Telework Journal: Two realities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Telework Journal: That didn’t take long

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

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

IMG_0656

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

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

IMG_0658

They didn’t even ask.

Damn.

It can’t get any worse? The hell you say

Now, a brief interruption of this blog’s on-going obsession with the intolerable behavior of our #IMPOTUS, to offer evidence of the complete falsity of that old saying: it can’t get any worse.

Despite national championships from its professional basketball and baseball teams, and never even once from its NFL team, Houston is a football town in a football state.  Always been that way.  The Houston Oilers were the champions the first two years of the American Football League and never won it all again, but they were still the darlings of this town.  Even when they set a league record for blowing the biggest lead ever in a playoff game (a record that still stands!), the people generally got over it by the start of the next season.  (Didn’t forget, mind you, but bravely pressed on.)  Their owner was hated, but the team was loved, and in 1997 when the hated owner made good on his threat and packed the team off to Tennessee, general melancholy set in among the folks left behind to mourn.

For many, a reason to live again came with the NFL expansion Houston Texans, who started league play in 2002 in a shiny new stadium that made the Astrodome look…well, just sad.  Like most expansion teams (except the Oilers), the Texans were terrible; and yet, they have never not played before a sellout crowd in their home stadium.  Because Houston is a football town, and the Texans are our team no matter what.  In the past few years they have pretty regularly won the division in which they play, but have a losing record in the playoffs and have never gotten to the conference championship game and had a chance at the league championship game (which dare not speak its name).  This year they had a come-from-behind victory in the first round of the playoffs which got them to a second round game against a team they had beaten during this regular season, and they started that game this past Sunday with a 24 point lead in the first quarter and so it looked like everything was going to go right this time.  Right up until it didn’t.  They gave up the whole 24 point lead, and more…much more; they were an utter embarrassment, far worse than most people predicted: I mean, c’mon, what kind of team allows the opponent to score touchdowns on SEVEN CONSECUTIVE POSSESSIONS?!?!

Today, there was general malaise, a lot of moping around, at least among those who weren’t still screaming at the execrable performance from Sunday or receiving treatment for their high blood pressure resulting therefrom.  Disbelieving stares were exchanged in offices between co-workers who just couldn’t believe what they had seen on Sunday.  The weather today also stunk, in the 50s and low 60s, drizzly and rainy all day long, nothing to help lighten the mood, even just a little.  So when the bad news came today about the Houston Astros—and it was bad—it reminded me of the line from “Body Heat” when Ned Racine said “Sometimes the shit comes down so heavy I feel like I should wear a hat.”

Major League Baseball has apparently had its eye on the Astros for some time now, due to allegations that the team was breaking the written rules of baseball by using technology to steal the other team’s signs.  Late last year, pitcher Mike Fiers was quoted saying that when he was an Astro in 2017—the year they won their one and only World Series championship—there was an elaborate plan to signal the batters so they would know what pitch was coming.  That sparked a new investigation…today, Commissioner Rob Manfred released the report:  in summary, it said that, yes, the Astros cheated; they cheated even after all the teams had been specifically warned not to do this very thing (after an investigation into allegations against the Boston Red Sox); that although the front office wasn’t behind the scheme the folks up there should have known and done something about it; and that the field manager, who knew what was going on but disapproved, didn’t stop it, either.  (I’m still chewing on that: how does a manager who disapproves of his players conspiring to steal signs and sending signals to their teammates by beating on a trash can not put a stop to it?)

As punishment: the Astros lose first and second round draft choices in 2020 and 2021, pay a five million dollar fine, and the general manager and the field manager are each suspended without pay for all of the 2020 season!

Wow.  Let me start right there — wow: big fine, four top draft picks gone, and the loss for a season of the general manager who transformed a train wreck into a winner and the manager who made it work and was widely regarded as one of the best in the business these days.  Thinking that this was about as low as we could go, right…nope:

The owner fired the GM and the manager!  Baseball suspended them but Jim Crane fired them both: “I felt that, with what came out of the report, they both had responsibility.  Jeff [Luhnow] running the baseball operation and overseeing AJ [Hinch]  and all of those people associated with that. And AJ, on the bench and was aware, if you read the report, it’s pretty clear. AJ didn’t endorse this, and neither did Jeff. Neither one of them started this, but neither one of them did anything about it. And that’s how we came to the conclusion.”

We’ll see if Crane is right, if his extreme punishment is enough to convince the fans in this town that his team is serious about playing by the rules, and they keep on creating traffic jams on the concourses at Minute Maid Park.  We’ll see who the team hires to take over for Luhnow to run the baseball operation and who replaces Hinch in the dugout, with only a month to go before pitchers and catchers report to training camp.

One thing is for sure. though: I will not assume that the worst is over.

It matters

Today the U.S. House of Representatives impeached the president of the United States.  Even though the chances are vanishingly small that the United States Senate will remove this president from office over these two articles of impeachment, that matters.

