Photo:Hour

I realized the other day that it’s been just over forty years since I started my first full time job, at a one hour photo lab called Photo:Hour.

I’d majored in Elementary Education, to be a teacher, right in the middle of the demographic ebb between the end of the Baby Boom and the Boomers starting to have their own children. This I knew going into it. And then, the November I graduated, Proposition 2 1/2 passed, cutting property taxes, and suddenly schools were laying off teachers.

I’d seen an ad for an assistant manager position for a photo lab in January of 1982, and interviewed in the basement office of the Winter Street store with the owner, Tom Giampapa, and then… heard nothing. And then six weeks later, they called. Turns out the guy they’d originally hired had quit. Still being unemployed, I took the job.

When I started, one hour photo processing was brand new, and we were the only lab in all of New England. It also helped that Tom had a friend in the company that did the MBTA’s advertising; we had car cards in every Red and Orange line train.

For the first year, the store was crazy busy. It was Gary, the manager, Marcial, a full time employee who was great in the lab, but whose English wasn’t good enough to work the counter, an ever changing cast of part timers, Tom, and myself. Tom split his time between working the store and scouting out locations for our second store. Generally, I would open and take the 8 – 4:30 shift, and Gary would come in at 9:30 and close at 6.

I always thought of it like a photo MASH unit — meatball photography, try to do a good job, but never enough time to do as good of a job as you would like. There was never enough time to do all the maintenance needed, to run all the control strips you were supposed to, or make over all the pictures that needed it. On the other hand, I know for a fact that our work was better than a lot of other places.

Part of the problem was that the company just didn’t pay well. We paid lab techs slightly above minimum wage, but not much, so we were always losing people. It happened over and over again — we’d hire someone, get them trained, we would run fully staffed for a couple of months, and then they’d quit, and we’d be short handed again. My dominant memory is running crazy busy because we didn’t have enough people.

Besides the counter, there were three positions in the lab — film load/unload, printing, and packaging/QA. Loading the film processor was pretty easy — the hardest thing was training people NOT to put the wrong kind of film in it, and packaging the pictures up was relatively simple, and most people were able to pick up what our standards were for pictures that required a redo. But printing…. that took a while to learn, and some people never could learn to do it well, or quickly enough. You had to pull the film strip through the negative carrier, and then make a judgement about the subject of the film, and bias the exposure accordingly. A picture on the snow? Use -3 density. A picture shot on flash against a dark background? Use +5 density. You could be off by a button either way and still have an acceptable print, but beyond that, the print would either be washed out or too dark. And you had to decide fast, there was no time to agonize, and in fact, the best operators used what I called Force printing (as in “use the Force”)

As an assistant manager, I was also responsible for helping to keep the lab running properly. Every day we would run “control strips” through both the film and paper processors. These were Kodak-exposed pieces of film and photographic paper that we would run through each processor, and then read on the densitometer and compare the readings to pre-processed sample. If the control strips were within certain bounds, the process was healthy. If the plots crossed certain limits, you needed to take action, and if they were outside the outer bounds, you were supposed to stop.

We would also expose a “bullseye” print every day, using a test negative and accompanying test print. Again, we would read the result on the densitometer, and if any value was more than four points away from the standard, or if the largest difference was more that five points, we had to enter a correction into the printer, rerun the bullseye, and hope it was better.

On a monthly basis, we would check the channels for individual brands of film, and make corrections. I always hated this job. On the one hand, the work did tend to look better when the machine was in tune. On the other hand, the densitometers Tom bought were always flaky and prone to variations, so it usually took several tries to hone in.

I was just starting to feel comfortable that I had a handle on the job in early 1983. Tom had signed a lease for a store in Medford, and we planned that Gary would take that store and I would take over Winter Street. And then one morning, Gary was late. Tom came in, and went downstairs to look at the previous day’s receipts. Minutes later he was back up stairs; Gary had taken the money, left a note, and disappeared. Three weeks later, the state police came by looking for him, for what, I don’t know.

