Hey Siri, what’s the “Weather Report?”

On my way to work this morning, I asked Siri “what’s the weather report?” and instead of telling me “cloudy and 35 degrees” I got “Birdland” by the jazz-fusion group Weather Report.

I was not disappointed.

This is one of my favorite tracks of all time. As much as Steely Dan defined the sound of the late 70s and early 80s for me, Weather Report – and specifically “Birdland” – was right in that mix. There’s so much going on in the studio recording; it’s jazzy and funky and boppy one after the other. The chord runs are amazing.

I found this 1978 video recording of a Weather Report concert in Germany at the Stadthalle Offenbach and learned for the first time that the high-pitched notes at the beginning of the piece, which I always assumed was an electric guitar was bassist Jaco Pastorius plucking his electric bass close to the pickups while fingering it like… well, like an electric guitar. Pastorius also provides the high-pitched vocals, which I also never realized. Both he and drummer Alex Acuña go shirtless as well, which is pretty unusual for a jazz performance.

This live performance has more of a swing feel to it than the studio recording, but it’s still very cool:

Pastorius was quite a character. As he was recording his first solo album, he attended a Weather Report concert and afterwards introduced himself to the band with “I’m John Francis Pastorius the Third, and I’m the greatest bass player in the world.” When the bass spot opened up when Alphonso Johnson left, he became Weather Report’s second bass player just in time to record “Birdland,” which was written by keyboardist Joe Zawinul. Unfortunately, a combination of drug and alcohol abuse and the discovery that Pastorius was bipolar led to a series of bizarre events that ultimately resulted in his death in a bar fight in 1987 at the age of only 35.

Cardboard Tigers: T. Walker, G. Wilson, Wockenfuss

Seventeenth and last in an occasional series. Collect ’em all! I’m working through a stack of Tigers baseball cards from the late 1960s and early 1970s, with occasional newer cards.

Tom Walker – 1976 Topps #186

Tom Walker pitched in 36 games for the 1975 Tigers, starting 9 of them and finishing 17 others. He had a 3-8 record, a 4.45 ERA, and didn’t record a single save despite closing out those 17 contests. He came to Detroit in the deal that sent Woodie Fryman to Montréal that also brought Terry Humphrey to the Tigers. To be honest, though I followed the Tigers pretty closely in the mid-seventies, I don’t have any memory of Tom Walker with the team at all.

While this is Tom’s 1976 Topps card, by the time the spring training started that year he was with the Cardinals, who purchased his contract that February. He spent most of the season in Tulsa as a starter, but ended up saving three games for the big league team in only 19 2/3 innings. He split 1977 with Montreal again, then the California Angels, before briefly playing for the Columbus Clippers (then the Pirates’ AAA farm team) in 1978.

Tom’s career was fairly uneventful, other than the uniqueness of the final batter he faced in the big leagues, as Lyman Bostock lined into a triple play. He had a 18-23 lifetime record with a 3.87 ERA and struck out 262 batters.

In 1972, Walker was one of several major leaguers who helped Roberto Clemente load an airplane full of food and other supplies destined for Nicaragua after the Christmas earthquake that winter. Tom offered to go along to assist with the distribution, but Clemente told him to stay home and enjoy his New Year’s Eve celebration. When he returned home, Walker found out that Clemente’s plane had crashed off the coast of Puerto Rico.

Walker’s son, Neil, was a second baseman for the Pirates, Mets, Brewers, Yankees, Marlins, and Phillies over an eleven-year major league career.

Of more significance to Tigers’ fans is the fact that Tom’s daughter Carrie married former Tiger Don Kelly (currently the bench coach for the Pirates), making Tom his father-in-law and Neil his brother-in-law.

