Blindly Trusting the Untrustworthy

We have a weird desire to justify and validate information we hear. This is especially true if the information comes from someone we trust or feel like we should trust. We try to find ways to believe even absurd information if it comes from any kind of authority.

One of the wildest examples I’ve encountered involved a newspaper overseas. The paper reported that a young woman was attacked by a male intruder and died. The paper, however, didn’t attribute her death to the attacker. Instead, the paper claimed that the fright of the attack caused this previously-healthy, young lady to develop a spontaneous cancer of the blood, which immediately overwhelmed her system and proved fatal in a matter of seconds. So, you see, it wasn’t the upstanding young attacker—who insisted he did nothing wrong and was playing some sort of joke—or the victim’s physical injuries that killed her. It was the victim’s fault for having a bad reaction to being attacked.

This is patently insane, not to mention incredibly misogynistic. But in the many times I’ve told this story, about 40% of people who hear it try to find some way to argue that the newspaper account must have been basically accurate. They invent new cancers off the tops of their heads, argue that the attacker is presumed innocent until proven guilty (which isn’t even true of the legal system where this happened, by the way), or, in the very worst cases, argue that the newspaper must be right somehow: it must be the victim’s fault that she died. This is both stupid and evil, yet people keep arguing it to me.

We want so desperately to believe that those with power or a platform are good, honest, and acting with the public’s best interests at heart. Sometimes, they are! But sometimes, they aren’t. Each of us has to learn to see the difference.

Why COVID-19 Is Not Like the Flu or the Common Cold

A number of folks have asked me why COVID-19 is not like the flu, “just another flu,” or like the common cold. I’m going to try to answer those questions here. Please read #12 if you read nothing else! If you are a doctor, epidemiologist, public health professional, etc., please let me know if I should tweak anything.

Why Covid-19 Is Not the Flu

  1. COVID-19 is not the flu or the common cold for the same basic reason measles isn’t the common cold: they’re caused by completely different viruses.
  2. The virus is a “novel” coronavirus. That means we’ve never seen it before. We are still learning about it, and (#3 below) our bodies aren’t ready to fight it off.
  3. Because it’s a new virus, no one has built up any immunity to it, so everyone can get sick. With common strains of the flu or the common cold, some percentage of the population is immune either because of previous exposure or, in the case of the flu, because of vaccines. So, those viruses can’t spread as quickly as a new virus.
  4. We have vaccines for many strains of the flu, and we have anti-flu drugs (for example, Tamiflu). Because COVID-19 is caused by a never-seen-before virus, there is no vaccine, and there are no drugs known to fight the virus directly. A vaccine is at least a year, possibly 18 months, away. In the meantime, the virus can keep infecting and killing new people. It’s true that flu vaccines aren’t 100% effective because different strains of flu go around every year. But flu vaccines work infinitely better than 0% of the time, which is where we are with COVID-19 right now.
  5. COVID-19 is much more contagious than the flu, so it spreads much faster. On average, a person who gets the flu will give it to roughly 1.3 other people. On average, a person who gets the virus that causes COVID-19 will give it to roughly 2.2 to 2.5 other people. A single person (“Patient 31”) in South Korea may have infected dozens people, leading to hundreds or maybe even thousands of new cases by going about life as usual—attending church and eating at a hotel buffet—before her diagnosis.
  6. A new virus that is causing an epidemic or pandemic doesn’t grow linearly; it grows exponentially until it runs out of opportunities to spread. That is, if you hear that there were X new cases of COVID-19 yesterday, you shouldn’t expect X new cases today; you should expect many more at this stage of things. The number will go up every day until the virus starts running out of opportunities to infect people, either because too many people are already sick or because we get really serious and cut down the transmission rate.
  7. You may have heard that coronaviruses cause the common cold. That’s only partially true; some coronaviruses that infect humans cause the common cold. Others cause extremely serious, very deadly diseases like SARS and MERS. The coronavirus that causes COVID-19 can kill people, not just cause a cold.
  8. COVID-19 is much deadlier than a common cold or common strains of the flu. Seasonal flu kills only about 0.1% of patients (1 in 1,000). So far, COVID-19 has killed 4% of people known to be infected (1 in 25). But this number doesn’t tell the whole story. Some of the people who are currently infected will get better, but some will die. It can take a long time—2 to 8 weeks—for patients to die from COVID-19, and 2 to 6 weeks for people to recover. Globally, for people whose outcome (recovery or death) is known, 7% have died (1 in 15). As we learn more about how many people have been infected and as more people are treated, experts think these numbers may go either down or up.
  9. This virus can sicken and kill people at almost any age, but it is especially significant for people who are older or have serious health issues. While the flu typically kills about 1% of people over 80 years old, COVID-19 kills about 15% of people that age. Put differently, there’s about a 1 in 7 chance that an 80-something-year-old person with COVID-19 will die, even with the best medical care. Many younger people have died, too; the reality that it hits older people hardest doesn’t mean it doesn’t kill younger people.
  10. COVID-19 causes much more serious illness than common flu strains, even in many people who survive. You may have heard that 80% of people experience a “mild” illness with COVID-19. That appears to be true, but that means that 20% of people experience serious illness, and some of those people die, even with great medical care. This includes people who are young and healthy.
  11. Because so many people get very sick, COVID-19 can overwhelm our entire health care system. Many of those 20% of people who experience serious illness need hospitalization, and many of those will need to be on a ventilator in intensive care. The United States has only about 60,000 ventilators, far too few to cope with the demand in the worst-case scenarios. The result is that doctors could be forced to decide who gets care and lives and who doesn’t get care and dies. In other words, some people will die not just because they’re sick but because the healthcare system is swamped and cannot care for everyone. This happened in China, it is happening now in Italy, and the United States is on a trajectory like Italy’s, if not worse.
  12. If we let COVID-19 keep spreading without major changes to daily life, it will overwhelm the entire healthcare system (see #11). This means that countless thousands or even millions of people will die because they are not be able to get treatment. And the longer we wait to act, the more likely this becomes, and the higher the numbers go. That is why everything is shut down: it’s literally a matter of life and death.

