Conservatives and Liberals Enjoy the Dog Park (and confusing Dave)

Saturday morning at the dog park, I talked to a professed conservative about the Covid pandemic . . . he was optimistic about the numbers and he seemed like an intelligent, rational business guy (he was willing to admit that he thinks Trump is insane and has handled things poorly . ..  he said he would have voted for Bloomberg for president-- which means he's not voting for Biden, I suppose).

Anyway, he had crunched the data and he was sure the virus was going to subside when the warm weather comes. 

We did not wear masks while we chatted. 

Sunday morning at the dog park, it was the usual group. Liberals. Lawyers, teachers, lesbians, etc. They were all wearing masks, so I put my mask on.

They don't think the warm weather theory holds water. They cited Brazil and Ecuador as counter-examples.

They are also worried about droplets in the air when it's humid. They are worried about crowded beaches, crowded stores, Wal-Mart, the fact that people of color are suffering more from the pandemic. They are worried about wealth inequality being amplified and the fact that the investor class isn't really feeling this because the stock market is propped up by the fed. 

The teacher said she didn't think meat-space school would start until January.

I don't know what to think.

New Jersey Starts to Open . . . Is This a Good Thing? Too Many Numbers to Know For Sure . . .

Outdoor stuff in New Jersey is starting to open.

My wife is down at the community garden today, handing out keys and helping people to reestablish control over their wild-grown plots.

I played tennis with a buddy at the park by my house yesterday.

The dog park is open!

This is great for me. I've gone from interacting with hundreds of people a week to the usual quarantine family-time and Zoom happy hours. The lack of stimulus is making me a little crazy (although I've been passing the time with low-stakes online poker. I'm reading some books and learning some math . . . but I don't think I'm headed to the WSOP any time soon).

The dog park at least restores some random social interactions, for both me and Lola.

This morning, I got to talk to a smart guy from down the street. He's in finance and owns a HUGE house. He's a conservative but thinks Trump is a lunatic. He would have voted for Bloomberg. He thinks the free market economy is rigged against the environment but doesn't like liberal foreign policy. He's the kind of conservative that that-- if you're in a left-wing echo chamber-- you might not think exists (now, of course, he lives in Highland Park . . . which is the most liberal town in a liberal county, so that skews things).

He's a hedge-fund data scientist and he's sanguine about the numbers-- which is a nice change. He says if you look at the data, you really need three things for the pandemic to continue.

1) an elderly population

2) densely populated areas

3) cold weather

You can read all day about #3, but it seems that warmer weather will at least slow the spread of the virus (but this won't prevent it from returning in the winter). And it's getting warm and yucky in New Jersey (in fact, I've got the AC on right now . . . when my wife gets home she's going to yell at me, but it's 73 in the house and humid. That's gross).

I presented the conservative-data-guy the statistics rattling around in my mind:

For every 800 people in New Jersey, one of them has died from Covid-19.

Two percent of the state has tested positive for the virus.

We're still generating over 100 deaths and over 1500 cases a day.

He told me something I know: the vast majority of the people that died were in nursing homes. That doesn't make it right, but it could have been prevented. Old people really can't handle this thing. There does seem to be some long-lasting effects in younger people, but we're probably going to build herd immunity in New Jersey and New York (at a great cost, but the genie is out of the bottle).

He's rooting for herd immunity. It's going to be a long road. I got my antibody test this week-- I'm still waiting for results. The doctor said about 20 percent of people being tested came up positive for antibodies. I think I had it February, but my wife was negative for antibodies. And the doctor said the two things she's hearing most from people testing positive for antibodies are:

1) two weeks

2) it felt like the worst X ever . . . the variable being flu, bronchitis, cold, strep, cough, etc.

My thing in February wasn't the worst thing ever (although giving blood for the test WAS the worst thing ever . . . I was really nervous -- my blood pressure was higher than normal-- and maybe a little dehydrated because I went running. The lady had to do both arms-- she didn't get enough blood out of the first arm. I wanted to give up and leave . . . I didn't like being in a room with multiple people giving blood . . . wounds don't bother me but when blood is circulating through tubes and needles, I get light-headed).

We agreed on a few things. Other countries did a better job.