That was one of the craziest periods I can remember. We were about three weeks away from opening Medford, and suddenly, we not only had to set it up, but we had to hire and train a second manager, as well as a replacement for Marcial, who we were going to transfer to Medford. I was basically the only person who knew how to handle the machines and their set up, and I was working six days a week. This led to the My Dead Body Story.

We’d managed to hire a couple of new people to fill the manager and assistant manager slots and they were all working Winter Street, trying to learn the ropes. The Medford store had been built, the machines installed, and were up and running, but the printer needed to be programmed — the same process as above, balancing channel 00 using bulleyes, then setting up the individual channels, only all from scratch, and all at the same time. Tom called from Medford and told me to get a taxi (my first one) and head over.

As soon as I get there, we get a call from Winter Street — paper is jamming in the dryer and they can’t get it to stop jamming and I can’t talk them through it on the phone, and they’re falling behind. So I head back to Boston, get them fixed, and help them get caught up. By 4, it looks like we’re stable again, so I head back over to Medford.

Tom and I work until 10:30, sort of getting the printer balanced. He’s promised to drive me back to the Route 128 station, where my car is parked, since there’s no train service that late. He stops at a 24 hour gas station near Wellington Circle for gas, and then gets partway around the circle before his truck starts to splutter out and die — the idiot attendant had put diesel fuel in the gasoline tank. Tom manages somehow to coast back into the station, which is now closed while the attendant has a drink, and calls his wife to pick us up. It takes a while since she has to pack the kids into the back of the station wagon and then drive over to Medford.

In the meantime, Tom has discovered a petcock on the bottom of his gas tank, and decides, when his wife gets there, to have her tow us, with the petcock open, through the streets of Medford, only to find there are no others open. Defeated, he then heads back to Route 128 to drop me off. It’s about 1:30 now, the place is deserted, and I just want to get to bed since I have to be back at work at 9.

As I walk up the road to my car, I see another car coming down the road towards me. Uh oh. Is it some teenagers looking for a place to drink? Is it the police? No, it’s my mother, with the dog in the back of the car, looking for my dead body. “Get back home” she snarls; the end of a perfect day.


I was with Photo:Hour for around 17 years, which was about 16 too many. I went from store manager to district manager back to store manager to running the Hanover store myself as the company grew and then contracted. I came to really despise myself for sticking around, but I couldn’t bring myself to find another job. Jon Landy, who became the first manager of Medford, then moved back down to our big Washington Mall store in Boston and I used to discuss it; we felt the same way. “Why am I still here?”

It was a combination of things. In the beginning, Tom was holding out the possibility of promotion as the company grew. He kept telling me that once we had enough stores I would take over the job of supervising them. Eventually, I did do that, but then business took a turn for the worse, and I was back where I started.

Then there was a sense of not having any skills that anyone would want. By the mid 90’s, I’d become a decent computer user, but had no programming skills other than a little BASIC, and the development job market was harder to break into back then, or at least, it appeared to be.

Also, I was definitely fond of Tom Giampapa. He was cheap, for sure, and we were all convinced he was being penny-wise and pound-foolish by not investing in advertising and picking less than optimal locations. But he could be a hell of a lot of fun to be around. When things were going well, he had a big booming laugh, and a great sense of humor. And I always, always, felt that he was looking out for me. My last job, at Andela, the pay was great, and the benefits lavish, but I never had the sense they had their employees’ backs. For Tom, firing was a last resort, not a first.

And finally, he gave me the scope to keep the job interesting. If there was something that needed to be done, and it looked interesting, I could do it. As long as the store was running and the customers were coming in, he was happy. I wanted to do the redesign of the photo processing envelopes? He let me. I had an idea for turning a roll of edge-fogged paper, useless for customer work, into coupons? Great. In hindsight, working now where everything has to be on a ticket, and assigned to the current sprint to take it on, being able to have ideas and act on them with little interference was a wonderful thing,

New Apple Silicon Mac

Last fall, Apple replaced their Intel based MacBook Pros with new ones using Apple Silicon. This past November, I bought one, replacing my previous Intel 16″ MacBook Pro with the M1 Pro equivalent.

