The ignominious pandemic anniversaries pile up

A year ago today, the novel-coronavirus pandemic got a little more real for me and yet remained nowhere real enough. That’s when I had to cancel my travel plans for MWC in Barcelona after the organizers of that wireless-industry trade show succumbed to a wave of withdrawals by their bigger exhibitors.

The blog post I wrote then about MWC’s scrubbing betrays a stunning refusal to consider what I might not know about the emerging pandemic and the possible inadequacy of our own response to it. So do the e-mails I sent to friends and family that week, in which I blithely talked about plans for work and family trips in March, April and beyond as if the disease would somehow soon go away.

Now the Earth has gone a full orbit around the Sun since those early and excruciatingly bad takes, and the pandemic anniversaries are starting to stack up. Last Friday marked a year since my last time speaking at a conference out of town, last Saturday a year since my last attendance at a sports event. The coming weeks will bring the anniversaries of my last in-person panel, conference reception and indoor dinner at a restaurant.

Since then, we have learned many things the hard way, while almost half a million Americans aren’t around to benefit from those lessons. Tens of thousands more get sick every day; this week’s numbers included an old friend who only today had his temperature drop below 100 degrees after a few tense and agonizing days wracked by this virus.

But as of tonight, just over 50 million Americans have now received at least one dose of the vaccine–my in-laws among them, my mom scheduled next week.

I believe that we have already reached the farthest point of our own orbit away from the Before Times. But after having been wrong so many times in my pandemic predictions, I will not now forecast when this trajectory might land us back on something like the Earth we knew.

Reload for hope: my vaccination-data diet

Too many mornings over the last 11 months have started with me checking the Johns Hopkins University’s dashboard that began measuring the onslaught of the novel-coronavirus pandemic just over a year ago.

That page’s dismal totals remain stuck in my morning reading, but the past month has brought some relief: daily data about the advance of the vaccines that can strangle this virus.

Screenshot of the VDH vaccine-tracker page, showing statewide totals, its map of distribution in counties and cities, and charts reporting doses by vaccination site and per day.

The first one to land on my reading list was the vaccine-tracker page that Bloomberg set up in December. The news it’s delivered about vaccinations across the U.S. and around the world has gotten better every week–especially here in Virginia, no longer a laggard among the states. So has the design, as Bloomberg’s data-visualization wonks keep finding new ways to layer in more detail. They update this page (fortunately outside Bloomberg’s paywall) once or twice a day, most often starting at around 6 p.m., and I am now stuck in the habit of reloading it in idle moments.

About a week later, the Virginia Department of Health added a vaccination summary to its existing COVID-19 dashboard. That, too, has grown more info-dense, adding a doses-per-day chart that has steadily ascended over the last few weeks and, more recently, demographic data about distribution by age, race and gender. It also provides a map breaking down vaccination by cities and counties, plus a tab listing vaccine dose distributions across the commonwealth.

VDH has testing numbers posted by 10 a.m.–they have finally started nose-diving in the last couple of weeks–and now posts vaccination data no later than noon. This provides a nice bit of punctuation for the middle of the day.

The last week has put a third site on my reading list, the Centers for Disease Control’s vaccinations data tracker. The numbers here don’t tell me much that I won’t get at the other two sites. But since Jan. 20, seeing this page get updates every day, not just every few days and not on weekends, speaks to a welcome return of professionalism.

The time I spend reloading these pages and others–the Washington Post and the New York Times have also done good work here–won’t advance my own date with a needle. (I’m more focused on the timetable for my mom and my in-laws to get fully vaccinated, which fortunately now seems a matter of weeks instead of months.) But when every day can look like the one before, seeing these numbers climb proves otherwise. Each data point of progress cracks open the door out of this darkness a little wider.

Surfacing after surviving the worst president

Spending all of Thursday without once worrying about the president of the United States making yet another horrifyingly stupid announcement or appointment felt like a sort of luxury citizenship after four years of incessant Trump-induced anxiety.