Taiwan, for instance, had 440 cases and 7 deaths. Part of this might have been the heat, but it's mainly through comprehensive testing and contact tracing.

Our President has failed us on the testing, the tracing, and the plan. This conservative totally agreed with that. Trump, like Putin and Bolsonaro and Boris Johnson, is too macho to deal with something as small and statistical as a virus.

And Americans aren't big on mandatory tracking, testing, and tracing. Our freedoms don't mesh with fighting a virus. So we aren't out of the woods yet.

The attitude of the day is guarded optimism-- for now-- but unfortunately, winter is coming.

Quarantine Partying: The Wreckage

At 6:15 AM this morning, when I sat down at the computer to begin putting up assignments for my students, this is the image that greeted me:

And upon further inspection, it was exactly as I had imagined.

I was tempted to wake my children up and confront them with the evidence of their iniquity, but -- for once-- I avoided melodrama and remembered my phone had a camera. I could show them later, when they were fully rested and might respond more appropriately. I didn't need another melee like yesterday . . . when the two of them got into a fistfight over a phone charger and I lost my shit.

And it wasn't all that bad: this decadently slam-dunked empty pudding container was the only remnant of their quarantine recreation; it happened last night while they were playing Magic: The Gathering with some friends on the computer in the kitchen. We're lucky to have so many devices.

I went down to my study and checked to see if I was a hypocrite. Not so much. The only remnant of Tuesday Night Corona Poker was an empty glass . . . a glass that was once half full of seltzer and tequila. 

This brought back hard memories. For the majority of last night, I was seeing the glass half-full, making hands, bluffing wisely, scaring people out of pots, stealing blinds . . . I was optimistic as hell. How could I lose? It was down to Stacey and me, I was up 8000 chips to Stacey's mere 780, and the blinds were getting big. I knew she was the better player . . . the more experienced player, but not tonight. Tonight was my night to shine. I was pushing her around, knocking her out of everything, and then she doubled up on a weird draw. And then she did it again. I had a huge hand but she drew four diamonds in a row to make a basement door flush. Then she went back down, and then she drew again and again and again. Against solid calls (although I could have been more patient . . . if I had been patient, she would have gotten blinded out). And then it was suddenly over. My glass was half empty. And I didn't put a coaster under it. 

A Norwegian, an Australian aborigine, and a clown walk into a bar . . .

If you're looking for a crime thriller with a double layer of exotic unfamiliarity, check out Jo Nesbø's first Harry Hole novel The Bat.

Nesbø is a Norwegian author, but he has Harry Hole travel to Australia to investigate a murder. So you see the country as both a tourist and a detective. Harry's "tour guide" from the Sydney police force is Andrew Kensington-- an aborigine-- so that adds another layer of alienation to the narrative. Throw in Sydney's wild gay scene, a salacious circus, a dismembered cross-dressing clown, rednecks in the outback, the illegal drug trade, dangerous creatures, indigenous mythology, Northern Europeans in a faraway land, a serial killer and you've got quite a vivid collage.

On the one hand, Harry Hole is the classic detective with a tortured past . . . but in this first Hole novel, Nesbø revises this trope, and Hole becomes a detective with a tortured present. He falls off the wagon during the investigation-- and you'll learn why that is NOT a good thing-- and he has to confront his past and dark and ugly ways.

Ten box jellyfish out of ten.

Dave is in the Shit

The last thing of note that happened to me was this:

Saturday morning, when I was bending over to scoop and bag my dog's poop, a bird shit on my head. Bird crap splattered all over my headphones and my hat.

I was dealing with shit from above and below.

This week, instead of getting shit on, I'm going to get some shit done. My van needs fixin', the dog needs to go to the vet, I need to get an antibody test, and I'd like to close an account at the Credit Union.

I'll tally up my getting-shit-done-rate at the end of the week.

If You're Getting Bored of Your Pandemic Work-outs, Try This One . . .

It took two tries for me to complete this video. I still can't successfully do all of the exercises, but I'm close.

The instructor is uninspirational and emotionless, but she's really cute and has perfect form.

I listened to a podcast during my second (and successful) attempt. The podcast combated the monotony (although many people feel podcasts ARE monotonous . . . including and Rick and Morty . . . but not Summer).

