Tuesday, March 02, 2021

The New Epicenter

I've been thinking of my sister and nephews who live in Kent
They've been in lockdown, it seems, ever since the start of Lent
Last year's, that is, the start of that long winter
Of dread and distancing and social dilemma
And now, as isolation stretches out for just over a year
They've been facing life under the most restrictive tier
The fourth one, the hastily manufactured one
Imposed just a few days before the third English national lockdown

They'd gone from the original traffic light schemes
To other mixed metaphors and coded rainbow regimes
Ten long years of austerity had left the NHS crushed
The ground was prepared by the hostile environment and Windrush
The confusion over changing definitions of support bubbles?
This is what you invite when you keep voting for Tory trouble

She's a nurse, so had early warning at the outset
About the grievous lack of personal protective equipment
What was it the bard said about discontent?
A prophecy of life with the new variant.

Their home is not too far from the new epicenter
Revealed, belatedly, to the general public this past December
Although there was fair warning from researchers back in September
Mutations were expected given the inconsistent public health measures

The Greenwich Meridian runs prime through Delay-Deny Road
The dithering pathway to all manner of grief, and deaths untold
There was a temporary detour through Eat Out to Help Out Alley
But the protective barriers at the Furlough Scheme Bypass were dismantled prematurely

Think of those truckers who spent the twelve days of Christmas
Stranded on the way to the port of Dover, some slept on the tarmac
The Sikh community nearby rallied to provide crackers and soup
And, eventually, some portable toilets were procured for the inevitable poop
Stuck in motorways and a dreary airfield as tensions boiled over
An early taste of life after Brexit, this pointless disorder
Despite reassurances from the hapless Minister,
(Gove, Shapps or Hancock was it?)
Nothing is remotely close to being "match fit"

That scoundrel Mister Johnson claimed to speak with a heavy heart
At that phrase, one should advisedly check one's pockets
Lock down any spare change, and advise your daughters
For, even as he gives that signature, dismissive, and nonchalant shrug
There's always an angle with He of the Studied Disheveled Pose from Eton
For any hint of sincerity bespeaks the grifter's insufferable ambition

I fear for my family, harried and burdened,
They've lost their sense of delight and wonder
It's all about raw survival, I guess, is the lesson
I don't envy Her Majesty's subjects in these matters
To quote Evelyn Waugh's warning and bleak insight,
Remember: "Charm is the great English blight".

The excess mortality figures belie the competency claptrap
And the mealy-mouthed talk about leveling up
I guess the cheerleaders who foisted all these bitter pills
From prorogation on, skipped town, leaving us to foot the bill

The rabid allies in the yellow media,
Call them the Murdoch Industrial Complex,
Are counting on fatigue, if not induced amnesia,
To erase the lasting traces of this covidious mess.
Wolves in bigots' clothing,
They now rely on the Fixed Term Parliament Act
To give them enough room for breathing
To craft a narrative for their next act.

london bridge tower glory

Still, no matter the scapegoat or scenario conjured up,
No matter how misbegotten
I assert that none of these dead bodies
Will ever be forgotten
The wound is too deep, moreover the futility rankles
That, by neglect, these rogues condemned Grandma or perhaps your favourite Uncle

If you're lucky, your last hours are spent in an ambulance in a parking lot
No specialized breathing apparatus, medical care is scattershot
And forget about the American President's experimental treatment
In a overcrowded hospital in Maidstone, you'll be lucky to get to the basement
This is the second hospital, they'd first driven you to the Tunbridge Wells Trust
But you were turned away like that family who ended up in the manger, it was a bust
By definition, you'd already lost the race between the vaccine, social distancing
And the virus. And with low oxygen supply, your care is now subject to strategic rationing

Speechless, you might blink your eyes, if you can still manage that,
Morse code to your brethren over that last video chat
They wave, sob silently, and mouth they miss you as you expire
The electronic beeps in the background that punctuate your labored breathing
The tangle of wires you're hooked up to as your chest is heaving
The dire sound, the spasm and the quickening - everyone is wearing face masks
As your body gets colder, you frantically snatch your last gasp
Of air. The emergency room technician, shell-shocked and overworked
Is the one who now gets to perform the last rites, you see,
It's not much unlike a closing ceremony
With less pomp, but also the obligatory paperwork (bureaucracy)
Thankfully these days there's a rugged tablet for data entry
But the buggy contractor software occasionally necessitates a reboot (sigh)
He codes you out, noting the time, and stops the clock
And quickly makes to preserve the depleted oxygen stock

And then the ignominious exit that rounds out the story
The casual disposition of your dead body
Sometimes there's a pile up at the doors of the nearby mortuary
As in life, so in death, there's a queue, it's the eternal village of waiting
"There's no whimsy or light anymore", my sister reports, "it's disheartening"
No wonder there's considerable attrition
Nurses are in short supply, so funereal has become the medical profession
Pity the health service, its staff are under extreme pressure
Forced to triage, major incidents declared, and other exigencies
No time for a cup of tea even, there's not a moment for leisure

Meanwhile, there was no scrutiny over the procurement contracts
Hastily doled out to bosom friends and rogue acquaintances
With no prior experience nor indeed competence
A WhatsApp message after dinner, old boy, nudge-nudge wink-wink
And then they have the unmitigated gall to aver, with special pleading,
That their abandoned app, and test and trace roll out, is world beating

Keep calm and carry on, stiff upper lip, and thanks for all the fish
Save it for when you smugly explain that jaunt to Barnard Castle
It was Malcom Bradbury who said about "the English,
They have the most rigid code of immorality in the world."

