Grinning like the village idiot…

OK, so here I am back after a delightful, if short, four-day weekend. I mostly tuned out any form of news, avoided Twitter, and landed on Facebook only sporadically – air dropping in to post occasional memes, but not doing much scrolling. In short, it was really kind of delightful. I’m quite sure there’s a lesson there, if I’m willing to take heed of it. Steering mostly clear of news and social media is good for your mental health. Who knew, right?

I’ve often wondered why people who are obviously stupid wander through life so often grinning like the village idiot. I can only speculate based on my limited evidence, that perhaps ignorance really is bliss and that’s not just something people say. Going about without a thought in your head or a worry in your heart is undeniably freeing. It’s not so much that I didn’t care what was happening in the world as it was that I just didn’t know. I’m feeling surprisingly ok with that.

The first thing I did when I trundled to my desk this morning was tee up Drudge. Finding it plastered with reports of China’s rising protests, Donald Trump in general, the Republican Party continuing to form a circular firing squad, Elon continuing to be Elon, and Russia, as always, doing Russian shit. If that’s what I missed out on across the four days of Thanksgiving, I have to ask if I really missed anything at all. 

I still don’t expect I’ll ever be able to tune everything out indefinitely. It’s an unhappy side effect of being, at least in some ways, curious about the world. I hope that I can at least be a bit more selective in the future – heading down rabbit holes that are of interest rather than just because they’re there. If the world is determined to burn itself to the ground, I can’t see any good reason I shouldn’t just increasingly allocate my attention to books and animals and smile while everything else does its thing.  

Towards a more curated experience…

A weekend with virtually no news seems to be precisely what the doctor ordered. It was a helpful reminder that there’s enough going on within my span of control to absorb every bit of free time I want to have on any given day. It was kind of great to focus in on those things rather than spending a lot of time focused in on external issues.

My news and media brown out only lasted until I sat down with a computer terminal in front of me this morning. Then I was greeted by headlines warning that “Poll reveals staggering polarization ahead of midterms,” “Fundamentals flashing red; Last pillar of credit crumbles,” and, of course, any number of stories highlighting Donald Trump being his normal, beshitted self. None of those are apt to keep one’s blood pressure down, but what else would anyone really expect on a Monday morning?

I like to imagine I now have all the all the input I need to start scaling back on the amount of hard and soft news I’m consuming on a daily basis, but breaking the habits of a lifetime is probably something of a slow burn. Even if it were possible, I’m not sure I’d ever want to wander through the world completely unaware of what’s happening – if for no other reason than it would create a whole lot of white space when it comes time to sit down every day and do a bit of writing. Short of turning this space into a blog focused on petting dogs and cats, reading books, and highlighting the occasional home cooked meal, keeping a bit of a grip on current events is probably inevitable. 

In any case, I think what that leaves me with is a strong desire to begin curtailing how engaged I am with broad-sourced news coverage – maybe a little less Drudge and a bit more heavily curating Google News to spit out coverage on more tailored issues. It feels like a good idea… and I have no idea if it’s the kind of change I can make work for the long term. 

Ponder, dwell, and worry…

This week has been a lot and I’m tired. Not so much physically as mentally. I’ve expended too much mental energy on stuff that I have no control over and in my estimation that’s almost always a mistake. Being, by nature, someone who ponders, dwells, and flat out worries, it’s an easy enough trap to fall into.

Between ongoing Russian fuckery, the UK having a crisis of confidence, the steady drumbeat of the US midterm elections approaching, and various other bits and bobs, the world is a busy place filled with any number of things that could literally or figuratively maim, mutilate, or kill a guy. Each and every one of those topics is an area worthy of the big thinkers of our time. Even they, in their collective wisdom, probably couldn’t arrive at a collective resolution. I don’t tend to believe in unsolvable problems, but I absolutely believe in problems that can’t be solved until everyone involved wants to solve them. We’re nowhere near that point on so very many issues of great import – and so, completely unbidden, my mind tends to dwell.

This weekend, I’m going to treat this problem the best way I know how – by dramatically reducing my consumption of content from the electronic and print media for a couple of days. I won’t bother to proclaim a news blackout because I’ve never been successful at making one of those stick. I can, however, make intentional choices about what sites I visit and links I follow.