The first time I tried, I made it 22 minutes out of the half-hour and then collapsed, full of shame. But today I conquered all thirty minutes. I'm strong like a 110-pound girl!

Quarantine Day One Million

Starting to lose the thread . . . but here are some thoughts anyway.

I waited in line the other day to get into Trader Joe's . . . the line was really long. It went beyond Bed Bath and Beyond. But the line moved quickly because it wasn't very dense. The lady in front of me was bad at approximating distances. She was keeping a good six or seven yards behind the next person.

There was a cheerful guy spraying carts with something. But then you get inside and it's the normal madness. There were arrows on the floor which I found it impossible to follow. The aisles and small and everyone is on top of each other. I squeeze and fondle every piece of produce before I select it. The whole setup reminded me of beefed-up airline security after 9/11. It might make you feel safer, but deep down you know it's not doing shit. 

I finished Donna Tartt's The Secret History. It's not quite as epic as The Goldfinch but it's faster-paced and-- if you went to college in the 80s or 90s-- required reading. It's the R-rated version of Dead Poet's Society.  

In financial news, my son Alex built a computer bot so he could buy a Supreme product drop. A leopard skin cap. It was seventy bucks. He split the price with his brother, and they are going to resell it for a profit (so they believe). I will keep you posted on this outlay.

My wife said a strange thing the other day when she was trying to laze about on the couch and watch baking shows. She said, "I want to lie like broccoli." She claimed this line was from a movie. I thought she was mixing up idioms again. 

Parallel Madness!

This episode of The Indicator informed me of an Amazon Prime show called Counterpart in which there's a world parallel to ours in which life is lived in the shadow of a deadly flu outbreak. Apparently, the post-pandemic world in the show looks "disturbingly similar" to the world many of us are living in now.

The show stars the inimitable J.K. Simmons, so I might check it out.

Then there's there are the murder hornets. An invasive bug from China that manifests itself in Washington State and starts to move across the United States, wreaking havoc on the European honey bees that have not evolved evolutionary immunity to the creatures.

Parallel madness.

Years ago, I pitched a show to Netflix set in an alternate reality. 

Donald Trump runs for President and Russian hackers employ social media algorithms to make it so. Then "President Trump" has to deal with a deadly zoonotic virus that invades our great nation. It comes from the far reaches of China-- from a bat or pangolin-- and Trump and his incompetent federal government have to deal with the medical and financial crisis. 

Chaos ensues!

It's a satire, of course, but Netflix didn't get it. They said it was absurd, and not in a hip, surreal way. More in a sad and stupid way. 

Dave's Community Service Finally Pays Off!

Once again this morning, I did my community service shopping and delivery for my old dude. Pineapple chunks, Italian Wedding soup, chicken franks, bananas, apple sauce, two-liter diet lemon/lime soda, etc. I'm getting pretty good at his list. As I loaded the bags into the car, it started to drizzle.

When I pulled into the apartment driveway, there was something new. A cute blonde woman-- wearing lasses and probably in her late twenties- sat in the trunk space of her Subaru. She was working on a computer, using the hatchback as an umbrella. I had seen her briefly in the apartment once before. I asked her if she was related to my old dude and she said, "No, just a roommate. Apparently, there are a couple of small apartments on the top floor." Then she complimented me on my good deed and we talked for a good thirty minutes. She once was an elementary teacher in Arkansas and now she's on a research grant at Rutgers. She was in the midst of collecting data from schools in Brooklyn when the virus hit. Now she's busy finishing up her research and applying for new grants. We talked a lot about how school might look in the future, the way this pandemic will pull back the curtain on income inequality and its effect on education, prom, graduation, my wife trying to teach math to elementary students remotely . . . all sorts of topics.

I think she found me charming and funny, though I was dressed like a homeless person and I haven't shaved in a while. And we were far enough apart that she couldn't smell my morning coffee breath, which wasn't particularly pleasant (I know this because I was wearing a mask in the Stop&Shop, which amplifies and exacerbates coffee breath). This is the kind of credit you should get when you do community service-- I think this would make a great commercial for the program, a guy drops off he groceries for an old dude and then gets to chat with a cute, intelligent chick. 

I'm sure she will tell her cute graduate school friends about me, and they will all be there next Friday to laud my good deeds.

Is the Stock Market Fake News? Is Your Consciousness Fake News? Who Knows?

