Archive: June, 2020

Fatigue

posted by Jeff | Tuesday, June 30, 2020, 3:40 PM | comments: 0

My job would be remote under "normal" circumstances, and I've been generally working remotely for about 80% of the last decade anyway. Video calls are not novel to me at all; I probably do a minimum of six per day. Depending on the app, you generally get a quick preview of what your own camera is showing. A couple of weeks ago, the person I saw behind my desk was nearly unrecognizable.

I looked so... tired. It's not the work, really. Work is always challenging, but I wouldn't describe it as tiring. I think what I was seeing was just the aggregate product of everything. Heck, work might be the retreat from the rest, where I get to engage with other adults doing interesting things. But the parenting of a kid with ASD and ADHD, the pandemic, the reckoning of institutional racism, the toxic and immoral politics of the White House, the economic carnage where I live, the unknowns of school in the fall... it's exhausting.

A lot of this is certainly out of my control, but as an empathetic human being, I want to do things where I can. Idealistic 20-something me engaged because that's what you do when you're young, but now it's out of a sense of obligation to my child and the communities that I've been a part of or ally to. One can't just disregard it all.

I also get into the classic behavior that decades of therapy taught me not to do, where I compare my life to others and feel bad for the relative discomfort that I feel. It doesn't help that we have these crazy entitled white people having tantrums about wearing masks in a Trader Joe's, because you don't want to be those people. But for a reasonably empathetic person trying to leave the world a better place than they found it, which I hope describes me, it's not constructive to try and keep score and feel bad because you don't have it that hard compared to others. The feels are reals, as a therapist once told me.

So what am I doing about it? Well, I started by taking time off. I did that thing again where I went three months without a day off, which I try not to do. So this week I'm doing as little as possible. We did do a couple of nights in a low-traffic beach rental, where we were able to mostly socially distance and avoid people (though #floridaman makes this difficult). There's something cathartic about standing in the ocean and letting the waves beat the shit out of you. Unfortunately it wasn't the most comfortable place, but it was a change of scenery.

I've also committed to prioritizing things in daily life more deliberately. So yes, I can be socially responsible, be the dad and husband, set boundaries for work, and importantly, take time to be present for a few moments a day.

I'll get to a point where I'm less tired, but it will require reorganizing my brain for the current reality.


Protest to action for law enforcement reform

posted by Jeff | Monday, June 22, 2020, 6:00 PM | comments: 0

The protests are becoming more regional, but it's definitely time to start turning that protest into action. In the United States, these issues are fundamentally changed at the local level. Yes, we need to get the racist fascist out of the White House, but the most immediate and impactful change has to happen in the municipalities and counties where we live. That's how the system is wired.

My first two professional jobs after college were working for two different suburban municipalities, specifically in the cable TV departments. In those jobs, I had the pleasure to work with the police chiefs of both cities in creating programs that acted as a communications bridge between those departments and the communities. This was in the mid-90's, over 20 years ago. I had the opportunity to ride with officers, be there for briefings, and talk endlessly with everyone from the chief on down. There are some stand outs from those conversations.

I asked one of the 20-year veterans of the department if at the time he had ever drawn his gun. He said it was just once, and even then he did not point it at anyone. The particular case was a domestic abuse call, and there was uncertainty about the suspect's state of mind as they approached the house. His commentary seems strange in current times: "It's not like TV, we don't go into every scene with our gun aimed. That's not what our training requires."

About the same time, one of the departments was granted a military surplus armored vehicle from the feds. The chief was excited to get it, but uncertain about when it would ever be practically used. I remember he said, "I guess if the SWAT team needs to drive it into a bank?"

Before I left that job in 1999, I participated in a SWAT training exercise, recording the entry and search of a training structure. Yes, I was in a concrete block room by myself when they tossed a flash-bang into the room, and this is not something that you forget. I had my ears fully covered, and it was still unlike anything that I had ever heard. Even more strange, it felt like someone punched me in the chest. It didn't knock the wind out of me, but I did feel it. I followed them after they breached the door as they searched the rooms, rifles and tactical gear in hand. It was a weird exercise without any "bad guys" to find, but it sure was intimidating.

