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.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Root causes. What the actual fuck is wrong with people? Twenty-six years ago, when most of my cronies and I were about 18, we had ready access to both rifles and handguns. We weren’t particularly well supervised back then and yet we somehow managed not to seed our world with chaos and mass murder. Back there and back then, it was the sort of event that was a true rarity. It’s why I struggle with the idea of blaming the tools people use when it happens now. The first semi-automatic rifle made its appearance in 1779. They became widely available on the consumer market in the closing years of the 19th century. It wasn’t until well into the back half of the 20th century where the commonly described “mass shooting” starts to become a thing that happens. That history is also why I struggle with laying the blame for these events at the foot of the gun. The technology hasn’t changed. It was as readily available in 1930 or 1960 as it is this afternoon. A basic semi-auto was more easily available then given the lack of background checks, permitting, and laws governing who can and can’t possess a firearm that came into vogue in the 80s and 90s. If we assume it’s not access that’s changed, we’re left to consider what factors have changed that lead to these events taking place now more than ever before. That’s a conversation that requires nuance – and since that’s not something that comes in a form of a good soundbite, we’re not likely to see from the political class, the media, the pros, or the antis.

2. Age of adulthood.  One of the first things I read on Twitter this morning was a call to raise the age at which one can purchase a long gun. I saw multiple tweets calling for the age to increase from 18 to something else. Suggestions were 21, 25, 26. Fine. We already declare other “adult” decisions out of bounds for 18-year-olds. If we’re going to be intellectually consistent, though, we need to go further. Eighteen should no longer be considered the age of majority across the board. Raise the age to buy a car, rent an apartment, or sign any kind of contract. Raise the age for enlisting for military service.  Raise the age to sign up for credit or a loan. Raise the age of sexual consent. And for God’s sake, raise the voting age. If those between the ages of 18 and twenty-whatever are too chowderheaded to make responsible adult decisions then just go ahead and delay all the rights, privileges, and opportunities of the adult citizen. Let adulthood start at 45 or whatever other arbitrary age we collectively decide is the right one. We seem to already have a generation that can’t manage to “adult” until they’re in their 30s, so just codify it already.

3. First reports. There’s an old saying about first reports always being wrong. When complex, fast moving events are happening I just assume that all of the details are bogus beyond the basics of where and what. Expecting a second-to-second timeline as events are unfolding is a fool’s errand. I’ve got at least one news feed running in the house pretty much from the time I wake up until the time I go to bed and how often the first details are wrong is pretty much an article of faith here. I’ll cheerfully call out Texas public safety officials if it proves out that they failed to follow local policy or in some way failed to respond appropriately, but I won’t sit at the keyboard and condemn them based on early reports and what people think they know. I’ll be swapping over to financial news until the story – and the reporters – get past the breathless, “breaking news” phase.

A needed pause…

I’ve been swallowing news in big gulps since Vlad the Invader sent his wanna-be Red Army across the Ukrainian boarder. Cable, streaming, social media, and blogs, I’ve been trolling all of them for snippets of new and interesting information. 

That’s one of the dangers of being a history guy… and one that’s spent a fair amount of his time concentrating on a combination of general war in Europe and the cold war. Throw in a hefty dollop of defense policy and global strategy and, well, it can be downright hard to tear your eyes away, for fear of missing whatever news happens to break while you’re looking somewhere else.

I won’t deny being keyed up by the flow of information available in the open-source environment. I’ve lost track of the number of “holy shit” moments. It would be entirely too easy to follow the rabbit hole down into something not entirely healthy. 

Knowing that about myself, I’m going to try to step away a bit – even if it’s just for tonight. I’ll be doing my best to stay the hell off Facebook and Twitter and all the other sites and slip into a comfy chair with a good book. It’s 100% an effort to blow out a week’s worth of accumulated gunk from the darker corners of my head. 

Taking a night off from the war is a luxury our friends in Ukraine don’t have. I might be tuning out the news for a few hours, but I’m sure it, and the overall state of this old, beshitted world of ours, won’t be out of my thoughts for very long. 

