Capturing COVID On The Cusp

Over the weekend I finished Michael Connelly’s The Law Of Innocence. It’s the latest in his series of books about Mickey Haller, the “Lincoln Lawyer” who represents all manner of criminal defendants and manages his law practice from the back seat of his Lincoln automobile.

It’s a good read. I like Connelly’s spare, reportorial writing style and plotting and could probably be entertained reading a grocery list so long as he wrote it. But what’s really interesting about this book, which is set in late 2019 and early 2020 and was published at the end of 2020, is how Connelly skillfully, and realistically, weaves in references to the looming COVID crisis. The reader, and the book’s characters, catch occasional glimpses of the coming pandemic in the far background of the main story, which involves Haller defending himself against a phony murder rap. Every once in a while there will be a reference to what was happening with sick people in China, or Seattle–and the reader remembers their own initial, occasional awareness of the COVID virus during that pre-lockdown period, and knows in the pit of their stomach what is coming, even if Mickey Haller and the book’s other characters don’t.

I don’t know how many other works of fiction have been published where the COVID pandemic plays a role; I suspect that with The Law Of Innocence Michael Connelly, who writes produces books regularly to the delight of his grateful fans, has published one of the first ones. I’m confident it won’t be the last. Fiction is shaped by what’s going on in the world, and the COVID pandemic is bound to produce a lot of books. Who knows? Perhaps one day literature professors will be debating which book should be viewed as the great COVID pandemic novel.

Rake

Normally I hate TV shows about lawyers. In the typical American TV show about lawyers, I just can’t get beyond the unreality of the plots and the outlandish depictions of our legal procedures and activities. But I’ll make an exception for shows about British lawyers, or in the case of Rake, Australian lawyers. I figure that any legal settings where barristers are wearing horsehair wigs and gowns is so far outside my experience I can’t really object to the reality, or unreality, of any of the storylines or contrived courtroom drama.

And in fairness, Rake ends up not really being a show about law at all. Sure, Cleaver Greene–the “rake” of the title who is deftly played by Richard Roxburgh–has gone to law school and does his share of work in the courtroom, but the show is mostly about his train wreck of a life. We witness his countless bad decisions, his ego-centric interactions with his ex-wife, his ex-mistress, his son who has inherited some of Cleave’s tendencies, his friends, his steadfast paralegal/assistant, and his ever-changing dalliances, and we get to hear his often hilarious observations about life in general, all set against the backdrop of an Australian political and legal system that is amazingly corrupt and inept.

And if it sounds like the show is a slam on Australia, it doesn’t come off that way. Instead, Australia is presented as a kind of charming, friendly, out-of-the-way place where everyone knows everybody else and nobody takes anything too seriously. I’d like to pay a visit to Cleaver Greene’s Australia. It’s a place where a character whose life is going to hell can say, with perfect deadpan delivery, that everything is “tickety-boo” and you know exactly what he means even if you’ve never heard that phrase before. (“Tickety-boo” dates from the days of the British occupation of India and basically means “in good order.”)

As for the arc of the show, it becomes increasingly surreal as the seasons roll on. If you’re looking for realistic courtroom drama, even of the horsehair wig variety, you really should look elsewhere. But if you’re looking for a show that will give you an interesting taste of the Land Down Under, a show that introduces you to Australian language and culture, a show that delivers some laugh out loud moments, and a show that recognizes it’s just a lighthearted frolic, you might enjoy watching Rake. We certainly did.

New Words For New Times

Germany has a checkered history, to put it mildly, but you’ve got to to give them credit in one area. As I’ve noted before, Germans have an uncanny knack for inventing useful words that capture very specific feelings or concepts.

So, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Germany would be leading the way in inventing new words to deal with the COVID-19 world. In fact, the Leibniz Institute for the German Language did an analysis and determined that some 1,200 new words have been created during this pandemic period. One of the professors involved in the process of collecting the words concludes that the word creation process helps the German to deal with pandemic anxiety, which is captured by one of the new words: Coronaangst.

Some of the 1,200 words are pretty useful, and I’m going to try to incorporate them into my daily vocabulary. For example:

Impfneid — vaccination envy

Hamsterkauf — panic buying and stockpiling food like a hamster (This one is bound to be used in the post-pandemic world, whenever a hurricane or some other hazardous impending event is forecast.)