I learned that there were policies for everything, and officers were certified to know them. There were third party accrediting agencies that depended on the force understanding the policies. The training was all about de-escalating every situation, and again, avoiding having any reason to pull that gun out of the holster. These were not people at war, they were people intent on keeping the peace. So imagine my surprise when I learned about this Dave Grossman guy who has built a popular consultancy around teaching officers how to be ready to kill people. That's insane. Police killed in the line of duty has generally trended down continuously since the 70's, while people killed by police has gradually been trending up for the last 20 years, disproportionately affecting minorities.

Something obviously changed, and in the last month we've seen a number of explanations, and they all need to be discussed and addressed:

  • The militarization of police: Weapons of war are on the street, literally including armored vehicles.
  • Changes in training. This one definitely stands out to me, having seen it up close 20 years ago. Shooting an unarmed man in the back running away can't possibly be acceptable in any situation.
  • Institutional racism. Minneapolis seems to have one of the worse records, but it's undeniable, and they're not alone.
  • Law enforcement as the hammer, where all things are nails. People who are mentally ill, addicted to drugs, homeless... are police really the professionals who should be the front lines for these problems?
  • The unions. Back in the day, the unions were there to demand fair pay and safe equipment, now they negotiate for reduced accountability.
  • Accountability. We've seen documented acts of brutality with no resulting discipline, and seen cops fired for doing the right thing. That must change.

I don't want to hear about the "bad apples" argument. Some professions don't have room for "bad apples," like pilots or doctors, or people we trust with deadly weapons on the streets of America.

Each of these issues require change at the local level. If you have elected police chiefs or sheriffs, find out where they stand. If not, see where your mayor and council folk stand. What are they doing today? Go to meetings, call them out and get their positions. These issues require local civic engagement, and that's more than a like and share on Facebook. If your local officials haven't already started to outline a path for change, demand it.

It's OK to be angry, but get to know the system. Get to know why it's broken. Being the loudest voice has a place, but getting the change you want requires civic engagement with the people who make the laws and policies. If they don't deliver, that's when you vote them out. And remember, at the local level, the barrier to entry for elected official is far lower. The next person in that seat could be you.


Missing people

posted by Jeff | Friday, June 12, 2020, 11:15 PM | comments: 0

Earlier tonight, I scheduled a virtual happy hour for my team, and it was a lot of fun. They're geographically spread out in all four US time zones, so it was an early pour for some of them, but it was nice to spend a little time talking about anything but work. I demonstrated making a proper margarita and also the "Cadillac Cooler" that we famously learned to do on a Disney cruise. We also got to see my boss' rooftop in Brooklyn, which was pretty epic, with turf. The company is based in NYC (in One World Trade Center, in fact), so I have a number of teammates who live in the city. It kills me that I don't know when I'll get to see the office in real life, and shake hands with those folks.

Unfortunately, the only people who could drink those beverages were me and Diana, but it was fun to have that social interaction, remote as it might have been. In February we were thinking about how long it had been since we had a party, an unusually long time, but then it was clear that parties were not a great idea. We were ready to cater it and everything, since it had been so long.

Diana, working in the theater, is especially cut off. Her work friends have a weekly Zoom meeting, but it's not the same as seeing people every work day, even if it is virtual. I've worked remotely on and off for years, and you really do get to know your coworkers when you do it right (i.e., frequent and consistent video calls). Her job was about being in the building and meeting the "patrons of the arts" on a regular basis. That glorious building hasn't seen people in three months.

It's fun to see some folks do stuff online to help people get through it. This lovely couple, Suzy and Alex, that we saw on one of our cruises has been periodically performing live. Sofi Tukker have been performing DJ sets every day now for more than 90 straight days. Glen Phillips from Toad The Wet Sprocket has been doing stuff. Facebook has been doing listening parties, which is kind of neat. (But also, fuck Mark Zuckerberg.)