Planet Money Episode 995: Buybacks And Bailouts is a winner. The podcast dissects the viral debate between CNBC anchor Scott Wapner and billionaire Chamath Palihapitiya. The Canadian venture capitalist believes that the U.S. federal government should let the airlines fail and not be particularly concerned if hedge fund investors lose their vacation homes in the Hamptons.

What follows is his logic.

Over the past decade, large businesses have made enormous profits. With those profits, you have two choices:

1) You can use the money to improve the company itself. You can pay employees more. You can invest in R&D. You can save a pile of cash for emergencies.

2) You can give the money to investors, making the stock more valuable. You can do this with dividends, or the more recent financial engineering miracle . . . stock buybacks. You take your profits and buy lots of company stock. Then you make that stock disappear, increasing the value of the remaining stock.

Obviously, you can also balance the two, but Palihapitiya believes that great companies do more of number one. They are visionary and look to the future.

The airlines did a lot of number two. So did many companies in the S&P 500. According to Palihapitiya:

Since 2009, the 500 companies in the S&P 500 - so these are the 500 best companies in the world - they bought back $7 trillion of stock and/or issued dividends. OK? That turned out to be more than 90 cents of every single dollar of profit that they made over the last 11-plus years.

So why bail these companies out? They haven't looked to the future. Mainly, they've made the rich richer. Palihapitiya thinks it is abominable that only five cents of every dollar in the stimulus package has been handed to individual Americans.

Now, the stimulus money will find its way to some individual Americans; those that have money invested in the stock market. Because the money will serve to prop up the market and prop up stocks in companies that executed buybacks. So the rich will get richer. And folks not heavily invested won't see much money.

I can see both sides. I want my retirement savings to stay solvent. I want my pension to exist. But I know I'm one of the lucky folks, even if I'm not a billionaire. There's plenty of people who don't own stocks, don't have retirement money saved, and don't have a pension. They need cash. They may not get it . . . or get much. Meanwhile, big businesses will.

Here is a piece of the video. Definitely listen to the podcast first.

In other podcast news, somewhere in the middle of this conversation between Sam Harris and Yuval Noah Harari, they explain why I bought Donna Tartt's The Secret History on Amazon the other day. Harari claims that the AI algorithms used by Google and Amazon and Facebook would have known he was gay years before he discovered this. Amazon knew I would buy Tartt's novel for $1.99 . . . a great deal! They knew better than me what I wanted. Now I'm happy reading it, though I would have never remembered about it with AI assistance.

Is this a good thing?

Who fucking knows. The same goes for the bailout.

The Usual Quarantine Stuff

Last night was Zoom pub night. Again.

Earlier Thursday, it was more TV. So much TV. I watched some Bosch with the wife, The Expanse with the kids, and The Wire with the wife and kids. I tried my best to watch some of the Parks and Rec reunion but found it awkward and sluggish. Headed back to Zoom pub night (which is also awkward and sluggish, I think that's just what Zoom is like).

I woke up at 4:45 AM this morning. Decided to get up and get some grading done. Waded through a bunch of narratives and some other assignments. Then went back to bed. That's a plus about remote learning: you can work on your own schedule.

Zoom meeting with the English Department at 8:30 AM.

Then I did some community service and went shopping for an old guy. Bought the usual stuff: liverwurst, ham turkey, pineapple chunks, soup soup soup, grapes, applesauce, etc. Old person food. I'm getting quicker in the store. Listening to electronica helps (Amon Tobin and Boards of Canada).

When I dropped the food off, a cute lady finally witnessed my community service! She answered the door. She was either a relative or some sort of aid. It's nice when someone cute sees you doing community service, but-- unfortunately-- I was dressed like a homeless person.

Note to self: if you wear a mask and you forgot to brush your teeth, you're going to smell some bad breath. Your own bad breath. And there's no way to escape it.

Ian and I did our usual three-mile run. It started pouring rain ten minutes in and didn't stop until we got home. Huge drops. Now it's warm and sunny. Springlike.

Ian stumbled on a fawn while walking the dog.

I just finished my second Josephine Tey mystery: a Shilling For Candles. She's a great writer. Weird characters, a run-of-the-mill detective without the tortured past, and a great ear for dialogue.