Coronafrisur — corona hairstyle (Who doesn’t know at least one person who hasn’t grown a special coronafrisur? I’ll be using this one the next time I talk to the Red Sox Fan, who has grown a remarkable mane during the shutdown period.)

Alltagsmaske — everyday mask

Abstandsbier — distance beer

Maskentrottel — literally, “mask idiot,” to refer to someone who wears a face covering leaving the nose exposed

When you consider the choice words the Germans have come up with, I’m afraid we Americans are losing the Words Race. About the only new phrase I can think of is “social distancing”–which I think gets absolutely blown out of the water by hamsterkauf.

15 Years Of Goldbricking

According to the BBC, an Italian civil servant is being investigated for collecting his salary, but not working . . . for 15 years. If the suspected facts turn out to be true, the public employee at issue has taken goldbricking–the ability to shirk meaningful work on the job while still getting paid–to entirely new, heretofore unexplored levels.

According to the BBC story, the individual “worked” at a hospital in the Italian town of Catanzaro. He stopped showing up in 2005, and nevertheless received full pay for the next 15 years and was reportedly paid more than 500,000 Euros during that period. His case came to light as part of a police investigation into rampant absenteeism and payroll fraud in the Italian public sector. Six managers at the hospital also are subjects of the investigation.

So, how did this happen, exactly? It’s not entirely clear, but the BBC article indicates that the employee was going to be the subject of a disciplinary charge by his manager when he threatened the manager. She didn’t file the report and then retired, and her successor, and the hospital’s HR staff, never noticed the employee’s absence. In the meantime, he kept getting his paychecks.

This impressive goldbricking feat sounds like an episode from Seinfeld or The Sopranos, or the plot for Office Space II. One thing the BBC story doesn’t disclose is what, exactly, the employee’s job was supposed to be. The reader is left to wonder: what paying position could be deemed necessary to create in the first place, but could be so inconsequential that no one would notice it wasn’t being done?

Ancient Names

Every morning on my walk around Schiller Park I see this bright red Jeep Rubicon. It’s a cool looking car, but I scratch my head at the name.

Anybody who is interested in history knows about the Rubicon. It was a shallow river that marked the boundary between the Roman Republic and the province of Cisalpine Gaul. In 49 B.C. Julius Caesar violated Roman law and custom by leading a legion in crossing the Rubicon and bringing his army into the Roman Republic. That made war inevitable. Caesar reportedly paused on the banks of the Rubicon to consider his fateful decision, then said “the die is cast” as he waded across and his soldiers followed.

Of course Caesar prevailed in the ensuing conflict; he didn’t meet his bloody fate until the ides of March some years later. But ever since Caesar made his choice “crossing the Rubicon” is used to describe doing something that reflects an irrevocable commitment to a pivotal and perilous course of action. it’s a very useful phrase.

What does any of this have to do with a red Jeep? That’s not clear to me. Did the Jeep namers just like the sound of the word, or did they have any appreciation for its historical sign?

Tread Lightly, Pranksters!

On this April Fool’s Day, here is some heartfelt advice for those who are scheming about practical jokes: tread lightly today.

Any capable prankster has to consider the setting, the nature of the prank, and the prankee. Any kid old enough to attempt an April Fool’s Day gag during his formative years intuitively understood this. You might try the “put salt in the sugar bowl” trick on your brother, but you were risking an explosion if you pulled it on your Dad as he was taking his first, wake-up sip of morning coffee. And doing anything permanently destructive, like sawing through the legs of a chair so your sister would crash to the ground when she sat down for her cereal, was clearly out of bounds.

This year, any practical jokers need to understand their audience and some reasonable boundaries, too. We’ve been pretty battered by the past year, and we’re more brittle than normal. So slipping somebody one of those dripping cups, or putting an obscene hat on the statue in Schiller Park, or sticking a “kick me” sign on Captain Kirk’s back might be funny, but nobody’s going to get much of a belly laugh out of a COVID-oriented gag. Let’s not mess around with vaccination needles, for example, or cut up vaccination cards. And I’m not sure how those who have been involuntarily housebound for more than a year now would react to a flaming bag on their doorstep, either.

