Saturday, November 28, 2020

We're going to be wearing masks forever


This map was lifted from the New York Times and reflects data current as of yesterday. The darker the area, the higher the COVID rate. If a person looks closely, that person may notice that the county where I reside, the one I usually think of as being safely in the middle of nowhere, sports the darkest color provided. Things are not good here, and, based on my casual observations while running errands (post office, grocery shopping, and not much else), I am not optimistic about things improving any time soon. Case numbers keep climbing; so does the death rate. 

A Facebook acquaintance, someone I know out in the real world, too, but haven't seen in person for so long she's slid into being a virtual friend, commented that the recent spate of deaths didn't worry her -- she didn't know any of the people who died. News flash: it doesn't matter. Viruses are like urban legends. All it takes is a friend of a friend to pass it along. The experts are pretty well united on the way COVID-19 is traveling now is primarily community transmission. You know, someone is walking around infected but asymptomatic, that someone doesn't bother wearing a mask in the lobby at the post office or while shopping at Larry's, the virus hangs in the air (viruses are tiny; they can float around for hours before settling on surfaces), other people inhale it, and the next thing you know a dozen people who were unlucky enough to be in the store when Joe Asshole picked up his case of bad beer are now infected too. Because Joe Asshole figures he didn't need to wear a mask in a public place. Because, you know, Freedom. 

A small digression: I have absolutely no idea why the public health community spent so much time telling us all to wash our hands and be careful about what we touched when COVID-19 is so clearly airborne. The virus enters the body through respiration; it spreads when you cough, sneeze, or simply exhale. Airborne. Masking was (and is) a whole lot more important than bathing in Purell. Hand washing and sanitation are important, but I think they got emphasized at the cost of not making the masks seem as important as they are. I'd read descriptions of super spreader events and wonder again why the experts weren't laying it on thick about airborne infections. I mean, when you have half the people at a choir practice getting sick did the epidemiologists seriously believe that the victims all contracted the illness from touching a restroom door handle? 

In any case, those of us who do worry enough to keep wearing face masks might as well brace ourselves for another six or seven months minimum of doing so. Yes, I know there is hope a vaccine (or vaccines) will be out in December. But what are the odds it's going to reach the average person quickly? It took me three trips to the Houghton Walgreens to get a flu shot; the first two times they were sold out. How fast and easy can we realistically expect obtaining a COVID vaccine to be? The answer is probably "not very." 

I'm not the only pessimist drifting around who thinks some of the euphoria over vaccine breakthroughs is a tad premature. Tony Fauci doesn't think we'll be back to a possibly maskless society until sometime next fall, like maybe the last quarter of 2021. By then masks may have moved securely into one of those fashion accessories you don without thinking, like gloves in the winter. 

Last spring the Younger Daughter and I were talking about the then very novel pandemic. I told her the way things were going (and this was back in April) that COVID-19 was going to move from being epidemic to being endemic. It was going to make a first pass through the population, pick off the most vulnerable, subside, and then come back and do it again: knock off the most vulnerable persons, subside, and then do it again. Each time around the death rate would be lower, not necessarily because we'd have gotten better at treating it but because there were fewer vulnerable people. 

At the time, this pattern (aka seasonality) was a hot topic on the Sirius XM channel I could hear for free in the Focus. (I let my Sirius subscription lapse because I didn't spend enough time in the car to make it worth it, but when the pandemic hit Sirius opened up a few public interest channels.)  I'd shelter in the shade of the Sparklight pole at the Graham County Fairgrounds, wander around the Intertubes on my notebook, and listen to various medical experts talk about COVID. Seasonality, a pattern of surging at certain times of the year, was seen as a definite possibility. My thought was it would resemble seasonal influenza: hit hard in the cold weather months, make whole bunches of people sick, bump up the death rates in nursing homes, and then go away for a few months. 

Is that what's actually going to happen? I have no clue. It's equally likely the virus could decide to be like the Spanish flu, the strain of influenza that caused a global pandemic at the end of World War I. That flu hit hard in 1918 and 1919 and then seemingly disappeared. The winter of 2020-2021 could be the last one where we worry about this particular corona virus. You never know.

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Irony in action?

Back when we were still sheltering in place in Arizona the S.O. noticed the Focus had a minor vibration in the front end. It wasn't bad, really only noticed it at highway speeds, but it was there. We'd been talking about investing in new tires but decided it would be good to first figure what was causing the vibration. After all, depending on what it was it could cause the tires to wear unevenly. So he tried tracking down the problem. No luck. 

