The half-armed crusade…

As I sit down to write today I’m running through the list of likely topics. That mostly means what ridiculous thing is sucking up all the oxygen in the worlds of politics or the Great Plague – although maybe that’s mostly the same topic now. I could rail against stupid people, always a favorite target here, but my self-imposed radical interpretation of remaining “safer at home” means I’m encountering very few of them these days. 

One potential topic I keep seeing trying to find air on social media points towards the approximately 67,000,000 children who are abducted or sold into sex slavery every year in America. I made that number up – largely because none of the memes I’ve seen seems able to agree on what that number is. They almost never cite a source and all appear to be written as if to cast an accusatory notion that “while you’ve been focused on COVID-19, you’ve been intentionally ignoring this thing over here.” At least in my small-ish social media circle I’ve observed that the people most often posting these jabs are the same ones who most likely to speculate that coronavirus is overblown / made up / a leftist plot. It’s not a 1:1 ratio but there’s a decided overlap. I’ll just say that it’s enough of a coincidence to tickle my inner skeptic and send me down my own minor internet rabbit hole.

My cursory look at the authoritative sources like National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and the most recent public NCIC report doesn’t seem to support whatever numbers are being thrown out via social media. 

Now, I’m not saying there isn’t an underlying issue lurking here somewhere. I am, however, saying that getting all your information from social media and blogs (even this one) and then launching off half armed on whatever crusade has caught your fancy, could be problematic. By all means, take a look and make sure we’re not inexplicably losing track of those 67 million people a year – but also check your sources. Please, for the love of all the gods, check your sources. 

Pen and ink…

This weekend I visited the Maryland Board of Elections website and applied for a general election absentee ballot. I know, I know, my hard right friends will be sure I’m throwing my ballot into a swampy morass of leftist vote rigging. My leftist friends will be offended that I had to actually apply for the ballot instead of them being airdropped from one end of the state to the other. When both sides are pissed off, I generally feel like I’m getting something right.

Due to circumstances, I’ve voted absentee in presidential elections at least twice previously. Licking a stamp doesn’t give me the same warm fuzzy that I got from walking into the old-fashioned voting booths, throwing the lever, and closing the curtain behind me, but then again neither does the little scantron forms used with “modern” voting machines. Still, when possible, I like voting in person when it’s possible. It makes me feel like I’ve done something a little more important than sending in a rebate or paying the phone bill.

Look, you’re free to do whatever you want, but the idea of standing around for half an hour or more with several hundred of my closest neighbors, touching all the same things they touch, breathing in the recirculated air, and watching them argue for their “right not to wear a mask” has very little appeal. That’s especially when there’s a simple and effective alternative – although how effective it will be across each of the 49 other states remains to be seen. This feels like a good time to remind everyone that we don’t have national elections in this country – but rather a host of state elections by which we decide who represents us and forms that national government. 

Frankly, influencing an election to determine who makes up that government by hacking into an electronic machine feels a lot more likely to than doing so via pen and ink ballots, so I’m a little perplexed at why it’s even a thing we’re supposed to worry about. Then again, everything has to fit someone’s narrative so I’m sure there will be plenty of coverage about how both options are awful and we’re all doomed.

Going online…

I had a pretty normal undergraduate experience – 4 years, a couple of summer or winter classes, and done. I managed to earn a full academic scholarship at least for tuition, so fortunately I didn’t have to pay the freight for that education. I won’t say I loved every minute of it, but I look back very fondly on those four years.

In the early stages of my federal career I was on the road more weeks than not and opted for an online MBA. I don’t know what the fees for such a thing are now, but back then I was paying $1,850 per six week class, for a total of $24,050 by the time I earned my degree. My impression of online education, based on that MBA experience, is that you could get as much or as little out of it as you were willing to put into it. It wasn’t hard to slip through doing the minimum, but to really learn the subject you needed to put in extra hours beyond the homework and discussion boards. I didn’t love it, but I ended up learning a lot and it served its purpose for a guy whose schedule wouldn’t have otherwise supported getting a degree. 