back view

The sirens draw nearer, they wax and wane
You start to ignore those omens of pain
Eventually you're drawn to other sights in the city
The trail walks and routines in the new normalcy
You second guess every interaction for the risk of exposure
Defend in depth, you erect many protective measures
Still, will your son run unprompted to hug his friend he hasn't seen
For ten months and thereby breach the family's quarantine?
The pandemic dictionary predicts that a support bubble
Is destined to be pierced, and cause no small amount of trouble
The optimal strategy, unsatisfactory as it may be, is to retrench
Like the old man who lives in the park and sleep under your metaphoric bench
The best advice is to retreat to your minimal social unit
Lest you be placed as the song goes, in the thick of it

hampstead view

"How worried are you about the new variant?"
Asked the earnest and expectant BBC reporter
Her look betrayed no small amount of dismay
At this strain "originally detected in the UK"
The bespectacled epidemiologist from Baltimore
Shrugged, he'd just been informed of the furor
On the front line in West Texas, not too far from Abilene
Some healthcare workers were balking at the Moderna vaccine
Refusing the jab and staking their lives on hydroxychloroquine.


The names are well known by now, we recall the dire scenes
First Wuhan, Lombardy, New York City and Tennessee
But your time will come, whether in Iowa or South Dakota
The spike protein attack doesn't discriminate among actors
And, yes, wishful thinking is not a capable detractor
Nay, it only haunts when you're at the epicenter
Ruing the misplaced efforts challenging mask mandates in the courts
A signal moment of clarity, if not buyer's remorse
If it helps, think of the virus as a moveable feast
Or, anthropomorphized, a roving menace and churlish beast
That preys on the cracks in the cement of society
Observe well the correlation of its impact with inequality
It doesn't bear thinking about the ineptitude and dysfunction
Let alone the catastrophic public health intervention

About the only consolation is the knowledge that this too shall pass
And that other communities will one day graduate from this trying class
I know that in my current home in Texas, I can see already the signs
It was the good Doctor Fauci who said: "The virus sets the timeline".

Humanity knows no boundaries, it's about the Mosquito Principle
I've said it before, social living should be the abiding principle

I, for one, am resigned for another year at least of this sorry chapter
But I miss my family now living at ground zero in the new epicenter


The New Epicenter, a playlist

A soundtrack for this note

This note is part of a series: In a covidious time.

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Tuesday, February 23, 2021

The Prime Minister's Coinage

The Israeli Prime Minister
A dirty, rotten scoundrel
Seemed to have found his way
Out of his latest scandal
The vaccine rollout wasn't proceeding
Like other debacles
That have marked his misrule frequently
Nay, the covidious jabs underway
Were being praised and going grandly

He saw an opportunity
To heap further calumny
On others, as is his wont.
Thus he coined The British Mutation
A new variant of a rogues' deflection
Piling on the land of Brexit.
But his nativist gambit
Was for nought, the next day it came a cropper:
The focus turned to Trump's mob

The strange architecture of misdirection
Promoted by insidious gremlins
Is founded on an embrace of euphemism
Uneasy phrases full of absurdism
The merchants of such sour propaganda
Thus cheerfully continue to prosper
So unctuous was his lexicon:
His koan was coated with poison

One aspect of that family's longevity
Notwithstanding the tendency towards the mercenary
Is an unabashed propensity for hubris
In Ghanaian parlance we would call them huhudious
After the loss at the raid on Entebbe came indignation
But also chutzpah and, inevitably, shame abrogation

As goes the old adage
So too the Prime Minister's coinage
Today's news is tomorrow's fish and chips papers
Indeed Yesterday's News is cat litter
And therein lies the opportunist's dilemma
Many a clever soundbite become ephemera
Thus populists are merely feral
While truth is immortal

Nationalism at the expense of another nation is just as wicked as racism at the expense of another race.

William Sloane Coffin Jnr

No nation sinks to greater depths than when its government is obliged to listen silently to moral sermons preached by obvious scoundrels

— Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach

the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2

This folktale is part of a series: In a covidious time.

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Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Telemedicine Consultation

Dear kindly Doctor Fauci
I think I'm going insane
What with these new variants
Mutations are on the brain
First the English, then the South African
Next the Japanese discovered the Brazilian
The spread simply can't be contained
Just now in Ohio, they found The Columbus Strain

Gee kindly Doctor Fauci
I guess the reason we're all suffering trauma
Is the lack of support for nurses and doctors
I can't wait to get a new President
Instead of yet more superspreading events
Remember: he suggested drinking Mr Clean
Long before they approved the Pfizer vaccine

Dear kindly Doctor Fauci
I think you'd call it an ethical dilemma
My boy got a lead through an unofficial channel
To jump the queue and get a dose of the Moderna
Vaccine, the magic potion against the Corona
What to do? He's no essential worker
But he's tired of living in a bubble

Gee kindly Doctor Fauci
Every day feels like rolling the dice
The root of our covidious predicament:
How's a man meant to go about normal life
With the relentless spread of the new variant?
Hell, the Capitol Police aren't up to the task
What more when so many refuse to wear masks

buried bones and child shoes in backyard

Dear kindly Doctor Fauci
What is it with naked ambition
That overtakes a common politician
To take full leave of his senses?
I guess life lived without consequences
Can lead a grifter to incite a riot
Then, left holding the bag,
Now accused of being a cad
Behold: a useful idiot