Glenn Wilson – 1984 Topps #563
Johnny Wockenfuss – 1984 Topps #119

Glenn Wilson and Johnny Wockenfuss finish out our Cardboard Tigers series due to the fact that their last names put them at the bottom of the deck. Coincidentally, they share a connection beyond having names near the end of the alphabet: They were traded together at the end of spring training in 1984 to the Phillies for first baseman Dave Bergman and closer Willie Hernandez. Bergman, of course, was a key utility component for the Tigers’ World Series championship team, playing first base and the corner outfield spots while hitting .273 in 121 at-bats, while all Hernandez did was win both the Cy Young Award and American League MVP while saving 32 games and posting an ERA of 1.92.

So again, as we’ve seen several times in this series, the cards for the 1984 Tigers feature a lot of guys who weren’t even on that team, including Wilson and Wockenfuss.

Wilson was coming off a good season for Detroit in 1983 where he hit .268 with 11 homers, playing 144 games in mostly right field with a few appearances in left and center. He went on to have a decent year in Philly in ’84 as well, but his best year was 1985, when he hit .275, knocked in 104 runs, made the National League All-Star team, and finished 23rd in the NL MVP voting. He played through 1990 with the Phillies, Mariners, Pirates, and Astros, and made a brief comeback in 1994 with Pittsburgh. For his career, he batted .265 with 98 home runs, and 521 RBI. He also pitched once: in 1987 he threw a 1-2-3 inning including a strikeout, giving him a lifetime 0.00 ERA.

After retiring from baseball, Wilson owned a gas station in Texas, managed independent league baseball in the Frontier League, and became an ordained minister.

Wockenfuss was tougher for me to deal with when he was traded to Philadelphia. He was one of my favorite Tigers, having been with the team since 1974, mostly as Bill Freehan’s (and later Lance Parrish’s) backup at catcher, and platooning for a couple of years with Milt May. He was versatile, making appearances in the outfield and at first base and serving as a capable designated hitter when needed as well. While he only averaged around 200 plate appearances per season (the exception was 1980, when he had 444 plate appearances while playing mostly first base – also his best season as he hit .274 with 16 homers and 65 RBI), he was always fun to watch, with his curly hair and mustache making him stand out on the field. As a catcher myself, Wockenfuss was they guy whose receiving style I copied. He also had a rather unusual batting stance, which I also copied (not that it did me any good). I was pretty upset when the Tigers traded him, especially right before the team headed north from Florida.

In the end, I got over it, considering the great start the 1984 team got off to and the contributions from both Bergman and Hernandez. Wockenfuss had a good year in Philadelphia, hitting .289 in 180 at-bats, playing mostly first base with some catcher and a couple of brief appearances at third base. He finished his major league career in 1985 with the Phillies at the age of 35. For his career, he hit .262 with 86 home runs, and 310 RBI.

In 1986, however, Wockenfuss decided he wasn’t done quite yet and paid his own way to Lakeland, hoping the Tigers would give him a shot. When they weren’t interested, he headed down the road to Winter Haven to see if the Red Sox would be willing, but they also said no. So he caught on with the Single-A Miami Marlins of the Florida State League, who in those days had no major league affiliation. He spent the whole season in south Florida, hitting .269 with 10 home runs and 80 RBI and was considered the “anchor of the Marlins’ team,” according to Miami sportswriter Tom Archdeacon.

After finally ending his playing career, he managed the Lakeland Tigers (A) in 1986 and 1987; the Glens Falls Tigers (AA) in 1988; and the Toledo Mud Hens (AAA) in 1989. He was fired early in the 1990 season after the Mud Hens got off to a 10-14 start, but later managed in the Pirates’ minor league system and with the independent Albany-Colonies Diamond Dogs in 1996-97.

Today, Wockenfuss, 72, suffers from dementia, believed to be a product of years of head contact as a football and baseball player, especially at the catcher position. His former teammate, Bill Freehan, also suffered from dementia for several years before his death this summer at the age of 79. He does remember much about his baseball career, though, including the disappointment he felt when the Tigers traded him in 1984. When his former team went on to win the World Series, Wockenfuss was frustrated with how close he’d come to winning a championship.

“I knew I was (close to) getting a (World Series) ring, you know, and that hurt, because I had been with them for so many years,” Wockenfuss said. “We were getting better and better and better and Sparky (manager Sparky Anderson) and I were good friends. I couldn’t believe it what he did to me. Because I was in the minors for a long time.”

