If you won’t follow the science, at least follow the history…

I got my flu shot this afternoon. I had the flu once. That would have been way back in 2004. It was a miserable few days shifting restlessly between bed and the couch. Every fall since then, I’ve been happy to get something that could prevent me from catching the bug or reduce its symptoms if I did end up catching it.

Having had the experience once, I didn’t need any further encouragement. I didn’t need to be entered for a door prize. I didn’t need someone from YouTube to agree with me. I didn’t need to be encouraged by athletes or movie stars. I did it because over the last 43 years, I’ve been vaccinated against I honestly have no idea how many different things both mundane and exotic. 

None of those previous vaccinations has enabled me to pick up 5G using my fillings or inserted a GPS tracker under my skin. I haven’t grown a tail or developed an insatiable craving for the flesh of babies. History tells me all those previous vaccines did precisely what they were designed to do. 

Smart people, with decades of education and training, have told me the flu shot is far less risky than the thing it helps prevent. I don’t believe them because I’m a rube who just fell off the turnip truck. I believe them because history tells me they’re right.

I am, however, just cynical enough to have gotten the shot at the tail end of a 4-day weekend so if something bad happens, I can take sick leave to cover it instead of ruining perfectly good time I had already scheduled out off.

Professional development reading…

I want to normalize reading at the office. No, not memos or email (although it would be helpful if people would start reading those for understanding too).

First, let me ask that we be very honest for the purposes of this discussion. In all my years as a cubicle dweller I’ve never known anyone who doesn’t dick off some (or most) of the eight hours of any given work day. My best estimate is that in a standard 40 hour work week, most people might spend 20 of them actually knuckled down doing productive work, stuck in meetings, or otherwise engaged. The rest of their time gets pissed away in pointless conversations with people stopping by their cube, out wandering the halls, shopping online, fucking around on Reddit, or otherwise attempting to look busy without really doing anything.

The only difference between any of those time fillers and reading a book at your desk is that some of the other things people use to kill time can give the illusion of “working.”

As an office drone, “Time to lean means time to clean,” doesn’t exactly apply. Sometimes there legitimately isn’t anything that needs doing – or if there is you’re waiting on someone else to do their bit or send a response before you can take the next step. Some days are busier than others – some are jammed full – but there’s plenty of days where there just isn’t shit happening.

I have to think keeping a volume of Civil War history on my desk and reading a few pages in these down moments ultimately feels more workplace-relevant in my situation than chuckling through another post on r/amitheasshole or looping around the cube farm to see what kind of pickup conversation I can get into.

Thoughts on the death of a pipeline…

I was raised in coal country. My childhood memories are punctuated with the sound of a CSX locomotive and open coal cars rumbling through the center of town. I don’t have to tax my memory to recall its whistle screaming as the engine pulled its load across the level crossing at Union Street. Those trains were as much a part of town as any of the buildings that stood overlooking the tracks. Still, they haven’t run coal south through Midland in a long time. Then again, a lot of those old buildings are gone now, too. 

My home town’s entire reason for being was to support the men who went down the mines in the 19th and 20th centuries. I grew up riding bikes in the shadow of draglines and immense tailings piles carted out of the deep mines a hundred years before I was born. Even those “coal banks,” pressed hard against the backs of the town’s two churches, are long gone following a spate of reclamation and restoration efforts made a decade or two ago. It’s a not-so-subtle reminder that, for good or bad, we’re living in the closing era of the coal industry. Government – and the people – are going to demand “clean” energy options going forward.

You can rage against it all you want.  There’s no silk weaving mill in Coney anymore because it didn’t make economic sense in 1957. There’s no Kelly-Springfield plant in Cumberland because it didn’t make economic sense in 1987. There’s no Bethlehem Steel in Baltimore because it didn’t make economic sense in 2012. Maybe you see where I’m going with this line of thought.

Sure, hang on grimly to your plant or pipeline. Get out of it whatever you can in the time it has left. The oil is still going to flow – by rail or truck or one of the hundred other pipelines crisscrossing the continent. A few mines may hang on for decades yet, but the battle is over. Coal from western Maryland will never again fuel the ships of the Great White Fleet. Oil, over the next few decades, is going to be phased out. The future is ugly ass wind turbines marring every mountaintop and offshore vista and acres of solar panels where there use to be open fields.

The economy has always been built on creative destruction. It sucks when you’re on the “destruction” side of the equation. Ask the men who built wagons what happened after Henry made the car affordable to the masses. I take no pleasure in acknowledging this, because the end of this type of industry is going to have real and lasting negative impacts on my old home town and the people I know there. Pretending it’s not going to happen, or that we can somehow reverse the inexorable march towards the future isn’t going to help them, though. 

Times change. Technology evolves. King Canute couldn’t order the tide to go out and we’ll fare no better trying to resuscitate dead and dying industries and ordering the future to be an exacting continuation of the past. 

That’ll be an unpopular opinion where I’m from, but as a lifelong holder of unpopular or controversial opinions, I’m ok with that. 