The best April Fool’s Day jokes have a certain silly, timeless quality, anyway–like the 1957 BBC broadcast that convinced some gullible Brits that pasta was harvested from trees in Switzerland. If you’re interested in reading about legendary pranks of the past, take a look here and here. But if you’re going to actually try a prank, please–go easy on us!

Monty Python’s Almost The Truth

Netflix offers an awesome array of content — including documentaries. If, like me, you are a fan of Monty Python, I recommend tuning in to Monty Python’s Almost The Truth, a six-part documentary about the troupe that really bent the comedy arc.

Good documentaries answer your questions. In the case of Monty Python, there are lots of those questions. How did these guys get together in the first place? What caused them to develop such a hilarious, zany, irreverent, subversive view of the world? How did a lone American break into this supremely British group? Who came up with ideas like the fabled Parrot Sketch or the “bring out your dead” scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail? Why did animation feature so prominently in what they did? Who came up with the great songs, like the ditty about Brave Sir Robin? And how and why did the group spin apart?

This documentary answers those questions. Made in 2009, it featured interviews with the then-surviving Pythoners, as well as comments from other people who were involved and well-known fans of the group talking about what it was like to watch their work. (I recommend fast forwarding through the comments by Russell Brand, who comes across as supremely self-absorbed and irritating.) I particularly enjoyed learning about the early days of the members of the group — including the important role now-forgotten figures like David Frost inadvertently played in the group coming together — as well as the TV and radio shows that influenced them. Later episodes drill down into the Flying Circus years, their battles with BBC censors, their creative process and some of the tensions that drove it, their legendary live performances at the Hollywood Bowl, the making of their films, and ultimately the untimely, early death of member Graham Chapman.

Influential social figures that touched the lives of millions and forever changed the way we think about their idiom — like the Beatles, or Monty Python, or the first cast of Saturday Night Live — deserve this kind of look back after years have passed and their true impact can be assessed with the perspective that only time can bring. Monty Python’s Almost The Truth gives you some of that perspective and a peek behind the curtain. It’s fascinating stuff.

Generational Monikers

I’ve never understood the silly urge to coin names for “generations” — which basically seems to exist because, once you name a “generation,” you can make grossly overbroad generalizations about the people who are members.

It started with the “Baby Boomers,” which in my view shows just how stupid the generational naming is. “Baby Boomers” include anyone born between the end of World War II and 1964. That’s my generation, although my personal experience as someone born in the late ’50s is a lot different from someone born in the late ’40s. I wasn’t at risk of serving in Vietnam, for example, I didn’t go to any Beatles concerts, and I didn’t participate in any anti-war protests. Nevertheless, I’m designated as in that “generation” that is supposed to be hopelessly narcissistic and self-absorbed and now has become the source of the “OK, Boomer” putdown that younger generations like to use.

I think the Boomers were the first example of a named “generation.” And because sociologists thought that was a good idea, they gave names to other generations–including the “Silent Generation” that came before the Boomers, with members who had somehow been able to live their lives without a generational name until somebody decided, post-Boom, to give them one. Then came “Generation X,” immediately after the Baby Boomers, followed by “Millennials” (also apparently known as “Generation Y”), then “Generation Z.”

Now CNN is suggesting that the little kids of today–as part of the as-yet unnamed generation coming after “Generation Z”–should be called “Generation C,” because their outlook on life has been permanently transformed (and scarred) by the COVID pandemic. You can make the same arguments about how stupid it is to generalize about an entire generation, some of whom may well have been traumatized by COVID while others have simply accepted the changes and gone on with their kid lives without much concern. But the core point is how unfair it is to give a generation a name based on a disease. The coronavirus period has been tough, but it shouldn’t define a generation of little kids who will now be expected, going forward, to all be brittle and hyper safety conscious.

Can we please stop giving “generations” stupid names and generalizing about their members and their experiences?

Ancient Seeds Can Still Bear Fruit

Herodotus, Galen, and Pliny the Elder, names from the ancient Greek and Roman world that are familiar to the classical scholars among us, all praised the fruit of the Judean date palm. But in the centuries after the heydays of the Greeks and Romans, the date groves fell into decline and the distinctive Judean date palm plant disappeared — until now, thanks to the efforts of some Israeli scientists. And the reappearance of the plants tells us something noteworthy about the sophistication of the ancient farmers who grew the plant and, potentially, the hardiness of seeds.