From NNY360.com, November 18, 2019, article by Gregory Gay

Here we go again: Putting COVID numbers in context

A disclaimer: COVID-19 is serious. If you don’t take it seriously by following the rather simple alleviation tactics you have available to you (vaccination, mask-wearing, washing hands, etc.), it can kill you.

There is a difference, however, between it can kill you and it will kill you, and this is a distinction that is seldom clear from the media’s coverage of the pandemic. As I’ve discussed before, numbers are offered out of context and percentages – especially increases in cases, hospitalizations, or deaths – are presented in a hyperbolic manner that make things seem much worse than they really are:

“Alaska and Arkansas more than doubled cases in the last week.” Okay, is that from 50 cases to 100 cases, or is it from 1000 to 2000 cases? Context matters.

“In Missouri, hospitalizations jumped by nearly 30% over the weekend.” Considering the covidestim.org map I included yesterday, this isn’t surprising, and a surge in hospitalizations is what we want to avoid so we don’t overwhelm our facilities and, more importantly, our healthcare workers. But is this from 100 to 130 people hospitalized, or from 1000 to 1300? Again, context matters.

The data aren’t wrong, but the context isn’t there, so they’re less useful than they could be at best, and counter-productive to an informed discussion at worst.

I went to an in-person conference last week in Bellaire, Michigan, which is near Traverse City. Definitely “northern Michigan.” Before I left, I saw a story online that said that COVID-19 cases in “northern Michigan” had risen 50% in the previous week. Which sounds pretty alarming. But there was no definition of what “northern Michigan” meant. (Believe me, there’s no agreement between the various parts of this Great Lakes State on what it means!) Was that “north of Lansing,” or “north of Mount Pleasant,” or “north of Grayling,” or even just the Upper Peninsula? Didn’t say. And, like the examples above, was the 50% rise from 100 to 150 cases (drilling down, that’s what it was) or possibly from 2 cases to 3 (also a 50% increase). So maybe it was concerning… or maybe it wasn’t.

There’s been a lot of concern about children and COVID-19, which is understandable. Nobody likes to see a child suffer or possibly die from an illness, and until very recently vaccines weren’t available for anyone under the age of 18. We continue to recommend that everyone wear a mask indoors, as a precautionary measure. The precautions are more obvious if someone isn’t vaccinated; the mask may help prevent transmission to that person (as well as help prevent them from spreading the virus if they already have it). Unfortunately, the unvaccinated are the least likely to follow those guidelines.

Mask-wearing may help fully-vaccinated people from contracting a “breakthrough” case of COVID, but more often the reasoning is to keep them from spreading the virus unknowingly to unvaccinated people, including children and teenagers.

We rarely distinguish between the likelihood of a particular individual getting COVID, becoming seriously ill, and dying, though. It’s an across-the-board recommendation that treats every American as having an equal chance of death in the face of COVID-19, which isn’t true.

A second disclaimer: This isn’t breaking news; I’m not presenting some discovery that I came up with on my own. (In fact, I’ve already looked at this back in May.) The data have been available for months, but the conclusions, while not terribly complex, don’t fit neatly in a headline or the lead paragraph of a news story.

COVID-related death rates by age group in the United States

Daily death rate, 2 October 2021, per 100,000 people in the United States, by age group.
Graph: Tom Kephart. Source: Our World in Data.

Fully-vaccinated individuals

On 2 October, the number of deaths from COVID-19 per 100,000 fully-vaccinated people in the U.S. aged 12-17 was 0.03, which was 0.3% of all COVID-related deaths of fully-vaccinated people on that date. A fully-vaccinated American teenager had a 1 in approximately 3.3 million chance of dying of COVID on that date.

Also on 2 October, the number of deaths from COVID-19 per 100,000 fully-vaccinated people in the U.S. aged 65-79 was 1.57, which was 18.2% of all COVID-related deaths of fully-vaccinated people on that date. A fully-vaccinated American senior citizen in that age range had a 1 in approximately 63,000 chance of dying of COVID on that date.