I feel like I'm the only person who knows people that have had Covid-19, and only one degree now from death by the disease. Most of that is just in the last two weeks, implying that this is the exact opposite of the time to get complacent. But yet, here we are. Florida set two infection records, two days in a row, as did Orange County. People still act like it's a political issue.


I miss musicals

posted by Jeff | Friday, June 12, 2020, 9:15 PM | comments: 0

Among the many casualties of Covid-19 is the complete shutdown of theatrical productions. Three shows in our Orlando Broadway season were cancelled, and of course all of Broadway in New York is dark. Even for next season here, they ditched The Cher Show and replaced it with Jesus Christ Superstar (which is a win, honestly). It's hard to say if we'll be in a place where any of it resumes this year. Some of the best shows start in February, including The Prom, Wicked, Hamilton and Superstar. It'll be very sad not to see those. I need to order my "We are all lesbians" shirt for The Prom.

I've written about this before, but musicals are probably the most intense emotional connection to art I have. When you get to the end of "Yorktown" in Hamilton, when the ensemble performs "One By One" in The Lion King, when Christine sings "Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again" in Phantom, Jenna doing "She Used To Be Mine" in Waitress, "You Will Be Found" in Dear Evan Hansen, "Something's Missing" in Come From Away, "Unruly Heart" in The Prom... I could go on all day. These are amazing moments.

I often struggle with the fact that seeing these shows is a privilege of the well-off, but also revel in the fact that people with extraordinary talents get to share their gifts and get paid.

In the mean time, I'm excited that we'll get to see Hamilton on Disney+ in a few weeks. It's not quite seeing it in person (with the amazing #PhilipTour cast of last spring), but I'll take what I can get.


Mental health struggle in a pandemic

posted by Jeff | Friday, June 12, 2020, 5:30 PM | comments: 0

This post has been in my head for a long time. I've not been completely certain about how to write it, because my brain has been racing non-stop for weeks and without structure. Let me distill it down to some basic facts:

  • The pandemic ends one of three ways: Massive and widespread death, effective treatments for those who are infected, or a vaccine. There are some minor wins occurring in treatment, but there's no data that suggests significantly better outcomes. A few vaccines are entering phase 3 trials, and if they're successful, which is not guaranteed, we might see some health workers get it before the end of the year.
  • Apathy is making people careless. Keeping the wheels of commerce turning and people working is certainly important, but what we're seeing is inconsistent behavior. Some of it is because a subset of the population views epidemiology as a political issue, and others who simply don't have good information. Some states, including ours, are starting up a second wave of infection. Orange County posted 130 new infections yesterday. It was averaging 25 just 10 days ago. Community spread is spiking all over the US.
  • Our family is particularly at risk. While I personally think that a 1 in 100 chance of dying from the infection is too high, it's worse when one of you has a history of respiratory issues. I saw it at its worst last summer when bronchitis wrecked Diana. If that weren't enough, Simon has had to be treated with a nebulizer twice in his young life, once for pneumonia. The idea that one of them could be dead in three weeks is not completely unreasonable.

This set of circumstances is difficult to accept or reconcile. The other day we were talking about, "Well, I'm not that much at risk, and people are venturing out to Universal for roller coaster rides." Enduring self-quarantine for this long makes you try to rationalize things that observable truth should put down. If we're being honest, without some medical breakthrough, this is the way our lives look for another six to nine months at best. That's very, very hard to accept.

That our leadership has been so poor fuels anger, too. Local governments have been left to their own devices trying to figure out how to deal with the pandemic, when only a coordinated and consistent response could truly control it and lead to the most positive outcomes possible. Some nations have demonstrated this, like New Zealand and Australia, but we've failed hard. There was no real federal response, and states basically said, fuck it, go back to your lives, just wear a mask. Two weeks later, we're seeing the leading indicators about how that's working out. Even the stock market responded negatively.

