Western regrets…

Back in the summer of 2003, I spent the better part of three months living in a motel in the high desert of Oregon. The Dalles sits in the shadow of Mount Hood, along the Columbia River, about 90 miles east of Portland on I-84. It was like this east coast native, at the ripe old age of 25 had been dumped not just in a foreign country, but on a different planet. Everyone spoke English, but my brain refused to comprehend the mountains, the big river, and the gorge itself. Looking at those landscapes was a lot like how it feels looking at the graphics generated by a virtual reality headset for the first time – simultaneously real and surreal. 

I recalled enough from my American history classes to know driving back and forth to the dam that I was following along a small portion of the route covered by Lewis and Clark. That was about as far as my academic curiosity reached on that point. Even when I was studying, I wasn’t much of a student of the American west. What I, at the time, considered my temporary exile to Oregon, was an utterly wasted opportunity to follow the steps of what I know now to be one of the greatest overland explorations in recorded history.

I spent four days a week working at a mind-bendingly enormous hydro-electric dam that our rich uncle had thrown across the Columbia in the 1950s. The other three days, I spent mostly just dicking around – driving up to Seattle, over to Mount Saint Helens, or sampling as many of the micro- breweries between Hood River and Portland as my paltry GS-7 pay checks would support. 

In those three months, I could have been all over the western end of the trail Lewis and Clark blazed through the wilderness. It’s an opportunity I pissed away because at the time, being “out west” was just the thing standing between me and starting my real job back in DC… where my life as a cube-dweller really began.

If you’ve ever wondered what I regret most from the last twenty years, I just told you about it. 

Evolution…

Bernard Cornwell writes what are arguable the best battle scenes ever put on paper. The man is also prolific, having written dozens of books across multiple series. He’s been one of my favorite historical fiction authors for years.

I’ve successful completed my set of his Saxon Stories, Starbuck Chronicles, and Grail Quest series. I’m nearly there with the Warlord Chronicles, his five standalone nautical thrillers, and one-off novels. 

Assembling the complete Sharpe series, though, continues to be like chasing the white whale. Over the last couple of years, I’ve managed to scrounge many of the newer titles in decent condition and at more than reasonable prices. I’ve been spoiled by being in striking distance of so many tremendous used book sellers.

I’m down to the last seven books of the 22-book series to make the set… and it seems that I’ve reached a point in acquiring Sharpe editions that I’m going to have to spend some real money. 

The American firsts in “collectable” condition range from $100-$125. The British firsts are a bit more. But if you’re already pushing towards $150, what’s a few dollars more to have the proper first editions, right? Right.

I have a couple of hundred feet of shelf space fill with books, all things I want to read, brought home for less than $5. Many of those were really no more than a buck or two. In the book space I occupy, $150 or $200 can buy a hell of a lot of good reading material. Alternately, it can bring you a pristine, “as new,” not price clipped or remaindered perfect specimen. 

I could round out my Sharpe collection with perfectly good paperback copies for a few dollars. It’s already a bastard marriage of UK and American first editions that would horrify a proper collector, but the paperbacks add a gap toothed look on the shelf that, to me, is visually unappealing. 

In some ways – or at least for some authors – it turns out I’m evolving from a simple acquirer and reader to a minor collector. It feels inevitable that these shelves of mine will increasingly find themselves being home to the fight between being a reader’s library and a proper book collection.

I’m not mad about it.

The price of power…

Apparently in Texas you can sign up for a “wholesale” electricity plan. Just like a loan with a floating interest rate, it could be a real benefit to the consumer when rates are low. The catch is, the interest rate for loans or the wholesale cost of electricity changes over time. Sometimes it changes both dramatically and quickly.

Signing up for the “wholesale” plan makes eminent sense when gas and oil is flowing and prices are low. All it takes, though, is a single unexpected event to make such a decision catastrophically wrong. It’s the inherent risk of pinning your plans on a floating rate that’s governed entirely on the vagaries of supply and demand in a potentially volatile marketplace.

While I feel badly for the people who woke up this week to a $16,000 bill for electricity, I presume the contract they signed included a pretty large warning that price moved both up and down and often does so with great rapidity. I felt sorry, too, for people who signed up for zero percent mortgages only to realize that when their mortgages rest to the “real” rate they couldn’t afford both the principle and the interest.