A photo of the White House and the Old Executive Office Building late in the day, with the Rosslyn skyline in the background.

Yet my own experience of President Trump’s reign of error may itself rank as luxurious compared to that of many other Americans. He did not bar my overseas cousins from entering the U.S., insult my religion or ancestry, send troops to my street, or put my child in a cage. The liar-in-chief did regularly denounce the news media as “the enemy of the people,” but my interactions with unhinged Trump supporters never left the online world. And I have to admit that the tax changes Trump pushed through appear to have saved us a decent amount of money.

But it still infuriated me to see my tax dollars spent to inflict those cruelties and more on other people, amplify Trump’s encouragements of racist wingnuts and conspiracy-theory kooks, and pay the salaries of the incompetent, bigoted and corrupt hangers-on who infested Trump’s White House. And then Trump’s willful denial of science helped turn a pandemic that was bound to be dreadful into a disaster whose death toll now exceeds America’s World War II’s combat casualties.

It’s usually a mistake to judge a president’s work too quickly. I now struggle to remember just what made George H.W. Bush seem so much worse than Bill Clinton when I voted for the first time in 1992, while my opinion of Barack Obama has slipped as I’ve realized what a mess he left in Syria. Amidst Trump’s American carnage, people who took their jobs seriously did some good work, even outside headline events like completing the return of human spaceflight to American soil; we may learn about more such quiet efforts.

But well before 2020, Trump’s toxic combination of narcissism, intolerance, ignorance and greed looked set to place him among America’s lesser commanders in chief. Now that Trump has further befouled himself by being the first president in American history to attempt to overturn a legitimate election result up to the point of inciting a deadly riot at the Capitol, I can’t imagine how most historians won’t rate him the lowest of the low, below even those craven sympathizers of slavery and secession James Buchanan and Andrew Johnson.

Joe Biden and Kamala Harris aren’t perfect (neither led my choices up to Virginia’s primary last March), but they are decent human beings willing to seek out experts and admit contrary evidence. In their administration, the White House should not be a house of lies or a stage for political extremists. And should they lose their next election, they’ll accept that outcome. Even if you once saw promise in Trump to become a disruptive outsider, I hope you can recognize that last bit as an upgrade.

Journalistic accountability for seditious legislators

Wednesday’s attempted coup in Washington, as clumsy and stupid as it often looked, gave my city its most frightening day since 9/11 and left our country with sights we should never unsee so we can never forget: a mob of rioters addled by Donald Trump’s lies breaking into the Capitol, attacking police officers (one of whom died Thursday), flaunting fascist and neo-Nazi imagery, prancing around with the Confederate battle flag, looting offices, and posing for sedition selfies.

Photo of the front page of the Jan. 7, 2021 Washington Post with the headline "Trump mob storms Capitol"

It’s also left us with the so-called lawmakers who, hours afterward, continued to support Trump’s attempt to stage a self-coup by somehow persuading both the House and the Senate to reject the electoral-college votes of enough states to punt the election into a state-by-state vote in the House. Eight Republican senators and 139 Republican representatives joined this doomed effort to ignore the decision of American voters as expressed in what federal officials judged the “most secure election in American history” and which dozens of state and federal court rulings upheld as properly run.

These 147 politicians–including all four of Virginia’s Republican representatives–deserve expulsion from public life for this stunt, but instead we are stuck with them until they lose an election. Which, considering some of their districts, may never happen.

Some of these people are also likely stuck in my coverage of tech policy. In particular, Sens. Ted Cruz (R.-Tex.) and Josh Hawley (R.-Mo.), the duo that led Trump’s attack on democracy in the Senate, regularly figure in it for their uninformed rants about alleged social-media mistreatment of right-wing voices and dubious proposals to regulate tech companies. Hawley, who saluted pro-Trump protesters with a raised fist before they became pro-Trump rioters, also has a habit of misstating basic facts about tech policy–my introduction to him was seeing this Yale-educated lawyer lie about the plain language of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.