I know all of the dates. The last time I was in a theme park was March 5. The last time we ate out in public was March 12, the day before we bailed on a short cruise. Since that time, the closest thing we've had to in-person socialization has been watching the Crew Dragon launch from our front porches with our neighbor. Countless Zoom calls with family, friends and coworkers and virtual birthday parties have been the normal ever since. There's nothing normal about not seeing other human beings for three months.

If the disease by itself wasn't enough, you have the economic carnage that makes me uneasy no matter how well my employer is doing. I worry about our local economy and its people, so dependent on tourists. We're in the midst of a long overdue civil rights movement that I care deeply about and want to do more with beyond financial support. My favorite charity had to basically shut down indefinitely. My child has ASD and the most unexpected things can cause meltdowns. If that weren't enough, social media has further outed the racists among people I thought were friends, and the hurt and disappointment over that is not easy to get over.

Put together, all of this is enough to drive my anxiety through the roof. A friend of mine correctly points out that, if you can afford it, it's reasonably easy to avoid contact with others, but contact with others is the thing you need the most when the world is particularly difficult. That you can't really do anything about the state of the world to relieve all of the anxiety factors is a pretty bad place to be.

Logically, I know that this will pass, and I'm starting to think that there's a good chance that we as a society come out the other end better (optimism still runs deep with me). The dumpster fire has a way of making us see how screwed up we have allowed things to be. But in midlife, there's a sense of urgency, so losing a year is going to have a cost. I hope it's worth it.


The joy of learning, curiosity and discovery

posted by Jeff | Tuesday, June 9, 2020, 11:10 PM | comments: 0

I'm very fortunate that my team has gained an intern for a couple of months. I can't even imagine having the opportunity when I was in college to work at a growing tech company, the kind that didn't exist when I was in school, and seeing for the first time how the sausage gets made. (Sidebar: That's such a gross expression, probably because I don't like sausage.)

I believe that the excitement of this would be the same for virtually any profession that you're interested in, or at least for professions that make stuff. I've only spent an hour and change with our summer teammate so far, but her enthusiasm, desire to learn and curiosity is kind of infectious. It's a lot of responsibility to give someone a good look into the work, because you have to realize that your actions will shape a lot of their perceptions about an entire industry. No pressure!

It's also one of those situations where you find yourself learning even when you're supposed to be the teacher. This was a consistent theme for me in my coaching days, that as much as it was my job to teach kids how to play volleyball, much of the time they showed me what it meant to be excellent people. They remind me of qualities I have to remind myself to embrace.

First there's the sheer joy of learning. In the ongoing debate about the role of college, I think that refining and developing the skills for life long learning is the most important thing. It's a mindset that's hard to maintain, especially with age. It requires that we retain humility about all of the things we don't know. That seems rare now, with the arrogance and narcissism that comes with the idea that you're an expert about something because you can Google it. For things simple and complex, there has to be joy in eventually gaining mastery of knowledge.

Then there's the curiosity of youth. Simon says, "I'm just curious," several times a day. It might just be an expression that he's latched on to, but curiosity is something that kids demonstrably use all of the time. It feels really good to indulge in curiosity. A few weeks ago, I tore apart our stand mixer to repair the leaking gasket and repack the grease in the gear box so it wasn't so noisy. Sure, it was mostly to make Dolewhip, but the curiosity to see what was inside there was irresistible.

The discovery that comes from learning and curiosity, that's the best part. At some point, you know a new thing. Lubricating a stand mixer with food-safe grease is not likely a high point, but learning and curiosity also lead to important outcomes in any number of pursuits. For me in the last year, these outcomes include better understanding of myself, far more history than I ever learned in school, new technology tools learned, and although it doesn't feel like it some days, better parenting tools.

I can't imagine life without these joys. Sometimes we need to be intentional about pursuing them.