If I’m being honest, I really can’t justify the purchase, other than “I wanted it, and can afford it”. The old computer was only two years old; typically I’ve gotten at least three and sometimes four years out of a computer before getting a new one. But everything I’ve heard and read about these new computers said they were fantastic.

A couple of years ago, I wrote, “Apple has gotten to a place where each new product is just as notable for the things that have been removed as they are for their improvements.” This generation of computers reverses that, and makes just the set of trade-offs that I asked for — it has built in ports for SD cards, HDMI, and a MagSafe power adapter; instead of optimizing for being as thin as possible, it’s designed to provide the utility people need while being no thicker than necessary.

The other big change is the heart of the computer. My previous Mac used an Intel central processing unit (CPU). Now, Apple is transitioning to its own series of Systems On Chip (SOCs), the M1 series. They started in late 2020 with the low end, the M1. This year they extended the line with the M1 Pro and M1 Max, which have more high speed cores, more graphic processing units (GPUs) and more memory bandwidth for more demanding uses. The two chips have the same number of processing cores – 8 performance cores and 2 efficiency cores used to save power under light load. The difference is the memory bandwidth and number of GPUs — the M1 Pro has 16 GPUs; the M1 Max is available in either 24 or 32 GPU cores, and supports more memory.

As I said, I wanted this computer, but couldn’t honestly justify it. So I waffled a few weeks, and played with the configurator. There were two factors that decided me (besides the “I want it” factor).

The first is that this is a major change in Apple’s architecture for the Mac, and I wanted in on that. The current version of macOS does currently run on Intel Macs, but there are already a number of features that are only available on Apple Silicon. They’ve clearly decided that they’re not going to support Intel any more that they have to, and this will become even more pronounced as time goes by.

The second factor is that the trade in allowance for Intel Macs is dropping rapidly. Shortly after the new Macs came out, I ran through their trade in calculator, and got an estimate of around $1700. By the time November came, the trade in had dropped to $1300, and I knew that the price was going to continue to fall, and that I did want an Apple Silicon machine. I placed the order.

I went back and forth on it for a while, but I decided to go with the M1 Pro model rather than the M1 Max. For me, ample storage and memory are more important, and I was already spending a lot of money to match the memory and storage specs of my old machine — 32GB of memory and 2 TB of storage. One the one hand, going to the Max would have only added $200 – $400 to what was already a $3600 machine; and bragging rights would be nice, but I’m not a video producer and if I’m being honest, I’ll have a hard time pushing this machine to the limit.

It took about 3 weeks for them to build the machine and ship it; it arrived a couple of days before Christmas. I had one very bad moment when my mother’s home health aide said she’d found an empty box on the front steps; for a moment I had visions of my very expensive Christmas toy being stolen. Then I realized it was probably the trade in carton for my old machine. Heart attack averted.

Physically, it looks bigger than the Intel machine — the bottom shell of that machine was tapered beginning at about an inch and a half from all the edges, so edge-on, it looked thinner than it was. This machine has no taper, so it’s thickness is more apparent.

Transferring my data was simple; I just ran Migration Assistant on both machines and they transferred my data from the old machine to the new wirelessly overnight.

Both machines were running the same version of macOS, so there was no dramatic difference in the experience of using it. The first thing that struck me is that the screen is sharper and more brilliant; I was looking at some fall foliage pictures I’d taken, and was just blown away how sharp and detailed everything looked. There is a smidge more vertical space because there is less bezel at the top. The price of the increased space is that there is a notch at the top of the screen where the camera is. In practice, you just don’t notice it.