I hope this is helpful. Please feel free to share/repost it or to ask questions in the comments.

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

If you’d like to know more or see where I got the information above, these links may be helpful:

Johns Hopkins Medicine: “Coronavirus Disease 2019 vs. the Flu”

World Health Organization: “WHO Director-General’s opening remarks at the media briefing on COVID-19 – 3 March 2020”—3-march-2020

Worldometers: “COVID-19 Coronavirus Outbreak”

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Transcript – CDC Media Telebriefing: Update on COVID-19”

Live Science: “13 Coronavirus myths busted by science”

Reuters: “The Korean clusters: How coronavirus cases exploded in South Korean churches and hospitals”

Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (University of Minnesota): “Study of 72,000 COVID-19 patients finds 2.3% death rate”

USA Today: “Coronavirus is spreading in the US. Here’s everything to know, from symptoms to how to protect yourself”

NPR: “As The Pandemic Spreads, Will There Be Enough Ventilators?”

Washington Post: “Spiking U.S. coronavirus cases could force rationing decisions similar to those made in Italy, China”

ProPublica: “This Coronavirus Is Unlike Anything in Our Lifetime, and We Have to Stop Comparing It to the Flu”

Washington Post: “Why outbreaks like coronavirus spread exponentially, and how to ‘flatten the curve’”

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

Please note that all information above is as of March 17, 2020, based on the links above and current, publicly-reported counts of infections, deaths, and recoveries. Things are moving very quickly, so some of these numbers may become inaccurate over time. That’s part of why we need to take this so seriously: the situation changes so fast that we all need to keep educating ourselves.

Edited 2 hours after I posted it because the global death rate for known outcomes jumped from 7% to 9%. Things are happening fast.

Note: This was originally posted on Facebook, but Facebook decided 9 hours later that it was spam, without telling me why they made that decision. They gave me no options to improve it and restore it. So, I’m posting it here.

“Biblical Counseling” and Mental Health

I am overdue to update this blog with a number of articles I’ve been working on, but I have something that needs to be said now.