Beijing and other asshattery…

It won’t be a surprise to anyone who’s been reading these posts regularly that I haven’t been watching the Olympics. Whatever the gene is that drives people to watch sports on television is one I just don’t have. I don’t hate them, it’s more like I don’t even think of them at all when left to my own devices. It’s impossible, of course, to avoid the coverage that the Olympics and other sporting events get in the media. I mostly tune those out, but occasionally something seeps through.

What little I’ve picked up about the Beijing games doesn’t fill me with regret for my general indifference to the sporting world. A winter Olympics with no snow. Athletes falling out with the Great Plague. The inevitable doping scandals. Participants using burner phones… and China just generally being China. It all reads more like bad reality television than something worth spending much brainpower on.

Based on the amount of breathless coverage everything in Beijing is getting, my opinion clearly isn’t shared by many… or maybe the Olympics are a convenient excuse not to have wall-to-wall coverage about the deteriorating state of the world and divisions at home. That’s more observation than accusation. There’s plenty enough shitshow to go around whether you want to watch the Olympics or any of the other asshattery filling the airwaves and webpages of 2022.

Joe who?

Let me say up front that I wouldn’t recognize Joe Rogan if he happened to be sitting right next to me while I’m typing this. I don’t have any idea what his background is or why an apparently large number of people seem to listen to his podcast and believe whatever it is he says. I’m not even intrigued enough about him to bother doing the Google search that would inevitably provide me with that information. 

So, with my understanding that Joe is “some guy with a podcast,” let me dive in with some basic thoughts:

1. Celebrity =/= Knowledgeable. I don’t get my medical advice from Kylie Jenner or my financial advice from random TicTokers. I’m not at all sure why there seems to be a popular correlation between someone being well known and the need to give their opinion any more weight than that given to any other random stranger from the internet.

2. The “Lincoln” Principle. One of the quotes most often attributed to Abraham Lincoln (without, interestingly, any supporting contemporary evidence) is, “You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.” If people, in mass, are fool enough to be taken in by whatever internet huckster happens to be popular in the moment, there’s really not much to be done to protect them from themselves. In this country, we’re generally free to be just as stupid as we want to be.

3. There is no “standard” standard for responding to bad behavior. Whoopi Goldberg got suspended by her parent corporation over making a decidedly ill-advised comment about the Holocaust. Joe Rogan, in contrast, is free to pump out buckets full of misinformation to an apparently gullible audience with little or no oversight or consequence from his corporate host. 

Is one worse than the other? That’s hard to say since what the standard of what constitutes bad behavior is nearly impossible to define in a way that’s universally acceptable.

I use to watch Fox News back when they were just the outlet that reported news from a right of center perspective. As their content shifted increasingly away from news towards commentary and hyper-partisan propaganda, I switched them off in favor of other news sources. I think, perhaps, our individual ability to choose is the real point here. None of us are under any personal obligation to watch or listen to content from any specific source. Expecting “big business” to protect our delicate eyes and ears from words and images we don’t personally agree with doesn’t feel like a solution that goes anywhere we’d really want to be by the time it’s finished.

The wild west of podcast, blogs, and electronic media overall has given us an embarrassing wealth of resources representing every political and social stripe. The catch is, this degree of choice means that every individual has to make a choice about what media they consume – and what sources they believe. We can collectively encourage listening or watching content into which some academic rigor has been put, but we can’t, in the end, fix stupid.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Court TV (Continued). We’re in week two or three or five or whatever of wall to wall coverage of whichever “case of the century” happens to be taking place at any given time. I’m pretty sure it aggravated the hell out of me last week too, but it’s worth repeating since the local and national news outlets seem to have no problem repeating themselves at every opportunity. A simple “the jury is still out” would be sufficient, but I suppose that wouldn’t let the talking heads opine about why the jury is still out, what it means, who’s behind it, and why that makes everything a nail biter. I’d be thrilled if someone would just give us a news outlet that focused more on facts and a lot less on opinion. Good luck filling the 24 hour news cycle with facts, I guess.

