“The Darkest Winter”

I was starting to feel slightly optimistic.

Yes, it’s true that over 80,000 people had already died, but mourning the dead and being outraged at their deaths doesn’t preclude optimism. And as I watched Dr. Fauci’s testimony on Wednesday before Congress, I allowed myself to feel better. Aside from the usual political grandstanding, there were several thoughtful questions posed by the senators, and thoughtful answers given in return. I started to think, “This has been a shitshow so far, but at least there are some reasonable people doing good work.” Things have been bad, but they could get better.

Four things have happened since that testimony that have not only evaporated that hope, but convinced me that this may get significantly worse.

Dr. Rick Bright’s Testimony

Dr. Rick Bright

Dr. Rick Bright was the director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, until he was removed from that position. On Thursday morning, he testified before Congress about his experiences and his removal. I listened to all of Dr. Bright’s testimony. I also read his whistleblower complaint. In both, he outlines that his resistance was to administration officials flooding states with hydroxychloroquine before its safety could be established. Yes, he signed an emergency authorization for hydroxychloroquine, but to test its efficacy and safety. Administration officials attempted to go around the traditional process, and when Dr. Bright objected, he alleges in his complaint that he was transferred. The government found cause to investigate his claim of retaliation, by the way, and an investigation is ongoing.

It took three hours of testimony, 80+ pages of the complaint and several news articles to piece that together. Meanwhile, the President responded to these serious allegations with this:

Yes, he leaked because he was silenced and punished.

In his testimony, Dr. Bright also shared several examples of the failures of the Trump administration in preparing for the onset of the coronavirus. Even with those failures, the Trump administration could acknowledge those mistakes, learn from them and do better to mitigate the coronavirus going forward.

Instead, President Trump attempts to discredit a public health official in the middle of a public health emergency, and categorically dismisses his concerns without acknowledging them. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar assures us that they’ve already done what Dr. Bright insists needs to happen, despite the evidence to the contrary. How can our leaders learn the lesson if they refuse to even concede that mistakes were made?

That refusal to learn from mistakes is going to run right into human lives this fall. Despite statements from leadership to the contrary, Dr. Bright is concerned that a coronavirus resurgence may occur at the same time as seasonal influenza, and overwhelm hospitals. That’s where the eye-catching headlines about this winter potentially being “the darkest winter in modern history” come from.

I want to focus on that phrase for a moment. It sounds wild, right? Like something out of a movie or fantasy book series. It sounds so wild that many people might be tempted to shrug it off. But I listened to Dr. Bright talk for three hours. He’s a boring speaker- so boring that I almost stopped watching his testimony. He does all of the equivocating about blame and responsibility that career bureaucrats do when politicians ask them questions. There’s no pizzazz or wow in his public speaking style. He just talks.

That’s all to say that, from my admittedly brief time viewing him, he does not strike me as someone who uses flashy phrases or doom-filled language often as rhetorical devices. I think he’s using those words because that is his true assessment of what could happen in the fall. He’s in the position to know- he worked inside the administration and saw what was happening (or not happening, to be more accurate). Trump’s refusal to acknowledge mistakes and change unfortunately make me think Dr. Bright may be right.

Tesla

Elon Musk revealing himself to be the asshole he is has been one of the few positives from the pandemic. But even I didn’t think that he would defy a stay-at-home order, or that the local government would accede to his demands shortly thereafter.

Yet that’s exactly what happened last week. Elon Musk reopened his Tesla factory on May 11th, in violation of Alameda county’s stay at home order. He acknowledged it himself when he tweeted that he hoped only he would be arrested.

The shelter-in-place order which Musk defied does in fact call for penalties:

Source: http://www.acphd.org/media/572718/health-officer-order-20-10-shelter-in-place-20200429.pdf

Which begs the question: why wasn’t Elon Musk arrested?

Not only was Musk not arrested, but on Tuesday, May 12th, he and Alameda county struck a deal to allow for the plant to open. That’s one day after Musk broke the order. As the Mercury News notes,

On Tuesday night, Alameda County health officials said they had reached a deal to end the standoff, which would allow Tesla to lawfully reopen the facility as soon as next week. However, employee parking lots at the plant appeared to be full earlier in the day, and Musk tweeted Monday that production was starting against county health orders.

https://www.mercurynews.com/2020/05/13/coronavirus-tesla-alameda-county-reach-agreement-to-continue-operations/

Musk was aided in his decision to violate the stay at home order by politicians across the country and the political spectrum. President Trump offered direct support through Twitter. And governors of other states, by taking Musk’s “moving out of California” bait, undermined Alameda county’s ability to enforce its own laws. Both Democrat Jared Polis of Colorado and Republican Greg Abbott of Texas reached out to Musk.

Every parent knows the frustration of trying to enforce rules with a child, only for another adult to undermine you. In the case of competing governors though, the consequences are far more dire than a temper tantrum. Alameda county allowed workers to return to potentially unsafe conditions, under duress, because management demanded it. They were pressured into compliance by governors more interested in pursuing industry and jobs than public health. The alliance between business interests and government, at the expense of workers and the general public, is certainly not new, but rarely is it on such naked display.

In the end, the local government folded, Tesla reopened, and Elon Musk walks away with evidence that his petulance has produced the desired outcome. Keep an eye on that clown throughout the rest of the pandemic.

Michigan Statehouse Closure

Protestors try to enter the Michigan House of Representative chamber and are being kept out by the Michigan State Police after the American Patriot Rally organized by Michigan United for Liberty protest for the reopening of businesses on the steps of the Michigan State Capitol in Lansing, Michigan on April 30, 2020. – The group is upset with Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s mandatory closure to curtail Covid-19. (Photo by JEFF KOWALSKY / AFP) (Photo by JEFF KOWALSKY/AFP via Getty Images) *** BESTPIX ***

I went back and forth on whether this was the worst thing to happen last week. The CDC guidelines edged it out (as you’ll see why below), but I still think this was really, really bad.