Folks, when it comes to mental and emotional health, there is some seriously toxic nonsense out there masquerading as Christian and biblical. If you are being counseled that depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, panic disorders, anxiety disorders, eating disorders, or other mental or emotional illnesses are always and only spiritual, run away as fast as you can. This is, to put it bluntly, damnable heresy, not to mention toxic, dangerous, reckless, and either ignorant or malevolent. Don’t listen to it any more than you would listen to someone who insists the world is flat, the sun is a really bright coin, and the moon is made of cheese. Such counsel is not biblical, wise, or sound in any way. It’s not even genuinely Christian; it’s dualist and gnostic. Run from it.

I’ll have more to say about this later; watch this space.

My Resignation as Moderator on Stack Overflow and Ebooks Stack Exchange

Why I Resigned as a Moderator

As you may know if you have followed this blog for a while or have followed me on social media, I have spent several years as a volunteer moderator on Stack Overflow (elected November 2015) and a related site, Ebooks Stack Exchange (appointed moderator pro tempore January 2014).

If you are not a programmer, you have likely never heard of Stack Overflow. If you are a programmer, you likely visit it regularly, if not multiple times per day. It is a major site; ranks it #42 in “global internet engagement,” and it has literally millions of registered users. Every day, it attracts thousands of questions and answers about programming, not to mention untold numbers of comments on those questions and answers, along with thousands of user flags addressing on-site problems. Moderating such a large, busy site is both a significant commitment and a tremendous honor.

For a variety of reasons, the majority of which I cannot discuss publicly, I resigned both of those positions yesterday, October 1, 2019. I wrote a post on explaining my decision.

This post is purely informational, as I get a lot of traffic on this site from users of Stack Overflow and Ebooks Stack Exchange. Please understand that I cannot and will not provide more information here or on social media than I have provided in the post linked above. Thank you.

Keeping Time

Grandfather clock

When I was a child, I had the blessing of living a short drive away from one set of grandparents. This meant that I got to see them regularly, many times most months, which was wonderful.

One of the highlights when I would visit them was my grandfather’s grandfather clock. I loved to listen to its ticking, its chimes every quarter hour, and the mysterious whirrings and clickings it made each time it was about to chime. For a little boy with an interest in all things mechanical, simply being around that clock was pure delight.

The best thing about that clock was, well, not really about the clock at all. See, every week, the clock needed to be wound. It was technically an “eight day” clock, meaning it gave you a one-day cushion should you be tardy in winding it. But, nonetheless, it must be wound, or eventually it would stop. And so the best thing about that clock was when my grandfather would turn the key to open the door to its front and let me help him wind it.

Together, we would pull on the chains, and I would hear the whirring and clicking of gears suddenly intensify as we raised each weight up to its full height, there to begin another week. For a very little boy, those weights seemed so heavy, and yet I was able to help my grandfather, strong as he was. He even made me feel as though he needed me to help him do it. The whole experience was heavenly, and I am certain we wound that clock many times when it did not, in fact, need to be wound.

Cancer took my grandfather from us far too soon, and it has been more than thirty years now since I have hugged him or heard his voice. I remember him as strong but gentle, wise yet humble, intelligent but happy to lose a game of checkers to a four-year-old, a man who deeply loved Jesus and his family. He was also a war hero, having served his country honorably during World War II, though I was too little to appreciate that fully while he was still here. All in all, he was a wonderful man, and I love and miss him terribly.

A few years ago, after my grandmother had also left this world, that clock came to me. It had not run in years, and careless movers had broken the pane of glass in the door. Though I tried many times, I could not make it run for more than a few minutes without stopping. So, it stood silently in our home, waiting for us to find the money, the time, and the help necessary to make it chime the hours once more.

Today, thanks to the skillful efforts from a clock repairman who is a true master of his craft, that clock began to run and chime again. I am writing this post as I listen to it ticking and, a few times now, chiming in the background. It is heavenly.