The next time those two or any of their 145 Trump-cult colleagues denounce tech companies as dangerous for democracy, do I skip past their own willingness to abandon it to keep an autocratic president in power over the will of voters? No. It would be obscene to do that.

2020 in review: persistence required

Back in August, when 2020’s nightmare status had become numbingly obvious even if we didn’t know how much worse the novel-coronavirus pandemic would get, I recounted here what I’d typed to a friend in a chat the day before: “This entire year… I think if we can all get through it, nothing will ever seem as hard.”

As I type this, 2020 only has hours left to go, so simply being able to write this recap feels like a minor victory. But as I type this, I also see that the Johns Hopkins University pandemic dashboard I have checked far too many times year now lists a total of 344,030 Americans dead from the pandemic–a staggering, heartbreaking toll made worse by President Trump’s careless stewardship and pointless politicization of things as basic as wearing a mask. Among the earliest of those casualties: my senior-year roommate’s father.

Screenshot of the Mac Calendar app's year view of my work calendar, showing many days with no appointments at all.

Spending most of this year in what often felt like a form of house arrest seems like such an inconsequential side effect compared to that loss, or the brief hospital stays two relatives endured. But beyond leading to such developments as my briefly growing a beard, my cooking and gardening like never before, and our adopting a cat, the pandemic took a hammer to my own business.

As the economy crumpled, some of my clients cut their freelance budgets drastically or to zero; one of my best clients closed at the end of May. With business travel shut down–see how empty that screengrab of my calendar looks?–my sideline of moderating panels at conferences became an exercise confined to my desk instead of a way to get free trips to fun places.

I somehow scraped together enough work to see my income drop by only about 14 percent compared to 2019–but that year was itself not great. I can’t lie to you or to myself: Freelancing isn’t working as well for me as it did five years ago. But the entire profession of journalism is in far worse shape than it was five years ago.

Inconveniently enough, I still love the work. And I loved writing the following stories more than most.

In a year that’s seen me so cut off from people, the chance to call out abuses of power that made things harder for everybody else cooped up at home helped me feel a little more connected to you all.

So did my four long days of work as an election officer, concluding with the tiny role I played Nov. 3 helping Americans vote in unprecedented numbers and end Trump’s reign of lies, cruelty, bigotry, and incompetence. That service for a cause much bigger than myself was nowhere near my best-paying work this year. But it may have been the most satisfying.

Election Day 2020, from 5:05 a.m. to 9:21 p.m.

I had my longest workday of the year (or so I can only hope) Tuesday when I served as an election officer for Arlington County, my fourth time this year. Here’s how things went, hour by hour.

  • 5:05 a.m. It’s near freezing out and Venus still sits fairly high in the sky as I arrive. I join 11 other poll workers in setting up the hardware, including two ballot scanners. We decide to keep the exit door open to ensure the space stays well ventilated.

  • 5:43 a.m. Ballots come in shrink-wrapped packs of 100 each, but I’ve hand-counted 200, 10 at a time, to ensure we know just how many we give to voters and can compare that total with how many went into the ballot scanner. (Voters can request a new ballot if they make a mistake, after which we mark the old one “spoiled,” record it on a sheet, and put the spoiled ballot into a large envelope.) Halfway through that, I decided I was too tired to try practicing my French and Spanish by counting to 10 in each language. 

  • 5:45 a.m. I look outside and see there’s already a line of voters waiting.

  • 6 a.m. Polls open, and voters stream in. Four minutes later, we have our first voter with a dog; the pup wears an American-flag bandanna. We don’t get a break until 35 minutes later, and 29 minutes after that, we see our first parent to bring a kid.

  • 6:59 a.m. Working the ballot table doesn’t leave me much to do, except when a voter makes a mistake and wants a new ballot. The first such spoiled one goes into the designated envelope. 