Finally, on 2 October, the number of deaths from COVID-19 per 100,000 fully-vaccinated people in the U.S. aged 80 and older was 6.51, which was 75.6% of all COVID-related deaths of fully-vaccinated people on that date. Our oldest fully-vaccinated citizens had a 1 in about 15,300 chance of dying of COVID on that date.

Put another way, those 65 and over fully-vaccinated Americans were over 15 times more likely to die of COVID on October 2 than people in the other four age cohorts combined, and 269 times more likely to die than a fully-vaccinated teenager.

Unvaccinated individuals

On 2 October, the number of deaths from COVID-19 per 100,000 unvaccinated people in the U.S. aged 12-17 was 0.05, which was 0.1% of all COVID-related deaths of unvaccinated people on that date. An unvaccinated American teenager had a 1 in approximately 2 million chance of dying of COVID on that date.

Also on 2 October, the number of deaths from COVID-19 per 100,000 unvaccinated people in the U.S. aged 65-79 was 31.87, which was 39.6% of all COVID-related deaths of unvaccinated people on that date. An unvaccinated American senior citizen in that age range had a 1 in approximately 3100 chance of dying of COVID on that date.

Finally, on 2 October, the number of deaths from COVID-19 per 100,000 unvaccinated people in the U.S. aged 80 and older was 38.28, which was 47.6% of all COVID-related deaths of unvaccinated people on that date. Our oldest unvaccinated citizens had a 1 in about 2600 chance of dying of COVID on that date.

Put another way, those 65 and over unvaccinated Americans were nearly seven times more likely to die of COVID on October 2 than people in the other four age cohorts combined, and over 1400 times more likely to die than an unvaccinated teenager.

Variations between vaccines

There continues to be a lot of discussion about which vaccine is “better.” Looking at the daily death rate data from 10 April to 2 October 2021, there’s not a lot of difference between the three main vaccines available in the U.S. The death rate for those who received the Johnson & Johnson single shot was 0.91 per 100K in April and remained steady at 0.88 in October; Pfizer’s April rate was 0.28 and rose to 0.60 in October (a 119% relative increase); and Moderna’s April rate was 0.15 and rose to 0.46 in October (a 202% relative increase). Those increases for Pfizer and Moderna seem notable as they could indicate the slow wearing-off of immunity, yet they remain very low at less than one death per 100,000 among those who received that vaccine.

Among all age groups, from 10 April to 2 October 2021, unvaccinated people died from COVID at a rate of 3.89 per 100K in April and 7.29 per 100K in October (an 87% relative increase).

So which vaccine a person received has little significance, but being vaccinated versus unvaccinated certainly does.

Risk of dying from COVID versus driving a car

While the data sets don’t align perfectly, a male drivers aged 15-24 had a death rate of 19.0 per 100,000 in 2019; female drivers of the same age cohort had a death rate of 8.2 per 100,000. Both rates are significantly higher than the death rates from COVID for the 12-17 and 18-29 cohorts, approaching the rate of unvaccinated 50-64 year olds.


Let’s repeat this so there’s no misunderstanding of what I’m trying to do here: COVID-19 is serious. If you don’t take it seriously by following the rather simple alleviation tactics you have available to you (vaccination, mask-wearing, washing hands, etc.), it can kill you.

But we’re doing ourselves a disservice by reducing the statistics to the most alarming, and often misleading, components. The SARS-CoV-2 virus is particularly deadly to older people, including those 65 to 79 but especially those 80 and older. Overall health of older and elderly people is certainly a factor, as are possible underlying health issues (many of which are exacerbated by age as well). Vaccinating children is as important to keep them from spreading COVID to their grandparents and great-grandparents as it is protecting them from dying. We’ve been concerned about the health of our children while the focus really needs to be on our oldest community members.