I wasn't keen on the idea of driving the Focus the 2000 miles back to Michigan either on almost bald tires or with a mystery shimmy, but then the Guppy died. We wound up renting a U-Haul and tow dolly to get home. If we'd had the Guppy we would have convoyed. Dragging the Focus instead of driving it meant we acquired more procrastination time. Every so often this summer the S.O. would talk about bringing the Focus over to the neighbor's (a person who was a professional mechanic for many years and has an actual lift in his garage so it would be possible to get a real look at the various pieces and parts hiding under the car, the stuff that can be hard to get a clear look at with just jack stands) but it didn't happen. 

Then Winter hit. Doing local driving on Italian racing slicks didn't bother us much when the pavement was bare, but once it started icing up? Not as much fun, especially on days when the infamous "wintry mix" was falling. So the S.O. coordinated with the neighbor on a good time to bring the car over. They put it up on the lift, did multiple things to do it, and totally failed at finding a mechanical problem. The expert's advice? Keep driving it until it gets worse and then maybe we'll be able to figure it out. 

That meant suppressing any qualms we had about uneven tire wear. Yesterday afternoon found us in Marquette at Mr. Tire enjoying a "contactless" transaction. No sitting in the showroom sipping bad coffee. Instead we got to sit in the car while the tires were changed, which was interesting in itself, watching the guys in constant motion (four guys in the service area plus the manager and they did not get a whole lot of breathing time -- as soon as one car left, another was pulled in). It didn't take long and we were on our way. 

First thing the S.O. noticed was the annoying vibration seems to be gone. After putting over 70 miles on the car coming home, it appears the vibration never was mechanical. It was one of the tires. 

I guess the up side is we're now heading in to winter with brand new tires instead of ones with several thousand miles of wear on them, but it's still a bit annoying to realize we spent six months wondering how much hassle it was going to be to repair the front end when it appears it never needed fixing at all. 

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Pulitzer Project: Rabbit At Rest

Life is too short to waste reading bad books. 

I was so thoroughly repelled by John Updike's character of Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom in Rabbit is Rich that I really had no desire to dip into a final chapter in the man's life, even if it did hold out the promise of Rabbit taking a dirt nap at some point. However, as part of the self-imposed task I've given myself, if I'm going to read every work of fiction that the Pulitzer Prize committee has chosen to honor I have to at least made a good faith effort to actually read every work. No picking a book up, skimming a page or two at the library, and rejecting it instead of checking it out. 

Of the Pulitzer winners I've bailed on to date, I gave up on one from the 1930's (The Store) because the hideously racist terminology got to be too much for even me, I gave up on The Color Purple because the writing was really bad, and I bailed on Rabbit is Rich because Updike managed to create a character who made Harvey Weinstein look like a feminist in comparison and then topped that by having that character be so repellant with the descriptions of connubial relations that suddenly a lifetime of abstinence was looking good. And now I've bailed on Rabbit Angstrom again because he has not improved with age. 

I do have a small rule of thumb: I give each book 50 pages to convince me it's worth continuing. I think Rabbit at Rest had me thinking "why am I doing this?" long before that, but I stuck with it. I'm not sure why, other than a faint sense of guilt that the library had to get it through Interlibrary Loan and it would be a waste to not try to read it. 

The weird part is Updike can actually write. He's good with words. His books get rave reviews on sites like Good Reads. He manages to turn some lovely phrases, and every so often comes out with a sentence that sings. I do recall reading other work by him and liking it, including, if I recall correctly, short stories featuring Rabbit. 

Unfortunately, for me Updike's skill as a wordsmith is not enough to redeem Rabbit, who I tend to visualize as a Herb Tarleck type, someone not too bright and borderline sleazy in a bad suit. Way too much space in Rabbit's head, the internal monologue the reader is stuck seeing, is occupied by anti-Semitism, racism, crass materialism, and a general dislike of most of the world around him, including his son and heir, Nelson. I saw a review that described Rabbit as coming to terms with his mortality. I'm not sure the reviewer read the same book I did. If anything, Rabbit's in denial about the fact the chest pains he's feeling are angina. If Rabbit were a real person now you just know he'd be wearing a MAGA hat and denouncing Michelle Obama for having the nerve to suggest healthy foods are good for people. 

Actually, that's not quite true. He wouldn't wear the hat but he would share racist tweets on Facebook. He'd be scornful of the rubes wearing the MAGA hats while he quietly sent money to the Trump campaign and told his daughter-in-law that any woman who got grabbed by the genitals had asked for it. He'd see the con and think it was genius. He'd love Trump because Trump made it clear he disliked the same people Rabbit does. 