I’m seeing articles indicating that brick and mortar schools largely plan on charging full tuition for their slate of online classes for the fall semester. I fully realize that these schools have sunk costs that they need to keep paying regardless of how instruction is delivered, but at the same time I can’t fathom by what logic an entering freshman would pay full price for severely reduced services. Better I’d think to take your intro level classes from the local community college, save your money, and transfer them on when your school of choice opens back up for learning in the flesh. Under the circumstances, I’d even argue a gap year could be a better investment of time and resources.

Pretending that you’re completely justified in charging full price for the undergrad college experience while providing significantly reduced service feels distinctly like perpetrating a fraud… although if you have a large enough group of people willing to unquestioningly pay the bill, I suppose you can take every cent they’ll willingly hand over. 

Who wants to learn new stuff anyway?

OK. I’ve arrived at an executive decision. Keeping up a weekly feature highlighting “what I learned this week” just isn’t working for me. Call it a victim of COVID-19.

Yes, my home state of Maryland is continuing to open up. I could go eat at a restaurant, do some in-person shopping at local retail establishments, or do many of the other things that people did to amuse themselves in the before time. The catch, of course, is that I didn’t spend a lot of time doing those things back then – and I lack all motivation to do them now. 

Curtailing my primary interests to whatever is happening on my woodsy acre means less opportunity to see something truly new and different that also passes for interesting to a broader audience. I’m still learning plenty, but won’t pretend that finding the perfect mix of herbs and spices for my meat sauce or investigating what’s killing off some of the local pine trees makes for particularly enthralling Friday reading. Likewise, regaling you with what I consider interesting tidbits from whatever books I’m currently reading doesn’t feel like something that would get all that much attention.

For the foreseeable future, I’m putting Friday back into the normal posting rotation. No theme, no special emphasis, just whatever ridiculous shiny bauble happens to have my attention that day. 

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Numbers. This blog is my own little catharsis and never really intended as clickbait, but sometimes I really do wonder what sorcery is behind the numbers. My view and visitor numbers have been all over the map for the last few weeks. There’s no seeming rhyme or reason for days that are up or down. Posts that I think should be a hit end up idle and those that I thought fairly bland rack up visits. After fourteen years of doing this, you might be tempted to think I’d have a clue. If you thought that, however, you’d be 100% wrong.

2. Incredulity. The number of times in the last six weeks that I’ve been asked some version of “Aren’t you starting to go stir crazy?” is telling… if only because it reveals how many people don’t really “get” me at all. I’ve got books, critters, ready access to food and liquor, the ability to have almost anything on earth delivered to my front door, and can leave at any time for goods and services that need to be sourced locally. I feel no fear of missing out. Staying home isn’t punishment for me. It’s the life I thought I was going to have to wait another 15 years to have for myself… and after sampling it, I can assure you going stir crazy is the very least of my worries.

3. Persistence. Maggie has been quite a trooper, never so much as attempting to lick or scratch her enormous incision. Keeping a certain white and brown young canine sibling from trying to lick it all the time has been my other full-time job this week. Seven days into healing and he’s mostly stopped – though not before a few full-blown screaming fits on my part. I can sense him still searching for an opportunity. I usually appreciate and even respect that kind if persistence, but in this one case, I’m going to need him to knock it the hell off.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. The hunt. Sure, there are a few other minor annoyances, but the part of the before world that I probably miss most often while living in a plague year is regularly hunting for books. I’ve filled that particular gap by rounding out a couple sets and picking up some harder to find titles through online orders, but waiting for something to arrive in the mailbox lacks the more visceral element of finding just what you were looking for “in the wild.” There’s something special in finding that clean first edition or autographed copy laying at the bottom of the bargain bin or in someone’s yard sale clearance. I’m still gad that there’s a first edition/first printing of The Last Kingdom finally headed my way, but paying full retail and shipping definitely rankles.