Gee kindly Doctor Fauci
When will we get over the hump
Flatten the curve and get out of this pickle?
Couldn't you conjure up a miracle?
Word is any number of Senators
Somehow got a jump on the action
First on call options for AstraZeneca
Then on the priority lists for vaccination

Dear kindly Doctor Fauci
Please clarify the regulations
The Governor keeps making excuses
For fear of breaking the cold chain
Been learning all about freezers
The vaccine distribution algorithm?
Mere lip service to the old geezers
Instead: Battle Royale and The Hunger Games

Gee kindly Doctor Fauci
Why do they keep saying the problem is logistical
When you and I both know it's ideological?
They want low taxes and monopoly rents
Not the competent application of government
They held up survival checks - that is
Until they got their Supreme Court Justice

Doll parts and bones

Dear kindly Doctor Fauci
I guess it all depends
One's assessment of their incompetence
These chancers thought they could
Wave the plague away with a magic wand,
Wishful thinking and exorcism.
Say what you want
About Anglo-Saxon exceptionalism
I'd rather be living in Taiwan

Gee kindly Doctor Fauci
Please help me defeat this unending tedium
I just saw that those pesky actuaries
Are minded to raise my insurance premiums
I get it, times must be hard
For their business, what a mess
But life is harder and stark
Living in a petri-dish of coronavirus

Dear kindly Doctor Fauci
They say hindsight is 20/20
And that those responsible shouldn't be taken to task
But they really shouldn't have held
The Sturgis Motorcycle Rally
And the postal service should have sent out face masks
For want of a bolt, there's no consolation
Six feet under, no questions can be asked

Gee kindly Doctor Fauci
Food banks can hardly be the response
To this covidious misery
Starving children don't cry
Tears waste too many calories
No, the kids are not alright
Parking lot wifi out of sight
True, man cannot live on bread alone
But surely you can find some crumbs to loan

Children shoes and buried bones

Dear kindly Doctor Fauci
Your English colleague Dr Whitty
Now faces a similar dilemma:
Opportunities lost, goodwill squandered
Political buffoons and a grim death toll
The only saving grace
In this panoply of mistakes
Is that only the virus knows the answer
For whom the bell tolls

Gee kindly Doctor Fauci
You've really got to wonder
How come Rupert Murdoch
He of the human capital stock
Was first in line for the vaccine
The nurse really struggled
To find a vein in that body of ice
Also, he already had immunity
His diet gives protection: lies, lies, lies

Dear kindly Doctor Fauci
I had to get you on on the phone
For while I was digging up my garden
I came up with children's shoes and buried bones
I'd rather not think about these omens
Got enough problems with the pandemic
Was my yard the scene of an epic
Texas chainsaw massacre?
That's something I don't want to consider

Texas chainsaw buried in the back yard

Telemedicine Consultation, a playlist

A soundtrack for this note

I've been having these conversations with Doctor Fauci for months now. We discuss toli and other matters. He's a good listener, I feel like I'm on the verge of a breakthrough.

See previously: The Grand Reopening of Texas and Gee Doctor Fauci (remixed)

This remote audience with the good doctor is part of a series: In a covidious time.

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Saturday, February 13, 2021

Janet and the Importance of Bubblegum

The Music Snobs were discussing authenticity and the legacy of Control recently. This is somewhat orthogonal to the show but they gave me an opening and I couldn't resist. I have some thoughts on He Doesn't Even Know I'm Alive, Janet Jackson and the importance of bubblegum.

He Doesn't Even Know I'm Alive plays the same role in Control as Baby be Mine did in Thriller. It is the bridge between what came before and what is new and is to come. To wit:

Baby be Mine could be an outtake or a logical progression from Off the Wall. In the same vein, He Doesn't Even Know I'm Alive explicitly winks to the perceived bubblegum of Janet's earlier albums.

Sonically He Doesn't Even Know I'm Alive is the closest to pop on the album even though it has the prototypical synth grooves that characterized Minneapolis. Lisa Keith laces the background vocals and Spencer Barnard does the heavy lifting with the writing and production.

You can imagine Terry Lewis hearing this and saying, okay now let's add some funk to the rest of the album. Jimmy Jam would say now let's take it uptown. Cue When I Think Of You, Nasty and all the basslines that endure, the things that we celebrate from Control.

Lyrically, He Doesn't Even Know I'm Alive is a trifle. And yet, it is completely disarming. You can't take it too seriously because of the subject matter. It captures the uncertainty of teenage love - the giggles of the unrequited longing. The letters column in Right On magazine.

He Doesn't Even Know I'm Alive is needed in the architecture of the album because of the vulnerability it exposes. If we think of Control as Janet's bildungsroman, it is a bildungsroman precisely because of the glimpse of the naivete, the innocence about to be lost.

The sequencing of Control has been much praised. You can do without He Doesn't Even Know I'm Alive, we don't talk much about the song, but you'd lose something. The patter that starts What Have You Done For Me Lately echoes her homegirls steping in with advice in the chorus: "Talk to him".

I don't think she ever performed He Doesn't Even Know I'm Alive live, it is strictly an album track. Still most people would kill for this kind of filler.

Compare it with almost contemporaneous Crush on You by The Jets that covered the same subject matter and is similarly upbeat and bright dancefloor fodder. Ready For The World's Love You Down captures the sense of yearning but is more akin to Lets Wait Awhile.

I'd like to think that Joe Jackson was expecting more of the same when he entrusted her to Jam and Lewis and was pleasantly surprised. Lightning struck twice, they were good for business.