In both cases, these are people who willingly bypassed traditional service agreements or mortgages in favor of “exotic” options. The low up-front cost of exotic options, even if no other explicit warning is made, should be a clear indication to the average consumer that they are assuming a greater than normal degree of personal risk. Both are just one step better than walking in to the local casino and putting your month’s mortgage or rent payment on red and hoping for the best.

Though I feel sorry for both groups, I don’t feel any more sense of personal responsibility to bail out electricity consumers who made bad choices than I did for bailing out homeowners who took on unreasonable levels of debt. Expecting to enjoy all the benefits of low prices without encountering the corresponding negative possibilities smacks of immature thinking. Constantly protecting people from the natural consequences of their own actions clearly hasn’t done us any favors, as it seems no one has taken any of the lessons to heart. 

Now because I’m not a complete bastard, I could be convinced that low-interests emergency loans for those needing relief is a reasonable idea, but simply wiping out legitimate debt because it’s politically expedient sends an appalling message. Mine won’t be the popular opinion, of course, since no one wants to be responsible for themselves and politicians don’t win votes in this modern world of ours by expecting anyone to live up to their personal obligations when a billion dollar bailout is available. So, really, those whole post is about nothing more than yelling into the void.

Perfectly unremarkable…

It’s been a perfectly unremarkable Friday. The freezing drizzle and fog this morning was a nice touch… and just another reason why working from home is greater than working at the office. Otherwise, the day isn’t really distinguished in any way.

I’ve built a lovely cocoon for myself here at Fortress Jeff. With a few minor exceptions there’s not much I want to do that I can’t do here from the comfort of the homestead. Whether it’s plague, foul weather, or violent insurrection, I’m ready to ride it out right here with the critters. 

True end of the world stuff is another matter, but in fairness, I’ve grown rather fond of civilization and I’m not entirely sure I want to be one of those people who get to stick around and pick through its ruins.

Where you stand depends on where you sit, I suppose. There was a time I was the first to volunteer to fly off to whatever job needed doing and I rarely thought of what might be happening beyond the next weekend. Back there and back then, I could barely stay put for half a day before needing to be up and out on the next thing. The older I get, though, the more stock I put on the world being regulated by good order and discipline. Chaos, in the wide universe of things best avoided, is the one I loath the most.

I can’t control the world, of course, but I can control a fair amount of what happens here on my little piece of it… so I’ll be striving to extend this run of “unremarkable” as far past Friday as possible. 

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. The office. Days I have to schlep over to the actual office to do things I’ve been successfully doing from my living room for a year are annoying. And not just for the usual reasons surrounding spending a day locked in cubicle hell. A not minor part of the annoyance package on those days is the fact that right out of the gate it means I’m losing 80-90 minutes of quality reading time just to get over there. It just adds insult to injury.

2. Emotional responses. It seems that Ted Cruz flew to Cancun while the power was out in Texas. Sure, the optics aren’t ideal, but if Ted stayed in Texas, do you really think he’d be sitting in the dark just waiting for the lights to come back on? Unless your senator moonlights as a power plant operator, electric lineman, oil well repairman, or LP gas tanker captain, there’s very little role for him beyond making phone calls and prodding the people who run the grid to get their act together, which could be done from Houston, Washington, Cancun, or the International Space Station. Honestly the last thing anyone needs in a disaster situation is one more politician wandering around getting in the way of emergency responders. Having worked a fair amount of my early career in emergency management, I can’t remember a single thing that was improved when the politicians showed up in the room for their photo op. 

3. Prediction. Let me start by saying that I recognize that “the weather” is a ludicrously complicated system. Predicting how it’s going to behave at one particular spot on the globe at any given time involves huge assumptions and massive amounts of computing power. With that said, three weeks ago the experts were calling for 4-6 inches of snow. We ended up with two inches of slush. Last week the experts called for 4-8 inches of snow. We ended up with two inches of slush. Today, the experts called for another 4-8 inches of snow. Thus far, the results have been less than an inch of sleet, freezing rain, and snow. I’m not saying the daily weather forecast is absolute hokum, but maybe instead of trying to project exact details, we focus more on whether the storm will produce liquid or frozen precipitation and leave it at that since nailing the details seems awfully problematic.

