Tuesday, April 06, 2021

No One Is Coming

No one is coming to help you is the bitter lesson
A signal moment of clarity in this your time of need

No one is coming to save you from this mess
The painful rule of thumb in the midst of your distress

No one is coming, there'll be no cavalry
The loudmouthed white hats trumpeting action are no sanctuary
Indeed, these days, those in the wild west have their own quandaries
In the frantic struggle for survival, some died with their boots on
It's best to solve your own problems, not rely on other persons

No one is coming, there's no need to ask
You might as well face up to the facts
Deferred maintenance leads to deferred dreams
Your own hands will have to repair the frayed seams

No one is coming, get it into your head
There's no saving grace, you've clearly lost that bet
Change makes you want to hustle, it is often said
Focus on resilience and adaptability instead

No one is coming, rise up to the test
In prior times, they could easily pay lip service
Indeed, some made it their self-appointed business
Truth be told, before the reversal of fortune, it was manifest
Your destiny was once removed, it was always clear they'd lose interest

No one is coming, there are no pat solutions
It may feel good to rely on international organizations
True, we all sink or swim together, embrace solidarity
Yet with the new variants, you may face your own mutations.
Buyer beware, some of the same ones who are now so vocal
Will soon remind you that, at heart, everything is local

In the Anglosphere, we saw the callousness of the response.
Once Wall Street was protected, the rulers lost all interest
Leaving the rest of us to plaintively wonder: whither survival checks?
In England, getting the Tory party to do more than the barest minimum
Was like pulling teeth in extremis, impossible in a timely fashion

The world over, elites are forced to confront crippled healthcare systems
No exfiltration, nor Medivacs, we all use the same hospitals
Those bearer bonds, those bank accounts, those offshore vessels
And digital blockchains are no protection, all that cybersecurity
Counts for nought when we haven't reached herd immunity
The Swiss now require vaccination certificates, newly-minted attestations
Quarantine even in the Cayman Islands, new procedures, rules and regulations

Accordingly, support bubbles of affluence are being pierced
Private jets navigate narrow, restricted travel corridors
Previous greed and privilege distilled, in short order, as if cursed
Now's the moment of reckoning, if not of buyer's remorse

"No one is coming to save you, it's up to us", goes the chant
Yes, well, it's the daily news even if it seems like a taunt
It was the purest folly to expect as much, is the insight
That others would forgo their insatiable appetites
Every man for himself, goes the conqueror's catechism
It takes behavior to get along, let's keep on singing.

Oh the humanity, "We have no place to bring our dead"
The overwhelmed owner of the funeral home plaintively said.
Air quality standards had to be relaxed to enable robust cremation
Such are the dilemmas of all public health interventions.

No one is coming to save you, we'll just have to endure the lockdown
In 1918, my grandmother recalled walking the streets of Jamestown
Skipping over dead bodies on her way through High Street to Trinity Church
A century later, many others are being similarly left in the lurch
She was ten years old when the influenza pandemic hit Ghana
Brought in by sea men visiting Accra, everyone suffered
Sorrowful, the scars endure and resonate as mood markers
The tale of the lost stories, these indelible chapters
Such, I suppose, is the conflicted legacy of my upbringing
The keen sense of outrage and the knowledge that no one is coming

No one
No one is coming
No one is coming to save you
No one is coming to help you
No one is coming
No one

Sea Never Dry

No One Is Coming, A Playlist

A soundtrack for this lament, taking a few liberties to add some sweet to this grief concoction.

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

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Saturday, April 03, 2021

Empire State of Mind

A memory. An open day at the Electrical Engineering department at Imperial College for accepted candidates, the professors wanted to demonstrate their new face recognition software to the group. I demurred (shyness), but they insisted that I be the volunteer.

So I sat and watched for 15 minutes as nothing worked. "Smile", asked the graduate students. "Frown", asked the professors. Same result: no detection. Others were summoned. Invisible man.

It's a minor point, but I can't forget the sheepish grins. As I told the professors and their harried students: "You probably didn't train your algorithms much with many faces like mine."