  • 7:39 a.m. For the first time in four elections I’ve worked, a ballot gets jammed in the scanner. Rebooting the device, as advised by tech support, doesn’t work, but unlocking it from the ballot receptacle and sliding it free revealed a ballot with a folded corner that had gotten hung up on its way out of the machine.

  • 8:07 a.m. A crew for the German television network ARD stops inside to film for a segment that airs without this interior footage. Two minutes later, we have our first voter requesting a provisional ballot after (if I heard this correctly from across the room) their requested absentee ballot did not arrive.

  • 8:53 a.m. Ugh, so tired. Coffee delivery not due to happen until 9:30 a.m., also known as four and a half hours after we got to work.

  • 9:38 a.m. Where is that coffee?

  • 9:42 a.m. COFFEE! ☕ I enjoy this with a second breakfast of homemade scones.

  • 11:12 a.m. A man arrives wearing a mask, sunglasses and a hat, as if to point out the questionable utility of Virginia’s now-repealed photo-ID requirement in a pandemic.

  • 12:40 p.m. Can’t lie, I just nodded off behind the ballot table.

  • 1:10 p.m. Things slow down enough for me to enjoy the lunch I’d packed eight-plus hours ago at a picnic table outside.

  • 1:37 p.m. Time to charge my phone, which I have been checking for news way too often despite the lack of useful insights on the election.

  • 2:30 p.m. After switching to the poll-book table, I discovered that KnowInk’s Poll Pad app may have issues with surnames longer than one word. First I couldn’t find a voter whose last name began with the Arabic prefix “al-” (I had to type it without the hyphen), and then it didn’t spot somebody with a “di ” Italian prefix until I entered that without a space.

  • 2:49 p.m. The poll worker who took over my spot at the ballot table gives us some excitement when she discovers one pack of ballots contain only 99, not the specified 100.

  • 3:43 p.m. Voter check-in involves us looking up the voter by name in the app, then asking them to say their address. If they recently moved but are in the same precinct, we can fix that on the spot. I see this with several voters, including one gentleman who forgot to update his home address while his wife, with him to vote, had.

  • 5:48 p.m. I hand off poll-book duty to take a spot by the scanner, where I tell voters the scanner will read their ballot whether they feed it in upside-down, right side up, forwards or backwards–then invite them to take a sticker, one of the best parts  of this job.

  • 7 p.m. The two scanners recorded a total of 358 votes, exactly matching the number of ballots handed out and not spoiled. That’s light turnout–we saw 1,046 voters for the March 3 Democratic presidential primary–except this precinct already had 1,585 voters cast ballots in advance.

  • 7:18 p.m. We print the results from the scanners, revealing both vote totals and images of everybody’s write-in votes. They range from Calvin Coolidge to Tony Bennett (unclear if the voter meant the singer or UVA’s basketball coach) to “EAT SHIT.”

  • 7:54 p.m. Having printed and signed the results and extracted the flash drives from each that contain images of every ballot, we can stow the scanners. We then collect the ballots and secure them in a sealed box.

  • 9:21 p.m. After an hour of collecting various pieces of paper, signing them, tucking them in designated envelopes and sealing those, then stowing the rest of the election hardware, we’re done. The precinct chief thanks us, and we give him a round of applause. A late dinner awaits.

T minus four days, or so we can only hope

In four days, we Americans can punch out of our national nightmare. We can finish voting to close the books on the Trump administration’s luxuriation in lies, cruelty, bigotry, and incompetence and try to rebuild. Or we will re-up for another four years of that and probably worse.

(“We will” is doing an uncertain amount of work here, given all the lawyers that Republicans have dispatched to various courts to argue against counting ballots that voters did not cast in person.)

This does not make for good sleep at night or mental focus during the day. We are all, as I’ve said of lesser things, in the Death Star trench.