Here is a sample passage, summarizing the information the police received about possible sightings of an alleged murder suspect on the run:

By Tuesday noon Tisdall had been seen in almost every corner of England and Wales, and by tea-time was beginning to be seen in Scotland. He had been observed fishing from a bridge over a Yorkshire stream and had pulled his hat suspiciously over his face when the informant had approached. He had been seen walking out of a cinema in Aberystwyth. He had rented a room in Lincoln and had left without paying. (He had quite often left without paying, Grant noticed.) He had asked to be taken on a boat at Lowestoft. (He had also asked to be taken on a boat at half a dozen other places. The number of young men who could not pay their landladies and who wanted to leave the country was distressing.) He was found dead on a moor near Penrith. (That occupied Grant the best part of the afternoon.) He was found intoxicated in a London alley. He had bought a hat in Hythe, Grantham, Lewes, Tonbridge, Dorchester, Ashford, Luton, Aylesbury, Leicester, Chatham, East Grinstead, and in four London shops. He had also bought a packet of safety-pins pins in Swan and Edgars. He had eaten a crab sandwich at a quick lunch counter in Argyll Street, two rolls and coffee in a Hastings bun shop, and bread and cheese in a Haywards’ Heath inn. He had stolen every imaginable kind of article in every imaginable kind of place—including a decanter from a glass-and-china warehouse in Croydon. When asked what he supposed Tisdall wanted a decanter for, the informant said that it was a grand weapon.

And here is my favorite line from the book:

It is said that ninety-nine people out of a hundred, receiving a telegram reading: All is discovered: fly, will snatch a toothbrush and make for the garage.

It's interesting what people lose themselves in during quarantine. Some people are watching old sports. My buddy Whitney is mainlining music documentaries. All I want is crime stuff. The chase scenes, the investigation, the freedom of movement, the bars and dives, and the various localities pull my mind from the reality of quarantine confinement.

Weird Quarantine Workouts (Governor Murphy, Open the Parks!)

State and County Parks are still closed in New Jersey; so as far as outdoor activities go, my family is making the best of what is available.

Yesterday, my wife and I went on a bike ride to New Brunswick because we heard Buccleuch Park was open (this turned out to be true, as it is a city park). I would have preferred to bike in Donaldson Park, which is right next to my house-- especially because then I can attach the dog to my bike.

It would also have been nice to bike through Johnson Park and cross the Landing Lane Bridge, but Johnson Park has also closed-- even the roads that cut through the park. So instead, my wife and I crossed the Albany Street Bridge and ducked down under the bridge (this is where the homeless people gather). We took a claustrophobic graffiti and garbage-strewn path between Route 18 and the Raritan River. This is apparently where the "river rats"-- or homeless folk-- camp out. We were stuck between chain link fence and the cliff heading down to the river, biking through clouds of gnats and odd liquids. It was pretty gross.

Once we got to the park, things improved. it was crowded, but people were keeping their distance. We chose to avoid the weird gross path on the way home. Instead, we cut through Rutgers. College Avenue was oddly empty. Emptier than a hot day in July. It was weird (but great for biking . . . no cars and no people). A quiet apocalypse.


Today, Ian and I walked down the street to Dead Man's Hill and did seven repeats . . . a new record. Last week, we did six of them, and I nearly had a heart attack. Ian was pretty tired as well. This week, we were fine all the way through.

The hill is one-tenth of a mile, at a ten percent grade. It's steep. Ian was running each repeat in around 33 seconds. Each hill took me about forty seconds (although I did the last one in 35 seconds).

Here is a video of repeat number seven.

Next week, barring injury, sickness, or whatever the hell else might happen in these weird times, we will do eight.

A Great Mystery (If You Know Some History)

In 2012, The British Crime Writer's Association named The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey as the greatest mystery novel ever written.

I just read it. I loved it, but it's an odd choice.

First of all, It's an exponentially faster read than Tom Jones. But that's not saying much. I whipped through The Daughter of Time in three days. I'd like to highly recommend it, but for one thing.

To enjoy the book, you need to have a working knowledge of The War of the Roses, Richard III, The Lancasters and the Yorks, and all that. You don't need to be a historian, but you need to at least be familiar with the key players in the way Americans would be familiar with the main characters of Hamilton.