We’re getting bogged down in the various numbers and seem to have lost track of what they mean or whether the really mean anything. In addition to the physical, economic, and mental realities of pandemic fatigue, we also seem to be losing the ability to muster much of a response to the changing data on numbers of cases, how full ERs and ICU wards are, or how many people are dying from a virus that probably won’t be eradicated but certainly could have been much more controlled at this point. Everyone has their own data point they’re watching – and some of them don’t make any sense or have been chosen to fit a specific narrative.

The endless focus on COVID also distracts us from other concerns, some of which are deadly (including other illnesses such as influenza) and some of which aren’t (our widening political gulf between right and left and its implications for the future of our nation). There are new vaccines on the horizon and antiviral pills even closer to being available. An honest discussion of where we are – as opposed to overheated, sensationalistic media and water cooler talk – is critical if we have any hope of resolving the problems that we’re facing.

Will the Pfizer and Merck pills move COVID-19 into endemic status?

From my inbox this morning:

Pfizer’s pill is the second to show significant effectiveness against COVID-19; Merck also has one that’s waiting for authorization from the FDA. Are these pills the next step toward moving COVID-19 from pandemic to endemic status?

A quick definition of our terms might be useful here:

  • A pandemic is a widespread outbreak of a disease, affecting multiple countries and their populations. The growth of the disease is exponential and there are few, if any, known preventive measures that can be taken against it.
  • An epidemic is an unexpected increase in disease cases in a specific geographic region. Epidemic diseases don’t have to be contagious; obesity and other health-related behaviors, such as smoking, can also be considered to be epidemic.
  • An endemic disease is one that is consistently present (like measles or influenza); in other words, it isn’t fully (or nearly fully) eradicated. There may be flare-ups in specific regions occasionally, but overall, the disease can be managed with existing preventative measures (as simple as effective hand-washing but also including the use of vaccines) or palliative measures (such as pharmaceuticals designed to alleviate the effects of the disease after it was contracted).

COVID-19 remains a pandemic. We have preventative measures, specifically several vaccines, that are proven to greatly reduce the chance of contracting the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. And those same vaccines also greatly reduce the severity of the illness, including nearly eliminating the chance of hospitalization and death, if someone gets COVID-19 in a “breakthrough” infection. To reach endemic status, as many people as possible need to be vaccinated or develop enough resistance to future infections from already having a COVID-19 infection (which doesn’t happen in every case, making getting a vaccination even after having COVID important).

Vaccinations have plateaued in the United States. According to CNN Health, the U.S. is 57.0% fully vaccinated, with an additional 9.1% having at least one dose administered to them. Among the G-20 nations that report overall vaccination percentages, the U.S. is twelfth, just behind Turkey and ahead of Mexico. (The table doesn’t include the European Union, which is the 20th G-20 member; or Brazil and China, which don’t report vaccination percentages for their populations.)

RankCountryFully vaccinatedOne-dose onlyTotal at least partially vaccinated
1South Korea76.2%4.5%80.7%
6United Kingdom67.1%6.4%73.5%
9Saudi Arabia61.4%7.3%68.7%
12United States57.0%9.1%66.1%
17South Africa21.0%4.9%25.9%
COVID-19 vaccination rates for G-20 countries (Source: CNN Health)

Considering the enormous advantage the U.S. when vaccines first became available last winter, it’s frustrating to see how far behind we are in getting people vaccinated. But is that really unusual? Leaving aside politics (admittedly a difficult thing to do these days), we’re historically averse to getting vaccines that aren’t required by law: in 2019-20, just as we were becoming aware of COVID-19, only 51.8% of Americans six months and older got that year’s readily-available influenza vaccine, according to CDC data. Our current COVID-19 vaccine rate of 57% is just slightly higher than that figure.

COVID-19 has declined again across most of the U.S. As of November 3, there are hotspots in Minnesota, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, and parts of Maine, New York, Michigan, and Alabama. But it’s nothing like early September, when infections were rising nearly everywhere. While the college where I’m employed requires masks inside campus buildings, in the rest of town it’s very rare to see anyone wearing a mask in a restaurant, grocery store, or other retail business. Yet our numbers remain low, including the Rt number I’ve discussed before.