The short version is that on May 1st, protesters entered the Michigan state house, some with weapons. Since weapons are allowed in the state house, there was no legal way to remove the armed protesters as legislators worked. A similar protest was planned for Thursday, May 14th. In the days leading up to the protest, the Detroit Metro Times ran a story about online death threats against the Democratic Governor, Gretchen Whitmer, including from people who claimed they would attend the protest. People within the government proposed banning guns inside the state house. Republicans denounced the threats of violence, but declined to ban weapons in the state house. So legislative sessions were cancelled and the state house was closed, despite typically being open on Thursdays. The protest went ahead as scheduled.

I’ve read several articles from several sources to try and make sense of what happened here, because this situation seems like the most fertile for overreaction. No matter how I read the situation though, the reality seems clear: with credible death threats, and no way to legally keep weapons out of the state house, the state government decided to shut down in order to keep people safe.

Extreme right wing elements succeeded in intimidating government, with help from the “mainstream” right. The state attorney general said it would be fine to ban guns in the state house, and yet the Republican-controlled committee which would have implemented that ruling declined. Republicans had the opportunity to put the brakes on this situation and didn’t. As a result, a statehouse which was scheduled to be open, was closed.

Stripping it down even further gets us to this: armed militia, with the help of local politicians, intimidated a local government into closing. Folks, this is literally what democracy is supposed to prevent.

I keep repeating this because I want to stress how FUCKING CRAZY this is. What happens if the protesters return? Will the state house shut down again? Or will the state house simply have people walking around with guns, and America will watch until an incident occurs? Those are scary questions.

Once a little imagination is thrown into the mix, things get way scarier. Open carry as an intimidation tactic is well-known, but now we’ve seen it work in the modern era on a whole new scale. Just as I see this as a concern, there are others who are writing about this as an opportunity (I hesitate to go into the parts of the internet where one would find that writing, but I’d bet anything it exists). The successful use of the threat of force to intimidate political opponents, WITH NO NEGATIVE CONSEQUENCES, is extremely dangerous, and sets a tempting precedent for the future.

This is where I fear I might be overreacting. It’s a big jump from what happened Thursday to nightmare scenarios where uncertainty about election outcomes lead to violence in six months. Then again, if you’d told me in November 2019 that I’d be reading about 1700+ Americans dying from a pandemic the same day that armed protesters shut down a statehouse, I’d have called you insane. That would have sounded like a nightmare scenario then. And yet, here we are.

CDC Guidelines

On May 7th, a preliminary version of CDC guidance for ending lockdown orders was leaked to the Associated Press. The document was leaked because it was buried at the White House. Reportedly, a CDC official was told the guidance “would never see the light of day.” The White House Chief of Staff, Mark Meadows, said the concern was that the guidance was “overly prescriptive”.

I read the preliminary CDC guidance for how to safely reopen schools. It was thorough, and outlined several steps to ensure that schools can both be open and be safe for students. But don’t take my word for it, look for yourself:

Excerpt from preliminary CDC guidance for re-opening schools (Source: https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/6883734-CDC-Business-Plans.html)

That level of specificity (the section goes for almost three pages) was replaced with this:

Released CDC Guidance for Schools (Source: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/schools-childcare/Schools-Decision-Tree.pdf)

The differences between these two sets of guidance is stark. Whereas the preliminary guidance offers specific suggestions for keeping virus spread to a minimum, the released decision tree skips all of that in favor of general questions. People’s lives will depend on this guidance, because schools will rely on it when making decisions. Closing schools helped to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Without proper social distancing and other considerations in the fall, when nearly 57 million kids eventually enter school buildings, things could get really grim.

America’s educators know that. Daniel Domenech, the executive director of the AASA, the School Superintendent’s Association, is recommending that schools follow the leaked guidelines when making decisions in the fall.

As bad as everything else that I described is, this is by far the worst because it demonstrates a lack of preparedness and concern that will exacerbate every other problem we’re facing this fall. The better school guidelines were leaked. LEAKED. If someone hadn’t essentially snuck them out, WE WOULDN’T HAVE THEM. We’d be left to figure out how to open schools based solely on the inadequate decision tree the White House released.

I’m focused on schools here because that’s where I work, but the same dynamic holds true for all the guidance in the draft document. Houses of worship, businesses, childcare programs- all had extensive guidance in the draft, which vanished in the final version. There was an entire section in the draft about protecting vulnerable workers (page 10) which does not exist on the employer decision tree.

I’m not even going to make any dire predictions about the outcome of hiding safety instructions from the American public. If even one person dies because this information was buried, then that’s one too many. The callousness of the White House is unbelievable.


I wrote this not as a harbinger of doom or depression, but because I know how much time it took me to watch all this testimony, read all these articles, and parse all the information that’s running in ten different directions. Hopefully, this information can be helpful to you to have in one place. These are the trends that stand out to me as most important, and I could be 100% wrong in my interpretation of what’s happening today, and what might happen tomorrow.

But writing is what I do, so I have to write something, because the price here is human lives. Those don’t come back if we fuck up. Despite the dark tone of this piece, deaths really have come down thanks to the lockdowns, social distancing and other policies finally kicking in. We CAN make a difference and save lives, but we have to know what’s happening.