2. The Thanksgiving rush. Thanksgiving isn’t one of those restful and restorative holidays. Filled with travel, overeating, and a crush of in person or online shopping, it always feels like there’s a certain urgency to the rhythm of the day. It kicks off a 4-day weekend that’ll feel like it went by in about 35 minutes. It’s still just about my favorite holiday, but I’m going to feel like I need a good long rest when it wraps up.

3. Roving bands of what I can only describe as looters have reportedly begun pillaging high end retail shops in San Francisco. The latest headline makers were their takedowns of such big names as Saks, Louis Vuitton, and Nordstrom. I’m only left to wonder if and when the powers that be in San Fran might decide that their policy of letting “petty” crime like shoplifting go unchallenged and unpunished turns out to have been a pretty bad idea and does nothing so much as encourage increasingly troublesome criminal behavior.

Project Poseidon?

It’s a Friday before a long holiday weekend. I won’t say that there was nothing to do today, but the pacing of what there was left a fair amount of time for just pondering.

What’s on my mind today, because coverage of one sort or another is almost inescapable, is the “megadrought” gripping the American west. Stories of lowering reservoirs, wells running dry, rivers too low to support wildlife, let alone the ability to be drawn down for irrigation, and the inevitable increasing number of wildfires that will go along with it all seem to be everywhere.

So far, what I’ve seen is a lot of speculation and discussion about conserving. While that’s well and good, reducing the amount of water being used doesn’t ultimately get after the problem of there not being enough water. The chances of us going after the whole climate change thing also seems fairly slim.

So, if we assume for purposes of this post that the amount of water available is going to continue to diminish over time, demand will continue to increase over time, and we’re not going to significantly change human behavior in the short or medium term, what’s left? I think that’s where the discussion on the topic is lacking. What can we do in the next five years to radically increase the amount of water available to the western third of the United States?

It always surprises me that there isn’t at least one crackpot agitating for a crash program of building a string of massive desalination plants from San Diego to Seattle along the Pacific Coast. Without any background in hydrology, wildlife management, or public infrastructure, I respectfully submit that what we need is a Moon Shot – a Project Apollo for rewatering the west.

It would be monumentally expensive. Environmentalists would scream bloody murder at the very idea of building such massive industrial facilities on the coast. Everyone would hate it – except, probably, all the people who actually need the water.

Even if we can’t meet the demand of water intensive agricultural interests, leaving river water in the rivers in an effort to prop up wildlife while providing potable water for the human population feels like a reasonable investment in the future. It’s certainly a better option than abandoning whole stretches of the west, seeing depopulation and mass migration out of cities like Las Vegas and Phoenix, and just accepting that the region is going to be an arid dead zone .

If 2020 taught us nothing else, it’s that printing money to order apparently no longer causes economic problems. Personally, I’d rather see it put towards good works than another round of pay everyone to sit at home watching Netflix… but that’s probably a tale for another time.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Lip reading. Until everyone started wearing masks, I had no idea how much lip reading I do. Short conversations are ok – checking out with groceries or picking up a carryout order – but anything longer, and certainly conversations that involve any level of detail, are just harder when I can’t see someone’s mouth moving. I find myself asking for repeats way more often than would seem to be necessary… and yet here we are. I suppose it’s good practice for when the years of loud radio playing and Jeep noise catch up to me in earnest.

2. CNN. God love them, CNN seems to take a special delight in painting surging home prices as the worst thing ever. Sorry. What? I’m supposed to be upset that I’m building fantastic amounts of equity while simultaneously having a place to live? If nothing else, home ownership through this moment is an excellent hedge against the creeping inflation that CNN also likes to wring their hands over. Yep, it’s hard to be a buyer right now. In other markets at other times, it was hard to be a seller. Trying to pretend the real estate market can or should be static is a bad take for an alleged source of financial news.