By the end of Control, Joe Jackson can be under no delusion that his baby girl hasn't moved beyond schoolgirl crushes to needing a supply of birth control pills and condoms in her handbag. The closing moans in Funny how time flies do more work than the later Rolling Stone cover.

Jam and Lewis were great producers because they met their artists as equals and tailored the songs accordingly. Think of the sensitivity towards New Edition, the brotherhood with Alexander O'Neal or the meeting of minds with Cherrelle. Flyte Tyme was a family affair.

Teenage Love, a Playlist

The obligatory crush playlist
Slick Rick is the most wordly of the lot, I'd expect nothing less of hip hop

Others pitched in to confirm that, as speculated, He Doesn't Even Know I'm Alive was the first song recorded for Control.

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Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Guy Talk

"Let me tell you about Charlotte, hell of a lay. She'll do anything, you know, try anything. And twice at night." As he worked up on the cables, he continued to wax eloquent about his entanglement. The supporting cast below egged him on for details. The assigned constable too.

wire maintenance

The electrical crew were talking up a blue streak while working on the wires as I stepped out of my house, parental advisories were in order. I learned a lot about Charlotte's prowess in the ensuing minutes. This was vicarious living.

"She kept me up 'til 5 am. I almost missed work. I'mma go back for more. I gotta say, I'm a happy man. Feenin'... Remember what Ray and them used to say?... Yeah man. Fire. Fire in the sheets." He kissed and he told.

"I'm up here - yo, throw that my way. I'm telling you, man. I'm not even thinking about... Nose wide open. I'm not even - She made me forget the pandemic. Where do I sign up? I'mma cash, I'mma cash in all my chips with her. Lockdown here I come." The guy controlling traffic dropped his sign.

Charlotte's web had thoroughly ensnared this man and his audience. I counted 12 of us, the work crew and those who, like me, had come out to observe the commotion, our morning's pandemic entertainment. My two female neighbors shook their heads but kept listening to the locker room talk.

This was unvarnished life. There was undisguised glee and juicy details: all manner of gymnastics were discussed enthusiastically and with aplomb - not explicit, mind you. This was very far from the unexamined life; Socrates would have approved. It took me 12 minutes to pick up my mail.

The Wife had remarked that we didn't need to go far for drama during this pandemic, we simply needed to open our eyes and ears. From the children's shoes and buried bones in the backyard, to the traffickers' house (or was it a brothel?) behind the alley, life was eventful chez nous.

And so I walked back inside the house smiling, my ear blue with bedroom talk. "Okay. Ready? Let's go on our walk". The 9 year old moaned, her younger brother went to hide in his room.

The Wife asked, "What was all that about?"

"They were fixing wires outside... Guy talk."

wire maintenance

Guy Talk, a playlist

A soundtrack to this anecdote.

This blue note is part of a series: In a covidious time

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Tuesday, February 02, 2021

The Skeptic's Credo

If you've ever read Goethe's theory of color, you'll know that there are often ideas that are beautiful, ingenious, and indubitably wrong.

Neither the scaffolding of an idea, the trimmings around a thought, nor its progenitor or credentialed bearer should disguise its essential worth even though any of the foregoing often do, indeed, mask the underlying truth. The bogus wear many disguises.

Both the most simple idea and the most arch concept can be praiseworthy, and fodder for much food for thought and insight, and yet both, the nigh-judious liminal thought and the complex, counterintuitive koan, can be completely and thoroughly mistaken.

We rightly treasure the insight of the boy who remarked that the Emperor "hasn't got anything on", injecting a dose of reality, but understand, all too well, the process that made the gathered multitude ignore the evidence of nude hubris on display in the fable. We live in our own fables.

Incidentally, I should note that Hans Christian Andersen didn't write the sequel about what happened to that little boy and his family six months later when The Authorities could finally deal with them after the wardrobe malfunction. Suffice to say that it wasn't pretty. My idle speculation is that he tipped off his contemporary, Dostoevsky, with the germ of Crime and Punishment - there's a PhD, or alternatively a Hollywood script, in fleshing out that crossover concept.

Suffice to say that the most brilliant of thinkers can turn into cranks of the grandest order when they step out of their lane. The shape of an idea may transcend borders figuratively but its core rarely strays far from home.

This is not to demean the polymath, or to prefer Isaiah Berlin's hedgehog to the roving fox, but merely an observation that critical thinking is always in order. The point is that delusions are not the province of the uneducated or uninformed. All ideas must thus be taken with a grain of salt and shown to relate to reality. If conception and perception must be married, let it be by wisdom.

The Last Philosophers

The skeptic's credo is one of expectant ambivalence infused with an element of pessimism. Always mark your beliefs to market, you almost always hear the skeptic muttering, and with a touch of weary righteousness. The weariness comes from disappointment - an occupational hazard of skepticism, and the righteousness from the fraught history of one's confounding beliefs being proved right.

Scientists often claim to follow the skeptic's method, indeed their august Method - the one that they exhalt in their droning cocktail hour conversation, lends itself to the trappings of authority. The callouts to verifiability, testability and various isms are often worn as badges of invincibility even though they are mere cloaks of fallibility. Reason and inquiry, couched in specific forms lauded by the academy, are attributed the virtues of rigor and given free entry into society's discourse.