If the pills from Pfizer and Merck can be rolled out and the costs aren’t prohibitive (not a safe assumption, unfortunately), we might reach a place where, like the flu, at least a slight majority of people have chosen to get a vaccine and those who don’t have a simple, effective remedy. At that point, the realistic goal of turning COVID-19 from a pandemic to an endemic disease could be in sight.

“The presidency is not a popularity contest.”

Joe Biden’s popularity with the American public continues to decline, per FiveThirtyEight:

To be clear, Biden wasn’t very popular to begin with. On Inauguration Day, only 53% of us approved, while 36% disapproved (leaving about 11 percent withholding judgement, which seems prudent now). That figure was at or below nearly every president since Harry S Truman, and only significantly higher than The Former Guy.

His current 42.9% number is similarly higher than few recent presidents after 286 days in office. (Trump had the worst number at only 38% approval, with Gerald Ford – who admittedly had a lot working against him, especially after pardoning Nixon – only slightly higher at 38.4%.)

What’s causing this erosion in popularity? Has he been charging the federal government millions of dollars to have international visitors, lobbyists, and staff stay at his hotels and golf courses? Nope. Has he been insulting minorities and our allies? Again, no. Has he proposed wide-reaching, xenophobic “travel bans” aimed at members of a particular religion? Not that I’ve noticed.

I’ll admit that I wasn’t very enthusiastic about Biden to begin with. I’m old enough to remember when, during the 1988 presidential primary race, he was caught plagiarizing in a speech, and it later came out that he’d done the same thing in law school. Plagiarism is hardly a capital offense, but it does open up a question of overall honesty, and frankly, he’s never really recovered from that in my mind. I voted for him for the same reason I voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016; he wasn’t Donald J. Trump. (I’m also old enough to remember that Trump has been a punchline for decades.)

Back in March, I wrote that if the Democrats weren’t able to move significant legislation through Congress in 2021, they’d pay for it in 2022:

If Democrats are unable to move significant legislation through both houses of Congress and to the president’s desk in the next two years, they will lose control of one or both houses. Republicans will be able to point at their inability to act, and they’ll be right. The time has come for bold action on the filibuster; if not eliminating it altogether, at least modifying it to require that those filibustering a bill actually hold the floor (and stopping all Senate business altogether while doing so), or perhaps reducing the number of votes required for cloture depending on how long the filibuster has gone on (60 for the first three hours, 58 for the next three, and so on). Democrats have the majority today. They should start acting like it.

Some of the president’s popularly decline is due to the relentless lying from the right-wing media, that mostly reaches those who already hated Biden because he wasn’t Trump. But some of that vitriol seeps onto the more independent-minded centrists who are malleable enough to be influenced against whoever the current president is based on the braying of media pundits.

But I think quite a bit of the decline is from Democrats themselves, who had great hopes for transformative work from a Congress that’s nominally controlled by their party. In return for that faith in November, they’ve gotten pretty much nothing. The filibuster allows Mitch McConnell and the Republican minority to dictate what can and what can’t be seriously considered in the Senate. And Krysten Sinema and Joe Manchin get to be kingmakers by refusing to go along with the elimination, or even the modification, of the filibuster rules. I’m not even certain what they want anymore outside of being the center of attention.

Biden himself is such a creation of the Senate that I think he finds it hard to imagine changing the filibuster. So he hasn’t pushed very hard for that. It needs to be done, however, and soon. As the calendar flips into 2022, all of the congress critters will go into full-time re-election mode (as if they ever leave that mode anymore!) and nothing – or perhaps more accurately, less than nothing – will get done.

Al Gore said “The presidency is more than a popularity contest.” As a leader, when you do the right things, it may lose you popularity points, and it may take months or years for the positive outcomes of your actions to be reflected in people’s retroactive judgement of you. Some of us had hopes that Joe Biden could be the type of leader who could cajole his party to make the hard decisions needed to move us away from the Trump era. So far, those hopes have turned out to be hollow, and it’s reflected in the poll numbers.