Lessons from Texas…

There are lots of lessons about the debacle of the Texas electric grid.

The biggest, for me at least, is the confirmation that energy independence isn’t just about making the fuel we consume right here in the good ol’ U S of A, but also in having a bare minimum ability to produce some power or heat separate and apart from whatever grid happens to service your region.

For the average homeowner or renter, even a tiny, portable generator could power a modest electric heater – enough to keep a room warm and a lamp on as a shelter of last resort. For an apartment dweller the calculus is a bit different. Even so, there are indoor use options powered by propane or denatured alcohol that would provide welcome heating in a survival situation. The catch to all of those alternatives, though, if you need to have thought them through a bit before the “oh shit” moment arrives.

I’ll be the first to tell you that even the best generators aren’t foolproof. They need regular service and rely on a steady supply of your fuel of choice. Here at Fortress Jeff, that fuel source is a 500 gallon propane tank buried in the backyard. At best, on the day it’s filled, that tank will contain 400 gallons of propane – or a little more than six days of 24/7 run time for the average sized generator. Since most days that tank is sitting somewhere between full and “empty,” I work from the assumption that I can keep things fully up and running for half that time and maybe even less since the water heater and furnace both draw from the same tank. If it looks like a long duration outage, off and on cycling will buy me a few more days of keeping the place at least habitable.

Beyond that point, we’re at the mercy of the delivery service and the expectation that both the generator and HVAC systems keep working as advertised. That is to say, it’s not a zero risk plan that I put together. There are certainly scenarios where a deep snow or ice, and downed trees could prevent delivery or repair should an event drag into multiple days or some component fail. I assess the relative risk of that happening as being fairly low based on the historical record for the geographic area I currently occupy.

Even feeling fairly secure in my ability to operate independently from the grid for days if necessary, when the time comes to replace the current 21 years old tank, I’m planning to upgrade to a 1000 gallon model. When it comes to fuel on hand, I firmly believe the old logistician’s motto that “more is better.” On days I’m feeling particularly aggressive about my own personal energy independence, the thought of adding a wood stove also sounds awfully appealing. Without a fireplace of any kind in the house, it’s more of an undertaking than I’d really like to get involved with just now, but it’s on the radar for sure.

As for Texas, well, it’s just one more reminder than when shit really gets dicey, you’d better have a plan to get yourself through the worst of it, because the cavalry isn’t always going to ride over the hill and rescue you in the nick of time.

Aspect of the demon…

I’ve been a loud and unrepentant fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer for a long time. Stick with me, though, because this post is only tangentially related.

In the episode titled “Earshot,” Buffy slays a demon. Nothing unusual there. That’s her job after all.

The mouthless demon in question, part of a pair, was able to communicate telepathically – the reason they gave our favorite Slayer such a run for her money. As half the pair is vanquished, Buffy ends up with some of its blood on her hand. It’s absorbed quickly and her hand begins to itch. Concerned, Buffy consults Giles, who warns ominously that it’s possible she could have been infected with “an aspect of the demon.” In this case, Buffy’s “aspect” was being able to read people’s thoughts – a trick that sounds neat at first, but becomes radically less so as the episode progresses.

Through a fluke of timing and availability that really translates to “right place, right time,” I was able to get my first round of Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine last Friday. If we all go along with the analogy of COVID being a demon in desperate need of slaying, well, it seems I managed to get my own minor version of its aspect once it worked its way into my bloodstream.

I didn’t get to do any mind reading, but I did develop what I’m affectionately calling a temporary case of narcolepsy. For the better part of Saturday and Sunday, I fell asleep every single time I sat down. Want to watch something on TV? Fall asleep. Want to read a book? Fall asleep. Look something up online? Fall asleep.

As aspects of the demon go, it wasn’t entirely unpleasant, but I’m glad it seems to be over now. Falling asleep repeatedly throughout the day is a real productivity killer. Hopefully the second round results will be as innocuous and not cause me to sprout an ill-placed horn or wake up as a Fyral demon.

Tax stuff…

Presidents Day is more than just a federal holiday. Historically it’s the day I sit down and pull all my “tax stuff” together so it can be sent off to my friendly semi-local accountant. Yeah, I know, I’m not in any way a creature of habit.