Cultural sensitivity in technology is one of my perennial themes. And it's hard work even if you acknowledge your blind spots. The anecdotal failures continue to pile up. What was true back in 1991 is much the same in 2021, software and hardware are far more sophisticated and performant but face the same blindspots (provenance of training data, applicability to real world scenarios, ethical framing etc.)

The challenge for software engineering - which is still a craft, is to move beyond curve-fitting phrenology (and Deadwood) into its industrial revolution.

Sidenote: recruiters these days are all "big data, machine learning, cloud yada yada". Buzzword fatigue is an occupational hazard.

I miss the great mass amateurization and view source ethic of early web development and yet the developer tools and frameworks these days almost feel like a golden age is within grasp.

Obligatory citations:

Incidentally, Imperial College was the venue of my worst interviewing experience (and there have been many) - the low point of which was walking past the open door as I left the interview, and walking straight into the wall. This was after having flubbed almost every question I'd been asked.

The laughs and looks exchanged by the professor and the secretary as I turned around, shuffled back muttering an apology (why?) as I rubbed my sore head and headed out the door. Even English reserve and politeness could not deal with my Buster Keaton imitation.

I was admitted to Imperial College a week later.

I occasionally regret not having gone to Imperial or Cambridge for university. Without a doubt, I would be a stronger engineer and yet I suspect the eclectic toli monger you see before you would be repressed.

Guide to Lagos 1975 005 3m 191 revolutionary  copier

Imperial Visions, a playlist

A soundtrack for this note. I've been neglecting the Toli Technology Series for years now, albeit I occasionally make a few gnomic pronouncements on Twitter, consider this some throat clearing to prompt a reboot.

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Thursday, April 01, 2021

Widget Consultants of Austin

Dear valued customers,

We hope you and your loved ones are remaining healthy and safe during these uncertain times.

New Office Space

We at Widget Consultants of Austin (WCA) would like to update you on some exciting news for our practice. In July 2020, a state-of-the art renovation for our central office was completed. Now Widget Consultants of Austin is located in Suite 419 on the same floor as before but to the left of the elevator.

Austin Research Center for Widgets

In addition to this beautiful upgrade, WCA's current and future research endeavors will be conducted through WCA's research arm: Austin Research Center for Widgets. WCA and its consultants have chosen to part ways with Widget Research Center of Austin. However we remain evermore committed to providing ethical, high quality, specialized widget research to the greater Austin community.

With over a decade of combined research experience, we continue to provide first class widgets at WCA. As always, we remain dedicated to providing compassionate and skilled care to you. We look forward to continuing our valued relationship with you.

Best Wishes,


Presentation Pete - Collaboration Pete

The above letter is reproduced with only two substitutions, widget and customer. Inquiring minds would like to know what prompted the split in widget land such that Widget Consultants of Austin are now affiliated with the Austin Research Center for Widgets, having severed ties with the Widget Research Center of Austin. All this upheaval took place in the middle of a pandemic, no less. Especially titillating is the pointed comment about ethical standards, things must have really soured. What breach of ethics in widget research might the practice have witnessed that shocked the conscience? The human drama behind those few words is intriguing and deserves attention.

Further confusing things is that it appears that the offices of both organizations are on either side of an elevator. Those rides up to work must be fraught. Printing out the acronym soup only deepened the puzzle for WCA has now split from WRCA to go to ARCW, it's all Greek to me. I have postponed my annual appointment to check up on my widgets during these uncertain times, but look forward, with no small amount of trepidation, to my next encounter. I pray that I exit the elevator in the right direction.

See previously: Also: Naming, a playlist

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

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Wednesday, March 24, 2021

The Tale of the Lost Stories

Masks of civility fortify the immune response to aggression
We wear satire as personal protective equipment
Irony as antibodies primed in bloodbaths, these memory cells,
And cultivated in experimental batches for later activation

A coup drill, oft practiced by exiled souls
Dismal legacies discussed amidst internal displacement
Rendered on a gory canvas, functional defenestration
The balm presents itself, choose your desired flavor
This human marketplace serves aloe vera or, my preference, shea butter

Shell games duly fomented by cheerful tricksters
They're desperately counting on atrophied shame cultures
Badged as grifters, unrepentant gremlins and parasites
Caution, take heed of their insatiable appetites