Add in a healthy dab of physical exhaustion from jumping into the fall yard work and that’ll be just about what the doctor ordered to even out the keel. By Monday I should be ready to dive back in and, if nothing else, look at the same old issues with an at least partially rested frontal lobe.

Should’ve known better… 

State and local officials in Florida are catching three kinds of hell for not issuing evacuation orders earlier last week in advance of Hurricane Ian. The buck has to stop somewhere, I suppose, but I’ve got a slightly different take on where that particular responsibility lies. As much as I want to jump aboard the smack Ron DeSantis around train, I’m just not there.

Let’s say for purposes of argument that I’m a resident of Sanibel Island. It’s late September and a large hurricane is gathering strength in in the Caribbean. About the time it has taken a bite out of Cuba and starts tracking towards the west coast of Florida, I’m paying very focused attention and going through my own checklist of what needs to happen before I get the hell out of Dodge. When I’ve completed my personal risk assessment, knowing full well that I’m on a barrier island, there’s limited accessibility under the best conditions, and that the big one could cut off communications, water, electricity, and access to pretty much all modern services. At some point in assessing that reality, I’m going to make the decision to flee or ride it out.

It’s the same thing I do on a different scale when there’s snow falling on a weekday. I know that both routes from the outside world to my little homestead here involve negotiating both up and down hills that tend to ice over and get treacherous after a few inches of snow. Even with 4-wheel drive getting in or out can get a little problematic – more often than not because of other area residents who have already tried and failed to negotiate those trouble spots. That’s why I make my own decision about whether it’s safe to go to the office, whether I need to leave early to head home, or whether it needs to be a working from home kind of day. Waiting around for the bureaucracy to make an official decision just means conditions will already be shit by the time I get on the road, so I take the decision into my own hands – because no one is more concerned about me than I am myself.

The problem we run into is a really an issue of what we mean by “mandatory” evacuation. It’s hard to imagine (or expect) that even in the face of an incredibly destructive hurricane your state or local government is going to walk into your house, physically restrain you, and haul you out of your home against your will. They’ll certainly advise. They’ll caution. They may even warn, but ultimately the go/no-go decision is on your own head. The “I didn’t know it was going to be so bad” excuse only goes so far. Even here in north eastern Maryland plenty of reports were cutting through the static about Ian and all the potential damage he carried along. Living on a barrier island in south Florida during hurricane seasons kind puts a lot of the onus on each individual to have a bit of heightened awareness.

Sure, you’ll tell me that some people had no choice. In every natural disaster there’s always some subset of the impacted population that can’t afford to evacuate, or don’t have a car, or have some other extenuating circumstance. Those don’t seem to be the ones raising three kinds of hell during television interviews or in the print media. Then again, there’s a world of difference between “can’t” evacuate and “won’t” evacuate. For the former, it’s a tragedy. For the latter, it feels a lot more like a case of should’ve known better.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

Things from the Before Time. People are returning to the office. What I’ve noticed, particularly among a certain set of semi-senior or management types, is a quiet, unspoken determination to do things the way they were done in the Before Time. There’s a willful effort at suspending disbelief and denying the reality of the Great Plague. The fact that people aren’t quietly going along with their fervent wish to roll the clock back to February 2020 almost hits them as a surprise… as if they want to wish away the fact that over the last 30 months, the people didn’t find a better way to work and arguably a more rewarding way to live. But here they are, shocked and surprised that most of their colleagues aren’t thrilled and excited to commute, spend eight hours a day siting in florescent hell, or pile into a charter bus packed elbow to asshole with 53 of their new closest friends to take a two-hour ride. The powers at echelons higher than reality can make people return to cubicle land, but their expectation that anyone will do it with a smile in their heart is going to be sorely disappointed. 

Hurricane coverage. I’ve never really understood why networks make their anchors stand in the rain looking like drowned rats for their newscast. I know television is a visual medium, but I think everyone watching has had enough experience with rain to know what it looks like when you get caught in a downpour. Sure, show the aftermath. That’s probably newsworthy at some level. During the storm itself, though, there’s honestly just not that much to see that can’t be caught through a window or from under some minimal level of shelter. Sending grown ass adults to stand outside to demonstrate that it’s raining and windy, doesn’t feel particularly useful to my understanding of the coverage.

