What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. The cost of comfort. The cost of propane this winter is going to be stupid. By contrast, my electric bill in the winter is usually minimal. By my way of thinking, I could reasonably knock a degree or two off the thermostat if I just put a space heater in the office where I spend my telework days. It’s a fine idea. The office is a nice steady 68 degrees, which by my standards is perfectly comfortable. The problem now, predictably, is that every time I walk out of that particular room – to get a fresh cup of coffee or to make lunch – the rest of the house feels like wandering around a damned icebox. It’s downright unpleasant. I’m not at all sure this new cost saving scheme of mine will survive the arrival of actual winter. I suspect my desire for comfort and convenience will trump my aversion to paying overinflated fuel bills. The next major project here might just be scoping out what it will take to replace my current, elderly air conditioning unit with a heat pump to drive the operating cost of keeping the whole place warm down to something more reasonable.

2. Missing historical context. For some reason the algorithm keeps feeding me all sorts of articles in which people – usually the under 30 set – are opining about all of us now living in the era of a great reset. Most of their puff pieces seem to be based on the idea that some combination of the Great Plague, hundreds of thousands of jobs available, rising inflation, the collapse of the modern financial order under the weight of “late state capitalism,” and a litany of other leftist fever dream issues are the birth pangs of some kind of brave new world. Their earnestness is kind of adorable… but I can’t help but think they’re missing every shred of historical context when they decry their lives in “the worst timeline.”

3. An expired card. The card that I use to pay for basically everything online expired a couple of weeks ago. Since then, I’ve been on the receiving end of a near constant barrage of “card expired” emails when various companies have tried to push through their charges. Updating this information isn’t particularly hard and in most cases it’s not even all that time consuming, but it’s a bleeding nuisance. It really feels like one of those elements of online retail / bill paying that should have a much more elegant solution… and no, the answer shouldn’t be to just hand over my bank accounting and routing information and trust 20 or 30 businesses to keep it secure forever. 

Not my election day…

It’s election day in America. Well, not technically my election day, but there are people out there voting. In the run up to every election day, I try to convince myself that I’m just going to turn it off. I can check in tomorrow and catch up in five minutes with whatever needs to be known. It would surely do my blood pressure a favor not to follow the minute-by-minute horserace. 

Every time, though, I find myself inevitable drifting to the wall-to-wall coverage offered by the talking heads on three cable “news” channels and a bevy of websites and twitter feeds run by even bigger political junkies than the networks employ.

I’ve kind of made my own peace with the idea that a youth spent overly interested in politics and four years studying it as an undergrad have probably left me deeply incapable of ever really turning it off. Even so, the political theory I learned those decades ago now almost feels antique. The old rules and norms no longer seem to apply. The institutional formulas from the 20th century no longer seem to work. 

The world is a strange and different place than it was when I learned the art and science of politics from the sages who were mostly old enough to have fully formed memories of administrations headed by Eisenhower and Kennedy. In spite of myself, though, I can’t help but want to get my arms around it. This pathological desire to at least try understanding the what, why, and how probably indicates some deep personal failing on my part… but here we are.  

Exploration, conquest, and modernity…

Once upon a time, not so very long ago, we studied something then called the Age of Discovery, or if you were feeling particularly froggy, the Age of Conquest. This was the period in history from the 15th through the 17th centuries when Europeans set out on a global search for faster trade routes, wealth, personal glory. It corresponded with a then unprecedented explosion in knowledge about the natural world. 

I’ve watched a number of reports over the last few days condemning Columbus as a genocidal maniac and all I can do is shake my head in frustration. I will never understand why educated people insist on applying 21st century morality to 15th century actions. If we “discovered” an unknown continent tomorrow, we wouldn’t approach it the same way that Columbus did in the 1490s. We wouldn’t approach it the same way the Great Powers of Europe approached Africa in the 19th century, either. We would approach it using our best judgment based on 21st century understanding of peoples and our modern sensibilities. Half a millennia from now, we would surely be criticized for our actions because they were not how some future observers would have managed the affair.

“But, but,” they say, “He killed all those nice natives.” Yeah, he did. Can’t deny it. What seems to be forgotten in the discussion is Europe in the 1400s was a regular charnel house. Between plague, pestilence, disease, and the Hundred Years’ War, sudden, violent death in the New World most likely didn’t strike anyone as an unnatural state of affairs. All of our contemporary assessments of Columbus come from a 21st century perspective that is at least a full lifetime removed from any real concept of mass die-offs caused by war and pestilence. The dying related to COVID-19 doesn’t hold a candle to what was experienced historically during times of social upheaval.

We lack a personal frame of reference for what “normal” was in the late 15th century. In a very real way, the past is a foreign country. Even as a student of history, I always had a problem with those in the business who feel the need to apply contemporary morality to historical events. History is all about subtlety and context… and both are completely lacking when we try to hold Columbus to the standards of modernity.