One need not go to Issac Newton, who would have sold you on his fever dream of the South Sea bubble, to pursue this point. Charles Darwin and the Brontë sisters would have talked you into spending your fortune on the Railway Manias of the mid 1800s. Even Charles Mackay, the man who wrote the book on Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, himself fell prone to the similar mania. Gullibility is immortal. And the less said of the later, high-minded Victorian dabblers in phrenology and mesmerism - their parlor room séances speak for themselves, and were lampooned in real time. You've no doubt read their books. In our own time, the script may have changed but the servants of empire and of capital are still spouting their dismal wages.

As an engineer, albeit with a literary bent, I am well versed in our own idées fixes and can recite the STEM mantras as eloquently as others. For engineers too bring their blindspots to the table, substituting their programmatic interventions and sundry heuristics for intuitive common sense. The truth is, that peacock of our tribe, the self anointed tech visionary, is often just another blowhard, and should be judged (and ridiculed) accordingly.

The good books would guide us towards skepticism, and the oracles of all religions weigh in on credulity and inveigh against uncritical thinking and behavior. For Muhammed, the saying was "Trust in God but always tie up your camel at night". His earlier counterpart, the man from Nazareth, was a searching critic of authority on this earthly plane, and perhaps the fiercest advocate for performing due diligence in one's life. He would enjoin us to prepare for the kingdom of God and urge us towards the house on the rock (sidenote: perhaps the history of Christianity's spread betrays an inclination for mergers and acquistion, but I digress).

A difficulty with the parable of the wise and foolish builders is that it is all well for Jesus to advocate so incisively for building on solid foundations, but what if the home inspector assured you that the staged house you've just viewed, the one that was actually built on sand, was the real rock solid deal? In human affairs, who really has time for due diligence? And with Murdoch's real estate agent regaling you on the charming features of the McMansion, with Greenspan's Put Banker promising low interest rates come what may, the pressure is on to seal the deal, to stretch one's budget, and take on the liar loan. And this is not academic pedantry, the poor folks who lived in the Grenfell Tower had no reason not to trust the efficacy of the cladding, of all things, that wrapped what became their deathtrap. It is cold comfort to tell their ghosts that a house is not a home.

aryeetey on the line 1998

We are trusting simians not too far removed from the savanna and modernity makes us mostly morons in a hurry. It requires a lot of effort to be vigilant about the many Potemkins we face in life. We resort to heuristics and rules of thumb, and can be taking in by confidence artists of all sorts in the shell game of life. The gremlins and parasites of society prey on us and can easily turn the brightest of us into useful idiots.

If skepticism is the notion that that true knowledge is always uncertain, it simply imposes a frame on its bearer of always questionning, and this can be a wearying approach to life.

The early skeptic of most nostrums (capitalism, what have you) runs the risk of being branded as the designated driver: at once necessary for soul insurance and sober hindsight, but, frankly, buzzkill during humanity's weekend in Vegas. Aficionados of doubt are rarely celebrated by History, there is no cult of doubting Thomas.

Pyrrhonism, the total skepticism of yore, didn't have many adherents because its doctrine of radical skepticism proved immediately unpopular. While it was attempted as an all-encompassing philosophy of life, it has never prospered. It seems that some measure of faith, and, possibly, a considerable amount of that ineffable substance, is required in all human institutions that reproduce themeselves successfully.

It it the plight of the skeptic to forever inhabit the terrain of uncertainty, to vacillate in those borderlands of fate always on the verge of temptation by seductive manias.

The skeptical genes are obviously useful for humanity in our decision making but, paradoxically, they are not mandated, nor necessary, for our species's survival; they are certainly not under selective pressure to be chosen like a peacock's wing or our finely attuned eyesight. Accordingly, we see a wide spectrum of trust cultures around the world. In an era of ease or nostalgia, our propensity for skepticism may even fall prone to atrophy. Walter Bagehot, in Lombard Street, would remark that "All people are most credulous when they are most happy".

How then to hold on to one's skepticism when a bubble is in full flow when, as Keynes noted, "the market can remain irrational longer than you can remain insolvent". My own favorite reading reading comes from Andrew Odlyzko who offers a rich library on bubbles, gullibility and manias. Forewarned is forearmed. Dan Davies also gives insight on cultivating the skeptical inclination or, as he put it, Avoiding Projects Pursued By Morons 101. The selling of the second Iraq war remains an important case study. I fall back to that critical recommendation he makes about the vital importance of audit.

More classically perhaps, I harken to Diderot:
A thing is not proved just because no one has ever questioned it. What has never been gone into impartially has never been properly gone into. Hence skepticism is the first step toward truth. It must be applied generally, because it it the touchstone.
The aphorists of yore prescribed a healthy dose of skepticism, and for good reason, but in their infinite wisdom, gave no guidance on the scale in question. It is lost in the veil of time the names of those who calibrated their formulae let alone their methodology. Further, their measuring sticks didn't have to contend with our fraught modernity. All too often, we only realize the appropriate measure of skepticism with hindsight and too late for optimal decision making. Fierce competitors they may be, I fear that the skeptics are doomed to run the race with a handicap. Ultimately, the tales the skeptics weave revolve around their conceptions of self, and they often live with the letdowns proffered by society and History. And so I remain a student of dissimulation and the strange architecture of misdirection. My fear is that the game is rigged, that we are all marks being cooled off. And the band played on.

To return to Goethe's notion referenced at the outset, pleasing as it may be to believe the "colors are the deeds and sufferings of light", I wouldn't make operational decisions based on that poetic insight. I have to hold fast to my inner skeptic and return to Hilaire Belloc on wishful thinking to give fortitude:
It is always a relief to believe what is pleasant, but it is more important to believe what is true.