Making actual Dolewhip at home

posted by Jeff | Sunday, June 7, 2020, 5:40 PM | comments: 0

If there is any particular food porn that has made its way from my phone to social media over the years with any frequency, it's definitely Dolewhip. For the unaware, Dolewhip is pineapple soft serve made by the people who sell a bunch of fruits and vegetables. It's largely famous for being sold at Walt Disney World and Disneyland, as well as their Aulani resort in Hawaii. Our favorite place to get it in the little Pineapple Lanai stand at the Polynesian Village Resort, which is easy enough to get to by monorail or boat when leaving Magic Kingdom. My favorite way to get it is as a float in pineapple juice, swirled with vanilla soft serve.

When the pandemic started and the parks closed, the official blog or the park app or something released a recipe for Dolewhip, and the Internet went nuts about it. When the park fan sites (which are generally a little... let's say "enthusiastic") got a hold of it, there were all of these discussions about whether or not the recipe was authentic. The hype was nuts, and people reported different results regarding the authenticity of the results. Here's the reality though: Dole offers a recipe right on its official site. Disney released a recipe on their park app, and it included actual vanilla ice cream and chunks of pineapple.

But let me spoil all of that: Dolewhip comes from a powder mix that anyone can buy on Amazon. Sometimes a local ice cream shop even has it. It's dairy-free and vegan-friendly. If you look at the ingredients, it's mostly sugar and water. Its origins are completely uninteresting, despite its deliciousness.

Because it makes me happy, and because I have the ice cream maker bowl for our stand mixer, of course I plopped down the cash for four pounds of pineapple flavored sugar powder! Reading about the physics of ice cream and soft serve, and even looking at the instructions for the freezer bowl, I wasn't entirely sure about making this work, but what the hell else do I have to do in quarantine mode?

Let's start with ice cream, and how it's made. While all the stuff in ice cream has a lower freezing point than water, if you just mix it up and freeze it, you can't eat it because it would be a solid block, like ice. The trick to making ice cream is getting a lot of air into the mix as it freezes, which is to say they make it foamy. They put the mixture in these big refrigerated vessels with augers constantly moving the liquid around, and it thickens up as it gets colder. The trick, it seems, is to make sure that none of the ice crystals get too large, which is easier if you keep moving them around each other. With regular ice cream, the really good high-fat content stuff, the fat also increases the viscosity even before you freeze it. Once the ice cream is poured into a container, they push the containers through a freezer.

So how was this going to work with Dolewhip? It might be all sugar, but there's no fat. It has the "stabilizing" agents of various kinds in small quantities, and coconut oil, but it still seems like it's mostly sugar water. I wondered, what is vanilla soft serve mix made of? Turns out, mostly the same thing. There is some small amount of dairy substance, but not much. Soft serve machines essentially do the same process as an ice cream factory, turning the liquid in a refrigerated cylinder with an auger moving it around, and they operate at an interesting temperature, usually in the low 20 degrees Fahrenheit range. The Dolewhip recipe is about 4 to 1 water to mix, and I learned that the freezing point of 4:1 sugar water is about 27 degrees. It's all starting to add up!

The KitchenAid bowl is filled with some kind of fluid that freezes, so after a night in the freezer, you fill it with your ice cream mixture and turn it on. The bowl pulls the energy of the mix into the bowl, which begins the freezing process. The official recipe in smaller parts works out to about a cup of the dry mix with four cups of water. The instructions to prepare a whole bag involve agitating it with a half-bucket of water, then once it's dissolved, add the other half of water. I speculate that it's easier to dissolve it in less water, then dilute the solution, so I bust out the whisk after two cups of water, then add the other two.

After about 25 minutes of stirring, the bowl is very nearly overflowing. But it's also pretty soft, and not really ready to eat. It's close in the stuff on the edges of the bowl. I transfer it to the freezer in a small container, and it seems to get to the magic temperature about three hours after that. It's pretty much the experience in the theme park, and it's magical (and also a lot cheaper).