General conclusions about Rabbit at Rest? Avoid it. The writing is skillful but the subtext is repellant. 

Next up? A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley. Interlibrary Loan again, of course. 

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Republicans did it to themselves

The S.O. and I were watching "Real Time" last night. It had been quite a few months since we'd seen either Maher or the show, but I was curious. Maher has a knack for annoying the hell out of me.* I was, however, curious to hear what he had to say about The Donald being stuck in the denial stage of grief. 

Turned out his interview guest was a youngish woman, a blonde (of course) and a lawyer who works for the Trump campaign. She was like a human parrot. She had one talking point nailed down and did not want to let go of it: legal votes. Only the legal votes matter. And of course the Trump campaign is going to be vindicated in court. Maher kept pointing out they'd lost every challenge they'd made, had basically been laughed at or reprimanded by judges, but she was like a broken record. I really hope she's gotten paid (Trump is notorious for stiffing the help) because she earned her rubles. She was unshakeable. Legal votes, got to count all the legal votes.

Bad news for Trump, of course. So far the number of "illegal" votes found, the apparently incredibly rare  invalid ballots, can be basically counted on one hand. In Pennsylvania the Trump team had hyperventilated about a postal worker saying that the postmarks on some absentee ballots had been altered to make them look like they'd been postmarked by November 3. When investigators  spoke with the man he admitted he lied, and in any event the incident would have affected two ballots. You got it. Two. As in "one, two, buckle my shoe." Biden carried the state by something like 50,000 votes. Even if those two ballots had been tossed out, I don't think he was in any danger of losing the state. 

In Nevada the Republicans produced a list of people who were not physically living in the state but voted absentee. The Trumpers screamed fraud. Turned out the list was mostly members of the military whose permanent residence is in Nevada but who are currently stationed elsewhere. So basically Trump's minions were attempting to nullify votes cast by members of the armed services. Kind of an interesting way to thank men and women for their service -- cancel their votes -- but not surprising given the heavy whiff of desperation reeking out of the White House at the moment. 

In Georgia the Republicans tried to claim dead people had voted and provided an example of a man who died a number of years ago. Turned out that once again they were sloppy in their research. The person who voted was the man's widow, a lady in her 90s who is sufficiently old fashioned that she is registered to vote as "Mrs. James. . ." That's what on her ID, and it's how she signed her ballot because the law is clear that the signatures need to match. An interesting side note was the video clip: this elderly white woman made it clear that she didn't vote for Biden; she voted against "the other one." Apparently even some elderly white Southerners have relegated Trump into the category of he-who-must-not-be-named. 

I could go on, but as usual I've done a long intro to a slightly different subject. Totally predictable consequences. Beginning quite awhile ago, the Republicans started beating the drum about voter fraud and people voting who weren't legally eligible to vote: noncitizens mostly. They pushed hard to get voter ID laws passed, and, along with the ID requirements, started making it as difficult as possible to get the paperwork required to get an acceptable ID card. 

When this first began happening, various outraged activists made a lot of noise protesting the suppression tactics. They complained loud and long. They pursued litigation. Eventually, however, some commonsense penetrated. They continued to talk loud and long about voter suppression, but they figured out that if they wanted everyone to be able to vote they had to work inside the rules. So they began helping potential voters navigate the system, get the ID they needed, and get registered to vote. They organized shuttle services to get people to the polls on election day, they went door to door working on educating people about how the system worked. A couple years ago, Brian Kemp was able to manipulate the results of the Georgia governor's election by doing a purge of the voter rolls. This year activists were proactive -- they made sure potential voters would be safe from a repeat purge. I saw enough reminders on social media that I know similar efforts were happening nationwide. 

End result? The Republican party spent 20 years working on making it difficult for people to vote. They made it  close to impossible for anyone who was not a legal voter (e.g., not a citizen) to cast a ballot. Their assumption, obviously, was they'd eliminate the riff raff and only the right type of voter would vote, i.e, white people. 

This year their efforts to guarantee the voting system was secure came back to bite them. Having put a ton of roadblocks in the way -- picture IDs at the polls, only certain types of IDs accepted, really tight inspection of absentee ballots, etc. -- they wound up with an election where voters were prepared with the right type of IDs, complied with the rules for registering to vote, and had made sure they did everything required for either submitting an absentee ballot or voting in person. End result? An election that an obscure office within the Department of Homeland Security (Election Infrastructure Government Coordinating Council ) has declared was the cleanest, least problematic election in U.S. history. No fraud, no hacking, no weirdness. Republicans wanted a secure, safe election system. They got one. Good work, dudes. Too bad the populace didn't vote the way you wanted them to. 