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The Bare Minimum

A few months ago, I had an interesting interaction on the dating site OkCupid. This woman’s pictures were nice and her write-up made her seem promising, so I liked her and sent her a note. It wasn’t anything special, but she responded. We exchanged a few messages. It was the usual small talk. Then, she did something different.

OkCupid is set up to let users know how compatible they are, in theory. It has thousands of questions that users can answer, and uses those answers to come up with a compatibility percentage. Some of the questions are important, like, “Could you date someone who already has kids from a previous relationship?” Anyone who answered no to that questions wasn’t likely to be a good fit with me since I have a kid from a previous relationship. Some of the questions are inane, like, “You are interested in someone and you discover they were a nerd in high school. How does this affect your opinion of them?” High school was a long time ago, both for me and anyone in my age preferences. I can’t imagine caring how popular a person was in high school at this point in my life. I didn’t even care much when I was in high school. Some of the questions are very personal, about sex and intimacy, some are political, and some are puzzles. I have answered well over a thousand of these questions. I have no idea how OkCupid’s algorithm figures it out, but this woman and I were supposed to be 94% compatible.

Getting back to the unusual thing she did, she said that she wanted to read through all of my answers and she would let me know if she had any questions about them. After a few days, she got back to me with a question. For the question, “Do you believe that men should be the heads of their households?” I said no. She wanted to know if I really believed that.

I was a bit taken aback, I didn’t know if she was serious or not. Erring on the side of caution, I didn’t make a joke, I answered her truthfully. I said that I felt the idea of a man being the head of the household was really old-fashioned, outdated, and sexist. What about single-parent households, same-sex marriages, and things like that? And even if it is a traditional male/female relationship, I don’t think it’s right for one person to have more authority than the other. It should be a partnership. I don’t want to have a boss/employee relationship in my personal life. Plus, women are just as capable as men at leading a household if you do need a leader.

She disagreed with me. She felt that it was important that men be the strong one in a relationship, set the direction, and take care of the family. Men should be paternal, even with their partners (Let’s set aside the fact that I completely disagree with her views on masculinity. That’s the topic of a whole different post.). Our conversation fizzled soon after, but it got me thinking.

What kind of disagreement were we having? Who should be head of a household isn’t a question of objective fact. It’s not like the number of atoms in a water molecule. On some level, it is a sociology question. But I don’t think we were talking about sociology. I guess it was really a question of values. We value women and relationships and families quite differently.

The question then became, was my reaction OK? What am I supposed to do when faced with a disagreement about values? Obviously, it depends on how important the particular value is. If someone doesn’t value baseball as much as I do, I’m not going to give them a hard time about it. That would be silly, and the person could rightly accuse me of hectoring. Feminism and relationships and families are a lot more important than baseball, though. For the important values, do I have a duty to try to convince others?

A big part of me wants to say yes, I do have such a duty. It makes me think of people who try to convert others to their religion. It makes perfect sense. What kind of horrible person lets others burn when they have an opportunity to save them? I had an opportunity to try to improve someone’s life, I feel like I should have done more.

The problem is that the act of persuading someone conflicts with other values I hold. I value other people’s agency and rationality and feelings. Telling another person what to think or feel denies those values. I guess the idea of importance comes back into play. I’m comfortable denying someone’s agency if that person uses their agency to abuse children. I guess I just don’t see the same kind of obvious harms from someone who has an old-fashioned notion of family structure.

Ultimately, I think I did the bare minimum. I explained my position and gave her reasons to support my position. I didn’t follow up or show her the flaws in her position. Given my other values, and the fact that I barely knew her, I think the bare minimum was the most I could do. I just worry that I’m wrong. Every day I see examples of sexism (and racism and other horrible things) and I can’t help but wonder if I should be doing more to stop it.

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Cars and Contacts: Two Things the Pandemic has Changed for Me

One of the most challenging aspects of the pandemic is trying to predict the future we’re going to face. So many aspects of our lives are going to be affected that it’s impossible to guess how things will turn out.

But some things have already begun to change, in both big and small ways. I’m already living through dramatic changes- I went from learning how to be an in-classroom teacher to learning how to conduct distance learning in about two weeks. There have been other changes to my thinking though, even after only two months of the pandemic. I want to explore those changes below.

1) I am buying a car. Before the pandemic, I had zero interest in buying a car. I’ve gotten everywhere I need to be without one, so why take on the extra expense and hassle? Riding the bus ain’t great, but it’s so much cheaper than owning a car that the inconvenience is worth it. Besides, with Uber and Lyft as ubiquitous as they are now, I’ve had ready access to a car whenever I needed it (that someone else is driving, paying for and maintaining).

As I said, though, that was before the pandemic. Since the quarantine began, I have only ridden the bus to go grocery shopping. It feels like riding in a coffin. There’s no social distancing to speak of. The overwhelming majority of people wear masks, but not everyone. Public transportation employees are dying from Covid-19, so these fears aren’t imagined.

I don’t want to get the coronavirus because I don’t breathe that well, especially at night. One step beyond that is my son, who has asthma. Without a vaccine, I can’t risk putting him on the bus again. That means finally getting a car, and all the associated headaches.

2. I’m going to buy contacts- I didn’t start wearing glasses until I was 20 years old, but I’ve always liked them. They’re a great way to accessorize clothes and give you the “smart” look while doing nothing but seeing. But with the requirement to wear masks now, I can’t see a damn thing because my glasses keep fogging up.

Or “Doing literally anything now”

Again, contacts have always seemed like a hassle. They require the same amount of work as glasses, except they’re tiny and clear. If they’ll make it easier to see for as long as we’re wearing masks though, I’ll just have to become more responsible with small things.