As you can guess, the trick is getting it to the right temperature. Our freezer is set to -2, our fridge is 35. The magic spot is around 25. So there's a game of transferring it between the freezer and the fridge, and it's destructive. If it melts too much, it freezes back into something that's more like ice and not soft serve. For the three of us, that one cup of mix makes about three servings each, and the last one definitely has a texture that's different. I may try to make a half batch next time to see what happens.

There are two impractical ways to solve the temperature problem. One is to get a small freezer with digital temperature controls to store nothing but our Dolewhip at precisely 25 degrees. That would be silly. The other is to get an actual soft serve machine. That would be borderline insane. On one hand, I could make twist with vanilla, on the other hand, it makes so much product that we'd have to invite the neighborhood over to clean it out.


The chemistry of depression

posted by Jeff | Sunday, June 7, 2020, 2:00 PM | comments: 0

This week has been pretty rough. With all of the tropical moisture getting thrown around out of the tropics, we've had day after day of rain here in Central Florida. Yesterday, I spent all day on the couch binge watching TV. I didn't really understand it for the more than three decades that I lived in Cleveland, but I get seasonal affective disorder. It hits me hard and fast even with a single day of clouds, but several in a row put me into a blob state where I'm not motivated to do anything. In my case, it's not really seasonal, because I don't get depressed for most of winter since moving, but the feelings are definitely real. It was a strange discovery when I finally moved out of Ohio to find that my periodic unhappiness was connected to something I couldn't control. I'm super conscious of it now, given the history of depression in my family.

For a long time, I thought that experience and environment, and certainly some hereditary traits, were the biggest contributors to depression. Indeed, learning to be happy is a skill, but it's not entirely a choice when your brain chemistry won't allow it. I'm glad that we're getting to a better place in our culture where we can talk about all of the things that go into positive mental health.

Having a child diagnosed with ADHD certainly opened my eyes to the part that chemistry, and drugs, play in mental health. Mix in the constantly changing body of a child, and you see how certain drugs don't even work to treat it for very long. It's a constantly moving target. I was resistant at first to him taking meds, because I was worried that he wouldn't be Simon. But I've seen it work in practice, and if anything, when the drugs work, he's more himself.

With my own mini-health impending crisis late last year, I did take the doctor's advice to use lorazepam to fend off what he believes are panic attacks. The short story is that I had physical feelings that felt like something serious, with chest tightness and shortness of breath, but I didn't have any of the markers for heart disease. These sensations don't necessarily coincide with in-the-moment stress either. But I've taken it a few times, and it works really well. The symptoms go away within a half-hour, and my mind is in a peaceful state. I use the metaphor of a freeway, where there are express lanes and regular lanes. That drug makes me feel like the fast lanes go away, and the mind stops racing. The rest is happy to go at whatever speed makes sense, and I'll get to where I'm going whenever. 

I still worry about that altering who I am. I was given Vicodin once to deal with a painful sinus infection causing headaches, and I only took it once because it made me feel completely out of control, worse than any night of drinking ever. That experience, along with a history of addiction in my family, is probably why I'm so hesitant about drugs that impact mental state. I need to get over that, because I've seen how these substances have helped me and Simon, for different reasons.

The weather going forward this week has rain, but it doesn't look like there are any washouts, fortunately. I actually love thunderstorms, but the usual m.o. for Florida means sun and rainbows right after. I hate feeling like this, because it feels more like a personality flaw than it does brain chemistry. You'd think I would know better.


Racism meets autism

posted by Jeff | Friday, June 5, 2020, 8:50 PM | comments: 0

We have generally tried not to totally hide the problems of the world from Simon. We let him watch the news sometimes with us, and we talk about what he sees. We don't really try to impart political views on him either, though he routinely asks why President Trump is so "angry" and "mean" to people. We felt it was important for him to see the demonstrations this week. The discussions didn't go as planned.

For context, Simon has never existed in a non-diverse place. Heck, even our parents' group in Seattle included black, East and South Asian kids. Now he lives in Central Florida, which is also diverse. He's known a gay couple since he was 1. I'm relieved that his normal is this.