The next most noticeable thing for me is that Photos has become a lot more responsive. I’ve been re-adjusting old pictures and it’s pretty snappy.

On the downside, I’ve been finding a lot more software issues that I’m accustomed to in a Mac. I keep getting messages that “suggestd”, an internal daemon, has crashed, and it’s been having trouble completing its first Time Machine backup.

Overall, I feel a little guilty having spent a lot of money I really didn’t need to, but I’m happy to have it and look forward to seeing what kinds of things running Apple Silicon will allow.

The Tyranny of the Stupid

I think the single most upsetting thing about the pandemic is the sheer amount of stupid running rampant in the country. This country, that once sent men to the moon six times and out-fought and out-manufactured the Axis powers in World War II, has fallen prey to nitwits and charlatans who won’t take the science of the situation seriously.

These folks are so adamant about asserting their personal freedoms that they forget that with freedom comes responsibility, including the responsibility to choose to do the right thing, both to protect themselves, and others. You may have the right to be stupid, but you shouldn’t choose to be, and your right to be stupid ends where it affects my freedoms.

Last year, because we were stupid, we let let the pandemic get out of hand. Because the stupid would not refrain from gathering, and refused to wear masks, the virus spread further than it should have.

Last Thanksgiving and Christmas, because people were too stupid and too selfish to give up the gratification of holiday fun, the virus spiked, and people died. Needlessly.

Now we have vaccines that are highly effective, free, and widely available. And yet people still won’t take them. Because people are stupid, the virus is spiking again, and people are dying again. And for no good reason. While the vaccines are not completely risk-free, the odds of having a problem are exceedingly low. Millions of doses have been given out; the number of people who have had serious complications from the virus is around a couple hundred,

Because people are stupid, COVID restrictions will be coming back, even for those of us who have been vaccinated. Because people are stupid, there is more COVID around, and the odds of vaccinated people getting a breakthrough infection are higher. It won’t send us to the hospital or kill us like it would an unvaccinated person, but it’s still needlessly unpleasant. And of course, it can kill the unvaccinated. But because people are stupid, mask mandates will be coming back for sure, and if that doesn’t work, authorities will have to decide whether to implement further restrictions to protect people who are too stupid to protect themselves.

Because people are stupid, medical people, who have been dealing with crushing workloads and the emotional burden of dealing with comforting dying people, are dealing with a new load, this time, more or less self-inflicted,

Because people are stupid, we are having get used to there being a spike in cases in the two weeks following each holiday.

I’m not asking for the government to require vaccines. But I wish people would freely choose to do the smart thing.

Brown Paper Bags

I had to go grocery shopping in a different supermarket than I usually do the other night. For the first time in a long time, my groceries were in brown paper bags rather than plastic, and it took me back to my childhood.

Growing up, I was a big fan of both Lost In Space, and to a lesser extent, Star Trek. (Until it went into syndication, Star Trek was normally on too late for me). Inspired by these TV shows, we used to play “Space Ship”, where we would pretend to be on a futuristic space ship. Of course, a space ship needs control panels, and I would create them, drawing them on, you guessed it, brown paper grocery bags.

Grocery bags had the advantage of being free, were fairly large and, when folded, were relatively stiff. I did several iterations of control panels, as the panels would mysteriously disappear after a while. My panels were heavily inspired by Lost In Space — I distinctly remember drawing the panels of blinking lights — in reality, displays from a Burroughs B205 computer that 20th Century Fox was able to get ahold of — but as time went on, I started to use my own imagination and try to figure out what kind of functions I would want to control — environment for one, navigation for another and came up with UIs for them. I can’t say they were good UIs, but in a way, they helped foster in my interest in user interfaces.

Looking back, I also think it was a wonderful form of unstructured play, on several counts. First, of course, was the creative aspect of creating the control panels. While derived from what I saw on TV, I improvised on what I saw. There was a fair amount of lettering on them, and I think I tried to use something that looked like it belonged on a control panel, rather than simple printing, which helped foster my interest in typography.