These changes might seem like a simple shift of opinion, but they’re going to have significant knock-on effects for the rest of my life. I’ll have to budget for a car, for as long as I have one. That’s an expense I’ve never had, and had been planning on never having. If, in another thirty years, I’m still putting my contacts into their case before going to sleep, then that would be a behavior of mine totally changed by the pandemic.

Those kinds of downstream effects are going to reverberate throughout the world for years, as people, companies and entire nations make changes as a result of the pandemic. Some of those changes may even be more important than whether I’m on the road or not.

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Trump and Comedy

The past four years have been pretty bad from almost any way you look at them. The world is less stable and secure than it has been since the eighties, at least. Racism and sexism and xenophobia and religious intolerance are all worse than they were four years ago. America is running concentration camps and there are kids in cages. The economy is a disaster. We’re all under threat from a pandemic. The world has reached a point where, normally, I’d say you have to laugh at it to keep from crying. But, one of the problems that has developed in the last four years, with the rise of Trump, is that political comedy and satire are no longer funny.

I’ve been a fan of humor and comedy my whole life. I became a fan of political humor and satire in high school. Whether it was Saturday Night Live or late night talk shows, comic strips, stand-up specials, or books and essays, I was a fan. It didn’t even matter who was in office. I stayed a fan for the first Bush, Clinton, the second Bush, and Obama. I’m generally of the opinion that everything can be funny, no matter how serious and depressing.

That changed when Trump started to be taken seriously in his run for president. On the surface, he seems like the perfect candidate for political humor. When he first announced his candidacy, I even tried to write a piece of humor about it. Everything about that press conference was absurd, from the setting to the claims that no one builds a better wall to the phrase “Make America Great Again.” It was positively begging to be satirized or spoofed. Only I couldn’t make what I was writing funny, no matter how hard I tried. So, I gave up and figured I’d see what professional comedy writers would have to say about it. None of them managed to make it funny either. Soon after, I noticed a pattern. Trump would make either a stupid, racist, sexist, xenophobic, or ableist statement. It would raise my anxiety level. I’d go to the comedians for help, there’s nothing like a little laughter to diffuse anxiety, and they weren’t able to make it funny. If anything, their talking about it added to my anxiety levels.

I’ve spent more time than I should have over the past four years, trying to figure out why no one can seem to make Trump or his administration funny. At first I thought that maybe Trump is just worse than any politician that’s come before and there is a line below which humor just doesn’t work. Then I realized that Hitler is still worse than Trump, and Mel Brooks can make me laugh at Hitler. That wasn’t it. I also thought about the possibility that Trump is too hateful for comedy, but there’s Hitler again. That couldn’t be it either.

Next I wondered if the problem was that I’m living through Trump, whereas the Holocaust was thirty years before my time. But, Hitler isn’t the only depraved person I can laugh at. I’ve laughed at Osama bin Laden, Vladimir Putin, and Dick Cheney. They have all been active during my adulthood. I don’t think that’s it either.

I had to at least entertain the idea that the comedians that have been around for the past four years just aren’t as funny as the ones that came before. If pretty much every outlet for journalism can be bad at the same time, maybe all the comedians are, too. But I don’t think that’s very likely. I enjoyed Trevor Noah and Samantha Bee and John Oliver when Obama was in office. I think they are funny people. I’m pretty sure they can get me to laugh about almost any other subject. I really think that Trump is the problem.

A few weeks ago, in a completely different context, I came across the old rule of comedy to “always punch up, never punch down.” Basically, that means to only attack those that are above you with comedy. Punching down isn’t funny, it’s bullying. Under normal circumstances, that means that politicians and the rich and famous are fair game. They are richer and more powerful than the rest of us. The poor and powerless are off limits because it isn’t funny to bully people. It also explains why Chris Rock can make really funny jokes about racism, but Conan O’Brien can’t.

You’re probably wondering what this has to do with Trump. He’s rich, he’s famous, and he’s the president of the United States. He is as privileged and powerful as a person can be, of course attacking him is punching up. But, even though those facts about him are technically true, power and privilege don’t exactly emanate from him. If I had to pick an adjective to describe him, the vibe he gives off, it has to be pathetic. He evokes feelings of pity and disgust, and that’s about it. He is in no way impressive.

The result of Trump’s being so pathetic is that any joke about him feels like it’s punching down. When the jokes are made, they seem to be picking on a man-child without the ability to handle it or fight back. Instead of being humorous, the best the jokes can do is create a sense of superiority. That’s fine, I guess. The vast majority of us are far superior to Trump, and many people like feeling superior. But, it’s not for me. I’m looking for funny. I want to laugh. And, I hope I’m not being greedy, I want those things while being engaged in the world around me. Unfortunately, I don’t think I’ll get what I want. At least not until that sad, pathetic excuse for person is out of office.

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Human Challenge Trials for Coronavirus

My dad sent me this article. I’ve studied ethics pretty seriously, so he was curious about my opinion. Since I’ve been on the lookout for topics to write about, I figured I should write a post about it.

Before I start, I should warn you that I’m no expert on medical ethics. I don’t know nearly enough about medicine. The closest thing to a class I’ve taken on medicine was high school biology. So, I’ll take you through my reasoning, but make up your own minds about it.

The article discusses the prospect of doing “human challenge trials” for a Coronavirus vaccine. Basically, what that means is that they would recruit young, healthy volunteers, give them the vaccine, deliberately expose them to the virus, then see what happens. The people working on this already have over 7,600 volunteers lined up. The participants would be young and healthy so that they are low-risk patients if the vaccine doesn’t work.