The darkest day…

This afternoon a vile and seditious mob stormed and attempted to occupy the United States Capitol at the direction of the President of the United States. Their intent was to subvert our laws and Constitution by preventing the Congress from formally counting the votes of the Electoral College.

At best it’s insurrection. At worst it’s treason.

Today we’re watching an attempted coup d’état in the United States of America.

January 6, 2021 should forever be condemned as the darkest day in the history of our republic.

Popular opinion is stupid…

America has a long history of rushing to judgment atop a wave of “popular” opinion. 

Witness the fiasco of NASCAR leading the charge against person or persons unknown who allegedly hung a noose in the pit area. There was a popular outcry, a swift investigation by the nation’s premier law enforcement agency, a hue and cry from talking heads across the spectrum that racism in that business must be plucked root and stem. Of course it turned out to be nothing more than a knot in a rope pull that had been there for at least a year. It was the very definition of nothing to see here, but it was hopped on by the professional and social media as the great scourge of the age. Talk about a lie getting, ‘round the world before the truth manages to get out of bed. 

At least we’re behaving true to form. Far better to commit to a spectacular, emotional response up front and early than to take the time to do the work of evaluating what’s really happening and decide on a practical, dispassionate response. 

It seems that if left to our own devices, we have a collective tendency to see enemies under ever bed – and respond in an emotional furor. As far back as the late 1600s, we were committed to knee-jerk reactions under pressure from the mob. Back there and back then something on the order of twenty men and women (and several dogs, if memory serves) were executed for practicing witchcraft. 

In the 1950s we were fond of seeing Reds around every corner. The coercive power of and individual destruction wrought by the House Un-American Activities Committee still stands as a testament to the utterly misguided means deployed when emotion, rather than logic serves as the basis of action. 

Here we are in 2020 once again revisiting past practice and seeing perceived evil at every turn. Because emotion is running at a fever pitch – drummed up by those who benefit most from chaos – we revert to a form older even than our republic. Then again, tearing down has always been easier than building – and the emotion of the mob will always be more appealing than putting in the dispassionate effort to determined how to get there from here.

We’ve been at it now for over three centuries later, for all our advancement, I sometimes wonder if we’ve really learned a damned thing.

Quarantine fatigue…

The internet is rife with articles documenting the horrors of “quarantine fatigue.” That malady seems to be typified by people going out more frequently, governors rushing to open other-than-essential businesses, and random protests to open this or that state immediately. People have seen the reports that we “flattened the curve” and are now ready to get back to business as usual and spring sets in… even though those reports certainly don’t reflect the reality of every jurisdiction across the country. Here in Maryland, the rate of infection continues to increase – meaning we haven’t yet hit the peak, let along started down its far side.

Among the list of things I’m not is an infectious disease expert. There are, however, lots of smart people out there who are experts in this field – and they’re largely saying it’s way too soon to start having big groups of people congregated in the same place. I wouldn’t take their advice on logistics or operations so it seems reasonable that I shouldn’t try to second guess them when they’re opining about a topic they’ve spent a lifetime studying.

Ready or not, even if it’s against the best medical advice, people are going to reopen this economy. Even people who don’t need to leave, those who can readily work from home and haven’t had any issues of lost pay, seem on the cusp of giving up and trusting to fate out of the lack of ability to keep themselves entertained. You can already see the signs of it in the weekly statistical tracking of people who are out and moving around.

There’s a catch to quarantine fatigue, though. When, after a month or two of this initial experience when the masses insist on restoring “normal,” the Great Plague will spread at an even faster pace than it is now – the number of deaths will increase and we’ll find ourselves facing an even higher curve that needs mitigating. 1918-19 gives us a blueprint of how ugly a pandemic is once we collectively decide all is well and spend a few months forgetting about containment and mitigation. We’ll end up going into the fall and winter far worse off than we were back in March.

Sometimes human nature is painfully predictable.

My employer will, in all likelihood, force us back into non-socially distanced cubicles sooner rather than later. Being a guy who likes to be able to pay the bills, it’s not likely I can do much about that. Stores, bars, and beaches are going to open sooner rather than later and there’s going to be a monumental temptation for people to treat that moment as our “return to normalcy.” Mercifully, I don’t need Governor Hogan or Dr. Fauci to tell me that it’s best to avoid hanging out in those places for the foreseeable future.

I’ve always had philosophical issues with blanket “stay at home” orders. They reek of government overreach. Then again I’ve never needed the government to tell me I should be my own best advocate and look out for my own interests. So open anything you want to, I guess. It’ll be a good long time before I feel any need to sit down in a restaurant or movie theater, go to a concert, or let people through the front door here at Fortress Jeff. I don’t need Uncle Sam or Mother Maryland to tell me what does or doesn’t pass the common sense test. As for everyone else, I suppose y’all are on your own.

Let’s revisit this in about October and see where we are. Good luck.