*Last night was no exception. I did spend a fair amount of energy yelling at the television and calling Maher an idiot for his buy-in on the corporatist/centrist line that Americans won't vote for progressives. 

Friday, November 13, 2020

Life goes on

 I went into town recently to put in a few hours at the museum cheerfully communing with PastPerfect, The current cataloguing task is to inventory and scan the gazillion photos stashed in a decent sized Rubbermaid tote. Not sure how many photos there are total, but it's a lot. There's everything from turn of the century (as in the beginning of the 20th, not the end) cabinet cards to fairly recent color snapshots. 

Most, of course, have no labels whatsoever. No dates, no names, no information on where the photo came from. And, of course, there are a lot of snapshots taken by people who were apparently the world's worst amateur photographers: out of focus or so poorly composed (groups of people where all you see are their backs, for example) that they're worthless. The trash can is filling fast. 

On the positive side, every photo that hits the trash is one less to scan. The scanner is not noted for its speed. 

I do know why some of the photos have no labels. At the time they were donated, the museum still had members who knew exactly who everyone was and where the pictures were taken. They forgot no one lives forever so almost none of that information got written down. End result 20 or 30 years later? Stuff gets tossed. Not everything, of course, even if it is unlabeled. Street scenes where the location is obvious, like parades in L'Anse or Baraga, even if the date isn't known because we can come up with approximations based on what businesses are where or figuring out the model years for any vehicles that are included. Now when there are parades they don't allow on street parking but that wasn't always true.  

There was one photo in the stash that intrigued me. Wasn't exactly sure at first glance where the building was, but the year is obvious: 1964. Struck me as an interesting coincidence that as we're hearing about one candidate losing I stumbled across a photo for another. 

I wasn't old enough to vote yet so don't remember much about that election year. The only politics that interested me in 1964 were purely local: a referendum on consolidating two school districts. The district I was in lost: the result was based on total votes in favor regardless of how the individual district's totals added up. The Saxon district was small and rural and overwhelmingly rejected consolidation; Hurley was an actual small city with a lot more warm bodies and for some reason favored it. Not sure why -- a friend who was on the school board in the early '80s told me Hurley was still stuck paying Saxon's debts for the bond issued for a new gymnasium in about 1960. In any case, I went from being one student in a class of nine to being one student in a class of (I think) 131. It was. . . interesting. 

As for Goldwater, his run for the Presidency briefly interrupted his Senate career. He'd served two terms, could not run for the Senate again while also being on the ballot for President, so wound up taking a 4-year break. He then went back to the Senate for three more terms. By today's Republican party standards, his positions would be anathema: he supported abortion rights, thought gays should be allowed to serve in the military, and firmly believed religion had no place in politics.  

Thursday, November 5, 2020

Living in interesting times


A second morning of waking up and learning that the dumpster fire is still burning, the shit show continues, and legions of lawyers are going to be shopping for Lamborghinis and Bentleys in 2021*. No doubt the Russians and Chinese along with the rest of the world are cheerfully laughing their collective asses off. They say karma can be a bitch. The United States has spent the decades since World War II ended going around the planet lecturing everyone on the right type of government and touting the benefits of democracy, and yet here we are. . . with a wannabe dictator, an aspiring Pinochet or Franco, refusing to follow the rules while busily inciting his acolytes to disrupt normal democratic (as in democracy in action, not the political party) procedures. 

The Donald is pissed that the results of counting absentee ballots are not going in his favor so he's got to cast doubt on the whole procedure. Once again, instead of behaving like a statesman and trying to unite the country he's doing his spoiled 8-year-old throwing a tantrum routine. (A slight digression. I think that's the worst thing about Trump. He doesn't just behave like a spoiled 8 year old, he encourages his followers to behave the same way:  loud, obnoxious, and generally like little kids who are upset no one's telling them how special they are.) 

For anyone who's spent much time observing The Donald in action this is no surprise. We all knew it was coming. He's been using melodrama and chicanery to sustain his businesses and his image his entire adult life. He's always been, as the saying goes, all hat and no cattle. Why so many people bought the snake oil he peddled has always baffled me. Multiple bankruptcies, including having casinos go bankrupt? The man is supposedly a billionaire but he couldn't make money running a casino? 