2. Bloody wankers. My personal politics have always tended towards the conservative and/or libertarian. There are currently, though, whole swaths of people in that general demographic that I no longer know how to talk to. We may agree on issues of taxation, personal liberty, defense policy, and a host of other issues – but if you start any conversation or social media post proceeding from the proposition that science is in some way “out to get us,” I don’t know that we have anything further to say to one another. Science isn’t a fixed body of knowledge inherited from the ancients, unchanged and eternal. It’s an ongoing process of testing, probing, and adjusting to new facts as they develop. If, as we sit now in July, your argument against science is “that’s not what they said in March,” please just stop talking now before everyone near and dear to you realizes you’re a bloody wanker.

3. Waiting. There’s a skill to being able to wait patiently. It’s not a gift I’ve ever had, but I recognize that it is one. One of the hardest aspects of largely being able to set my own agenda over these last four months is clearly that I respond even more poorly than usual what all that’s left to do is sit around waiting for something to happen, particularly when the results are completely dependent on the actions of others.

Getting cleaned…

Google reminded me this morning that I have a dental cleaning appointment in two weeks. 

Through the sweep of the last four months living under plague conditions, I haven’t done anything that made me particularly nervous. Going for groceries didn’t bother me. Stopping off at Asian Garden for a carryout order of General Tso’s and some egg rolls didn’t feel particularly threatening. Even a quick pop into one of my favorite book shops, depopulated of customers, was fine. 

The idea of sitting calmly, unmasked, while someone hovers inches from my face while prodding, poking, scraping, and kicking up the dreaded aerosolized droplets, and “defenseless” against whatever the patient before me kicked up, leaves me feeling deeply uncomfortable. Score one for my highly developed sense of self preservation, I guess.

I’m sure my dentist is following whatever protocols are required to make the experience reasonably safe… which does nothing to eliminate that nagging, and probably completely unreasonable thought that it feels like some kind of high-risk maneuver best avoided at the moment.

At the moment, I’m leaning soft no, but with two weeks to go you can count on me to spend an inordinate amount of time overthinking the situation and creating entire universes of arguments in favor and against. That gives me room to change my mind twenty or thirty times before it really matters.

Some thoughts from an ex-teacher…

The last time I set foot in a classroom was December 2002 as I departed to begin what promised to be a far more remunerative career as a small cog in my uncle’s vast war machine. I’m sure I’ve repressed plenty of the memories of those two and a half years attempting to educate the youth of America. One thing I remember quite clearly, though, is that the place was a petri dish. I’ve never been sick as often as I was during those 30 months.

The idea that a month from now most schools can open for business as usual strikes me as absolutely farcical. Even if we accept the premise, which I don’t, that “kids don’t get it,” I’m trying to understand what the plan will be when teachers start falling out. Even under average conditions twenty years ago we couldn’t hire enough substitute teachers on a day to day basis. What they’re going to do when some significant percentage of the staff starts falling out for weeks or months at a time isn’t something I’ve seen anyone address.

I suppose if all we’re collectively interested in doing is attempting to keep up the illusion that education is happening, it might just be possible to open schools as usual. I suspect at the very best, some districts will be able to warehouse students for six or seven hours a day – at least for a little while, until the reality of jamming large numbers of people into a confined, poorly ventilated space set in. 

I won’t pretend that I have a good alternative. Distance learning, tele-education, whatever you want to call it, has obvious limitations and drawbacks – particularly in the early grade levels. I’m pretty sure I could have still done an AP US History lecture via Zoom, but I have no earthly idea what the average first grade teacher would be up against. All of that is before we even account for the subset of people who need schools open so they can go to jobs that don’t lend themselves to working remotely. I won’t pretend to understand that particular pressure, but I certainly acknowledge it’s there.

Admittedly, my interest here is largely an academic one… or maybe it’s the same kind of interest with which we look on the six-car pileup on the interstate. Watching a bunch of grown adults grapple with mass psychosis and intent on their goals in defiance of all medical and scientific realities, is really something to see. 