Put another way, Presidents Day is my own personal day of rage as I start getting a sense of just how much of the last year I spent working just to avoid being thrown into state or federal prison for non-compliance with an extortion racket backed by the full force of government. 

Then I start to ponder the fact that the national debt will crash through $28,000,000,000,000 in short order… and realize that it would take more than 1.5x the current Gross Domestic Product to pay off our current dept.  I have no idea how that level of debt is sustainable over the long term, unless, of course, we adopt some wildly confiscatory tax scheme. That comes with its own inevitable pitfalls too. 

I’ve heard it said that “taxes are the price we pay for civilization,” but as I’m sitting here looking at sheets full of numbers, I can’t help but wonder how much longer we can reasonably expect the government to carry the full freight of those costs. Given the profound ineptitude of our elected officials, I’m even more incredulous about why we’d even want them involved in all the nooks and crevices where they’re currently spending our tax dollars.

According to some random website, 71% of people surveyed currently disapprove of how Congress is going its job. Allowing an organization that more than 2/3 of the country believes is doing the wrong thing to walk around with an open checkbook and cheering while they spend feels like the height of absurdity. 

Getting Shot…

I was one of the designated red shirts in the office today (and before you ask, yes, I really do wear red shirts on the days I have to schlep over to the office). It’s the Friday before a holiday weekend, so the day is one of those that could easily have gone either way. Aside from a couple of systems I needed to use not working for half the day (which is fairly normal), the day broke towards the better than expected side. Occasionally I’m pleasantly surprised like that.

The big news of the day, though, was the handful of us who got tagged to be “early adopters” of the COVID-19 vaccine. Mostly it went to some of the people who have been here day in and day out since last March. I don’t begrudge them getting to the front of the line in any way. The more of that bunch who roll up their sleeves, the better protected I am on the periodic days I’ve got to spend taking my turn in cubicle hell.

The more subtle undercurrent of the day was the more quiet voices adamantly asserting “No way I’m taking that,” or “it’s unproven,” or “the damned government has injected me with enough stuff already.” I’ve been told we’re not supposed to mock “those with vaccine hesitancy,” so I won’t… not publically, at least. I’m thankful for their hesitancy, too, in a way… because every one of them who turns it down puts me just a little higher on the list.

I threw myself on the waiting list a week or two ago, not really expecting much to come of it. Turns out, either we accidentally ended up with way too much product or way too little interest, because by the end of the day I, too, had some of Moderna’s finest rapidly developed and tested, emergency use approved vaccine racing through my system. Maybe I’ll grow a tail or drop dead from god knows what side effect 30-years from now… but I’m a step closer to getting back to trolling through shops that smell of old paper, and that makes this possibly the best Friday I’ve ever spent in the office.

And to think they say getting shot is a bad thing.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. The CDC. I know the CDC has an obligation to follow the science and make recommendations based on data. Even so, rolling out a recommendation that everyone should wear two masks just makes me want to smack someone over there. The previous administration dropped the ball in failing to convince a sizable portion of the people that they needed to wear one mask… and that’s not even counting the ones who technically have a mast on but can’t manage to wear it covering both their nose and mouth simultaneously. Maybe I’m reading the room wrong, but it seems to me that we might be better served to use the PR campaign to convince the rest of the people to wear just one mask before we spend a lot of time and effort hectoring everyone to double up. 

2. Snow. We seem to be in a cycle where every third day it drops a few inches of snow on us. It’s rarely enough to shutter or delay anything, but it’s certainly enough to be obnoxious and need clearing off the driveway and sidewalks lest the freeze-thaw cycle leave me with sheet ice on every side for the next month. I like winter well enough, but if it’s going to snow, it should come in increments measured in feet and not inches.

3. A poll released this week showed that 33% of Republicans would join a new political party if it were formed by Donald Trump. Another 37% said they’d consider joining such a new party. As a long time conservative and someone who has been a registered Republican for most of his adult life, I welcome and encourage their departure from the party of Lincoln, Eisenhower, and Reagan just as quickly as their little legs can carry them. If you can unabashedly continue to support a former president who used his last days in office to call his supports to insurrection against our Constitution and laws, I’m not sure you’re really tracking with the historical principles of Republican Party. I’d rather see the GOP go down in defeat in every election for a generation than throw my lot in with seditionists and wanna be tough guys.