Then there were the “Space ship” sessions themselves. I would typically be playing with my sister or sisters, and a couple of kids from the neighborhood. Totally unstructured, totally undirected, we made the rules ourselves, and as long as we didn’t fight with each other or get too loud, my mother really didn’t interfere, aside from sending the neighbors home when it was time.

It bothers me to see how structured the lives of kids are nowadays. They’re involved in many more activities that I was, and I assume at least some of them are fun, but they’re all scheduled, and they’re mostly directed by adults. They don’t get to have unstructured time in many cases, and when they do, some of them don’t know what to do with it. I think kids need to have unstructured, undirected time to create their own games.

They could do worse than grabbing some crayons, some recycled brown paper bags, and creating their own worlds to play in.

This is Why You Teach History

Back when we could get together, one of the things we would do as a family is play a game called “Salad Bowl”. It’s a group game; each person writes the names of 10 people, real or fictional, living or dead, onto slips of paper, folds them up, and drops them into a salad bowl. Then you divide into teams. Each round, one person from each team draws slips from the bowl, and try to provide clues to their teammates so they can guess each name. The team that’s able to guess the most names wins. If you know who the person is, it’s a lot easier to give clues than if you don’t. Part of the strategy of the game is picking names that your teammates will know, but will stump your opponents.

We were playing a few years back, and I decided to throw “George III” into the bowl. I frankly figured it would be a gimme – who doesn’t know the British king the American colonies rebelled against during the American Revolution?

My nephew, that’s who. At that point, he was a high school senior, and had no idea who George III, and wound up using my brother’s middle name as a clue. Apparently they teach social studies at his school, not history.


History does repeat itself. It repeats itself because we’re human, and human nature doesn’t change. And this is why I was leery of Donald Trump even in 2016. in “How Did We Get Here“, I wrote, “Trump really worries me. I do see the parallels to the rise of Nazism in Germany in his campaign.” The demonization of an outside group, in this case, Muslims and immigrants, the creation of a cult of personality, the appeal to nationalism; these are all parts of the Nazi playbook.

Right after the 2016 election, I was hopeful that Trump would tone things down, and recognize the rule of law. He didn’t. He doubled down on the incendiary rhetoric.

And finally, came the 2020 election. I don’t think everyone who voted against him disagreed with his more mainstream positions. I think there were a fair number of conservative people, like John McCain’s widow, who held their noses and voted against Trump, because they perceived that he was a threat to our democracy. If you had learned about the rise of the Nazis in 1930s Germany, it was pretty easy to see the parallels.

And so it proved to be. He continued to spout lies about the election, and I think a fair part of the populace, disarmed by a lack of historical knowledge, bought them. If you didn’t have the historical grounding to see through it, if your only grounding in civics is social media, it was easy to be duped. And this is how the assault on the Capitol happened.

I don’t know how this will play out. The night of the riot, there was clearly a sense of norms having been breached. Twitter has cut Trump off, as have other social media outlets. There were a lot of everyday people in postwar Germany who had to live with the fact that they had been casual Nazis, and were horrified once they saw what they ultimate conclusion of that was. I hope that’s what happens here – that the scales fall from the eyes of the Trump supporters, and they see what a petty, narcissistic, possibly even delusional man he is. But I’m not confident. We had a really close shave this time. Will our institutions withstand the next assault on them?

It’s up to us.

The Christmas That Isn’t

It’s Christmastime… but it isn’t. Not with COVID it isn’t.

Normally we would have a big family get-together Christmas Eve. Not this year. Last year, we weren’t able to, with Mum in rehab for her strokes. I was really hoping at the beginning of the year that we could have our get-together again this year. Nope. We’re going to have to content ourselves with video calls this year. Hopefully, we’ll be able to do it in 2021.