Ethically speaking, this comes down to a risk vs. reward situation. If the potential risks are greater than the potential rewards, the trial should not happen. So, how do they stack up? The most obvious reward is that, if it works, we would have a vaccine for Coronavirus, and could save thousands of lives. The most obvious risk is that participants in the study might become seriously ill or die. This looks like a stalemate, some people with latch on to the potential lives saved and others the potential lives lost, but it’s not really this simple.

Human challenge trials are not the only way to develop a vaccine. They aren’t even the normal way of developing a vaccine. They are a method of getting the testing done faster. So, the reward isn’t really the vaccine itself. The reward is really the time saved. It makes a big difference how much time that is. If it’s days, then the human challenge trials are clearly unethical. If it’s years, then there’s a chance that it’s worth it. The article didn’t explicitly say how much time would be saved, but the feeling I get from reading it is that it would save months. That’s a much smaller reward for some pretty significant risks, and those are just the most obvious risks.

There are a bunch of other risks. For starters, when dealing with a self-selecting group of volunteers for the test, there’s no way to know if the results will apply across the population. Even if it is successful in the trial, there’s no way to know if it will be effective in older people, children, or people with underlying health conditions. There’s also the risk with a potential vaccine that instead of preventing the disease, it makes the disease more severe. And there’s the risk that the results of the trial will be unclear. If the people who take the vaccine only develop mild symptoms, is that because the vaccine mitigated the worst of the virus or is it because it is often mild in young, healthy people?

If you haven’t guessed already, my feeling is that the risks outweigh the rewards and they should not use human challenge trials to develop a vaccine faster. I have one other point I want to make, though. When doing a study, it is important to let the participants know the risks and to get their informed consent. The article almost dismisses that aspect. Since they are all volunteers, of course there is informed consent. I can grant the consent part, but I’m unsure of the informed part. One of the maddening things about this disease is how little we seem to know about it. I understand that may be the fault of the press and the politicians, but how informed are the volunteers really? I don’t have an answer, but it’s an issue that should be taken seriously.

So, that was my basic thought process. I should reiterate that I am not an expert in medical ethics. But, with the information I have, I don’t think human challenge trials are worth the risk. Hopefully, whoever makes the final decision will be much better informed than I.

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What Concerns Me About Coronavirus? The Long Term

Obviously, the immediate concern regarding the coronavirus is preventing deaths right now. As I wrote in another piece though, it concerns me that the general approach to the coronavirus has been essentially week-to-week. Warnings about the virus came as early as last November, so there are few excuses for why we were so unprepared. Better preparation would have saved lives.

Despite official statements to the contrary, the coronavirus is not going away anytime soon. As political leaders failed to plan for the beginning of the pandemic, I fear they are not planning for the rest of the pandemic and its aftermath either. There are many, many bad things that can happen as a result of poor pandemic mitigation. These are the three that concern me the most.

VULNERABLE POPULATIONS

Children in one of the Syrian refugee camps in the Beqaa region, Lebanon. Source: https://aawsat.com/english/home/article/2230156/mobilization-restricts-movement-syrian-refugees-lebanon

There are so many vulnerable populations that are going to be devastated by this virus that I could write an entire post about it. For now though, I want to focus on two groups: Black people and refugees.

I’ve already talked about the challenges Black people are facing now from the coronavirus. In the long term, my big fear is that coronavirus is going to persist in the Black community for decades, in the same way that HIV/AIDS continues to plague us. Coronavirus is here forever now, and so is racism. When the pandemic is “over,” we’re still going to be dying from this.

I have the same concerns about refugees, with an additional worry- refugee flows can destabilize entire countries and change governments. We’ve seen this already happen in Europe as a result of migration. When coronavirus starts ravaging refugee camps and migrants (which is a matter of when, not if), there’s no way to predict the long-term political and social consequences. The best thing governments and leaders can do is to rapidly improve conditions in refugee camps, commit the resources necessary to prevent spread and treat the sick, and respect the humanity of people already in incredibly difficult situations.

That seems very unlikely though.

THE U.S. ELECTION

I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again- Donald Trump is not going to concede the election if he loses. If he loses the immunity of being President, then he gets indicted by the state of New York and most likely dies in jail. All of his incentives are to stay in office as long as possible.

I believed that to be true under the best case scenario, with a clear, decisive win by the Democratic candidate. Barring some kind of miracle, we are not going to have a best-case scenario election in November. It will take place as people continue to die from COVID-19 and weigh whether they want to risk voting or not; or it will happen with mail-in voting; or it will be in the middle of a second wave; or it will happen in some condition we can’t imagine today. And there will still be the matter of Russian (and probably every other country’s) intelligence services fucking around with election stuff.

Suffice to say, it will not be ideal, and will give President Trump plenty of fertile soil in which to contest the results. After what we saw yesterday with armed white men storming a statehouse, I don’t think we should take ANYTHING for granted about how Election Day and the weeks after could go.

At least, that’s what I think is going to happen. My nightmare scenario, though, is that elections are postponed or, in the craziest outcome, cancelled. A second wave of coronavirus could absolutely lead to postponed elections (especially because Republicans have already made it very clear that they’re going to fight mail-in voting). In fact, states are already postponing and canceling elections. The convergence of the coronavirus and political expediency could even incentivize the postponing of national elections, especially as Republicans grow more concerned about their chances of holding the Senate.

CHINA

Source: https://en.wikinews.org/wiki/File:Flag_of_China.png

The rhetoric about China from politicians and other leaders has become more and more bellicose over the last five years. As I’ve written about before, many people in government and other fields see China as a great power competitor, and have shifted their thinking from cooperation to competition.