With each second that passes I am reminded of my grandfather and the wonderful legacy he left behind. He made it a point to provide financial security for my grandmother, but his legacy is so much more than that. It is a legacy of faith, humility, hard work, diligence, and love. It is a legacy that still warms the heart of this little boy, even as I look forward to winding my grandfather’s clock with my grandfather’s great-granddaughters and, one day, maybe even with my own grandchildren. Until then, I’ll let the clock count the seconds, reminding me of the brevity of life and the beauty of sharing it with those we love.

In memory of R.H. Cottrell, Jr., one of the finest men I’ll ever know.

Resurrecting the Blog

A tremendous amount has happened over the past year, and I have not kept up on here. I’m going to try to provide a quick recap, as well as a vision for the future of this site.

First, the biggest news of the last year, which I haven’t mentioned previously on here: my wife and I were blessed to welcome our second child, a daughter! She is an incredible blessing but has kept us extremely busy. And although she’s very healthy, she had a number of health scares early on that kept us hopping.

Last year (2018) involved a lot of other craziness, far too much to capture or even summarize in one blog post. Most of that will have to wait for some later time; many of the events in question deserve their own post or entire series of posts.

This year (2019) has not been less crazy. Among other adventures, I haven’t had a voice for most of the last two weeks due to a fun thing called a vocal process granuloma, essentially an ulcer on my vocal cords. This is probably a result of acid reflux that I didn’t know I had. I wrote a long, public post about this on Facebook. My voice rebounded significantly over the last 48 hours, to the point that it was basically normal this morning, but it has faded out again to nearly nothing.

Meanwhile, a lot has changed on here and continues to change. I intend to resume posting regularly. I haven’t been posting regularly for a variety of reasons, one of which is cleaning up the site. Over the 22 years I have been running a personal website, 20 of them on this domain and 20 of them blogging, I had accumulated a lot of, well, junk. There were (and still are) a lot of blog posts and other items on here that are horribly dated, reference broken links, and so on. I have begun the process of cleaning those up. I have simply deleted a lot of posts that are thoroughly obsolete or misleading due to changed links, missing context, or other reasons. I plan to finish that cleanup in the near future, but in the interest of transparency am mentioning it here.

That’s it for now. Enjoy the site, and get ready for much more, better, fresher content!

9.11.2001 – Reflections

September 11th Memorial Tribute In Light 2014
Tribute in Light, in 2014, by Anthony Quintano [CC BY 2.0 ( )], via Wikimedia Commons
Like so many people today, I’m reflecting on the events of that awful day 17 years ago when so many innocent people died, and so many more felt the world had turned upside down. Every American who was old enough to remember that day will probably be processing their reactions to those events for the rest of their lives.

I have very rarely said anything public about 9/11. I have several reasons for this. The biggest reason is that my own experience of that day was very unusual.

Far from Home

I don’t have the same kind of “where were you when” story that most Americans have, for the simple reason that I wasn’t here. I had left the United States five days earlier, and I was in Germany for a week-long training conference. When I first got word that something had happened, I was playing a pick-up game of basketball at a private conference center in a very small village in the German countryside, largely cut off from the world.

Breaking News

The first indication that something was wrong was when somebody ran by on an elevated walkway, yelling urgently. I couldn’t quite make out the first sentence; I think it was, “There’s a fire in New York.” The next is seared into my memory: “The World Trade Center is in the street.” And just like that, the runner was gone.

It took a couple of minutes for those of us on the court to decide what to make of this. We didn’t even fully agree on what we had heard, much less what it meant. Several of us thought it meant that there had been some sort of market crash or economic disruption; others thought it meant the WTC’s occupants had evacuated because of a literal fire. After a few moments, we decided to call the game and go looking for more information.

The Hunt for Information

It took a while to find any. First, we had to find other people. But when we did, no one actually knew anything. We had only one landline for almost 200 people to use, and the few cell phones people had stopped working almost immediately due to network congestion. So, the first fragments of information we got were just fragments. We heard all kinds of wild rumors: both towers had collapsed; neither had collapsed; the Capitol was gone; the President was dead; the President was alive but in hiding; and on and on. We even heard really outlandish things about bombers, nuclear weapons, and more. The only source of information was phone calls limited to 30 seconds at first and later relaxed to two minutes. Facts and rumors given in soundbite form over the phone (with a terrible connection and multi-second delay due to distances) were repeated, misunderstood, and repeated again. In a group of people who were all far from home, not all native speakers of English, and with only one staticky phone line for information, it was impossible to fact-check faster than rumors could come in.