The leakage specialist's 100% herbal solution

This note is part of a series on Shell Games. See previously: Shame Cultures

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Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Duty of Care

Dear Faculty and Staff,

Weathering the storm will no longer be available as an option
The mitigation plans will likely include revenue-generating units.

Permanent reductions in force provides you with time to pause,
Making the best of this unprecedented challenge,
Facing declines in the weeks and months ahead.

Today, we are announcing the next phase: very difficult steps
Financial mitigation measures likely include furloughs
Due in large part to your dedication, resilience and leadership

And we will closely monitor this unprecedented challenge
Reaching out directly for all you've done
We've always come through in order to mitigate emergency leave
Plans will likely include dedication to employees without work

We've been forced to make the shifts to our world-changing mission.
Leadership in these units has been through hard times before
But the university cannot extend this leave indefinitely

We can't thank you enough
And your understanding and commitment
Has touched every aspect of our learning

Our community has done research and operations
Where needed, adjusting to the COVID-19 crisis
Any budget shortfalls reflect upon our shared journey
An outstanding job with a strengthened sense of purpose



After Second Phase of Financial Mitigation Measures (May 19 2020)

a mask on each of us is a win for all of us

See previously The New Variant

This patchwork is part of a series: In a covidious time

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Tuesday, January 19, 2021

A Pandemic Dictionary

Towards a pandemic dictionary, a few covidious definitions and a usage guide...

science - always said to be followed, always the best available, always grounded, and always ignored in practice. An incantation invoked to the point of rapture especially by chancers and politicians (these last are often synonyms)

tiers - the tracks thereof. Cry the beloved county your tier belongs to, for your irresponsible friends, the town over, are always somehow living in a less restricted tier. Ergo, a social regulation designed to assess the prevalence of the sin of envy in human affairs

stages - of grief and of lockdown, these proceed in lockstep and always pass through denial

corridor - ephemeral travel route between increasingly shrinking paradises

protocol - always said to be observed yet found to be wanting or fatally flawed in reality, a duty of care denied.

bubble - fictitious totem of protection, most often promoted by wishful thinking and pierced by delusional practice

pod - an upper middle class organization ostensibly designed for learning and fraternization but ultimately destined for liability and fracture

steps - trampled by lack of precaution

levels - of risk and of threat, a visualization of plans, or lack thereof, potent and inherently unstable, a perilous mixed metaphor

restrictions - safely ignored. In extremis, when questioned about a corresponding breach, best practice is to refer to the need to visit an optician at Barnard Castle.

mask - when referring to the American face, an affront and a symbol of oppression. In other countries, a cheap public health intervention.

zone - never satisfactorily delineated, whether infectious, torrid or danger. Out of control

strategy - missing in action

preparation - see plan

plan - undefined

Easter - a verbal ejaculation e.g. "just raring to go by Easter". Hubris.

distancing - a socialist threat promulgated by soi-disant epidemiologists and sundry killjoys, proudly ignored in South Dakota, Tennessee and similar (see mask)

rule - of six, of four, of law - cheerfully ignored (see Cummings, Dominic, Johnson, Boris, Trump, Donald etc.)

regulation - in the USA or similar, loudly proclaimed and rarely enforced, a weapon to be wielded when you plan to do nothing but need to be seen to be doing something.

support - promised early but only ever grudgingly provided after considerable foot dragging and then in wholly inadequate proportion. Also: ephemeral

moratorium - porous rule typically subverted due to inadequate support. Dangerous to extend because of unspecified reasons.

rent - just deserts for oligarch class, price of entry for others (see essential)

eviction - just deserts for losers and suckers even in a pandemic and without a social safety net (see bank)

bank - of food, an Anglo-Saxon growth industry during a pandemic; of finance, a growth industry to be protected at all times even against itself (see bubble)

accountability - fiction. archaic and obsolete

social - there is no such thing

antisocial - recommended normalcy

meatpacking - of a plant, a venue for the wholesale slaughter of meat, human and otherwise, of a business, a modifier synonymous with age-old greed (see essential)

capacity - always critical and in danger of being overrun, pace ICU. A phrase and concept often uttered by bureaucratic naysayers of doom - safely ignored (see rule) until breached

priority - an ordering to be circumvented post-haste with smugness, ingenuity or bribery (see vaccine distribution)

essential - early designation of cannon fodder, to be applauded profusely at the outset but never rewarded or, indeed, supported. synonym: human capital stock

immunity - the promised land, a state of grace devoid of shame. When prefixed by herd, refers to bubble

rainbow spectrum of colors

This lexicographer welcomes your additions and corrections to this offering of toli.

Soundtrack to this note

This lexicon is part of a series: In a covidious time

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Tuesday, January 12, 2021

A Covidious Playlist

I give you a covidious playlist, a soundtrack for life in a covidious time. Music, as ever, is a comfort suite or, as per the pandemic dictionary, a support bubble, I trust this playlist could be yours.

Don't Stand So Close To Me by Sting, The Roots and Jimmy Fallon

This self-isolating Zoom remix of The Police's timely message nicely sets the tone. It's a tune I had in my head the last time I was in line in a grocery store in Austin back in March. I suppose I was early to wearing masks but I had fair warning of the danger. By the second week of February, the servers at the Chinese restaurant that my work colleagues preferred were all wearing gloves and masks. Also, I am married to a historian of science who teaches the history of disease and whose friends all work in Centers for Disease Controls all over the world; they were all crying Cassandra in February. I was early to despair but it appears that many others are still debating the point.