That thinking has experienced a major acceleration since the coronavirus pandemic. There have been proposals to limit Chinese students entering the United States, “decouple” our economies and bring supply chains home, and to “make China pay.” The anti-China statements are not exclusive to the right by any means; Joe Biden released an ad where he accused Trump of “rolling over for the Chinese,” and even our own Chris Murphy has written about Trump’s weakness on China as the reason for him targeting the World Health Organization. The implication is clear: where Trump has been weak, the Democrats would be strong. Both parties sound dangerous here.

But not to be outdone, Trump took it to the next level last night when he said that he’d seen evidence that the virus originated in a Wuhan laboratory. That’s quite a claim to make, especially when almost everyone else is saying it’s unlikely the virus came from a lab (even the intelligence community).

This is perhaps the part of this essay which risks sounding the most histrionic, but we’ve all seen the potential catastrophes that can result when the President lies about intelligence. With the already tense environment even before the pandemic began, I think my greatest concern is the continued deterioration of the China-US relationship.


These are all major challenges, and again, they are just a few of the ones facing us. I didn’t even mention the economy, because that’s so fucked I don’t even know where to begin expressing my worries. Our leadership failed to prepare for the virus, and the result has been 60,000 deaths (and counting). My fear is that if leaders don’t start planning instead of reacting, the result may be hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of deaths.

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How Bad is this Pandemic?

I’ve been really down since all of this started, like many people. This pandemic is bad. But part of my anxiety comes from not knowing how bad the pandemic is- that makes it difficult to plan for the future, and allows my imagination to go to some dark places regarding all of this.

That anxiety is compounded by the fact that different authorities are presenting wildly different information. I don’t mean discrepancies between this death toll count and that one; that’s understandable, and the numbers are still in the same ballpark.

I mean things like Vice President Pence saying that the pandemic may be largely behind us by summer, while Dr. Igsby of Johns Hopkins University is saying we could see between 58,000-110,000 Americans die in the next month. This is the same timeframe. Both of these statements cannot be true.

What does the data say? I’m not a doctor, but I think I know how to read a chart. First, I went back and checked the date that Connecticut’s stay-at-home order went into effect, which was March 23rd. There were 415 cases and ten deaths in CT as of that date. As of Sunday, 04/26, Connecticut stands at 25,269 cases and 1,924 deaths.

Below are charts to illustrate the rise in both cases and deaths in Connecticut over the last month. Remember, all these tests and deaths happened after the quarantine started here (many of the exposures may have happened before):

Confirmed cases of COVID-19 in CT. Source: https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/us-map
Deaths from COVID-19 in CT. Source: https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/us-map

At first, I was confused by these charts, because I keep hearing on the news that we may be “turning a corner” or that “the worst is behind us.” But I realized that flattening the curve means exactly that- you flatten the curve, but the curve continues to rise.

For comparison, here are the confirmed cases and deaths for two other states that have been in the news a great deal. Here’s New York:

Confirmed cases of COVID-19 in NY. Source: https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/us-map
Deaths from COVID-19 in NY. Source: https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/us-map

And here’s Georgia:

Confirmed cases of COVID-19 in GA. Source: https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/us-map
Deaths from COVID-19 in GA. Source: https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/us-map

Again, all of these increases happened during quarantines and social distancing.

The story is the same nationally. I checked the number of Americans who had died from COVID-19 on March 23, thanks to Yale’s School of Medicine. There were 40,000 infections and 473 deaths on that day. According to the CDC, yesterday we stood at over 900,000 confirmed cases and over 50,000 deaths. That’s 50,000 people killed in a little bit over a month:

Confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the United States. Source: https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/us-map
Deaths from COVID-19 in the United States. Source: https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/us-map

Like i said, I’m not a doctor. But these charts show me a consistent increase in the number of cases and deaths over the last month, even with social distancing. Where in this data is the support for opening? Again, I’m only looking at charts, but they don’t seem ambiguous or confusing. If I had to guess who will be closer to being right about what things are going to look like in June, I think Dr. Igsby’s statements are closer to what the charts say than Vice President Pence.

Which begs the question: why are elected officials telling us things are going to be better? I think that’s the most depressing thing out of all of this, because more people are going to die. That’s a fact, even if we did everything perfectly. The far-from-perfect way things are going now assures that the number of people who die will be higher than it needs to be.

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Where Am I On the Political Spectrum?

My friend and writing partner, Jamil, just published a piece about where he sits on the political spectrum. He came out as pretty far left-libertarian according to The Political Compass. He talked for a bit about how he doesn’t see himself as libertarian, but it’s good food for thought.

Naturally, his piece got me thinking about my own place on the political spectrum. I often comment that I don’t feel really comfortable anywhere in the standard discussions of politics. When I vote, I virtually always vote Democrat, which would put me kind of center/left. But, I don’t vote Democrat because I agree with all, or even a majority, of their positions. I vote Democrat because it’s the only pragmatic, and ethical, option.

I decided to take the same Political Compass test that Jamil took. I got

Economic Left/Right: -5.63
Social Libertarian/Authoritarian: -6.82

personalised chart

I don’t know how I feel about that. It’s probably true that I’m economically left, but I don’t blame capitalism for all of life’s woes. In fact, I think actual socialism is silly at best, so I’m probably close to OK on the left/right ranking. But, this scale put me at way more libertarian than I think of myself.

I know it’s not talking about the Libertarian political party, or even the libertarian ideas that have taken hold in the main-stream Republican party, but, in general, I’m not a big freedom guy. I’m all for big government and strong regulations. I think governments are the only way to tackle issues like the environment, public health, transportation, and education. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think of myself as authoritarian either. I just thought I’d be a lot closer to center on the vertical line of the chart.