Read the Mueller Report.  Read the House Intelligence Committee report.  Read the House Judiciary Committee report.  Read the summaries of any of those documents.  Or just think about all the incredible stories of the goings on of the president ever since Donald Trump was sworn into office.  There is more than enough evidence for a clear-eyed observer to conclude that Trump has committed impeachable offenses…so many, and so blatantly, in fact, that to not impeach him would have been the grossest example of the House ignoring its responsibility to perform checks and balances of the Executive Branch.  Any president who had done what this one has done would deserve to be impeached, too, to be shamed and held up to the ridicule of history, and have the Senate vote to remove him or her from office for the good of the country.

But wait: the place is swarming with Republicans who say there is no proof that Trump did anything illegal, or even improper, or impeachable at all.  Many of them are actually screaming it, and then insisting Trump is the best president ever—not just better than Obama or Clinton or Bush (either one) but better than Washington or any of those other dudes.  It’s fascinating.

I get it that party loyalty is important, if you’re a member of a party, and I get that there are more members of Congress than I would like to admit who actually love what Trump is doing and won’t do anything to get in his way.  That includes so many who were seemingly appalled by Candidate Trump, who saw him as a threat to the country; now they have his back without question.

Why in the world are all these people so servile to Trump?  Why in the hell don’t these men and women, who in most other circumstances behave as though they are the highest expression of God’s own creation, act the part of members of Congress and assert their authority as a co-equal branch of the government?  They may be loyal to a president of their own party, or to the president of our country, but they don’t work for him and they aren’t there to do his bidding.  They may agree with the president’s policies and support his goals, but they have a responsibility to their constituents, and the Constitution, and to the rest of us, too, to be a restraint against a president who oversteps his bounds.  They have taken the art of deluding themselves to the zenith, and achieved a new nadir when it comes to supporting their party at any cost.  Hard to understand how they don’t see that their own reputations and honor and place in history are at risk, each and every one of them.

As troubling as it is…as confusing as it is…to see so many apparently intelligent and well-educated people publicly forsake the evidence of their own senses to support a president who has so clearly demonstrated his utter contempt for the rule of law and the oversight role of the Congress in American government, it’s even worse to see those among them who are abdicating their own part in this government, apparently without a fight.

The Constitution gives the House the responsibility to impeach a president or other government official, and the Senate the role of jury in a trial of the president presided over by the chief justice of the United States.  So how, in the name of all that’s right and moral and legal and American, can the man who leads the majority in the U.S. Senate say he will work with the White House counsel to arrange the details of the trial?  And do it like it’s no big deal?!  We know that the chances of the Senate convicting Trump are microscopic, but what are we supposed to think now about the fairness of this proceeding, or the honesty with which the senators will consider the evidence, when the jury foreman announced in advance that his team will work hand-in-hand with the defense lawyers?

If anything, Mitch McConnell should be coordinating trial details with the Democratic leader in the Senate.  On Monday came the news that Charles Schumer wrote to McConnell proposing a framework for the trial, including the names of a handful of witnesses who never testified to the House investigators, people he would like to hear from in the Senate trial.  McConnell dismissed the idea; he even said there would be no witnesses.  We can, and should, speculate about the reason for that stance; I think he’s worried that his members might not be able to countenance their support of Trump if they heard what Mick Mulvaney and John Bolton would say under oath.

Or is McConnell kidding himself when he thinks he’s going to be in charge? In Slate, Bruce Ackerman argues that the Senate can’t bar any witness, that it’s up to the House and the president—the prosecution and the defense—to decide those things.  And most importantly, that it will be the presiding judge—Chief Justice John Roberts—who will run the court.

Once John Roberts replaces Vice President Mike Pence as the Senate’s presiding officer, McConnell’s attempt to change the rules would generate a constitutional crisis. As I have noted, the rules explicitly give Roberts, and nobody else, the power to “direct all forms of the proceedings.” If McConnell tried to seize control, Roberts could refuse to allow the Senate to vote on his initiative, especially if McConnell proposed rule changes that were inconsistent with Roberts’ pledge “to do impartial justice.”

(snip)

The chief justice is a serious jurist, dedicated to sustaining the Supreme Court’s central position in our system of checks and balances. His impartial conduct of the trial is especially crucial in the aftermath of the blatant partisanship displayed by McConnell and the Senate during the confirmation battle over Brett Kavanaugh. With this episode vividly in the public mind, it is imperative for Roberts to demonstrate, by his actions, that he takes the Constitution seriously and is not merely serving as a pawn in McConnell’s scheme to guarantee an acquittal.

If the majority leader did make an effort to change the rules midstream, this would serve as Roberts’ moment of truth: Will he demonstrate to the tens of millions of viewers that he is determined to put the Constitution above bitter partisan conflict?

Given Roberts’ repeated efforts to sustain the court’s legitimacy in the past, there is every reason to expect him to stand his ground and refuse to allow McConnell’s motion to be considered on the floor. If McConnell continued to defy Roberts and insisted that his colleagues back him up, it seems highly unlikely that his fellow Republicans would provide him with the bare majority needed to provide appropriate window dressing for his attempted constitutional coup.