We tried to explain racism to him, specifically in the context of police enforcement, which has been particularly brutal and proportionately deadly to African-American people. I'm fairly certain that it's the autism, but he couldn't understand it. If I can empathize on the way he thinks, where often social contracts are illogical, he just can't reconcile how racism is a thing.

From a moral character standpoint, sure, this is great. He literally doesn't see color, and not in that "I have black friends" kind of way that's icky. But there's a down side to that, too, because it suggests that he doesn't have the empathy or wiring to be an advocate and guard against systemic racism. I think that's the important point in this essential revisiting of civil rights: It's not enough to not be racist, we have to actively stamp out the systemic and institutional racism. So yay for raising a child that is not racist, but we're struggling to get him to understand the more abstract concepts.

From a maturity standpoint, he's probably a year or two behind, something reinforced by the fact that he seems to connect best with younger kids (or very kind adults). But this sort of thing fits in a broader context of things that he doesn't naturally "get" because they're based on larger social contracts. Racism is taught, certainly, but if you see the world in more absolute terms based on factual observations, racism is completely illogical. It's one of those situations where autism is in some ways a gift.

I talked with a coworker about this recently, as he has a child with autism who also doesn't entirely grasp racism. The stakes are higher for him though, because his child isn't white like mine. I don't have to teach mine that driving while black is a risk. In my case though, I hope it's just a matter of delaying the discussion until he "gets it." The simple things like "please and thank you" and holding doors for others has also been a struggle.

Item #9274 of things I never expected to talk about as a parent.


Thinking of New York

posted by Jeff | Thursday, June 4, 2020, 11:30 PM | comments: 0

When Diana and I went to New York for our anniversary in 2018, I was skeptical that I would really like New York. It took Hamilton after all of those years to get me there. I had such a distaste for Chicago and LA, and I figured NYC would yield a similar response. But of course, New York is graced with extraordinary history, Broadway, museums, TV studios, architectural wonders, and a great many (very great many) people. When we went back last year, I loved it even more.

Then I got to a point where it was clear that I was going to be working for a New York-based company, with an office in One World Trade Center, no less, and I imagined I'd get to visit a few times a year. Then the Covid-19 pandemic got real, real fast, and with the city as its anchor in America. I haven't met any of my coworkers in real life, and couldn't tell you when I will.

What I have seen, remotely, is people whose lives make my quarantine life easy by comparison. I know, I try not to keep score on the misery scale (therapist rules), but having to confine yourself in a place where people density is so high comes with a high cost. And frankly, that's one of the things that makes New York great, is the ability of people to collaborate and be together. People live in less space, they pack on subways, they share space because they have to. So imagine that with hospitals overflowing with death, and now civil unrest and protest. There's a psychological cost to that.

Naturally, this informs my view of these crises, and I imagine my view would be very different if it was simply limited to life in suburban Orlando, watching things from the comfort of my laptop. The seriousness of these two problems is very serious. Seeing people closer to it creates a great deal of empathy.

Hang in there, New York. You've been through more than your share of terrible things going all the way back to the founding of the United States. You'll get through this, too.


Trying to reconcile America's greatest failure with its scientific success

posted by Jeff | Tuesday, June 2, 2020, 6:00 PM | comments: 0

It was a strange weekend. On one hand, it's clear that America is pretty tired of black people dying at the hands of police, vigilantes and a wider criminal justice system that works differently for people of color. On the other hand, a company started by an immigrant put a couple of Americans in space, for the first time doing what government would not. The contrast is strange, to see hundreds of years of failure to eradicate racism at the same time as extraordinary scientific achievement.

We've been trying to have conversations with our son about all of this, and if you think it's hard to rationalize racism, try explaining it to a 10-year-old on the autism spectrum who isn't wired to understand something abstract like that. (Yeah, that's a whole post on to itself, for another day.) He happened to see Trump threatening to send the military out, and now we also have to explain that it's not a brute squad out to hurt him.