Jamil said that his piece was an exercise in self-understanding. That’s certainly a worthy goal. I just don’t think this particular exercise helped me that much. It does suggest a project for me, though. I can try to explore the political terrain more and see if there’s anywhere I feel comfortable. Kind of an, “If I got to design a political party, what would it look like?” type of exercise. I think I could really learn something from that.

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How Far to the Left Am I?

The inept federal response to the coronavirus pandemic, and the needless deaths of thousands of people, have gotten me back into writing about politics. My first piece back was about Bernie Sanders. While I still think it needed to be said, I don’t want to be negative all the time. This is a time where any idea, from any corner, could save someone’s life.

To better understand how I can help, I should probably better understand my own position on the political spectrum. And what better way to gain insight into oneself than an online quiz! The quiz is The Political Compass, a fairly well-known political test. In describing itself, the website states


Our essential point is that Left and Right, although far from obsolete, are essentially a measure of economics. As political establishments adopt either enthusiastically or reluctantly the prevailing economic orthodoxy — the neo-liberal strain of capitalism — the Left-Right division between mainstream parties becomes increasingly blurred. Instead, party differences tend to be more about identity issues. In the narrowing debate, our social scale is more crucial than ever.

Source: https://www.politicalcompass.org/about

People of good faith can disagree on this point, but I’m fine with accepting this premise to take and use the test. Enough preamble though, on to the results!

Pretty far to the left as it turns out! But I was very surprised that I scored so close to the bottom of the chart- so far, in fact, that my test results put me into the “Left-libertarian” category. I’ve never thought of myself as a libertarian (although a good friend has been trying to lead me down the path- you know who you are!), although I suppose the title could apply to my social views. As long as you’re not hurting anyone, I don’t care what anyone does. I mean that in the most apathetic sense of the phrase. I just don’t care about other people’s sex lives or anything else.

I don’t have any real antipathy towards government authority though, which seems to be a requirement for political libertarianism:

Libertarians want people to be able to live peacefully together in civil society. Cooperation is better than coercion. Peaceful coexistence and voluntary cooperation require an institution to protect us from outside threats, deter or punish criminals, and settle the disputes that will inevitably arise among neighbors—a government, in short. Thus, to criticize a wide range of the activities undertaken by federal and state governments—from Social Security to drug prohibition to out-of-control taxation—is not to be “anti-government.” It is simply to insist that what we want is a limited government that attends to its necessary and proper functions.

Cato Institute: https://www.cato.org/blog/are-libertarians-anti-government


I don’t have a problem with the federal government expanding its authority beyond what’s written in the Constitution, through Congress. I think it has to because it’s so difficult to amend the Constitution. Yes, I have complaints about federal authority under President Trump, but no dislike for government’s authority in general. In fact, I would support the government expanding its authority in this crisis to save lives; I’m not sure how compatible that is with libertarianism. I also support ideas like the government paying for all healthcare.

This quiz isn’t the end of the journey simply because it gave me a label. The next step is to understand it. I’m going to read the whole left libertarian wiki page. Then I’m going to learn about some other labels, and see if maybe they fit me a little better. The point is to ground myself in some actual ideas so that I’m not only writing about what I don’t like, but more about what I do like and what I think will help.

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Star Trek

I’ve been a Star Trek fan my whole life. My mom was a fan in the sixties and we used to watch the original series together on reruns when I was little. I watched The Next Generation and Deep Space 9 faithfully. When Voyager came out, I tried to watch when I could, but it was on a new network, UPN, and I didn’t have cable at the time, so I missed a lot. It wasn’t that I didn’t like it, it was just circumstances. By the time Enterprise arrived, I had cable and watched it faithfully. Since I’ve gotten streaming services, I’ve watched the animated series, Discovery, Short Treks, and Picard. And I just finished watching all seven seasons of Voyager, so I’m caught up. I’ve now watched every episode of every series that Star Trek has aired. It feels like an accomplishment, so I thought I’d write a rambling, unfocused post about Star Trek in general.

Since everyone likes rankings, I guess I’ll start there. Deep Space Nine is my favorite and Sisko is the best captain. The original series is a close second. Then, I think I go with Voyager, followed by Enterprise. TNG comes next. Bringing up the rear are Discovery, then Short Treks, then Picard, and, finally, the animated series. I understand that I’m not being completely fair to that last group. Three of them are just getting started, and the animated series feels more like a Saturday morning cartoon than a Star Trek. I tend to think of the original series, TNG, DS9, Voyager, and Enterprise as core Trek.

Some readers might have noticed something odd about my rankings. Of the core Trek shows, I ranked The Next Generation last. I actually surprised myself when I was thinking about it. I’m not sure anyone ranks TNG last. People usually talk about it or the original series as being the best. But, as I was thinking about it, I realized that the first season of TNG is abysmal. And the second season isn’t much better. Three, four, and five are great. Six is hit and miss. And seven is pretty spotty. The highs may be higher than any of the other shows, but the lows are way lower than any of the other shows, and there are quite a few lows.

That being said, I really like The Next Generation. Patrick Stewart is all kinds of awesome and so is the rest of the cast. Everyone talks about the Trek captains, but it’s the engineers and doctors that make the shows. Laforge and Crusher are fantastic. The theme music is also fantastic (I find it disappointing that TV shows don’t have themes anymore). And, as I mentioned before, when it was great, it was really, really great.

Enterprise probably has the worst reputation of the core Treks, but I don’t know why. Tripp is a great engineer, and Phlox is a fun doctor. The Xindi season was excellent. As was the final season (Except for the finale. Why they decided to make the last Enterprise and episode of TNG is beyond me.) I like the way the last season was almost entirely made up of two to three episode story arcs. Other shows had the occasional two-parter, but this felt more like a purposeful, story-telling device. It’s something that The Clone Wars picked up on a few years later, but that’s mixing Star Trek and Star Wars in one post, and that’s probably a no-no.