The numbers here all look good for the American people to shut the door on Donald Trump, possibly in a landslide vote for Joe Biden. Yes, I did see things through blue-colored glasses four years ago–but then everybody assumed Hillary Clinton would win. A lot of people felt safe either sitting out an election featuring two unpopular candidates or voting for a third-party contender.

This year, pollsters have tried to correct for the mistakes they made at the state level four years ago, Trump’s administration is a known quantity instead of a high-leverage bet on an outsider–and a pandemic abetted by his criminally inept response has sent close to a quarter of a million Americans to their graves and put the economy into a ditch. Yet Democrats are by and large terrified, because nobody around for November 2016 can forget that shock.

I’m also walking on eggshells here. If it helps, please know that unlike in 2016, I am not working on any stories about the tech-policy agenda of any hypothetical election winner–nor will I accept any such assignment until we know who won.

I take most comfort from the enormous numbers of Americans voting early–especially in Texas, despite restrictive election laws ranked most difficult in the nation. The fairest election is the one with the most voters showing up. This early-voting boom also stands to help me personally, since I will once again work as an election officer in Arlington; I don’t want to be bored Tuesday, but I would like to have enough idle time to eat lunch at a moderate degree of leisure.

I cast my own vote five weeks ago, so that weight is off my shoulders. If you haven’t yet, you have a little more time to vote early–but I suggest you deliver that ballot in person or at a drop box. If you make your choice Tuesday, please say thanks to your election workers who started their day far before sunrise and won’t end it until well after sunset.

The only important thing is that if you’re eligible, you vote. Do not throw away your shot.

An unlikely return to the skies

Weeks spent wondering when I might next get on a plane turned into months–and then that wait ended a little after 7 a.m. Friday, when I boarded a flight from National Airport to Newark.

I had no personal or business appointment near EWR. I just had my habit developed over the last nine years of flying on Sept. 11–plus a stash of future flight credit on United with no imminent use, a growing despondency over my grounded status, an empty schedule Friday, and enough research to establish that I could take a day trip then on largely-empty planes for a reasonable fare.

Commercial aviation’s pandemic-wracked status made this short-notice jaunt possible, in that I didn’t book Friday’s itinerary until Wednesday. The price of procrastination was a little complexity: The cheapest itinerary that would let me leave my city and altitude and arrive home in time for dinner without brittle connections had me flying from National to Newark to Columbus back to Newark and then home to Dulles.

That’s a bit ridiculous, but as a card-carrying avgeek I could not turn it down.

The flights themselves were fine and seemed safe. I spent more time near more random people making my grocery-store visits this week than I did up in the air, and airplanes have much better air ventilation and filtration. It helped that my frequent-flyer status on United allowed my upgrades to clear on all four legs–but note that a seat up front doesn’t get you much more in these pandemic days than extra personal space. I kept my mask on except to have a beverage or a snack on each flight, and everybody near me did the same.

But the real reward consisted of the chances to appreciate the memorial United employees once again set up at EWR to commemorate the crews of UA 93 and UA 175, soak in the post-departure perspective of a Manhattan skyline that doesn’t match the one I knew up to Sept. 11, 2001, and treasure returning safely to one of my two home airports.

The wrong kind of endless summer

Today is Aug. 22, and I need to look at the lock screen of my phone more than usual to confirm that fact.

Months after the novel-coronavirus pandemic’s swift demolition of my business-travel schedule, the days and weeks blur into one another. Not only has no work travel since appeared on my calendar, personal travel has vanished too.

Visiting my mom and brother in Massachusetts became a non-starter once that state declared a 14-day quarantine for arrivals (you’re exempt if you can produce a negative COVID-19 test result from no more than 72 hours before your entrance, but good luck with that turnaround time). We thought about visiting my wife’s family in the Bay Area but decided to hold off on spending that much time in airports and airplanes, and now the latest bout of wildfires make a visit there ill-advised for anybody.

And we never got it together to plan any other trip anywhere because of [gestures weakly] all of this.

