COVID-19 quarantine reading list

Like many of you, I am practicing “social distancing” in response to the ongoing COVID-19/coronavirus pandemic. 

It occurred to me that the global public health crisis may make many readers more interested in the history of plagues, microbiology, etc., than would usually be the case. 

Here are three books from my library on such topics, which you might enjoy reading. These are nonfiction titles. (Links go to Amazon)

Plagues and Peoples by William H. McNeill

The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History by John M. Barry

Virus: An Illustrated Guide to 101 Incredible Microbes by Marilyn J. Roossinck

Also, from Science: Why do dozens of diseases wax and wane with the seasons—and will COVID-19?

Beware the Ides of March

Today, March 15, is known as the “Ides of March”. In Ancient Rome, the Ides of March was a common deadline for settling debts.

Most of us remember the Ides of March from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, in which a soothsayer tells the play’s eponymous protagonist to “beware the Ides of March”.

The real Julius Caesar was indeed stabbed on the Ides of March in 44 BC. Here’s a bit more information on the Ides of March and its significance.

Daylight savings 2020

I have a finely tuned interior clock. I woke up this morning, certain that it could be no later than 4:00 a.m.

I checked the time on my iPhone.

It was almost 5:00 a.m.

What was up with that? I wondered.

Then I remembered: Today is the beginning of daylight savings time in most of the United States. Clocks move ahead by one hour. (Spring forward, fall back.)

I’m no fan of daylight savings time. Having made many trips between the US and Japan, I know firsthand how disruptive sudden changes in a person’s sleep patterns can be. After every return trip from Japan, I find myself growing unbearably sleepy in the middle of the afternoon. I usually require a full week before I return to my normal sleep cycle.

Granted, daylight savings entails a change of only one hour; but it’s nevertheless disruptive for many people. Each year, there is an uptick in accidents on the first Monday of daylight savings. (I usually notice some minor effects for about a week—though they’re nothing like the jet lag from a trip to Asia.)

I don’t reject the concept of daylight savings time outright. But like so much in our present age—from cell phone usage to political correctness—daylight savings has been taken to a ridiculous extreme.

When I was a kid, daylight savings time ran from the end of April through late October. It was truly a summertime schedule. I recall how the shift to daylight savings time, near the beginning of May, signified that the end of the school year was fast approaching.

In recent years, however, daylight savings begins in early March. Early March is still winter—albeit late winter. The days are still too short to accommodate those summertime hours.

Blame the federal government, of course. Daylight savings time was abruptly expanded to its current dates by the Energy Policy Act of 2005.

According to government statistics (which are always highly dubious, given the source), the five-week expansion of daylight savings that began in 2007 resulted in a nationwide electricity savings of 0.03% for that year.

Somehow, I doubt that, given that Americans—including our device-obsessed children—have become indoor creatures. Nor will such nugatory energy savings be foremost on most Americans’ minds, as they drive to work in the dark Monday morning, sleep-deprived.

2020 reading list

Starting this year, I’ll be publishing my annual reading list. These aren’t books that I’ve written, but books from my personal library (written by other people).

This is a bit distinct from the book reviews that I regularly publish here on the site. For each book, I’ll give a 1 to 5 star rating (5 stars being the best), but no long reviews on this page.

I’ll include Amazon links, in case you’re interested in adding any of these to your own library.



The Toyota recall gets worse

I wrote about the recall earlier, and how I was affected by it. (I also mentioned that I’m a former Toyota corporate fuel pump buyer, a fact that I found more than a little ironic.)

The recall has now been expanded by more than a million vehicles.

Needless to say, I’m glad I’m no longer the fuel pump buyer at Toyota. (I say “the” buyer, because it really was just me back then, even though I reported to several layers of management; so it’s probably just one person today, too.)

I do wish, however, that my Avalon was not on the list of recall vehicles. Toyota has yet to give me a timeline for fixing my car. In the meantime, I keep my fingers crossed every time I drive.

Toyota’s fuel pump debacle

As some of you may know, I worked for Toyota between 1998 and 2011. For about three of those years, I was the company’s lead fuel pump buyer.

It therefore struck me as more than a little ironic when my Toyota Avalon got snared in Toyota’s latest recall mess, involving low-pressure fuel pumps

I first heard about the pump recall back in January. I knew then that my car might be included, but I didn’t know for certain until I received the letter in the mail yesterday from Toyota.

The letter describes the problem as follows:

The subject vehicles are equipped with a low-pressure fuel pump which may stop operating. If this were to occur, warning lights and messages may be displayed on the instrument panel, and the engine may run rough. This may result in a vehicle stall, and the vehicle may be unable to be restarted.

Toyota letter to vehicle owners

What this means, then, is that you may be driving down the interstate in your Toyota, and the car may basically stop working. Oh, and you won’t be able to restart it, either. 

No, worries, though, because…

Toyota is currently preparing the remedy for this issue. When the remedy is available, it will be FREE OF CHARGE to vehicle owners. You will receive a second notification when the remedy is available. 

Toyota letter to vehicle owners

In other words, “We’ll get back to you! We hope you don’t die in a fiery crash in the meantime, when your vehicle stops abruptly in 90 m.p.h. traffic.! Have a nice day!”

I also experienced a twinge of gallows humor when I noted the “FREE OF CHARGE” part. Of course, the fix (when and if it ever comes) won’t really be “free” at all. You’ve already paid for your Toyota, after all. It’s not like Toyota is giving you a lifetime supply of free pizzas in exchange for your trouble. And until Toyota gets its ducks in a row, you’re incurring  a considerable risk as you drive your expensive vehicle . 