U Can't Touch This by MC Hammer

The album was titled Please Hammer Don't Hurt 'Em. Doing a spot of long delayed covidious spring cleaning, I came across a pair of baggy trousers that aided my running man histrionics circa 1989-1990. A friend also blackmailed me with a 3 second clip of the kind of youthful indiscretion that you are wont to get into at boarding school. The virus has made us all untouchable.

Close to You by Maxi Priest

Maxi gets to the heart of the business, the frustration felt by many separated from their loved ones. I miss all of you.

Tempted to Touch by Beres Hammond

The golden voice of lovers rock yearns for contact.

Touch is a conversation in another language.

Reach out and Touch (Somebody's Hand) by Diana Ross

Homo sapiens are social beasts and our desire for connection is both a source of our vitality and, in this pandemic, a public health disaster. The most emotional rendition of this song was at the close of the Motown 25 show, a fitting letdown after the Billie Jean histrionics. The things we have lost.

Positivity by Prince

A few US governors contributed new lyrics to a covidious remix of Prince's funk epic. Their wishful thinking met the reality of rising positivity rates and, well, uncontrolled community spread. He ended the song quite aptly

Hold on to your soul
We've got a long way to go.

Breathe Life into Me by Mica Paris

Preach it Mica. This song has been my soul therapy for the longest. It can now serve as a ventilator in extremis, perhaps the W.H.O. can prescribe it against the disease, it is far more effective than Presidential bleach. The album is aptly titled So Good. Indeed.

Touch You by Al B. Sure

This was the lead track of the Touch playlist and it was fitting. There was no sophomore slump for Al B and the album title is timely: Private Times and the Whole 9. We are all having a lot of private times these days, he prepared us for the second wave.

in a covidious time

They Long To Be Close To You by Dionne Warwick

Keeping things mellow, this is the ballad of the grandparents and hangout zoom skype facetime afflicted. This b-side opener harkens back to Maxi Priest's message.

Drop Dead Gorgeous by Entouch

Moving things uptempo, the most distressing footage early on from the streets of Wuhan, Lombardy and especially Ecuador gave a sense of the grievous damage being done to humanity, a parade of beautiful bodies dropping in the streets, or neglected in hospital waiting rooms and floors.

Too Close by Next

If there is a song that captures the club grind date experience this is it. I had never seen the video until recently but it is exactly as I imagined it. And imagination is all we'll have to draw on for the foreseable future. What paradise have we lost?

When You Touch We Touch by Omar

A superspreading neo-calypso groove as my man typically conjures. It's a matter of public health.

The Sweat Drops by Timmy Gatling

He split with Teddy Riley early on and his contributions to Guy are lost to history but in the one album he did release, Timmy Gatling was on point. Keith Sweat drops in at the tail end of the tune to drop some ad-libs to punctuate the down and dirty business. This is grown folks' music. This is the anthem of the essential worker, those laboring in meat packing plants for our benefit.

Humanity (Love the Way it should be) by Prince Lincoln

A monster track, a monster album. The falsetto is impeccable, the groove is peerless. Love never felt so good.

Pressure Drop by Toots and The Maytals

We lost Toots Hibbert on September 11th 2020 during this pandemic and we all paid the cost. The chocolate voice - the Otis Redding of reggae and the Godfather of musical grit, he is sorely missed.

Just to be Close to You by The Commodores

Lionel Richie's songwriting was always effortless and he caught wist with this tune.

Your Touch Is So Warm by Hi-Life International

You'll have to dig deep in the crates for this one, I daren't put my copy online. Once bitten, twice shy and all that. Blame the copyright police. From the Music to Wake the Dead album, the horns on this guitar-inflected groove are delicious.

Drop a Dime by Charlie Hunter

I've been frankly shocked by Republican and Tory unwillingness to even do the bare minimum to tackle the pandemic and nickel and dime their way through this shambles at the cost of so much preventable human suffering. I guess I was overly optimistic about the possibility of a return of some semblance of a shame culture in the anglosphere. The cruelty must be the point.

But back to the music, this elegiac joint appears on the aptly named album: Gentlemen, I Neglected To Inform You You Will Not Be Getting Paid. Rent is due, losers and suckers. There's a live version I came across where Charlie segues seamlessly into the legendary groove he concocted with D'Angelo, The Root.

Every Breath You Take by The Police

The original ode to a ventilator by way of surveillance and contact tracing.

Everything Must Change - Quincy Jones ft. Benard Ighner

The longer this covidious interlude goes on the more apparent it is that the new normalcy cannot be anything like the old one, and that the underlying conditions of iniquity, now thoroughly exposed and laid bare, need to be addressed. This is the soundtrack of the challenge ahead and the road to freedom.

Emergency on Planet Earth by Jamiroquai

The acid jazz soundtrack of the climate change crisis is of wider applicability.

Everything Must Change - Randy Crawford

The message is so essential that any number of remakes could be added to this playlist, there's joy in repetition and Randy Crawford's voice should be a daily treat.

San Salvador by Prince Lincoln

How my heart weeps at the unecessary deaths all over the world. And then they call it excess mortality.

As he sings:
Down here in San Salvador
There's a way of life overwhelming us, the poor
I had my own take:
A surfeit of mixed metaphors in a covidious time
Still, the second wave is coming, as is the bread line
Rent is due, and what about those evictions?
Moratoria were mooted without income support provisions

For Want Of A Bolt
the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2

And the band played on...