So for the first time since… ugh, 1993, I will go nowhere for the summer. And back then, at least I had plenty of opportunities to leave my sad Crystal City apartment and get lost in the city.

This summer offers almost nothing: no lunchtime panels, no evening receptions, no weekend parties, not much of anything aside from such brief escapes as a timed-ticket visit to the National Zoo or a crab feast on a neighbor’s deck. Lately, I can’t even count on the arrival of the mail to remind me that it’s Saturday versus Sunday.

The only respite has come from, of all the things, the weather, which has mixed things up with a delightfully cool spell over the last week and change. Opening the front door to temperatures in the 70s has let me pretend I’ve woken up in California or Europe–until seeing the untidy state of the lawn reminds me of overdue chores here.

Having written all that, I feel utterly unentitled to any pity. The three of us may be growing weary of all this time cooped up at home, but lots of people have never had the money or the time off to go anywhere fun for vacation. And many others have been treated exponentially worse by this accursed pandemic.

Yesterday, I was chatting online with a friend who has been recovering from some severe depression this summer. Not quite knowing what to write, I typed this: “This entire year… I think if we can all get through it, nothing will ever seem as hard.”

God, I hope that’s true.

Race with a capital B and a capital W

The Shift key is now getting more work on journalists’ keyboards, thanks to this summer’s sweeping adoption by news organizations of the custom of capitalizing Black and, often, White, when describing a person’s race.

Yeah, it looked weird to me too at first.

When you’ve always typed a word one way, changing it absent new evidence can feel forced. I remember my college paper’s editorial board discussing whether to capitalize the “b” in “black” and then voting against it, and I’m sure I was among the no votes.

I’m also sure about who wasn’t among any of the votes: actual Black people.

How to describe fellow human beings of an enormous variety of cultures and religions with one easily-observable characteristic that others without that complexion often fixate on so they can put all these people into one racial basket? 

“African-American” isn’t bad, but it implies an other-ness to Americans whose ancestors may have been in the United States for centuries longer than the ancestors of White people whom almost nobody labels “European-American.” (You can call me that if you want, but only because of my Irish passport.) And for many Black Americans, the genealogical trail stops on this side of the Atlantic, courtesy of the Middle Passage not yielding the documentation that came with the vessels on which my grandparents and great-grandparents came to Ellis Island from the 1910s onward.

As a catch-all term, African-American also fits poorly for more recent immigrants with family trees rooted on this side of the Atlantic. See, for example, presumptive Democratic vice-presidential nominee Sen. Kamala Harris (D.-Calif.), whose half-Jamaican, half-Indian ancestry led a relative to ask on Facebook how she could be African-American. A much less polite debate has boiled over on the Wikipedia entry for Harris.

Lower-case-b “black” fails in a similar manner if you write it next to an equally broad demographic description like “Asian” or “Latin.” It doesn’t seem weird to capitalize other ethnicities, but not the one we seem to talk about most often? 

So Black it is, however belatedly. What about us paler folks? Do we write “white” in lowercase as one might lowercase “brown” when describing most people without European heritage?

I now say no. One reason, as the Washington Post observed in a note announcing its style change, is that “White also represents a distinct cultural identity in the United States.” But hold the mayo jokes, please: What that item left for a later Post podcast to observe is that whiteness has often amounted to the powerful absence of race.

As in, race is something for other people. If you don’t note somebody’s race when describing them, they must be White, and White people in the conversation may breathe a little easier knowing that they’re not about to slide into some uncomfortable conversation about race. Being White is the default setting that you don’t have to adjust or even acknowledge. That is a real thing that we should stop pretending doesn’t exist.

And as that Post podcast’s nuanced discussion reminded me, this issue of how we label these differences that exist far more in our minds than in actual human biology is fascinating. I wish my old Post colleague Bill Walsh were still around to join this conversation; I’m sure the most erudite copy editor I’ve known would have something smart to say.