Despite this cultural caveat, The Mystery Writers of America list the book as the fourth-best mystery ever. That's impressive.

I was already prepped to read The Daughter of Time because I've taught Shakespeare's Richard III and Henry IV many times. I've learned to boil down that period of history to something palatable for high school kids in a fun elective class.  I've also watched the entire Hollow Crown series. So I knew just enough to really enjoy the novel.

It's bizarre, as far as mystery stories go. Tey's detective, Alan Grant of Scotland Yard, is confined to a hospital bed. He hurt his leg when he fell through a trapdoor during a police chase. He's bored and doesn't want to read the typical formulaic literature that people have been giving him, so he ends up investigating a historical mystery. He is constrained to his bed for the duration of the novel. All the action takes place in the 15th century.

He wonders if Richard of Gloucester-- who eventually becomes Richard III-- really murdered the two young princes in the Tower of London. It's one of the most famous mysteries in history. Shakespeare's version of the hunchbacked Machiavellian villain certainly orchestrated the foul deed (and many other deeds nearly as foul). But the real Richard is much more elusive.

Grant lies in hospital bed and various people bring him books and assist him in his research into the mystery. Tey's book is more a treatise on how history is written to reflect the biases of historians than a crime novel.

This is what Grant says about an author of one of the accounts:

The spectacle of Dr. Gairdner trying to make his facts fit his theory was the most entertaining thing in gymnastics that Grant had witnessed for some time.

Apparently, this debate over the culpability and villainy of Richard III has been up for debate ever since he was deposed by Henry VII. But it took Tey's novel to spark interest among the general public.

If you are going to read the book, you probably want to avoid reading any historical debate over the answers. And even if you know nothing about the history of the Lancaster and the Yorks, you could probably follow along. The research goes step-by-step.

Grant begins his research by looking at children's books.

He then advances to denser secondary sources about Richard, his family, and the Princes in the Tower, learning about the secret marriage agreement the princes’ father had made, which, when discovered after the father’s death, rendered the sons illegitimate. (Richard, next in line for the throne after the princes, became king by an act of Parliament.)

Grant and his research assistant eventually come to an unusual conclusion . . . or so they think. But history is long, ambiguous, and generally lacking in first-hand accounts-- so just about any point of view you can think of has probably been professed at some time or another.

The final irony is that Tey-- in her reversal of procedure and legend-- may have committed the same error in logic that many historians fall prey to. This has something to do with inductive and deductive logic, though I always screw it up. Detectives and historians should mainly use inductive logic-- look at the specific clues and data and draw the most logical conclusion. But they often use deductive logic-- they come up with a hypothesis and then find facts to fit the theory. This is what Detective Grant criticizes, but it may just be the way humans operate-- even when they are trying not to.

Literary critic Geraldine Barnes explains this better than I could:

In the end, Grant’s “solution” to the mystery has less to do with the probabilities of history than with the manipulation of evidence to produce a neat tying up of loose ends and the revelation that, in the best clue-puzzle tradition, the person least likely is the culprit. The novel “solves” the murder of the princes in terms of its own logic, but that logic is predicated upon the unswerving assumption that the prime suspect is innocent . . . the fatal flaw in her method is to stretch the boundaries of detective fiction beyond their naturalistic limits to the point where Richard III is, simply, too good to be true.

I still highly recommend this book-- it's nothing like any other crime novel I've ever read, and the case is compelling, convincing, and still being debated by historians today.

A Book You Could Only Read During Quarantine (Not That You Should)

This is a momentous day for me. Miraculous. I finished something that I started three months ago to the day. Despite obstacles and adversity, I persevered. I can now say, with a healthy dollop of pedantic douchery, that I have read The History of Tom Jones: A Foundling. With apologies to Henry Fielding, there will be spoilers ahead. For good reason . . .

Just as Jesus died on the cross so you don't have to, I have plowed through this enormous tome only to advise you never to read it.

Some of you may know that I'm not averse to reading extremely long, rather old books. I'm a big fan of Tristram Shandy and Middlemarch. I'm also a big fan of novels themselves. They are empathy machines, and they are wonderful ways to model profound decisions without having to live hundreds of different lives. And they are entertaining.