The scientists located ancient seeds of the long-lost plant in caves and the ruins of a fortress built by King Herod and have used the 2,000-year-old seeds to grow thriving plants, like the one shown in the photo above. From hundreds of seeds that were collected, scientists selected a few dozen of the best candidates, soaked them in water and fertilizer, and then planted them — and, amazingly, six plants sprouted. The scientists then used the grown plants to conduct a genetic analysis that showed that the Judean date palm contained elements of African date palms and Middle Eastern date palms.

In short, the Judean farmers of long ago had engaged in careful breeding programs to try to produce the most succulent dates — which is why many people in the ancient world praised the Judean date for its large size, sweetness, and long storage life, as well as claimed medicinal benefits. Those findings suggest that ancient farmers knew what they were doing as they crossed different plants, hoping to enhance specific, desired qualities of the fruit.

The successful regeneration of the Judean date palm, centuries after its disappearance, from seeds that have sat, unused, for millennia may teach us something about the longevity of seeds, and may mean that other lost plants of the distant past can be recultivated. As for me, I’d like to try one of those famous dates — after the scientists that rescued the variety from oblivion are done experimenting with them, of course.

A Ramen Story

I’ve been eating a lot of ramen noodle lunches during this COVID shutdown period. I cook up the noodles, toss the unopened, too-salty-for-my-tastes flavor packet into the trash, and then add various items to the noodles and water, like chopped hard-boiled egg, tofu, spinach, tuna fish, chopped onion, or other leftovers from the refrigerator, and always some sriracha sauce, mustard, and horseradish to give the concoction an extra spicy kick. It makes for a hot, satisfying lunch that’s a nice break from sandwiches.

The other day I was waiting for the water to boil and noticed that the back of the noodle packet included a short tribute to the founder of the Nissin Top Ramen brand that is shown in the above photograph. You don’t see tributes to founders on food packets much anymore — in fact, you really don’t see them at all. This one says that the founder, Momofuku Ando, invented instant ramen in Japan and brought it to America in 1970, includes a sketch of his head, and describes him as a “legendary inventor and humanitarian.” The packet also directs you to the Nissin Foods website for more information.

Well, why not learn more about a legendary figure? You can find the referenced website here. It says that Mr. Ando invented instant ramen to deal with food shortages in post-WWII Japan and also invented instant noodles in a cup after noticing Americans eating noodles from cups. It includes photographs of Mr. Ando, including one with him in a lab coat posing with a microscope that sure makes him look like an inventor. The photos indicate that the sketch on the packet is a pretty good likeness, by the way. As for his humanitarian status, the website includes some of Mr. Ando’s sayings that are claimed to still inspire the company, like “be meticulous, yet bold.” Some of Mr. Ando’s other quotes are “always look around you with a great deal of curiosity,” “food is a peace industry,” and “when you cast away greed in adversity, you can find unexpected strength.”

It’s nice to know a little bit more about this person who came up with the idea of instant noodles, which have helped to make my personal shutdown period a bit more tolerable. And, in his honor, I will strive to always “be meticulous, yet bold” in chopping up leftovers and adding inventive combinations to my ramen creations.

The Lab Leak Scenario

It’s been about a year since the coronavirus started to spread in earnest and unleash its wrath on an unwitting world. Since that time, tens of millions of people have been infected, countless more have died, and therefore the focus understandably has been on fighting a desperate, rear-guard action to try to minimize the spread and effects of COVID-19. But . . . will we ever know, for sure, the origins of the virus and how it came to shut down the world?

Initially, many people thought that the virus had its roots in a “wet market” in Wuhan, China, where a virus that previously was limited to animals somehow made a leap to humans. Increasingly, however, people are exploring the alternative “lab leak” scenario. That hypothesis posits that the virus had its roots in a naturally occurring condition among animals, but than was modified and bioengineered and made even more infectious in a medical laboratory — in this case, a lab somewhere in Wuhan.