Racism never went away, but in the comfort of my social and professional circles, it seemed like it was at least pushed well beyond the bounds of polite conversation. But then the frequency of stories of black people killed in police custody started growing, pundits were pointing out the disproportion between the demographics of the population versus those who were incarcerated, poor, sick or otherwise lacking opportunities for education. By the time the mid-oughts rolled in, it started to become obvious to me that the bounds of polite conversation were the only thing really hiding the racism. As any non-white person could tell you, it sure as hell didn't go away.

As bad as the racism was, sexism has always been there too, and largely happening in the open. Being LGBTQ wasn't safe either. In recent years, we could pile on xenophobia. It's disappointing and sad that we can't seem to beat these inequities and hateful behavior out of our culture, despite generations of trying. You'd think the Baby Boomers, my parents generation, would have gotten us most the way there, having lived through the core of the civil rights era. But then, every Gen-X'er like me has that one racist uncle, so it's not entirely surprising that they didn't get it done. Anthropologists suggest that these societal attributes do take many generations to resolve. Mine sure didn't get it done, but then, we're still outnumbered by the Boomers, so I don't know if we ever had a chance. Fortunately, we're outnumbered by Millennials and Z's even more so, and anecdotally I think they'll get it done.

To be clear, it's everyone's job to stamp this out, not blame others. We all have to declare our commitment to the right side of history, hold our policy makers accountable, and get civically involved in a non-trivial way. I've always felt strong about this, but I feel like I have to do more. I don't think I'm alone in that feeling.

About that spaceflight, it was a welcome energy that I haven't felt in years. When the Space Shuttle program ended, rightfully so given the flaws and age of that program, it felt a little like we were giving up. Not that the Russians aren't fully capable of getting people to the ISS, but the story of American spaceflight is entangled with our pride and identity to an extent, which in the 60's largely involved getting to space before the Soviets. When the Bush administration suggested privatizing space travel, and then the Obama administration reinforced that direction, I felt at first that it was kind of a shortcoming. It felt like America couldn't do it, so let's just make it another thing we throw insane money at and get mediocre results.

What happened next was that a South African immigrant, having cashed out of dotcom success, founded a rocket company that mostly failed at first. But the vision for SpaceX was consistent, in the desire to reduce cost by reusing as much of a rocket as possible (you don't throw away a 747 after flying it once, after all). It got a contract for launch capabilities and human flight, and that led to last weekend's trip for the Crew Dragon carrying astronauts. They got there faster than the old guard contractors, and for a fraction of the cost.

If you spent the better part of the day watching all of this, you may have noticed something striking about the people you saw on TV. The engineers from SpaceX who host their webcasts are diverse. To see women of color (with visible piercings and a partially shaved head, no less), who are engineers and not communications interns, along side middle-aged white men, is a big deal. And when you see more of the people working at the factory and they talk with more engineers, you see that the workforce is more representative of America than, say, half of the US Senate (you know which half, don't make me say it). Heck, the president of SpaceX is a woman.

If you work in technology, you probably think, "Yeah, no shit, that's what my work looks like, too." But if you watched that rocket coverage enough, you eventually saw NASA. The shots of Mission Control were not diverse at all. It was almost entirely middle-aged white men (I think I saw one woman at some point). This is why racism isn't simply an issue of rogue police or bad apples or whatever rationalization people try to come up with. How is it that NASA so poorly reflects the population that it serves? When people talk about systemic racism, this is it. I don't for a minute think that NASA hiring managers are going to Klan rallies, but there's something going on that leads to an outcome that is the opposite of the outcome at SpaceX. The issues are complex, not just with the hiring practices, but with education (inequality in access) and cultural expectations (women play with dolls, not STEM kits).

Looking at those contrasting organizations, you have to look at the difference in outcomes, and look for the causes. Then you have to change the causes.

I bring this up, again, not to suggest that we can leave racism as someone else's problem, but rather to give hope and show that the seeds are there to put America's greatest failure in its past. This is the time. If we get people off of the planet by strapping them to a controlled explosion, attacking the institutional racism should be within our reach.