3. Waiting. I’m just about a week shy of kicking off Summer Vacation Part I. It’s not decamping for the islands for a week or anything, but it is the first stretch of uninterrupted days off I’ll have had since the new year started. Five months into 2021 and it’s safe to say I’m ready for the break… beyond ready. Eager is probably a better description. Perhaps you could even say I’m giddy with anticipation of 11 days without email, Teams, ringing phones, door buzzers, meetings, or network problems. That’s the issue, really. Slogging through another week when my head is desperately fleeing into vacation mode is going to be exhausting. 

More news from our stupid century…

I saw an article a couple of days ago from a nominally reputable news source, published under the headline “Retailers urged to re-think police calls for low-level crimes.”

Unsurprisingly, I fall into the camp that would take the exact opposite approach. As long as people are rewarded, or at a minimum not punished for criminal behavior, there’s no disincentive at all against continuing to engage in that behavior. I’m no sociologist, but it feels like a reasonable assumption that if I get away with some number of these “low-level” crimes, at some point I may be tempted to escalate towards criminal actions that aren’t minor. That’s pure speculation based on my estimation of basic human behavior, of course.

I’d hoped we could all agree on something as basic as stating “crime is bad.” Apparently here in the 21st century even that is a bridge too far.

While I’m perfectly willing to concede that some crimes are worse than others, I’m nowhere close to the idea that we shouldn’t enforce the law, deter would be criminals, and punish those who choose to live outside the law. I’d go so far as to say there should be more arrests and prosecutions for criminal activities rather than fewer. Otherwise, have the courage to change the laws so everyone has an equal opportunity to pass counterfeit notes, shoplift, or engage in whatever other petty criminal behavior strikes their fancy in a guilt free environment.

Retailers may be willing to look the other way, but catering to a criminal element by condoning or enabling bad behavior feels like precisely the opposite of the actions we need to be taking to discourage and penalize criminal activity.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. The yawning gap in medical care. I’ve blown off most of my own medical appointments since March but the animals have all hit theirs on time or as needed. That probably says more about me as a person, or at least my priorities, than I’d really like to think about. It’s probably a function of simplicity, too. I can pull up to the vet, hand off the critters for a bit of the old poke and prod, and find a nice shady spot to wait. My doc, on the other hand, wants me to schlep into an office, sit in a socially distanced chair, and wait around with other people who have God knows what plague spewing from their face holes. I’m sure it’s completely irrational, but I’d have to be quite near death’s door myself before I thought that was a good idea.

2. Failure to communicate. I’ve long suspected that the biggest problem faced in dealing with Great Plague is one of basic communication. Given the patchwork nature of our republic (combined with a relentless 24-hour news cycle desperate for things to fill air time), the public is presented with as many as fifty different, often conflicting bits of advice on mask wearing, the benefits of social distancing, and what businesses can be open and how many people they can service. There’s also the discomfiture when schools must close, but bars and restaurants can be open. There may well be fine, scientific reasons for why this is perfectly reasonable, but on its face, it’s a position that feels like it defies common sense.  Add in the fact that science, by definition, isn’t a static and recommendations change based on new data and it’s a recipe for public confusion. Frankly, I’m not even sure that cohesive national-level messaging and policy would do much in the face of how much conflicting “information” is available through every website that proports to carry the latest news or medical advice.

3. America’s Mayor. In September 2001 Rudy Giuliani was lionized as “Americas Mayor” for his grit and determination in leading New York City through the aftermath of the terrorist attacks that brought down the World Trade Center. His steady hand on the tiller and regular presence at press conferences, exuded a calm that almost none of us felt at the time. Fast forward almost twenty years and it’s hard to believe we’re even seeing the same person. From his presser live from the parking lot at Four Seasons Total Landscaping to his performance yesterday in federal court, where he seemed to forget the name of both the presiding judge and the opposing counsel, the mayor appears to be a poor shadow of himself. For those of us old enough to remember him as a masterful leader when we most needed one, it’s an awfully hard thing to watch.