During the Age of Conquest, as the name implies, some nations and civilizations did the conquering and others were vanquished. It’s happened since the dawn of recorded time and was happening long before we bothered writing the stories down. As often happens with the vanquished, we don’t hear much about their history. Now as a student of history myself, I’m all about understanding their story, but I’m not about rewriting the entire age of exploration into an overly simple victim narrative just to make someone feel better. Likewise, I’m under no illusion that Columbus or those that followed were demigods. History is a more complex animal than that.

Hundreds of millions of people lived and died during the three centuries of the Age of Discovery. Aside from kings and princes, we remember very few of them by name… and for those few we don’t remember them because they spent their often-short lifetimes boohooing the world around them, but because they dared to do what was hard and dangerous. They’re derided in the modern world, I suspect, because so many now live lives that are unfathomably easy and safe based on any measure of historical precedent. 

In this household, Columbus and all the men who set out in fragile wooden ships from the Old World to lay claim to the New will always be celebrated.

If you won’t follow the science, at least follow the history…

I got my flu shot this afternoon. I had the flu once. That would have been way back in 2004. It was a miserable few days shifting restlessly between bed and the couch. Every fall since then, I’ve been happy to get something that could prevent me from catching the bug or reduce its symptoms if I did end up catching it.

Having had the experience once, I didn’t need any further encouragement. I didn’t need to be entered for a door prize. I didn’t need someone from YouTube to agree with me. I didn’t need to be encouraged by athletes or movie stars. I did it because over the last 43 years, I’ve been vaccinated against I honestly have no idea how many different things both mundane and exotic. 

None of those previous vaccinations has enabled me to pick up 5G using my fillings or inserted a GPS tracker under my skin. I haven’t grown a tail or developed an insatiable craving for the flesh of babies. History tells me all those previous vaccines did precisely what they were designed to do. 

Smart people, with decades of education and training, have told me the flu shot is far less risky than the thing it helps prevent. I don’t believe them because I’m a rube who just fell off the turnip truck. I believe them because history tells me they’re right.

I am, however, just cynical enough to have gotten the shot at the tail end of a 4-day weekend so if something bad happens, I can take sick leave to cover it instead of ruining perfectly good time I had already scheduled out off.

Blood and treasure…

I went to work as a very small cog in our uncle’s great green machine in January 2003. America’s war in Afghanistan was already more than a year old by then. I worked every day from then until now as part of an organization “at war,” even if the rest of the country wasn’t. Even on days when it didn’t seem to be, Afghanistan was always in the background of everything.

I’m not a grand strategist and don’t intend to pass myself off as anything other than someone who has done some reading and existed, tangentially, on the far extremity of the fight for the last two decades. There are too many people whose real world experience and voices should be rightly amplified as we come to terms with the debacle that ends our benighted involvement in Afghanistan.

Having grown up seeing the grainy images of the fall of Saigon – taken three years before I was born – I never imagined I’d see an echo of that moment played out live on the weekend news. How we could so badly bungle this “final act” of the long war, how we could have squandered so much blood and treasure, and how it went to shit so very quickly can and should haunt this generation of bureaucrats, soldiers, and statesmen as an example of what happens when we get it exactly wrong.

These last couple of days have got me feeling some kind of way. I don’t recommend it.

A non-fiction problem…

I’ve got a problem with non-fiction. Well, technically that’s not true. I’ve been devouring non-fiction since I was a kid. What I have a problem with is my own non-fiction section. Aside from the decided focus on Western Civilization that’s sure to mark me out as an unenlightened, un-woke heretic of the modern era, titles are wildly wide-ranging. I have books in the to be read stacks ranging from the Greeks and Romans to biographies of Thomas Wolsey to volumes on the western water crisis to sweeping door stops covering Imperial Russia. It’s an embarrassment of riches at my fingertips. 

I wonder, though, if it’s not time to close the aperture a bit and pick a few periods on which to concentration my interest. Is it time to shift gears from being a generalist consumer of history to something more focused?

If so, what periods? Republican Rome though the fall of the western empire surely make the cut. Britain from the age of Victoria back to the dawn of time for sure. America from colonization through the Federalist era. The age of fighting sail. World War II. The American presidency. I’m sure there are others that I’ve missed at first blush. I know that doesn’t feel particularly focused, but all things are by comparison. 

I’m sure this is just a revisiting of the minor panic attack I had a few months ago about the fiction section being too wide ranging. Still, I think it’s worth considering if and how I should reevaluate what I’m reading. Time, by definition, is limited… and unless we stay in plague mode indefinitely, I won’t have a year to match the reading I did in 2020 and 2021 until 2035 at the earliest. That’s a depressing thought – oddly more depressing in my mind than the idea of quarantines and lockdowns continuing into the future.