Being a dollar short and three months late. The plumbing company I had originally planned to use to install and new and improved water filtration system (more than two months ago) called rather sheepishly on Monday morning. The voicemail went a little something like “Oh, hey Mr. Tharp… We, uh, have a plan here for your filter system… We, uh, must have put it in someone else’s file and, uh, wanted to schedule a time to come out and get started on that work.” I appreciate the level of audacity it must take to make that call, particularly after I spent a month calling weekly to see where the plan was and when they were going to get started, before giving up and handing the project to a company that came out, drafted the plan, and did the work all within a week’s time. Mistakes, I’m told, happen. This, however, is one that could have been avoided at any of five or six points along the way if they had responded to a customer’s efforts to make contact. I encourage this company to go, and I can’t emphasize this enough, fuck themselves. 

Global wealth, exceptionalism, and mediocrity… 

According to an article in The Guardian, in 2021 the number of millionaires in the United States increased by 2.5 million, bringing the total of millionaires in the US to 24.5 million. Put another way, approximately 7% of the people living in this country have a net worth of at least one million dollars. That number is so high compared to historical levels that according to the article “the number of millionaires was becoming so large that it was becoming ‘an increasingly irrelevant measure of wealth.’” 

In my mind, having 39% of the world’s millionaires knocking around the country is a good news story. It speaks to the unprecedented level of wealth creation the American economy and global trade have fostered. We’re creating wealth in greater amounts and more quickly than ever before in history and it’s a testament to what’s still possible with brains, effort, and a bit of luck.

The Guardian, of course, takes pains to point out that the largess of the global economy hasn’t been fairly distributed. As if anything in the world has ever been distributed fairly. Natural resources aren’t sprinkled evenly across the world. Intellect isn’t awarded equally at birth. Gnashing your teeth over issues of equity is, of course, the trendy take, but it’s not how the universe works. 

Personally, I’m far happier knowing it’s possible to be exceptional, somewhere towards the right end of the bell curve, than knowing for a certainty that we can all look forward to an equal share of mediocrity.

The agitating present…

Having spent the last week and a half taking in a steady diet of new from the UK, I tried this morning to adjust back to information from sources closer to home. It wasn’t a particularly happy reunion.

Aside from the local weather forecast, I’d be hard pressed to tell you about a single story covered my go-to station out of Baltimore that I could gin up any interest in at all. Murder, mayhem, hints of corruption – nothing new under the sun. Switching over to CNN it was the predictable drumbeat of catastrophic weather, rerunning the election of 2020 and the general fuckery surrounding it, and all manner of talking heads I’m increasingly convinced don’t have the first idea about what’s happening or why. 

I’m sure there are a host of things I should be interested in, or that I should at least have a bit of general knowledge about, but friends I’m here to tell you that I just don’t. Maybe it’s simply news overload. Maybe it’s too many sources peddling a decidedly weak product. Whatever the cause, I’m far more interested in reading analysis of what happened a continent away 500 years ago than I am in lending my eyes and ears to what happened yesterday thirty miles from home.

I’m sure once the midterm election gets a little closer or the case against the former host of The Celebrity Apprentice ever gets a bit of traction, I’ll tune back in – or at least gin up a modicum of interest. For the immediate future, if it’s not coming through BBC, The Times, or one of the news aggregators I glance at in the morning, I’m going to be ok not paying attention.

If something legitimately important happens, I’m sure it will break through the static. Until then, I’ll be perfectly content studying the past rather than being thoroughly agitated by the present.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Conflicting reports. I watched back-to-back news report earlier this week that focused on aspects of the current economy. The first story railed about inflation, average pay being too low, and mulling the idea of eternal bailouts for everyone/universal basic income. The very next story went on to report that Maryland’s casinos had their most profitable month ever. I’m not saying those stories are mutually exclusive, but I’m going to need a bit more in depth analysis before I accept that the economy is collapsing while the citizens of our fair state have allocated so much of their disposable income to packing the local casinos to the rafters.

2. Door-to-door sales. Does anyone really hire a pest service on their front stoop at 7 PM on Wednesday evening? I just can’t believe it’s the kind of thing that’s an effective business model in 2022. And yet they keep on coming, so I guess someone must be buying. I honestly can’t remember anything I’ve ever bought based on random people showing up at my front door, with the possible exception of Girl Scouts pushing cookies. I truly believe the world would be a better place if we all agreed that it’s time to end the era of door-to-door peddlers. The only thing they’ve ever done for me is drive the resident animals into a high state of agitation and that’s not a good look for someone who wants me to give them money.