After a couple of hours, we started to catch up. A friendly, local couple down the road happened to have CNN via satellite and had started recording the feed when it became clear that a big plane, not a Cessna or something, had crashed. They started sending over videotapes and summary updates every hour or two.

By the time we were able to see anything on a TV screen, we were roughly three hours behind real-time. This meant that we mostly heard about developments—real and fictional—long before we saw them. During a national tragedy that so many Americans watched live, huddled together in living rooms, classrooms, conference rooms, break rooms, and sandwich shops, we watched on a delay, thousands of miles from American soil. We grieved together, of course, but we did so with almost no contact with family or friends at home, at least for those first few days.


That conference marked the start of a year-long trip. With the exception of a couple of people whose families were directly impacted, none of us were heading home to family or friends for many months to come. And with the exception of a half-dozen or so people, I had never met any of the people around me until a couple of days earlier.

My little team was in France a few days later, where we spent much of the following year. My French at that point was rudimentary, but it didn’t take much to figure out the news headlines. At first, they wept over “La Catastrophe.” Then they screamed of “Les Attaques!” Then, when it became obvious that America would react with force, they coldly updated us on “Les Accidents.” I had hundreds of conversations about these things with French, German, Spanish, Italian, Algerian, and Moroccan nationals, among others, before I had my first chance to speak in person to anyone I knew at home about them. I felt I had heard the collective thoughts and feelings of the entire world, but only a hint of the sentiments in my own country.

Cut Off

The next year was brutal and surreal for many reasons. We tried to keep up with news from home via the Internet and phone calls home, but we were surprisingly isolated. Many events at home that year just passed us by. I remember waiting for my flight home nearly a year later and picking up a copy of USA Today (not something I regularly read) in hopes of filling in gaps in my knowledge of non-terrorism, non-war events at home. Two of the top stories asked who would be the American Idol and who would be kicked off the island. I had absolutely no clue what they were talking about. Many other stories left me just as befuddled about everything from politics to sports.

For those of us who were abroad that year, 9/11 was a horrifying short-circuit, making it even harder to stay connected with “ordinary” life in the United States. While we wish as much as anyone that the 9/11 attacks had never happened, we also felt—and will always feel—isolated and cut off by that day. Our answers to the “where were you” question will always sound alien, strange, even weird. To some people I have met, those answers even sound un-American or somehow hostile.


I have mostly kept these things to myself because most people have had a hard time relating to them. In the first few years after 9/11, people tended to react in one of two ways to anything I might say: (1) silence, followed by a quick change in subject, or (2) anger, as if by being abroad during a national tragedy I had somehow chosen to cut myself off from my country.

Reactions in the last few years have mellowed, and now I mostly get the kind of look you might get if you said something completely unintelligible to someone you had just met: an uneasy stare, an unsuccessful attempt to form words, another second of silence, and a sudden shift in conversation.

Why Am I Writing This?

So, why am I speaking about this now? Why does it matter what I have to say? To be honest, a big part of it is just to let it out, to say the things I have mostly kept to myself for 17 years. But another reason is this: I hope it might be helpful to someone. Maybe someone out there is still struggling with their own feelings about that day and feels they can’t share because they don’t have a “story” that sounds “good enough” or “American enough.”

If that’s you, you’re not alone. Please reach out to me or someone else to talk about it.

I also hope this encourages at least a few people to be more empathetic. American life is full of anger, especially around politics, right now. But one of the lessons of 9/11 is that we are all human, and we all hurt, even though all of our stories are different, and sometimes we really can come together in a meaningful way that transcends our tribal squabbles.

If you’d like to talk for any reason, shoot me a note. If anything in this offended you or seems self-centered somehow, please accept my sincere apologies; that is not my intent at all.

Never forget those who died that awful day. And go hug someone you love.

Hurricane Florence PSA for My Friends and Family

EDIT 9/14/2018: Even though the storm’s winds weakened, the water – surge and rainfall – was always the primary threat. It still still is a very serious threat and will be for several days after landfall. Please continue to take this storm very seriously.