A Covidious Playlist


This note is part of a series: In a covidious time

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Monday, January 04, 2021

The Old Man Who Lives In The Park

The old man who lives in the park now has a dilemma
That's causing you and your neighbors further heartache
Not, paradoxically, that he sleeps under the benches,
For he's blessed, he always says to confound any pity
"I'm blessed to live in this here world"
"The Good Lord watches over all his creations. He is indeed my witness"
No, it's that Parks and Rec, just weeks ago, removed the porta potty
That has been serving as his bathroom and privy
For what seems like the past couple of years
And now, with no stand pipe or running water,
We can only expect a trail of tears

The park was ostensibly closed at the outset of the pandemic
But this new development ups the ante of discomfort
The practical questions mount: where will he relieve himself?
You're all facing the pressing matter of public health
You wonder if the flying toilets of Labadi Beach
Will make their appearance on these Austin Texas streets
Well, at least the garbage is still being regularly cleared
Appearances must be kept up, even as lockdowns take their toll
The prospect, though, is of walking through discarded toilet roll

He's always kept himself clean, tidy and well dressed
Dignified, with a sense of possession and no trace of stress
One has always wondered: where does he take his showers?
Still it's a consolation that the park benches
That he sleeps under at night are still there
For what it's worth, they provide some protective cover
He moves out early in the morning from this place he shares
To allow the yoga and exercise crowd to take them over

He had a good run this summer by every measure
The birthday party crew were stymied by the park closures
Thus he could sleep in, even on the weekend mornings
No anxious parents trying to stake out the benches
And mark their territory with prefab themed balloons
And other plastic decorations with which they festooned
No disposable tablecloths that they would tie down
No cups, coolers and fluffy pom poms
No banners and photo booths nor burgeoning cheer
For the show they later planned to put on
No bouncy castles, at least for the first few months
No barbecues, the smell of which draw out a great longing
Indeed for those months there were no gatherings
Of friends and family and their spawn

He must do odd jobs during the day for the folks at the restaurant
Perhaps they repay him in kind with their choice soul food
The sign says that they even serve meat from alligators
Or perhaps it's just his company that they enjoy that makes him a fixture
The owner raises a weary eye and his expression grows stark
Whenever you happen to mention the old man who lives in the park
There's a pause, then a sigh, born of longstanding concern,
A shake of the head, it's really a long story
Believe me, we're long since involved social services
At this point, it's not even a matter of charity
Interventions galore, there's no doubt a fraught history

zinnias flower garden

When he disappeared for a month,
You wondered if he was lost to the pandemic
That was back in July, when that new urban soundtrack
The near constant sound of ambulances, almost made you panic
The Governor, despite the positivity rate,
Was hell bent on the grand reopening
You could only hang your head in dismay
At the fecklessness, will they ever learn?
So it was the most misbegotten kind of relief
When the old man who lives in the park made his return

We'd circled each other uneasily ever since we moved in across the park
The real estate agent couldn't have known he'd be our neighbor
The head nods proffered were only occasionally returned
There was indeed recognition, but always a pregnant silence
I later learnt that he was half blind
Which perhaps explained the diffidence
And his uneasy and languid way with locomotion.
Albeit he has a white cane that he twirls merrily,
But he seems to only use it as decoration
Thus he crosses the street willy-nilly
Invariably causing near crashes and commotion.

Came to find out that he was a veteran
There's a hardness under what you observe
You wonder which was the American
Foreign misadventure he was drafted in to serve
The word on the street is that his sister takes all his benefit checks
Such is the mystery of the arrangement, for he seems quite happy
And even compelled to spend his nights sleeping under the bench
So perhaps it's not about money but rather about penance
For sins past. Who knows the backstory of this kind of repentance

We first talked one August evening
As I watered my flowers and plants in the front yard.
Limping, he'd crossed the street from the park
As usual, ignoring the passing cars
He approved of my low tech approach
But suggested installing a sprinkler system
I didn't have the heart to show him the one right there under his nose
Given that I preferred getting out and about with my garden hose
Back to basics, Nyame had suggested, choose manual over automatic.
Such were the nuts and bolts guiding me through this pandemic
So while we live in this digital world, I prefer analog connections
The necessity of touch and meaningful conversation

Nevertheless he approved that I was taking care of the earth
And digging up and weeding on my hands and knees
"If all goes well, young man, with the passage of time
There'll be plenty of monarch butterflies and bees"

There's a musical quality to the cadences of his speech
As if, in another life, he could be moved to preach

"I'm blessed, Sir. I have two young ones, I couldn't be prouder.
The Good Lord is in control, don't mind that weather forecaster
You know, he had it wrong, claiming rain and thunderstorms
But what could he know about His ways and directions?"

"It surprises them when you call them Sir, but it doesn't cost you none.
Keep doing what you're doing, above all, be true, young man"...

"I see you have a couple of children, I can tell they bring you joy.
I'll be off now. Pleased to meet you, Sir, my own name is Delroy."

And so I turned off the water and coiled up the garden hose
And took off the homemade face mask that covered my nose
I made to turn on the light in front of my home
And walked back up to my study thinking of a poem
I gazed across the street at the incipient dark
Thinking, as I do at night, about the old man who lives in the park.

front yard

The Old Man Who Lives In The Park, a Playlist

A soundtrack for this note

See also: Frank and Frances (or 500 Steps)

This note is part of a series: In a covidious time.

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