I suppose all this is just another reminder that I need to do another round of curation, free some titles back into the marketplace, and relegate others to deep storage in anticipation of the day when I won’t have to be quite so selective about what book comes off the shelf next. 

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Historical context. Despite having featured prominently in an Obama Administration read across America event in 2015, Dr. Seuss is now, apparently, the author of racist content. The guy was born in 1904 and did his most prominent work in the mid 20th century. Expecting that his writing would reflect whatever ultra-woke orthodoxy is in vogue here in the 21st century is patently ridiculous. If we’re going to judge every writer who ever put ink on paper by modern standards, the allowed reading list is going to be awfully restricted. If your goal is to only allow approved, untroublesome content that supports your philosophical notion of how the world ought to be on your shelves, I suppose it’s a good position to stake out. Personally, I’ll go ahead and keep a wider range of books on my shelves. Then again, I’m not the kind of guy who’s afraid of a little historical context seeping in around the margins. Being shocked that people are products of their times and don’t exist in accordance with contemporary beliefs would be adorable if it weren’t so incredibly dumb.

2. The US House of Representatives. The House is closed for business today because of the threat of a follow-on insurrectionist attack. That sends exactly the wrong message. It speaks to fear and intimidation – that the rebels of January 6th were at least partially successful. Holding up the business of the republic out of fear of common rabble is nothing more than a missed opportunity. Better keep on, draw them near, and then crush them utterly. 

3. Taxes. I got my prepared tax return back from the accountant’s office this week. Seeing the gory details all there in black and white is just about enough to make me gag. As my favorite for instance, in 2017 the top 50% of income earners in this country paid 96.9% of all income taxes (with the evil 1% paying 38.5% of all income taxes collected). We’re not just taxed on income, of course. Individuals also face payroll tax, capital gains tax, property tax, a whole universe of excise taxes, and more. You’ll never convince me that the problem is that we’re not being taxed enough in this country. We’ve got a veritable orgy of spending that’s been getting worse regardless of what party holds the whip hand, but as long as votes can be bought with dollars from the treasury, I can’t imagine ever getting it under anything approaching control.  

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.

Damnatio…

Two millennia ago in ancient Rome, one of the gravest punishments the Senate was empowered to hand down was the damnatio memoriae – literally damning the memory of a failed leader by erasing them, as completely as possible, from the historical record.

It’s an official forgetting. It’s a bold statement that some people, some actions, are unworthy to even serve as a warning to others. Some people can best serve history by being exiled from it.

I have no idea at all what pulled that little nugget of information to mind this afternoon. Yep. No idea at all. 

Home is a funny place…

I grew up in what many people would describe as “the sticks.” The town where I grew up was so small it didn’t warrant having its own stoplight. You had to drive to the next town down the crick if you wanted to see one of those in action. Most of the towns in the area were so small that for all practical purposes that if a particular service was available in the county, it was considered fairly local.

Once upon a time, the region was a powerhouse of both light and heavy industry. Generations of a family’s men made their living by “going down the mines.” By the time I was a kid, most of that world was dead or dying, though I’m old enough to remember the last of the coal trains rumbling through the center of town to be used out there in the wider world beyond the ridges and valleys of home. Some bits of that life have clung on grimly, but it’s a world gone now for 30 years.

You’d never know it from listening to people, though. Even now, there’s an inexplicable feeling that tomorrow or maybe the next day an enormous, smoke belching factory will spring up along the banks of the Potomac and all will be well again – that the future can be exactly as it was in the past.

I’ve got an expatriate’s love of my home town (of the region, really), even while knowing I’ll likely never do more than visit occasionally. Maybe I see its charms and its flaws a bit more clearly because I’m looking from the perspective of someone who hasn’t lived there in over two decades.

Home is a funny place. 

One of the favorite local sports is bitching that business don’t want to open, or industry has left, or that six other things are fucked up and use to be better… but then immediately bitching and complaining when someone opens a new business or has the audacity to try something different.

The county is getting its first Starbucks. Already people are out of the woodwork bitching that burned coffee, overpriced, unpatriotic, corporate chain Starbucks would dare to open a shop locally. My favorite bit of local-ism is that “Having a Dunkin would be better.” Some of us are old enough to remember when there use to be one of those, too. It went out of business, so maybe it’s not as popular an option as people seem to think.

A few weeks from now, the furor over Starbucks will dry up. Everyone will be back to bitching that they want more stores or restaurant chains. Bring on a Panera or a Chipotle or an Outback. But take my word for it, as soon as one of them announces they’re coming, that business will be awful, their food will be overpriced slop, and we don’t want them here.

You’d be hard pressed to find an area more desperate for new business and economic development… as long as it changes absolutely nothing.