The S.O. likes to tell the story of how back in the '80s when he was on a traveling crew with Lockheed Support Systems (they did modifications and inspections of military aircraft, both fixed wing and helicopters) he spent several weeks working at the airport near Newburgh, New York. The Donald stored his private jet there. The airport authority impounded Trump's plane because he didn't pay the hanger fees. The man was supposedly a successful incredibly wealthy man but he couldn't afford to pay the rent where he stashed his plane. Think about it. If you scale it down to the level of the ordinary working person, it's like having your car booted because you were short a couple nickels for the parking meter. 

Then when you look at his litigation record -- the quite literally thousands of lawsuits generated because Trump refused to pay his bills. Either he'd try to weasel out of a debt by filing suit claiming work was done improperly or never completed or contractors would sue him trying to get paid for construction work. Instead of simply figuring out how to pay his bills, he spent inordinate amounts of time trying to figure out how to screw people over. 

Trump was pretty successful at selling the image, though. I've been reading Fear, a book that looks at the 2016 campaign and first year or so of the Trump administration. Trump had made a big deal in speeches about not needing outside money, he'd totally finance his run for President himself. Turned out to be total bullshit, but the Republican party insiders bought it. Even Steve Bannon fell for the con. Then when they actually had to ask Trump for money for advertising he stalled and stalled and finally Jared Kushner admitted to Bannon that the Donald didn't actually have much access to ready cash. The supposed multi-billionaire couldn't afford to cough up $10 million for last minute ads. Bottom line: if the media hadn't given Trump a zillion dollars of free advertising with their nonstop fawning over him, his whole campaign would have crashed and burned early in the game. Just like everyone else, the news media got suckered by the entertainment value.

The S.O. has been muttering a lot lately about not understanding how anyone could still be a Trump supporter. Well, it's not a mystery to me. Most people are what pundits like to call "low information voters." The American populace used to be fairly well informed. As a people, we read a lot. Books, magazines, you name it. It was a rare household where no one at least read a daily newspaper. There were multiple publications for men, women, children, you name it. There were multiple news magazines, general interest publications, specialized magazines, etc. And then we as a people got seduced by electronic diversions and decided we'd rather be entertained than actually know anything. So when we saw a scripted "reality" show we believed Trump knew what he was doing instead of realizing the producers laid out the story line. According to the show's creator, Trump's only role was to look successful - he had no actual input into how the contestants were evaluated. He may have gotten to say "You're fired" but he didn't decide who he said it to. It was a role, not reality. Nonetheless, the image of the successful billionaire was thoroughly burnt into America's collective consciousness.  

Although, to be honest, I think the American educational system can take a big chunk of the blame for how easily we can be conned. It spends years training kids to be sheep (shut up and do what authority figures tell you to do) and then we wonder why they're so gullible and willing to believe any weird piece of garbage a friend shares with them on social media. Critical thinking isn't emphasized a whole lot. I have encountered teachers who do actively encourage curiosity and questioning, but not many. In terms of classroom management it's a lot easier to do memorize and puke it back than spend much time on discussion and thinking. 

Anyway, circling back to the subject of ballot counting, just heard a Republican cheerfully lying his ass off about the ballot counting in Michigan. The Trump representatives are claiming that their poll watchers were positioned too far away from the ballots being counted to be able to observe what was on the ballot, implying the ballots were being individually read and tallied by the election workers. You know, the worker would look at the ballot, see what was marked, and then tally that. Total bullshit. The ballots are opscan sheets. The poll workers took the ballots, unfolded them, and slid them into a scanning machine. Any tallies were done totally by machine, not humans, so it doesn't matter at all where the watchers were standing. That type of line is total b.s. intended just to throw doubt on the process. The assumption the Republican spokesperson is makng is that most people won't realize what a Michigan absentee ballot looks like (it's the exact same ballot as the one you get handed at the polls if you voted in person) or how they're counted (the same way the regular ones are). 

And, just like everyone with two brain cells to rub together predicted, in Arizona where the vote is now really close and Biden's lead has narrowed, Trump is demanding loudly that every vote get counted but in Pennsylvania where things are leaning more toward Biden he's screaming there's fraud and shut the count down now. I am so tired of the melodrama, but I just heard the depressing news that Pennsylvania might take another 3 or 4 days to resolve. 

On that note, I'm going to step away from the computer and go hide in the Woman Cave for the rest of the day. 

*At least the ones working for Biden will be able to car shop. Anyone representing Trump had better get their fees in advance or look forward to spending years in court trying to collect from him.