This week began with news that 750 historians believe Trump should be impeached, and that a Fox News poll found half the country thinks Trump should be impeached.  This poll also finds Trump would lose the popular vote in November to Biden, or Warren, or Sanders, or Buttigieg, or even Bloomberg.  But for me, the best part of that story was seeing the Fox & Friends contingent so thoroughly gobsmacked to have to learn that their own network’s poll had such bad news for their guy…it revealed at least a little of the subconscious understanding on their part that their company’s preferred role is pimping Trump rather than doing journalism.  Another interesting consideration was raised by Charles P. Pierce, who makes the case that the Republican Party is the only organization—anywhere—that has a chance to save the republic.

What if, I think to myself, what if the Republicans have a plan: what if they’ve lulled Trump in with their obsequiousness and shameless praise—the kind of stuff that Trump so clearly loves and encourages—and when it comes right down to a vote, what if they surprise the crap out of all of us and vote to remove him from office?  Can we rely on a sudden tsunami of personal conscience, or love of country, or just plain old fear for how they will be remembered by history, to save the day?  Maybe they will see just one too many examples of Trump’s childish temperament, like his unhinged letter to Nancy Pelosi yesterday, and decide they’ve had enough.

They could just finally get fed up with the president’s obstruction of justice, and obstruction of Congress.  Of them.  No other president I can think of has ever so publicly dissed Congress, and thumbed his nose at the law, as has this one.  (On this point, Trump may accurately claim to be the best in history.)  Congress has a right to ask for, and receive, cooperation from the Executive Branch in its investigations.  Though there are exceptions for withholding some information—executive privilege—the people who get Congressional subpoenas have a duty to honor them.  Maybe they refuse to answer questions when they get there, but they have a duty to answer the call of the Congress.  In ordering the people in his administration not to do so, Trump effectively said to Congress: uh, f*** you losers, make me if you can.  And yet, most of the Republican members of Congress still stand up for him, rather than stand up to him.  Go figure.

Anyhow, the House vote to impeach Trump is important.  It matters that we have members of Congress who are standing up to the bully, reminding him and us that abiding by the rules and laws and traditions of this country is expected.  The oath those members took was to defend the Constitution “against all enemies, foreign and domestic,” and they should be faithful to that promise.  And if Trump is not removed by the Senate, there are still options.  One is that the House could delay sending the impeachment to the Senate until senators agree to conduct a fair trial: this would keep McConnell from fixing the outcome of the trial while the House keeps the focus on Trump’s bad deeds, which could keep pressure on Republicans to abandon Trump as the Republicans of 1974 finally abandoned Richard Nixon.

Another option is pouring everything into defeating Trump at the polls in 2020.  This week a group of Republicans announced the Lincoln Project dedicated to defeating “Trump and Trumpism at the ballot box.”  The organizers wrote about their effort in the New York Times, and didn’t sugarcoat the fact that Trump is not the only name they are targeting for defeat:

Patriotism and the survival of our nation in the face of the crimes, corruption and corrosive nature of Donald Trump are a higher calling than mere politics. As Americans, we must stem the damage he and his followers are doing to the rule of law, the Constitution and the American character.

That’s why we are announcing the Lincoln Project, an effort to highlight our country’s story and values, and its people’s sacrifices and obligations. This effort transcends partisanship and is dedicated to nothing less than preservation of the principles that so many have fought for, on battlefields far from home and within their own communities.

This effort asks all Americans of all places, creeds and ways of life to join in the seminal task of our generation: restoring to this nation leadership and governance that respects the rule of law, recognizes the dignity of all people and defends the Constitution and American values at home and abroad.

(snip)

…national Republicans have done far worse than simply march along to Mr. Trump’s beat. Their defense of him is imbued with an ugliness, a meanness and a willingness to attack and slander those who have shed blood for our country, who have dedicated their lives and careers to its defense and its security, and whose job is to preserve the nation’s status as a beacon of hope.

Congressional Republicans have embraced and copied Mr. Trump’s cruelty and defended and even adopted his corruption. Mr. Trump and his enablers have abandoned conservatism and longstanding Republican principles and replaced it with Trumpism, an empty faith led by a bogus prophet.

(snip)

Mr. Trump and his fellow travelers daily undermine the proposition we as a people have a responsibility and an obligation to continually bend the arc of history toward justice. They mock our belief in America as something more meaningful than lines on a map.

(snip)

We look to [Abraham] Lincoln as our guide and inspiration. He understood the necessity of not just saving the Union, but also of knitting the nation back together spiritually as well as politically. But those wounds can be bound up only once the threat has been defeated. So, too, will our country have to knit itself back together after the scourge of Trumpism has been overcome.

A seemingly well organized effort, with some serious money already committed: Republicans out to convince other Republicans to fight Trump and those of their own party who enable him.  They expect that will mean Republican losses in the next election, but believe that to be preferable to another four years of Trumpism.  The polls indicate that most Americans agree, if not most Republicans.

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):