The stage is set, the world enmeshed in mournful contemplation
Affinity for doubt deserves affirmative action
Embrace the skeptic's credo contra these miseries
Global narrative collapse, the tale of the lost stories


The usual currencies were no longer accepted
Neither black gold nor conflict diamonds and pearls
Strategic reserves were tapped to no avail
Sovereign wealth funds rendered worthless

Helicopter money unloaded didn't even move the needle
The oracles were consulted but silence prevailed, a global pause
Explanations were mooted, the chattering classes suddenly idled
Ideologies and articles of faith sidelined. Force majeure clauses.

What profit a man, these paper profits? Perplexion.
Even royalty these days faces the dishwasher situation
For when the maid and cook's boarding houses become viral vectors
For shame, protection must now extend beyond the banking sector


There were a few stragglers who hadn't read the script
These traveling salesmen kept selling their idées fixes
They hadn't signed on to the new warfare
And preferred easy fictions and wishful thinking
Weaponizing mischief as usual, their duty of care

But the evidence made their audience harsh critics
That the whole world was watching prompted an identity crisis
Social interplay became fraught, some brought up matters of justice
Storytellers at the ground level wrote new narratives

For want of a bolt, they were unmanned those peddlers of dreams
The new variants of their certainties were being contested
The message of the urban griots now crystal clear after being neglected
Living in the new epicenter, we reconsidered what really mattered
In this dislocation, there are social studies and new avenues of inquiry
A sneak preview of the report of the truth and reconciliation committee:
Everything is written in sand is the new code of the streets


The Tale of the Lost Stories, a Playlist

A soulful soundtrack for this note; I'm especially proud of the way the music flows. The pied piper, Corona, took the stories away, out of Wiase. After this collapse, who is left to write today's script?
What paradise have we lost?

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

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Tuesday, March 16, 2021

The Traveling Salesman

The traveling salesman problem is long studied in computer science
But now it's epidemiology that's behind the headlines
His mission was selling products that make you healthier
But sadly his tainted breath made him a superspreader

The virus keeps causing sheer pandemonium
By changing humanity's curriculum
Asymptomatic transmission is a tough problem to solve, on its face
In retrospect, they searched for close contacts to track and trace

Remember, the postman always rings twice
Opening your door is a roll of the dice
Wear a mask, it's your duty of care
The moral of the story: buyer beware

After: Covid-19 'superspreader' in northeast China linked to 102 infections


The Traveling Salesman, a playlist

See previously:

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

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Wednesday, March 10, 2021

The Shape of Dread

I wrote of The New Epicenter on New Year's Day 2021
In terror of what might befall my family in England
The onset of my sister's covidious symptoms
Came four days after she received her first dose
Of the AstraZeneca vaccine in February
Too late, in other words. 'Tis quite the pity

Up close and personal now, but unemotional, this nurse,
About the implications of this biological curse
"An occupational hazard", she quipped, of her profession,
She'd lost the race despite all of her precautions
Now it's up to medicine, luck, and her immune system
To face up to the struggle against the new variant

I can't describe the shape of my panic and dread
When she disclosed her condition. A shot to the head.
Oh no! My sister. And what about the boys?
Mother Nature, damn her, has dealt us this wild card.
Fear and worry were instantly etched in my heart.
Instead of sharing with her those light words and laughter
All I could offer across the ocean were thoughts and prayers.

Still, my heart also harbors a splinter of ice,
And I've stuck to my publishing schedule, with all that implies
All the while praying, as the days go on, and hoping against hope
That the macabre prophecy - I even mentioned a kind of hearse -
That I mooted in those stanzas of lyric verse
Wouldn't end up being a sort of obituary for my loved ones.
I've been sitting, paralyzed in fear for weeks now, a broken man.
I would gladly tear up these words, if only I could
To return to a different world but I realize that it would be no good.
Try as I can, to cut the Gordian knot of guilt and apply the knife
I'm also mindful that irony is the key register of African life.

digable planets

The Shape of Dread, a playlist

A soundtrack to leaven this ongoing horrow show

See previously: The New Epicenter

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

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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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