Perspective from a  former Toyota fuel pump buyer (and current customer)

In the big scheme of things, of course, Toyota is a good company. They make quality products…for the most part. If that weren’t the case, I wouldn’t still be driving a Toyota. I haven’t been eligible for the employee discount for almost ten years, after all. 

There is a set of processes and philosophies for handling problems like this, known as “the Toyota Way”. A full explanation of the Toyota Way is beyond the scope of this post; but suffice it to say that the Toyota Way works, when practiced faithfully.

The larger problem at the US division of Toyota, however, is that it is becoming more of a typical large American company, with the attendant lackadaisical and self-serving mindsets. Since the early 2000s, the US division of Toyota has been transitioning to American management. When selecting key US management personnel, Toyota’s Japanese executives have not always chosen well.

By the time I left Toyota, a relatively small group of American managers were already making most of the company’s day-to-day decisions. This group did not have the confidence of most rank-and-file employees. The new management changed the mood and the internal sense of trust within the company, and not for the better. This corresponded to a drop in morale, even when I was still an employee. 

I maintain contact with a few of my old Toyota friends. According to them, the situation has grown worse in recent years.

How Toyota botched the fuel pump recall (so far)

But some employees are always disgruntled, right? Fair enough. But a disgruntled customer is another matter.

And right now, I’m a disgruntled customer.

The letter Toyota sent me basically said that my car has a serious problem, without giving me a precise timeline for fixing it.

When I was an employee at Toyota, I never would have been permitted to tell a senior manager that I would fix a serious problem at some undetermined point in the future. As every employee of Toyota knows, you always nail down the schedule.

So in this case, at least, Toyota didn’t practice the Toyota Way. That represents a major failure on the company’s part, when addressing a serious safety issue that affects 700,000 vehicles. 

Anyway, I’m going out for a drive now in my 2019 Avalon. Wish me luck. 

Mass shooting in Milwaukee

This time, at the Molson Coors facility.

This will inevitably intensify the debate about guns, especially with this being an election year.

I’m open to arguments about stricter gun control. I also agree that the NRA shouldn’t set America’s gun policy.

That said, we need to remember that less than two years ago, a self-described “incel” killed ten strangers in Toronto, not with a gun, but with a  van.

Guns are but one means of committing mass murder.  Twenty-five-year-old Alek Minassian proved that in Toronto in April 2018.

It is one thing to kill oneself. It is another thing to kill a single individual who has done one grievous harm. (And I do mean grievous harm here—like murdering a member of one’s family.)

It is yet another thing to go out by killing large numbers of random people.

The fact that this does occur with greater frequency in recent years tells us something about our society, and not simply about our guns. What we have in America—in the West—at present, is a moral and spiritual crisis.

This sort of thing used to happen once or twice in a generation. Now it happens almost every month. And guns have been around, and within easy reach, in America since the very beginning.

While gun control should be on the table, gun control alone is unlikely to fix what is wrong.

Richard Chizmar on Writers, Ink

I just finished listening to this interview of Richard Chizmar on the Writers, Ink podcast.

I had been only vaguely aware of Mr. Chizmar before this. I already knew that he cowrote at least one book with Stephen King. Also, his publishing company, Cemetery Dance, has published some of King’s work. (No small accomplishment, that.)

Chizmar has a lot to say about writing…and business. The interview is worth a listen, if either of these topics interests you.

‘Time Stand Still’ from Pershing’s Own

The United States Army Band, Pershing’s Own, recently performed and recorded their interpretation of the Rush song “Time Stand Still”.

This was the military band’s tribute to Neil Peart (1952~2020), who passed away earlier this year. (My essay on Neil Peart’s passing is here.)

“Time Stand Still” was released on the Hold Your Fire album in 1987. I remember it well. I was nineteen at the time; and I was just beginning to come to grips with the realization that life doesn’t go on forever, not for any of us. Cherish your experiences, cherish the people around you, while they’re here. Live in the present. 

The Pershing’s Own interpretation of “Time Stand Still” is distinct from the song on the original Rush album. Again, it’s an interpretation, not a rote performance of the original.

I like both versions. Kudos to the US Army Band for honoring Neil Peart in this way.

The Whitney Houston hologram?

I’m going to come out and say that this is in poor taste. This isn’t the end of the world. It’s not even “an outrage”. But it is in poor taste. 

A hologram of a long-dead historical figure—Abraham Lincoln or Alexander Hamilton—might be interesting. Whitney Houston, however, passed away less than a decade ago. She’s still very much within living memory.

And while yes, there is a case to be made that a celebrity belongs to the public domain, there is also something to be said for respecting the dead.

Just because technology can do something, doesn’t mean that it should

Old-school virtual reality

I had a View-Master in the 1970s, along with a small collection of reels. A Christmas gift in 1976, I believe.

The Frankenstein reels (screenshot below) made a special impression on me.

These were cool toys, especially given the immersive effect they provided with minimal technology. No electronics, no silicon chips required.

I was glad to see that the View-Master is still available on Amazon. 

TikTok: Here come the parents

TikTok, every teenager’s favorite app, just rolled out new parental controls

Don’t think for a moment that the present generation of helicopter parents are going to allow their teens an unsupervised space of their own on social media. Parents nowadays track their progeny’s movements with smartphone apps, after all.

It will be only a matter of time before the parents overrun TikTok, just like they overran Facebook. The barriers to entry aren’t that high.

In the 1980s, we avoided parents the easy way: We went outside, sans electronic gadgetry.

Better, simpler times to be a kid.