We’ve gone up to Rockport most years for the past several years, to shop the stores on Bearskin Neck, and see the decorations. Mum was very fond of the Christmas pageant, because it was a re-enactment of the Nativity. Even if we wanted to take the risk, it’s just not feasible this year.

I’ve gone Christmas shopping every year since I was in college. This year, I ordered a couple of things off Amazon, and that was it. (To be fair, most of this is due to the fact that none of the nephews and nieces are little anymore, and most of my siblings agreed long ago not to do packages.

I wasn’t sure I even wanted to do a tree this year. I’m frankly not feeling it much this year, and I was concerned about laying out the living room — Mum now spends most of the day in her chair in the living room, and whatever I did, I would need to ensure that there was room for the chair and room for her to maneuver with the walker.

Most years, I like to make an occasion of putting up the tree, but not this year. I was also aware that I’d be doing most of the work of putting it up and taking it down. In the end, Mum wanted one, and I realized I did too, so I picked up a relatively narrow tree.

As it happened, there was a gash in the bark about 4 inches from the bottom. We had this a couple of years ago, and ended up with a tree that dried out pretty rapidly, so this year, I made a new cut above the gash, and cut off the lower branches. This had the benefit of making the tree smaller overall — both narrower, and shorter. I was able to use two fewer strings of lights. This meant I was able to skip the older LED lights I’ve been using for the past couple of years. My first set of LED lights were too blue for my taste; eventually, I found a couple of strings of warmer colored LED lights that I like much better. With only the warm LEDs and one string of mini-incandescent lights, this year’s tree is much more pleasing to me. And I was able to fit the angel on the top easily for the first time this year.

Christmas tree and Mum
Christmas tree and Mum

Even though it’s smaller, it’s still a pretty nice tree. And there’s still room for Mum next to it.

Still Alive, but in Limbo

Yes, I’m still alive. Yes, I know I haven’t posted anything since August 31.

About three weeks after that last post, my mother fell several times the same day. After the first fall, I asked if she was OK, and she brushed me off, and I went to work. When I came down for coffee, she’d fallen again, and in fact, she had fallen two other times, managed to catch herself, and didn’t say anything. I insisted she go to her doctor, who inspected her for a few minutes, and sent her across the street to Norwood Hospital in an ambulance, where we found out she’d had a stroke. (Pro tip from her doctor, when a relative has had a fall like this, just call EMS and let them deal with convincing the patient she needs attention).

It’s been a loooooong fall. She’s been in and out of three acute care hospitals (Norwood, Brigham and Womens, and Mass General), and had a couple more strokes, plus a bleeding episode when they got too aggressive with the blood thinners. She’s been back and forth from Spaulding Rehab for about six weeks, and she’s finally scheduled for discharge to a skilled nursing facility tomorrow.

My boss has been very supportive, and I’ve been trying to keep up with work, but between work, keeping up with the essential house and yard work, and hospital time, there just hasn’t been much time for myself. I’ve been letting a lot of stuff slide.

Because I live with her, I feel like my whole life is in flux right now. I don’t know when or if she’s coming home, or what kind of help she’ll need if she gets back.

Emotions are running high for all of us right now. It doesn’t take much to make me well up, and I know my siblings are in the same boat. I went to see the WinterLights installation over the weekend with my sister, brother and sister-in-law, and it was really nice to do something fun and relatively normal. But at the same time, I couldn’t help but remember that Mum would have loved to have been with us.

I’m hoping that maybe they’ve finally found a balance between preventing further clots and causing bleeds, and that she can continue to progress in the rehab facility. Spaulding was very good to her, but it’s been an ordeal getting over there; about an hour each way. The new place is much closer, and I’m hoping for more time for myself. But it will take a while to feel comfortable that there won’t be any more emergencies for a while.

July 20, 1969

I remember the Apollo 11 landing.

I was 9, almost 10, and had been a rabid fan of the space program. I remember watching the later Gemini launches. I remember building a Saturn V model with my Dad, and building larger models of the Apollo spacecraft itself.