And here’s the scary part: the people who are articulating the lab leak scenario do not believe that COVID-19 was intentionally designed to function as some kind of biological weapon. Instead, they believe it was created and enhanced in infectiousness and virulence as part of routine, ongoing experimentation with viruses — and that, through negligence and inadvertence, it somehow got out of the controlled environment and began its destructive rampage across the globe. In short, they believe medical researchers throughout the world have been engaging in incredibly risky behavior with incredibly risky viruses, and through someone’s mistake or carelessness, we’re now all paying the piper. If that hypothesis is what actually happened, this wasn’t some naturally occurring phenomenon, but a self-inflicted wound that didn’t have to happen in the first place.

A New York magazine piece, The Lab Leak Hypothesis, does a good job of explaining this scenario for the creation of COVID-19 and establishing why it seems plausible. It turns out that, for years now, scientists and medical researchers have been tinkering with viruses and modifying them in an effort to make them more deadly and more easily transmitted, for the putative purpose of trying to prevent the spread of viruses and designing vaccines or other treatments. And, in publications in the scientific community, some people have sounded the alarm bells and predicted that, one of these days, one of those bioengineered viruses would escape. That may be precisely what happened here.

Reading the New York article, I found myself thinking: didn’t anyone involved in funding or supervising or performing this kind of incredibly risky research ever read The Stand, Stephen King’s novel about a bioengineered disease that decimated the world? And didn’t the scientists who were engaging in this research have a bit of humility about their capabilities, and question whether they should be playing God with viruses that could potentially sweep across the world?

We may never know exactly how COVID-19 came toravage the world. It’s unlikely that, if the lab leak scenario is true, someone will step up and admit that they opened the door to allow a global pandemic to escape. But Congress and the incoming Biden Administration can take a good, hard look at precisely what kind of risky research is being performed, at taxpayer expense or otherwise, and consider whether that research should be shut down entirely, or subject to much more rigorous controls than currently exist. We may not learn from whence the coronavirus came, but we can take the lab leak scenario seriously, and try to prevent a human-engineered disease from killing unwitting victims, smashing our economies, and throwing millions of people out of work in the future.

2,000 Years Of Fast Food

Pompeii — the Roman town that was buried by an eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 A.D. — continues to tell us some interesting stuff about the everyday lives of the ancient Romans. Excavations have uncovered apparent brothels, bars, homes — and now, a fast food stand, pictured above, that was operating on a busy street corner.

The fast food stand evidently was closed in a hurry as the volcano spewed the ash that buried the town. Archaeologists found the remains of that fateful day’s offerings in some of the pots embedded in the brightly colored food stand. The menu when the volcano blew included duck, pig, goat, snails, fish, fava beans, and a paella-like combo dish. And from that chicken that is painted on the front of the stand, I’m guessing that everybody’s favorite poultry was in one of those pots from time to time, too.

The excavation also uncovered a scenario that might be familiar to modern fast-food stand operators. The remains of a person who was lifting the lid on one of the pots of food were also uncovered — leading archaeologists to speculate that somebody fleeing the eruption couldn’t resist stopping to grab some free food when they should have kept running.

The ancient Romans seem like they were a lot like us, suggesting that the basic motivations of people — and the key concepts of point of purchase advertising that attracts them — haven’t changed that much over thousands of years. The brilliantly decorated food stand, obviously calculated to catch the eye of passersby, with the no doubt delectable smell of simmering food, looks like a modern food truck or an open-air food stand on the street of New York City. The pork, chicken, and fish that was served would be at home in any modern fast-food outlet, too. The only thing that appears to be missing from the Roman stand is a dirty water hot dog.

My Incredible Shrinking World

Yesterday I went to the office. As I prepared to cross Livingston Avenue, which is the boundary between German Village and downtown Columbus, I realized with a start how rare it is for me to leave our neighborhood these days. The sad reality is that my personal world has become awfully small.

Before the coronavirus pandemic hit, I traveled regularly to different cities for business and recreation, stayed in hotels and cared about the points I was racking up on my different hotel rewards programs, and walked through airports without a second thought, trying to figure out the most healthy eating options on Concourse A. We entertained friends and family and were entertained by friends and family and went to their houses or met them at restaurants and talked about whatever. We enjoyed dinners at different eateries, and went to movies and live musical performances. On weekdays, I walked downtown to the office, checked out what was going on in the downtown area, talked to people in the hallways and elevators, and typically ate lunch at different places with friends from work.