Voyager is a bit of a weird one for me. If you had asked me six months ago, I would have said it was the worst of the Treks. But, now that I’ve watched it from beginning to end, it’s really grown on me. I’m amazed at how many episodes I had missed. I think it seemed lesser to me because I hadn’t seen more than half the episodes. I missed a ton of character development and general nuance the first time around. Like most people, I think the show improved when Seven joined the cast. But I don’t think that’s the character herself as much as it is the writing. I don’t feel like the writers ever knew what to do with Kes. The were more confident with Seven. I think B’Elanna Torres and The Doctor are the standout characters, once again the engineer and the doctor. I’m so glad I finally caught up.

The new series are still works in progress. Discovery, at this point, is the type of Sci-Fi that’s fun, as long as you don’t think about it too much. The cast is very likable. I was nervous about the production values as the first Trek to be exclusively on a streaming service, but it looks great. In some ways, it almost looks too good. I think it was a mistake to set it ten years prior to the original series since the technology on the Discovery puts Voyager and the Enterprise D to shame. One thing I have to say about this show is that it burns through plot like nothing I’ve ever watched before. The first season started with Starfleet’s first mutiny, then the Klingon war, then Michael’s liberation from prison, then the spore drive craziness, then the mirror universe, then back to the Klingon war, then the double agent, then the end of the Klingon war, then the captain being the mirror universe doppelganger, and the reintroduction of Georgiou. It was crazy. Plus, I’m probably forgetting some plot points. And it didn’t slow down in the second season. I think it’s a good thing that they’ve jumped the setting into the future after the events of all the other Trek properties. One of the bummers of Discovery is that the doctor is barely a character. The engineer is fine, though. They’re even in a relationship with each other, there was so much potential, but the doctor never got developed. It’s not in a class with the core Treks, but it’s entertaining.

Short Treks is all over the place. Each one is a stand alone ten-ish minute episode. There’s no real continuity with characters, settings, plots, or anything else. Some of them, like the one where Spock and his new first officer get stuck in a turbolift, are lots of fun. Others, like the one where two school-age children learn that their parents were killed on Mars, are pretty bad. But, at only ten minutes a piece, I can’t complain too much.

Picard only has one season in the books, but man, oh man, was it a frustrating season. Patrick Stewart is still awesome in the title role. He could probably read the phone book and make it entertaining. And some of the nostalgia was nice with Riker and Troi. But it made a ton of mistakes. First and foremost was taking the destruction of Romulus from the JJ Abrams movie and using that as a starting point for the series. That whole movie was a mistake and just put the series on shakey narrative ground. Then, add the fact that the whole season could have been done in an episode and a half, and things get really messy. Basically, the plot of season one was the same as the two-parter from season seven of Voyager, Flesh and Blood. The only difference is that instead of holograms rising up against organics, it’s synthetics (basically androids) doing the same thing. It was better on Voyager. There were also a lot of weird annoyances. Why would you bring back Icheb only to kill him (in a far too gruesome fashion for Star Trek) without him doing or saying anything? The character deserved better. And Seven’s character was awfully different. I know she’d been on a quest to explore her humanity, and time has passed, but it felt more like a reboot than growth. And what happened to her relationship with Chakotay? The best I can say is that it wasn’t as bad as the first season of TNG, so I’ll keep some hope alive for season two.

Since I mentioned the movies, a quick side note. I’ve also seen all the movies. The three newest ones are a complete waste of time. Wrath of Khan is the best, with First Contact a close second. I thoroughly enjoyed The Search for Spock and The Voyage Home. The others are all varying degrees of fine. Certainly watchable, but not essential.

Now, back to TV and the core Treks. I like basically everything about the original series. McCoy and Scotty, the doctor and the engineer, are awesome. So are Kirk, Spock, Uhura, Chekov, and Sulu. Even Nurse Chapel and Yeoman Rand are pretty cool. These are some of my earliest childhood memories, so in a lot of ways, the original series taught me about story-telling and allegory and science fiction and all that stuff. It’s my benchmark. The City on the Edge of Forever, The Trouble With Tribbles, and The Devil in the Dark are still some of my favorite hours of television.

Finally, we come to Deep Space Nine, which is simply the best. I can’t figure out how anyone could disagree with me about that. I could write pages on this show alone. Bashir and O’Brien are the best Doctor/Engineer combo you can find. I was always disappointed that they never made a DS9 movie, but I think they could have made at least three buddy comedies starring these two that would have been great. The show had a huge, sprawling cast, and they were all pretty great. Even characters like Nog and Dumar and Kai Winn had actual character arcs. When they went for funny, they nailed it. Just look at The Magnificent Ferengi. When they went for intensity, they nailed it. Just look at In the Pale Moonlight. They even nailed period drama with Far Beyond the Stars. There are more great episodes than I can list here, but I do want to mention Trials and Tribbleations and Take Me Out to the Holosuite as two favorites.

The thing that really set DS9 apart was the writing. The show came out at a time when TV reset itself every week. Deep Space Nine changed that all up. The show was heavily serialized. They knew what was going to happen in the last episode when they wrote the first episode. That’s become somewhat common on TV, but it was revolutionary at the time. I still think it did serialization better than mostly any other show. You can watch almost any random episode of DS9 and enjoy it on its own. But watching in sequence makes everything so much richer. The original series might be my benchmark, but the writing on DS9 makes me jealous.

That’s probably more of my Star Trek opinions than anyone needed, so I’ll stop now. But if anyone out there is new to the Trek universe, I want to encourage you to jump in. It’s great in here.

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