A Dose of Spring

It’s been ages since I have written here – the inability of this country to address the pandemic and the unpleasant politics of the last year overwhelmed my ability to write constructively about these topics. I still cannot tackle those topics, but I can share some pretty pictures to remind us that spring will come again.

Taken at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania today, I strongly urge you to visit if you ever have the chance. It’s an amazing place, and they have just announced another significant round of capital upgrades to their facility.

U.S. Exceptionalism


The above graph shows a seven-day rolling average of confirmed COVID-19 cases for a number of countries I selected from the larger data set. I imagine you can draw the same conclusion I did looking at the trends. Still, I am sure you will find Vice President Pence’s reassurances in yesterday’s briefing as compelling as Dr. Fauci did. Especially, “As we see new cases rising — and we’re tracking them very carefully – there may be a tendency among the American people to think that we are back to that place that we were two months ago. That we’re in a time of great losses and great hardship on the American people. The reality is we’re in a much better place.” ❖

Anthony S. Fauci director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, listens as
Vice President Pence speaks during a briefing of the coronavirus task force. (Susan Walsh/AP)

“It really does feel like the U.S. has given up.”

While I have been biting my tongue for a spell, after reading the following today I cannot help but pass it along.

From a Washington Post article entitled In countries keeping the coronavirus at bay, experts watch U.S. case numbers with alarm, with this lede: As coronavirus cases surge in the U.S. South and West, health experts in countries with falling case numbers are watching with a growing sense of alarm and disbelief, with many wondering why virus-stricken U.S. states continue to reopen and why the advice of scientists is often ignored.

“It really does feel like the U.S. has given up,” said Siouxsie Wiles, an infectious-diseases specialist at the University of Auckland in New Zealand — a country that has confirmed only three new cases over the past three weeks and where citizens have now largely returned to their pre-coronavirus routines.

Three new cases in three weeks in a nation with five million people. Compare that to the U.S. where our 330 million people reported (which we all know underestimates the true number, which we don’t know because testing is still inadequate) 419,000 new cases. We have 66x the population and 140,000x the cases. I know New Zealand benefits from its isolation, but if we could manage to get down to double their rate, in the last three weeks the U.S. would have had fewer than 400 cases.

The last several months have seen a lot of incompetence, shortsightedness, and even malevolence, but this New Zealand woman reminds us that as inexplicable as it seems to us here, it appears worse to our friends overseas. I will stop there before writing something I regret. ❖

Acela 21 on the NEC

Things have been quiet here, and that reflects the fact that 2020 seems to just grow worse and worse, and I am so sad about how events unfold that I cannot seem to find the words. In the midst of the fury and sadness and hate and destruction unfolding across the country, part of me feels like almost any other topic is pointless. So please humor me while I talk about a mundane little thing in the face of such important and potentially momentous events.

In August 2016, Amtrak announced the selection of Alstom as the manufacturer of its next generation Acela trains. Since then, Alstom has been hard at work, mostly at their Hornell, New York facility, building the first of what will ultimately be 28 new trainsets. The first one is now out at the TTCI test track in Pueblo, Colorado, where it has recently reached speeds of 165 mph. Below you can see the launch video and the more recent footage from the test track.

The second train has been in Philadelphia for about a month, and made its first forays out on to the tracks last week, traveling along the Keystone Corridor. Yesterday it ventured down to Washington for the first time, and today it headed back to Philadelphia. Given the importance of the Acela to Amtrak, I felt compelled to go downtown in Wilmington today to get my first glimpse of the new train. Here are a few shots of it.

My thanks to my scouts who tipped me off to this run. Here’s hoping that the next 26 units arrive on schedule and that the program has a smoother launch than the first Acela did. Despite the current Acela’s 2002 and 2005 growing pains, those 20 trainsets have safely and successfully carried millions of people since the launch of that service in December 2000, frequently selling out. ❖

An array of headlines

At work, I have been rolling the same boulder up the same hill for four weeks, and today it became clear that next week would be more of the same, so I am fresh out of clever insights. Instead, I thought I might capture a small and varied collections of headlines from the day – a little time capsule.

From the world of business and transportation comes the disheartening news that Hertz is filing for bankruptcy. Perhaps the company’s debt load was widely known before this, but as I almost never rent cars, I have not given any thought to the health of that business. If you had asked me this morning which rental car company is healthiest, I suspect I would have guessed Hertz. I hope they weather this storm.

Next up, a niche interest, but if you follow Apple and Macs and iPhones, it’s required reading to keep up with Jon Gruber’s Daring Fireball. He’s been sharing links and writing about Apple full-time since 2002. Today, he links to a Nilay Patel post about Siri’s poor semantic skills around identifying what is meant when someone says “London,” and examines the issue a bit. For anyone who has had a frustrating moment with Siri, this is a a good reminder of what voice assistants do well, what they don’t, and an area where Apple fares poorly. As someone who cannot get Siri to figure out my wife’s name (and yes, I have added the meta data in the Address Book), I cannot wait for Siri to get smarter.

On the COVID-19 front, here’s a not entirely surprising story, but full of interesting detail nonetheless, from a team at Carnegie Mellon who track the role automated bots play in social media and the resulting impact on public opinion. They reported this week in a release entitled Nearly Half Of The Twitter Accounts Discussing ‘Reopening America’ May Be Bots that they “have discovered that much of the discussion around the pandemic and stay-at-home orders is being fueled by misinformation campaigns that use convincing bots.”

Perhaps a tweet is not a headline, but if the person tweeting is one of one’s favorite reporters, then I am going to claim it counts. In a pair of tweets, Aviation Week’s Steve Trimble, who can be relied on for terrific reporting about military aviation and related aerospace technology, quoted Under Secretary of Defense for Research & Development Mike Griffin, on the topic of mounting lasers in tactical aircraft. Trimble tweeted that Griffin said: As a weapon system to equip an airplane with the lasers we think necessary in terms of their power level …and get them to altitudes where atmospheric turbulence can be mitigated appropriately, that combination of things can’t go on one platform. Zero time of flight, resistance to jamming, and ‘bottomless’ magazines are just three of the qualities being sought in an airborne laser. Whether these are genuine observations on Grffin’s part or a red herring is an exercise left to the reader.

Yesterday, two dams failed in Michigan following heavy rainfall. You likely already know all about that, but I was interested to see video of one of the dams at the moment of failure. It is less dramatic than I might have expected, which is easy to say as I do not live downstream of it, but still terrifying. I hope careful thought goes into the construction and inspection of this dam, so that other similar structures can be properly monitored.

Finally, saving the best for last, is a story from the Atlantic entitled “How Could the CDC Make That Mistake?” about mistakes being made about test result reporting. I will cover this in more detail in my next post about testing, but in the meantime read it. Here is the lead paragraph:

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is conflating the results of two different types of coronavirus tests, distorting several important metrics and providing the country with an inaccurate picture of the state of the pandemic. We’ve learned that the CDC is making, at best, a debilitating mistake: combining test results that diagnose current coronavirus infections with test results that measure whether someone has ever had the virus. The upshot is that the government’s disease-fighting agency is overstating the country’s ability to test people who are sick with COVID-19. The agency confirmed to The Atlantic on Wednesday that it is mixing the results of viral and antibody tests, even though the two tests reveal different information and are used for different reasons.

-Alexis Madrigal & Robinson Meyer

Have a good Memorial Day weekend, everyone, and be safe. ❖

%d bloggers like this: