An expert look back at the pandemic

STAT News takes a look at what most surprised experts about the COVID pandemic. STAT senior writer Helen Branswell’s article is well worth reading.

The point that I found most interesting: “How long the damn thing has lasted.” Branswell reports:

“[In the past,] the pandemics that have been recorded have mainly been caused by flu. And in the recorded flu pandemics, there was generally a wave or two — sometimes, in some places three — and then humans and the new virus reached a detente. The new flu virus settled into causing seasonal flu activity, not pandemic flu.

“A lot of people STAT spoke to thought that was the way this pandemic would play out. They didn’t anticipate that we’d be where we are now, with waves of transmission still occurring at various points in the year, rather than during the winter, as is the way of most respiratory pathogens.

“‘I never would have imagined that three years later we would still be dealing with this in the way that it’s ever-present in our conversations and in our society,’ said Messonnier, the former CDC official….”

As a layperson, I never dreamed that after three years, we’d still be dealing with high levels of virus transmission, and serious health consequences. I’m glad to know that the experts are equally flummoxed.

And the second most interesting point, from my point of view: “The ripple effect.” Branswell summarizes what one expert said:

“…Hatchett, for all his studying of previous pandemics, wasn’t anticipating the geopolitical impacts of this one. He likens it to a meteor strike. [emphasis added]

“In addition to the crushing waves of illness, the lives lost, the swamping of hospitals, and the disruption to routine health care, he points to the economic disruption of the past couple of years, the onset of inflation, the spike in energy prices, and the upheaval in supply chains as all being of a piece….”

Another ripple effect not mentioned in the article, but which I see every day: the COVID pandemic has changed the shape of religion in the U.S. permanently. The pandemic accelerated the ongoing trend of disaffiliation from religious organizations. The pandemic is finishing off a fair number of congregations already weakened by the Great Recession in 2008. The pandemic deepened the divide between the conservative Christians who were vaccine deniers, and everyone else who was religious (and who had to explain that yes they were religious, but they were vaccinated). The pandemic advanced livestreaming acceptance incredibly rapidly. The pandemic is causing quite a few religious professionals to seek other lines of work….

The list goes on. Yes, it was like a meteor strike. Organized religion in the U.S. will never be the same.


Granitic rock with a gray-green crustose lichen growing on it.
Porpidia albocaerulescens?

This crustose lichen caught my eye while out walking today. I was especially taken by the dramatic apothecia, those dark gray spots outlined in a very dark gray. Unfortunately, I didn’t bring my hand lens with me, so I couldn’t take a good close look at the apothecia. But here’s what they look like when I blow up the photo:

Close-up of the above photo, showing the cup-like apothecia a little bit better.

I believe this lichen is Porpidia albocaerulescens, which is sometimes called the Smoky-eyed Boulder Lichen. However, identifying crustose lichens accurately seems to require a rock hammer (to get the sample off the rock) and a chemistry set (to carry out the chemical tests used for identification).


The year in review: Unitarian Universalism

These are a few of the things I’ve been watching in the Unitarian Universalist (UU) universe here in the United States:

Article II Study Commission

The commission charged with revising Article II of the bylaws of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) released draft wording of a revision. From the few reactions I’ve seen online or heard in person, I suspect most Unitarian Universalists (UUs) were expecting minor revisions to the existing wording. But the draft represents a major rewrite — mostly new wording, no more seven principles, no more six sources. Kudos to the Article II Study Commission for attempting a much-needed major rewrite.

The real question, however, is whether we can build consensus around this particular rewrite, or if this reqrite will evolve into something that we can build consensus around. Personally, I’m ready for the Purposes section of Article II to be rewritten, but I’m not excited by the new draft version. What will the lovers of the “seven principles” think of this major rewrite? Will they vote for it? And if there is consensus among the usual General Assembly attendees, a tiny percentage of all Unitarian Universalists in the U.S., will the new wording be widely accepted by the rank and file? I don’t think the answers to any of these questions are obvious.

UU blogs

There aren’t many UU bloggers left. Scott Wells has finally reduced his blogging to just a few times a year. Will Shetterly moved to SubStack, deleting his old blog. People like Patrick Murfin and Paul Wilczynski are still blogging regularly, but they rarely blog about Unitarian Universalism any more. And there are a few long-time UU bloggers barely hanging on to their blogs, like Peacebang — who used to be a blogging machine, but is now down to one or two posts a year — and Doug Muder, also down to a couple of posts a year.

Continue reading “The year in review: Unitarian Universalism”

Reviving the Perry Mason project

More than a decade ago, I created a checklist on this blog listing all the Perry Mason novels. I planned to write notes on each novel, talking about recurring characters, recurring or unusual plot devices, and mention of any interesting legal points. This project was abandoned for a number of years, but I finally decided to revive it (though it will remain on the back burner). Here it is: Perry Mason novels.

Part of the reason I’m putting this out there again is I have a faint hope that someone else who’s a fan of the Perry Mason novels will find the checklist, and contribute to it.


Scott wells no longer does much with his blog, but he’s active on Mastodon. And one of his Mastodon posts pointed me to InCoWriMo, or International Correspondence Writing Month.

The month is February. The idea is to write letters to random people all over the world. The tagline is “Vintage Social Media.”

How it works: People post their mailing addresses to the InCoWriMo website. Other people (maybe you, maybe me) write letters to them. I’m giving you enough advance notice so you can start watching their website.

Noted, with comment

I’m slowly making my way through Lewis Gordon’s new book, Fear of Black Consciousness. It’s slow going, because Gordon keeps dropping in this little observations that make me stop and think.

Like this one:

“The expression ‘black bodies’ pops up often wherever antiblack racism raises its ugly, and at times polite, head. It is there on blogs, in news interviews, in editorials in major newspapers, in broadcast lectures, and in award-winning books ranging from Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me to Ibram X. Kendi’s How To Be an Antiracist. It makes sense since racism involves a form of two-dimensional thinking in which black people supposedly lack inner lives. [Frantz] Fanon referred to this as ‘the epidermal schema.’ It refers to treating black people as mere surfaces, superficial physical beings without consciousness and thus a point of view — in short, only bodies. Yet in the midst of this attention to black bodies, many blacks are left wondering what happened to black people. How has it become acceptable — indeed, even preferable — for black people to refer to ourselves as ‘bodies’ instead of as ‘people’ or as ‘human beings’?” [pp. 31-32]

It is not for me, a white person, to tell black people how to refer to themselves. But I have been uncomfortable with the way it has become fashionable to refer to people, not just black people, as “bodies.” I suspect this comes from some kind of post-Foucauldian analysis, that is, an analysis that attempts to follow in the footsteps of philosopher Michel Foucault.

Foucault’s philosophy does place an emphasis on the body; his philosophy “aims to bring the body into the focus of history.” [Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, article on Michel Foucault, section 3.4]. This move by Foucault was brilliant and necessary, to help us understand how modern society uses hierarchy and discipline to control and punish people. I don’t think Foucault’s intent was to reduce persons to bodies; however, some of his followers may have adopted Foucauldian discourse without adequately reflecting on the deeply humanistic purpose of that discourse.

Returning to Lewis Gordon’s argument — Gordon points out that the term “bodies” is now being used in a way that can indeed reduce black persons to something less than three dimensional beings — reduce them to less than human. Whether Gordon is also offering a critique of Foucault isn’t something I can comment on, since I’m not up on Foucault (I admire his work, but reading him is a chore that I don’t care to put myself through). It does look like Gordon is suggesting that Fanon would be a more useful thinker if we’re going to explore this topic.

At the same time, I don’t hear Gordon telling people to stop using the term “bodies.” Rather, as a philosopher should do, he’s pointing out where public discourse has gotten imprecise, sloppy. He’s suggesting that writers and speakers should think hard about what they really mean when they use the term “bodies.” Is “bodies” the more precise term, or are the more precise terms “people” or “human beings”? It’s fine to use “bodies if that’s what is really meant (if you’re doing Foucauldian analysis), but Gordon clearly favors the latter two terms. If you’re talking about people, says Gordon, then say “people”; if you’re talking about human beings, then say “human beings.”

You can see how reading this book is slow going for me. I had to go look Foucault. And now I’m going to have to dig into Fanon. But this is what books by philosophers should do — cause us to think hard about the way we’ve been thinking.

When does personhood begin?

Judge Heather A. Welch, of the Marion Superior Court, Indiana, has issued a preliminary injunction against Indiana’s new anti-abortion law, SEA 1. The state of Indiana had previously passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which strengthens protections for the freedom to practice religion. Following the passage of SEA 1, Hoosier Jews for Choice and several anonymous plaintiffs sought an injunction, claiming that because of their religion (or lack of religion) they sincerely believed that life does not begin at conception. Thus, preventing them from having an abortion would violate their freedom to practice their religion.

In the Findings of Fact in the Order of Preliminary Injunction, Judge Welch reviews the beliefs of several religious traditions regarding when personhood begins (section III. B., pp. 8 ff.). Welch reviews the beliefs of five religious traditions: Judaism, Islam, Unitarian Universalism, Paganism, and Episcopalianism. The judge finds that all five of these religious traditions have beliefs that do not place the beginning of personhood at the moment of conception.

Judge Welch’s summary of Unitarian Universalist beliefs is only two paragraphs long. For those of us who are Unitarian Universalists, those two paragraphs are worth reading:

“iii. Unitarian Universalism

“23. The Unitarian Universalist community has long supported reproductive justice. (Declaration of Reverend Catherine Josephine Romano Griffin ¶ 7). A core belief of Unitarian Universalists is that every human being has inherent worth and dignity, which is an endowed right bestowed by the Creator. (Id. ¶ 8).

“24. Denying a pregnant person, the ability to obtain an abortion impinges on this endowed right. (Id. ¶ 10). Therefore, being denied the ability to obtain an abortion when a Unitarian Universalist believes the abortion is necessary breaks the covenant that adherents have to honor their own inherent worth and dignity. (Id. ¶ 11). In this situation, a Unitarian Universalist is directed to obtain an abortion to maintain the covenant. (Id.).”

(“Catherine Josephine Romano Griffin” is Katie Romano Griffin, who began serving as the minister of All Souls Unitarian Church, Indianapolis, this year.)

I’m interested to see how Judge Welch interprets one particular Unitarian Universalist belief. She writes: “that every human being has inherent worth and dignity, which is an endowed right bestowed by the Creator.” For someone like me, who spends way too much time thinking about Unitarian Universalist theology and philosophy, the last half of that sentence, “endowed right bestowed by the Creator,” is not correct. But I admit that it would take me several paragraphs to give a correct explanation of where inherent worth and dignity comes from. And then I’d have to write several more pages explaining why the word “inherent” needs to be carefully interpreted to avoid an inaccurate or even wrong understanding, and furthermore how understanding “worth and dignity” turns out to be far more complicated than it might appear. I think I’d also need to add several more pages explaining how the vagueness of the term “Creator” could lead to some fairly serious theological and philosophical misunderstandings.

But you know what? Judge Welch’s account is close enough for legal purposes.

One final comment: Even though I’ve long been uncomfortable with the Unitarian Universalist “seven principles,” I learned something from reading this ruling. As much as I want to revise the seven principles, there is enough specificity there to help a judge write a pretty good ruling.

The first rapper

I always thought of Gil Scot-Heron as the godfather of rap. But Ted Brooks and the Jubalaires antedated him by a couple of decades.

The Jubalaires formed as the Royal Harmony Singers in the late 1930s. Coming out of the Southern gospel tradition of Jubilee-style quartets, the Jubalaires went north to New York City. By 1946, they were regulars on the popular Arthur Godfrey radio program, and they had their own fifteen-minute program every Sunday morning as well. They were accompanied by a series of excellent jazz guitarists, but their music was mostly focused on tight vocal harmonies. As a gospel group, the topic of many of their songs was Bible stories or other religious topics.

So where does the rap come in? Well, one of their best known recordings is a song called “Noah.” After singing an introductory part in four-part harmony, baritone Theodore “Ted” Brooks takes the lead. But Brooks doesn’t sing, he raps. It wasn’t called rap back then, but today there’s no other word for it. His rhythm, his rhymes, the whole feel of it sounds a lot like some of the early rap I listened to back around 1980. I could almost imagine that Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five had listened to Ted Brooks, except that the members of that group were born in the late 1950s and early 1960s, well after the hey-day of the Jubalaires. And of course, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five did not take Bible stories for their topics. But if they had — if they had done something about the story of Noah, for example — we could imagine that it might have sounded something like Ted Brooks in the mid-1940s:

“Hey children, stop, be still and listen to me,
When God walked down to the brandy sea
He declared that the evil descend from man,
And then he decided to destroy the land.
He spoke to Noah, and Noah stopped.
He said, ‘Noah, I want you to build me an ark,
‘I want you to build it three cubits long,
‘I want you to build it big and strong,
‘I want it thirty high and fifty wide
‘So it will stand the wind and tide.’…”

Black and white photo of four men wearing 1940s style suits and ties. One man stands in the center, and is the lead singer. The three others stand around and behind him.
Screen grab from a video of “Noah” by the Jubalaires, c. 1946. Ted Brooks is in the center.

Hard to believe that the first rapper was making rhymes about Bible stories. Now I’ve got to figure out a way to use this in a Sunday school curriculum….

More Jubalaires with rapped verses: God’s Gonna Cut You Down (not sure who takes the lead on this recording; this was later covered by Johnny Cash); The Preacher and the Bear (is that Caleb Ginyard taking the lead? I’m not sure).


I was talking with one of the elders in our congregation this afternoon. Somehow, we got to talking about classical music. She happened to know a great deal about opera, and asked me if I knew Ileana Cotrubas. I didn’t. She played me a short recording.

Now, I tend to prefer mezzo-sopranos to sopranos, and non-operatic sopranos to operatic sopranos; give me Jan De Gaetani or Catherine King over Beverly Sills or Maria Callas any day. So I did not expect to like Ileana Cotrubas.

But, to my surprise, I really liked the recordings she played for me: a lovely warm voice that didn’t get brittle on the high notes; extraordinary articulation; not too much vibrato. So I’ve just spent way too much time on Youtube listening to Cotrubas — like this recording of her singing an aria from La Boheme.

This reminded me of a visit Carol and I paid to my father in his last year. He was wheelchair bound, couldn’t talk; it was hard to know how much cognitive ability he had left. He had always been a real opera buff, so Carol and I decided to play some Youtube recordings of opera for him. I found a recording of Beverly Sills, and started to play it. Dad’s face turned into a big scowl. “Oops, sorry Dad,” I said. “I forgot that you don’t like Beverly Sills.” Actually, it was worse than that, he actively disliked her, saying her voice was too hard or brittle or something, I’ve forgotten exactly what now. So I quickly found a recording of Maria Callas; he always liked Maria Callas. His scowl went away, and we spent several happy minutes listening to Maria Callas. (Mind you, I don’t care for Maria Calls, but I was happy that we found something that gave Dad pleasure.)

It’s funny how I, like my father, have these visceral, unreasoning, and very strong preferences regarding vocal quality. There are some singers that I want to listen to, and other singers — as much as I might appreciate their artistry or expertise — that I’d rather avoid. This applies to speakers, too. So, for example, there are some ministers whose artistry I admire, but I don’t want to listen to them; and there are other ministers to whom I’m always ready to listen.

My mother would have said, “They can’t help their voice,” excusing those people whose voices I don’t like. Sorry, Mom. It’s completely irrational, but there it is. And — sorry, Dad, that I ever thought you’d want to listen to Beverly Sills….


On Mastodon, a number of people have been commenting on John Scalzi’s recent blog post calling for an “Artisanal Web.” Blogger Amod Lele also comments on Scalzi’s post. Let’s go back to hosting our own websites, says Scalzi, and interacting with other people’s websites. In other words, he’s calling for a return to blogging.

(I note that back in 2005, Scalzi said it was pointless to start blogging. Anyone who started a blog in 2005, according to Scalzi, was too late to the party, and no one would read their blog. I didn’t listen to him, started my blog in 2005, and within five years had 50K unique visitors a month, a huge number for a very niche blog. Moral: Don’t listen to the advice of pundits.)

To be honest, I see no future in Scalzi’s call for a mass-movement “Artisanal Web.” Only a small minority of the world’s population is compulsive about reading and writing. And only a small minority of the world’s compulsive readers and writers enjoy setting up their own website to publish their works. Blogging requires compulsive readers and writers who love setting up their own websites and/or finding other people’s websites and leaving comments. Blogging never was a mass movement (back in the oughts, most blogs stumbled along for a few months, then got abandoned), and I don’t think blogging ever will be a mass movement.

So let’s just admire blogging for what it actually is. A few of us who are compulsive writers put our stuff out there, and a few of us who are compulsive readers read that stuff and sometimes comment on it. We have a heck of a lot of fun, and occasionally there’s some really good writing, both in blog posts and in comments. We don’t need an “Artisanal Web” — all we need is some really good writing once in a while.

Having said all this, I’m glad you sometimes stop by to read this blog. You’ll find a list of some other blogs that I enjoy on my blogroll. And if you feel so moved, write about some of your favorite blogs in a comment.