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

I’m about as freedom loving a libertarian leaning Republican as you’re likely to find. Smart people are telling me that covering my face holes with as simple piece of cloth is helpful in reducing the spread of a disease that’s currently wrecking the economy and killing some people. They’re not telling me that a mask is the cure. They’re not saying it will magically stop the spread of all airborne particles. They’re saying that in their best scientific estimate, a mask will reduce transmission if I wear one when I’m away from home and in proximity to other people.

Yep, it’s hot and uncomfortable. My glasses fog up and the four-month lack of barbering means my beard sticks out at the edges in a way resembling nothing so much as a 70s porn star wearing a bikini. I don’t like wearing a mask, but doing it because smart people say I should isn’t in any way infringing on my constitutional liberties. There’s no part of the Constitution that guarantees your right to make others look at your stupid face.

If you’re one of the people tempted to respond to this post arguing that “it’s just the flu” or “it’s the media” or “it’s a vast left-wing conspiracy,” just go ahead and shut the fuck up. This isn’t about politics. It’s a very simple matter of smart versus stupid… although it has gone a long way towards showing which mouth breathing yokels we should collectively avoid even when masks are no longer needed.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. “Research.” The internet is crawling with people who think they have “done research” or “studied” all manner of troubles that have lain undiagnosed by any of the other eight billion or so people on the planet. I mean if there really was a legitimate thread by which vaccinations lead to all developmental problems in human, I have to suppose it would have been uncovered at some point by serious medicos who would be happy to make a name for themselves. We’ve been inoculating people against disease since the early 18th century… and yes there have always been adverse reactions, but since tens of thousands of people aren’t falling down dead from smallpox anymore I’m willing to take my chances because people smarter than me who are credentialed in medicine, biology, and chemistry tell me it’s a good idea. The same is true when the internet lights up with warnings that dinner plates made before 2005 contains toxic levels of lead that sap and impurify our precious bodily fluids – all turning on the “research” conducted by someone using their kitchen counter as a laboratory and going out of their way to avoid presenting actual data, methods, or independent verification. But hey, feel free to go ahead and base your “research” on the rantings of some uncredentialed, ill-informed, and mentally questionable rando on the internet. I’m sure their information is better than the sum total of the knowledge acquired by western medicine over the last thousand years.

2. Questions. I’ve heard it sad that there’s no such thing as a stupid question. If you really believe that I’ll just have to assume you’ve never actually met people. Ever. Take, for instance, one of the most popular questions I’ve seen swirling around the office this last week. It basically asks “I’m worried that COVID-19 can be transmitted by toilets. We can’t expect people to hold it all day so what’s being done to protect people from the potty?” I can only presume this was an actual question and not, in some way, sent as an effort to find the funny since it was asked at least twice almost verbatim in two different forums. The answer, in case you’re curious, is that restrooms will be cleaned and sanitized on a regular basis (as they have been before and during the initial phases of the Great Plague). If you’re wearing your mask, washing your hands, and not touching every surface in the bathroom and then jamming your hands in your mouth, eyes, or nose, your chances of a toilet-related disaster are probably pretty low… although that feels like a pretty big ask for a lot of people.

3. The Great Plague. After three months we’re finally hitting a moment when I’m personally being inconvenienced by the Great Plague. You see, my favorite cut-rate discount used book warehouse is open again, the truly massive barn sale in southern Pennsylvania where I always seem to find some treasure or another is scheduled for this weekend, and I find myself about to be desperately in need of more shelving in the non-fiction section here at Fortress Jeff. Being the proud possessor of “underlying health conditions” and now seeing the ongoing increase in cases and hospitalizations being reported around the country heading out on the search for old and unusual or more books and places to put them is something of a roll of the dice. My local area currently has a respectably low positivity rate despite the increased number of tests being administered. Part of me wants to use the moment to get a few long-delayed items off the to do list before we cycle back towards another spike… while of course the other part wants to just stay comfortably home, avoid any unnecessary exposure, and watch the world burn itself down.