We had just started our two weeks on the Cape. Mum had been visiting her sister in New York, so I’d had to watch the launch at my uncle’s house, but she was back, and we were on the Cape. It was only our fourth year at Sands Road.

Dad and his brothers had found the mast of an old boat, and were going to erect it at the Cape house as a flag pole. I remember them spending the morning planing down the bottom of the mast so it would fit into the steel sleeve that would actually go into the ground, and adding the fittings to it. I remember the bright gold ball at the top.

And then around 4, Mum called me into the house. The landing was about to happen. And on a snowy, staticky black and white TV, I saw Walter Cronkite announce the landing. What I did not notice, as I was too young, was what a close thing it had been, how close to running out of fuel they had come.

Then I went back out, to see Dad and his brothers finish erecting the flagpole. They’d set it in concrete, and in the base of it, Dad had inscribed, “ON THIS DAY, SUNDAY JULY 20, 1969 MAN LANDED ON THE MOON”

According to the flight plan, the astronauts were supposed to rest after the landing, with the moonwalk in the middle of the night, way too late for a little boy. But then the astronauts requested permission to go out onto the surface first, and rest later — they were too keyed up to sleep, and Houston agreed. This would take them outside around 10. Could I possibly stay up that late?

My mother said no, and sent me off to bed, deeply unhappy. Then Dad came upstairs, and told me I could watch the moonwalk after all. So I came back down and watched. The reception was crummy — without cable, television on the Cape was snow and static. It seemed to take forever for Armstrong come out of the LM — it took a long time to get ready, and to drain all the air out of the spacecraft, and then open the door.

Then finally, a fuzzy white blob came down the screen, and we heard the words, “Thats one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

My parents let me stay up a little while longer. I think I saw Aldrin come down too; I don’t remember if I saw the President’s phone call to them. But I’d seen enough; I’d seen the historic first steps. And I remember the newspapers the next day, with their huge headlines, “MAN WALKS ON MOON”

Putting up, and taking down the flag became part of our Cape Cod rituals. I would run the flag up the pole around 8:30, and take it down and respectfully fold it into triangles at the end of the day.

The flagpole is still there, but rarely used nowadays. The concrete with the inscription was broken a while back to permit the pole to be repainted, but it’s been a long time since and the paint is nearly gone, and the inscription is barely visible. I’d love to restore it.

For someone who was so deeply invested in the space program as a child, I haven’t been that much into the 50th anniversary hoopla; I’m not sure why. I first read Command Module Pilot Mike Collin’s book, Carrying the Fire, decades ago, and have re-read it several times since. It’s one of the best accounts of the mission I’ve seen, and I keep a copy on my phone and iPad, and dip into it from time to time, including today. And I did see the IMAX Apollo 11 movie.

But I haven’t been watching all the specials and news coverage. I haven’t bothered to watch the videos of Cronkite’s coverage on YouTube yet. I suppose part of it is a distrust of hoopla, and an annoyance with the typically shallow coverage things get nowadays — I can often pick holes in the Apollo coverage.

But I suspect that part of it is that I remember.

Ex Post Facto

One of the earliest constitutional protections we have–even before the Bill of Rights — is that neither the federal nor the states can pass ex post facto laws, which are laws that retroactively criminalize an act which was permitted before, or retroactively make the punishment worse than it was before, or changes the rules of evidence in such a way that makes it easier to get a conviction.

This means that if I do something that is not against the law today, and a law is passed forbidding it next week, I cannot be prosecuted for it, because the law criminalizing it was passed after the act. The term is derived from Latin meaning “out of the aftermath”.

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The Damage Trump Does

Shortly after the 2016 election, I wrote “So, Trump.” In it, I expressed the cautious hope that Trump would “pivot away from his more extreme positions, and perform reasonably,” and ended up concluding “it will come down to his willingness to be bound by the rule of law. If he recognizes that, while it won’t be great, we’ll be OK”.