NC & SC FOLKS: Please read and share this! It’s not the same old yada-yada. Please prepare now for Florence and know where you are going if you have to evacuate in a hurry. This is going to be like nothing NC & SC have seen in recorded history. Seriously.
Hurricane Florence May be the Strongest U.S. Landfall on Record so Far North
Yes, I know y’all know a hurricane is coming, and yes, I know y’all have lived through other hurricanes. So have I. I grew up there, too. I get it.
This is different. Florence is going to be huge and powerful (at least Saffir-Simpson category 3, meaning sustained winds well over 100 mph, with much higher gusts). The rainfall is the real threat, though, and Florence is perfectly set up to be like Harvey: swoop in, bring a lot of tropical moisture, stall near the coast, and drown everything. Even the rainfall forecasts are eerily similar to what we were seeing in Houston as Harvey got close.
Y’all are looking at 10+ inches of rain in 7 days over the entire eastern half of NC, and 20+ inches in places. That will flood pretty much everything, everywhere, just like it did with Harvey here in Houston.
Key Messages for Hurricane Florence
Please take this seriously. Have supplies (water, food, medicine, batteries, gasoline, etc.) on hand; you know the drill. But just as importantly: have an ESCAPE ROUTE. Know where you will go if you have to evacuate, and know that BEFORE the rain starts falling. Know where the 100- and 500-year floodplains are near you. Know where the creeks and rivers are.
Don’t forget to get valuables off the floor and as high as possible. Pull together important papers. Assume you’re going to have to leave everything behind on literally a minute’s notice. I know a lot of people who lived in places that “never flood,” outside the 500-year floodplains, who had to abandon their homes in a matter of minutes during Harvey as the waters came in. This is not a hypothetical scenario; it really can happen to you.
Florence Versus Size of the Carolinas
Again, I know y’all know this, but I love y’all, so I’m saying it anyway. You can’t overprepare for something on this magnitude. Please stay safe and check in regularly.

“He is not here, for he has risen.”

Three empty crosses

Three empty crosses

“He is risen!”

Countless Christians around the world hear these words and say them to each other on Easter Sunday. They aren’t meaningless, nor are they some spiritual mumbo-jumbo. They have a very specific, very concrete, very real-world meaning. They mean that Jesus—a man brutally and very thoroughly put to death with all the efficiency that the Roman empire could muster one Friday afternoon—got up on Sunday morning… and simply walked out of his tomb.

These words are stunning. And they are absurd. They are, on their face, not just implausible; they are crazy. After all, when someone tells you that a dead person just got up and walked away under his own power, the normal reaction is to conclude that this person has lost his or her mind.

But it turns out, the words themselves aren’t the craziest part. The truly crazy thing is that they’re true.

The beaten, whipped, nail-punctured, spear-pierced man who died a painful, bloody, horrible, and very public death in front of countless witnesses really did just get up and walk away on the third day. Without medical attention, without help from anyone on earth, his heart, his lungs, his brain, and all his other organs started up again. And he stood, stepped out of the tomb, and in that moment split all of history in two.

Hundreds of people saw him walking, talking, eating, and drinking long after he was supposed to be—no, really was—dead and buried. The people who knew him best were so certain that he had risen from the dead they were willing to die horrible deaths of their own rather than deny that Jesus was still alive.

He is risen. This one fact changes everything about how we understand the world around us. It must. The only question is: what will you do about it?

He is risen!

Happy Easter.

New Job – Quick Thoughts

As many of you know, I started a new job with the new year. Yesterday was my first day as a Senior Attorney in the litigation group of the law firm Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP. It was a great day, and I’m very excited about the work ahead. I will be doing two types of work: both representing clients in their litigation matters and developing software platforms to augment and streamline the practice of law. It’s a truly unique opportunity to combine two of my skill sets and passions, and I can’t wait to get started in earnest.

I will, of course, miss the outstanding justices and wonderful former colleagues at the First Court of Appeals. But all good things in this life must come to an end, and this next chapter promises to be a great one!