On tracking the virus…

I’ve written before about the decline of personal privacy. We slap RFID tags on our vehicles to make paying tolls marginally less painful. We carry around a mobile tracking device in our pockets. Many of us live with home security cameras that can see all but the most private moments.

The tech industry’s move towards developing apps that use our phone’s onboard GPS to track proximity to potentially infected people may sound like an altruistic use of technology to improve public health. Outside of saying they’re working on this “neat new thing,” not much is being said about the implications that come along with using such a personal tracker. Without knowing what, if any, legal safeguards will be in place, details of what beyond proximity is being collected, how long it will be stored, who will have access to it, how it will be used, and what control I will have over what’s collected, I have to say it’ll be pass from me. 

I’ve signed over some degree of privacy to big tech already because I value the services they provide. At its heart, though, my cell phone is nothing more than a tool. I have no intention of taking life guidance from it – or from Apple or Google or any of the other firms racing into this space. 

I won’t be wearing a tinfoil hat anytime soon, but I feel like sooner rather than later I’ll find my phone living in a Faraday bag except for moments when I need to use the damned thing.

Maryland, my Maryland…

On March 25th, 1634, along the shores of the Potomac at St. Clement’s Island, subjects of the English crown first set foot in the Provence of Maryland.

No one loves to rant and rave about the government in Annapolis more than I do. Despite their never meeting a tax they didn’t want to levy and general disregard for the rights of citizens, I’ve always found myself drawn back to Maryland – to it’s shore, and its marshes, and its mountains. I never manage to stay away long. For all its political foibles, I simply do better when my feet are firmly connected to the good soil of my native country.

There’s more than enough going on in this old world of ours to keep me blogging every day for months. It would be incredibly easy to fall down that particular rabbit hole. It’s important during these times to remember that we’ve been doing what is hard here in this corner of the world for 386 years now. I don’t even want to guess how many “ends of the world” we Marylanders have endured in that time.

I’m a native son of Maryland and today I’m taking a break from the pandemic to celebrate it.

A war footing…

I hear a lot of calls to “put the nation on a war footing” to battle COVID-19. There’s a lot to unpack in a statement like that. Going on a “war footing” has implications beyond what people seem to think it means.

A few nights ago I heard one of the endless number of network talking heads claim that during World War II, Ford Motor Company was making a new 4-engine bomber every 63 minutes. That statement is absolutely true… but only if you’re looking at a range of dates from 1944 or ’45.

The B-24 Liberators built by Ford would darken the skies over Europe and the Pacific by the end of the war… but when America entered the war in 1941, exactly none of those planes had been built. Ford didn’t start building the plant (Willow Run) to build those bombers until about 1940. The plant wasn’t finished until 1942. In ’42 and ’43 production suffered from a combination of issues ranging from supply shortages, product quality, labor/management disputes, and the sheer learning curve of translating automobile production into building aircraft. What worked for building cars didn’t always translate directly into building airplanes.

Because of these challenges, Ford didn’t meet their legendary “bomber an hour” goal until 1944 – three years after America went to war and four years after they began construction on Willow Run, and only a year before the war ended.

All I’m saying is try to bear reality in mind when you hear someone say “just tell a company to ‘start making’ Product X,” whatever the product happens to be. It took Ford two years to get there even when they had the plant and equipment in place. There’s a lead time from demand signal to production. Companies that build respirators likely aren’t sitting on a lot of spare plant capacity “just in case” a once-in-a-century pandemic breaks out. New plant and new producers can be brought online, but it takes time and a massive infusion of capital… and the faster you want it, the more it’s going to cost. There’s no way around it.

If you’re saying you want the US economy to focus on kitting out the supplies and equipment needed to respond to COVID-19 to the exclusion of almost all other consumer goods, we can do that. We’ve done it before… but putting us collectively on a “war footing” has long lasting consequences and second or third order effects that absolutely no one has even started to consider.

100% American…

Look, so here’s the thing about Senator Warren and President Trump… I just don’t care. Arguing the finer points of an Ancestry.com DNA test makes you both look even more ridiculous than usual. That’s no small task given the two pols in question and yet the two of them have managed to yet again exceed exceptions… or is it that they found a way to nudge the bar just a little bit lower?

It doesn’t matter a lick to me if you’re 1/2 Sub-Saharan African, or 1/3 Anglo-Saxon, or 1/4 Pacific Islander, or 1/1024 Native American. Sure, I guess those are all fun factoids to trot out at parties but beyond that they’re mostly irrelevant. It’s the kind of differentiation that feeds into my general eye-rolling when someone defines themselves as Irish-American, or African-American, or Japanese-American. While interesting from the historian’s perspective, or for those who study mass migration, knowing where your 12x great grandparents came from is largely a “so what” kind of declaration. Congrats, your ancestors were Welsh shepherds. Here’s a cookie.

If you say you want to live in a country where people don’t judge or make assumptions based on your background, heritage, skin color, or ancestral place of origin, trying being “just” a plain old American. No hyphen needed. No percentage necessary. Just tell me you are an American and that’s all I need to know.