post, leaving NBC to be scooped on its own story.

Now, let’s see how Trump handles the town hall-style debate this evening when, hopefully, the nice people at Washington University will insist on straight answers rather than a string of sentence fragments out of the Republican nominee.  I predict that without a fawning audience to buoy him, the real, ugly Donald Trump is likely to be on full display.