None of that happens anymore. All of that interaction, that getting out and about, is pretty much gone. We drove to and from Maine this year, but that’s been it on the travel front. I worked at the dining room table and the kitchen table of our place in Maine and rarely left Little Deer Isle, just as I spend most of my days at our kitchen island or at the dining room table in our German Village home. If you graphed the amount of time I’ve spent sitting at the kitchen island over time, you’d see the biggest, most abrupt upward spike imaginable.

I’m not complaining about this — it’s just the reality of the current circumstances, and there’s no point in complaining about reality. But the way my personal world has narrowed is pretty remarkable. I’m ready to get out there and start experiencing different things and different places again and enjoying some of the mental stimulation that accompanies it. And I’ve decided I’m going to start going to the office from time to time, just to broaden my horizons even a little bit.

Breakdancing Gold

Breakdancing has become an Olympic sport. Yesterday the International Olympic Committee announced that breakdancing — which will be called “breaking” in its Olympic variation — will be one of the sports for the 2024 Olympiad, in Paris. Surfing, sport climbing, and skateboarding will be the other new sports at the Paris games.

The squash crowd isn’t happy about the decision. That sport has been lobbying for years to be added to the Olympic menu and has now been rebuffed — again. The decision to choose “breaking” over squash caused one champion squash player to say that the Olympics has become a “mockery.” I don’t know about the “mockery” stuff, but featuring skateboarding, climbing, and breakdancing will definitely make the Olympics seem a lot more like the “X Games.”

I’m not a traditionalist about what should be an Olympic sport. In its modern incarnation, the Olympics has never been confined to the events the ancient Greeks decided to include way back when. Adding new sports to the roster recognizes that sports is an ever changing area, and there’s no doubt that it requires talent, skill, and some degree of fitness to be a great breakdancer or skateboarder. But it seems like there should be some kind of line between a sport and an activity. And the champion squash player in the story linked above raises another valid point: many of the new Olympic sports won’t have an undisputed victor, like you would have in a marathon, the 100-meter dash, the shot put, or the long jump. Instead, we’ll need judges to tell us which “breaker” got the best score on his/her routine — which just adds subjectivity and possible corruption to the mix. If East Germany still existed, we’d likely be complaining about the East German “breaking” judge’s unfair scoring.

If breakdancing and skateboarding are official Olympic sports now, what’s next? Will videogaming — no doubt to be called “gaming” in its Olympic incarnation — be the next designated Olympic sport to break the squash players’ hearts?

Spam, Spam, Spam, and Spam

Our days often begin with a review of our email boxes to delete the spam. The other day, as I was performing this mindless chore, I wondered: why are random, unwelcome emails (and now, phone calls too) called “spam”?

Even though the internet and email are recent developments in the arc of human history, the true origin of “spam” to refer to unwanted emails seems to be lost in the mists of time. “Spam” apparently is not an acronym, nor is it some kind of direct slam on the canned meat of the same name that is produced by the Hormel Foods Company and is evidently beloved in Hawaii. Instead, the most plausible explanation I’ve seen is that, in the very early days of the internet, undesired email was called “spam” as a reference to the Monty Python spam sketch, in which a diner menu recited by a waitress features multiple dishes made with spam, a gang of Vikings sing a song about spam, and a fed-up British matron is forced to confess that she doesn’t like spam.

Some claim the term “spam” was first used to describe email in 1993, when an early email user mistakenly sent multiple copies of the same email message; others say it dates back to the ’80s. In any case, the fact that there is a lot of spam email (like the spam-oriented dishes on the diner menu) and the spam email is not appreciated (like the diner patron who doesn’t like spam) seems to have been the connection that gave spam email its name.

Language is interesting, and “spam” email is a good example of why. In this instance, some early email user was a Monty Python fan who thought of the connection to the sketch and attached the name, it stuck and was used by early internet users, and then it spread to become the common term used by your iPhone, the filters on your computer, and the world of email users at large. It’s short, it’s as good a name as any, and if you’ve watched that classic Monty Python sketch, you know it’s apt. Like the high-pitched, purse-clutching English lady, we all “don’t like spam“!