Since then, I’ve been heartsick about what he has done to this country.

The American Constitution has been rightly celebrated for creating a government of checks and balances, and the way it balances the rights of individuals with the needs of the community to have law and order. It is set up to prevent too much power from accumulating in any one institution, and allows one branch of government to check another.

But just as important as the letter of the law in the Constitution, is the culture of respect for the law that has grown up around it. America was incredibly lucky in the Founding Fathers we had; they believed in the rule of law, and were respectful of it. Washington stepped down voluntarily after two terms; when John Adams was defeated, he made as many lame duck appointments as he could, but he also accepted the verdict of the election, and came home to Braintree. And when Jefferson became President, there were no purges of Federalists; the streets did not run with blood.

Over time time, this respect for the law became institutional and cultural. Sure, there have always been fights and arguments and disagreements, but they have been, for the most part, within the rule of law, because we’ve all internalized those values.

Character matters.  It matters especially with public servants. We expect them to have internalized the values our legal system was designed to promote. It is very hard to write rules to cover every contingency; oftentimes, it’s not hard to find a way to follow the letter of the law while flouting its spirit. Character matters with public servants because we have to be able to trust them to do what’s right, to respect our principles, and to put our interests ahead of their own, and we have to be able to trust them to do it, because it’s right, not because they’re afraid of getting caught.

About 10 – 15 years ago, a large company wanted to put a large complex in our neighborhood. The neighborhood organized, and it ended up in front of the local Zoning Board. I was so impressed by the Board. They were fair to both sides, they listened, they asked intelligent questions. It was clear that they were after what was best for the Town. They were what I expect from every public servant.

Trump is morally bankrupt. It’s rich that he and his mouthpieces bray about “Fake News” when he has no respect for the truth. I don’t think he would know what the truth is if it came up and bit him. He even lies stupidly, about silly things that don’t matter and are easily checked. He can’t help himself. He has – needlessly – squandered the trust in the office that the office requires.

He doesn’t think, he just reacts. He is constantly undermining subordinates, and tossing bombs foolishly on Twitter. He constantly needs to have his ego stroked.

He has made it very clearly that he regards racism and misogyny to be acceptable behavior, which has emboldened the racists and misogynists to come scuttling out of the woodwork.

Even before the 2016 election, it was clear that, at the very best, he had little respect for women, and at worse, was an abuser.

He has filled the government with the corrupt or the incompetent, or the corrupt and incompetent in the case of the EPA head.

Frankly, I believe he has sold us out to the Russians for the sake of his own business interests, and is following Putin’s instructions that will (and I don’t know if he is bright enough to realize it) wind up damaging our government, our nation, and our allies. I don’t know it, but I believe it.  I am hoping the FBI can either prove or disprove it.

But whether he is Putin’s Little Puppet or not, the damage he has done to our political culture is incalculable. He is dissipating the culture of respect for the law that has kept this nation going since its founding, and that’s the damage I worry about the most. He is constantly demonstrating that you can get away with flouting our values, that you can get away with disregarding inconvenient laws. You can get away with demonizing the free press, despite the fact that a free press is one of our core values. We cannot afford this erosion of respect for the law, because when the law is not respected, it cannot protect us any longer.

So far, he has kept — or been kept — within at least the letter of the law (mostly), but he has brought us a lot closer to the point where we are vulnerable to the kind of government takeovers we used to think could only happen in undeveloped countries. It doesn’t take much. Just a leader who feels above the law, and a force that will follow. It’s clear that Trump leans toward totalitarianism; whether he feels he could follow through, I don’t know, but whether he knows it or not, he is paving the way for some even more unscrupulous person.

I started this essay a few months ago; I set it aside because I couldn’t express what I was feeling. The mid term elections give me a little hope; it’s clear that respect for the law and our values is alive within many citizens, and they have made their disapproval known.