3. Florida. This week a Florida court decided that a 16-year-old girl was not “sufficiently mature to decide whether to terminate her pregnancy.” The logical extension of that argument, therefore, is that the court believes the teen is sufficiently mature to have and raise a baby, which strikes me as a complete inversion of basic common sense. I’ve, fortunately, never needed to raise a baby into a functional human, but it seems to me that it’s the kind of activity that would benefit from an over-abundance of maturity and responsibility to be done properly. I might go so far as to posit that the state has a vested interest in encouraging the most responsible and mature of their citizens to have children rather than the other way around. Here’s the State of Florida, though, cleaving to the lesser, ass-backward standard. I won’t even pretend to be surprised.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Estimates. Over the course of the last two days, I’ve tried to come to terms with how bad we are at estimating in complex situations. Starting Tuesday night, the “estimated” time to have power back on 9PM, then 11PM, then unknown, then 3 PM Wednesday, then unknown again, then 11:30 PM, and then finally 11:30 PM Thursday. Grid power came back around midnight on Thursday, so I have no idea where that final estimate came from. This all transpired over the course of 30 hours. I mean wouldn’t it be better to just say we don’t have any fucking idea when things will happen than engage in wildly over optimistic dart throwing? 

2. Connectivity. It’s not the fact that the power is out that’s the problem. In a pinch, I can always make my own. The larger issue is that when the power does happen to go out, I lose nearly all connectivity. Despite Verizon showing that I have two solid bars of LTE coverage, the best I can manage are text messages and some highly garbled phone calls. It’s a $1000 smart phone reduced to less capability than I had from my old Nokia 3310. It’s almost like those “service bars” are a marketing gimmick and have no actual relationship to your actual signal strength. 

3. Social media. You don’t realize how much time you waste on social media until you can’t waste time on social media. Unfortunately, that largely seems to happen when you have nothing but time in front of you. Fortunately, I have a finely honed ability to entertain myself indefinitely, but in a warped and twisted way I did miss being able to have news and world events beamed directly into my eye holes 24/7 via Twitter. 

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

Thrift Savings Plan. One of the non-salary benefits that makes federal employment at least nominally attractive is access to the Thrift Savings Plan, a low-fee 401(k) style defined contribution retirement plan. The TSP website has always been a little bit clunky, but with only five basic funds and five target date funds to manage, it didn’t need to be particularly complicated. And that’s where the Thrift Savings Board, the fine people who run the plan, decided to revamp everything. The transition to a new web interface and record keeping system started in May and by the 26th the process was far enough along that users were effectively locked out “until the first week of June.” Well, as predictable as it is, the rollout of these “new and improved features has proven to be absolute hot garbage. I’m one of the lucky ones that managed to set up a new log in without causing the system to crash… even though I still can’t do anything once I’ve signed on. With millions of account holders and $750 Billion under management, you might be tempted to think there would be an incentive to get this rollout right. You would, of course, have been 100% wrong. The Thrift Board and whatever contractor the picked to develop this wonder-system have delivered up a complete and total turd.

Inspection. My bathroom remodel contractor has spent the last week and a half working great guns to stay on schedule. They left around lunch time yesterday and aren’t here at all today because work is at a dead stop until the county inspector comes by to do his or her thing. That might be tomorrow. It might be next week. Per the project manager and a call to the county office, “There’s no way of knowing.” I’m sure these county inspectors are doing God’s own work, but letting bureaucracy grind a project to a stop without giving a date-certain when they’ll even bother to consider giving approval for more work to get done is infuriating on just about every level. It’s the kind of thing that leads people to decide government is the problem rather than being part of the solution.

The BBC. First off, let me say I love the BBC. They’re one of my top two or three go-to news sources and provide the lion’s share of what television I actually still watch. I use to be able to stream some limited live events from their website. Apparently, I can no longer do that, being met by a banner that says “This content is not available in your location.” By my location, I assume they mean across the waters in the United States. Hey, look, I know the Beeb has its own bills to pay. I’d be happy to sign up for a subscription or a pay a license fee or whatever. I know there are ways to circumvent all that, but I’d rather just hit an easy button, pay a few dollars, and get on with it on the up and up.