Tom Jones is regarded as a classic. It's one of the first novels written in the English language. I've always wanted to read it, but I only had a paperback copy with a tiny font. I had started the book years ago and felt it was up my alley: the picaresque story of a foundling who must find his way in class-based 18th century England. I love a good picaresque novel.

On January 25th, I had a brilliant idea. I would get the book on my Kindle. Then I wouldn't have to worry about the small font. And I could read late at night and early in the morning. I didn't get very far, but then the pandemic hit and I figured: now or never.

But it was so disconcerting to read the book on the Kindle-- because the Kindle was only acknowledging my progress by percentage points . . . and it took a really long time to move that number. I decided to buy a hardcover version, so it would be easier to read.

Here it is:

I was very excited when it arrived-- you know how exciting it is to receive a package during quarantine-- but when I opened up the copy, to my chagrin, I found that the font was even tinier than that of my paperback copy.

So I kept plowing away at the Kindle version. Apparently, the book is anywhere from 750 to 963 pages, depending on the font. I made the Kindle font quite large, so I probably read 2000 Kindle pages of Tom Jones. Maybe more.

Fielding likens reading his book to taking a long journey. This is what he writes near the end:

We are now, reader, arrived at the last stage of our long journey. As we have, therefore, traveled together through so many pages, let us behave to one another like fellow-travelers in a stagecoach, who have passed several days in the company of each other; and who, notwithstanding any bickerings or little animosities which may have occurred on the road, generally make all up at last, and mount, for the last time, into their vehicle with cheerfulness and good humour; since after this one stage, it may possibly happen to us, as it commonly happens to them, never to meet more. 

I will grant him this. I'm glad I know the story, and I'm glad I met the characters. But I still implore you not to read it. It's just too many pages to get across what happens. It's TOO much time to spend with these people.

The plot does pick up around 92% of the way through, but it still takes a good eighty pages or so to conclude things.

If you care, the main themes are thus . . .

Tom Jones, a foundling who thinks he is of low birth, desires the heart of a truly chaste and lovely beauty named Sophia Western. Due to a gross misunderstanding with the country gentleman, Tom Jones has been turned out into the world, where he engages in various adventures-- violent and lusty. He also attends a gypsy wedding, which is quite fun. The main thing to learn here is that social class is EVERYTHING in this world. And marriage should be a reflection of social class (though some women wish this were not true).

In the end, Tom Jones finds out-- of course-- that he IS a gentleman after all-- this is the big reveal: he is the nephew of his benefactor Mr. Allworthy. But his desired love, Sophia Western, is still skeptical about marrying him. She thinks he is a libertine because she knows of some of the picaresque and bawdy adventures he has partaken. He definitely slept with a few women when he was out in the world, and perhaps even impregnated one-- but he assures her his love is true.

She just needs to understand this:

The delicacy of your sex cannot conceive the grossness of ours, nor how little one sort of amour has to do with the heart.

The ol' double standard. Boys will be boys, but then they can repent and settle down.

And when wenches are so coming, young men are not so much to be blamed neither; for to be sure they do no more than what is natural.

The women can be headstrong and lusty and plotting in the novel too, but not as much as the men.

This Will Barnes was a country gallant, and had acquired as many trophies of this kind as any ensign or attorney's clerk in the kingdom. He had, indeed, reduced several women to a state of utter profligacy, had broke the hearts of some, and had the honour of occasioning the violent death of one poor girl, who had either drowned herself, or, what was rather more probable, had been drowned by him.

The men also succumb to the silliness and stupidity of alcohol.

For drink, in reality, doth not reverse nature, or create passions in men which did not exist in them before. It takes away the guard of reason, and consequently forces us to produce those symptoms, which many, when sober, have art enough to conceal.

One of my favorite sections, which might be worth reading if you are an English teacher, is when Tom Jones attends Hamlet with his trusty (and dopey) sidekick Partridge.

Partridge offers running commentary throughout the play. At first, he is not scared by the ghost, because he knows it is a man dressed in a costume, but then when he sees the great David Garrick playing Hamlet, he gets frightened because Garrick is so affrighted.

"Nay, you may call me coward if you will; but if that little man there upon the stage is not frightened, I never saw any man frightened in my life."

Partridge then issues his take on acting, which is fabulous. He does NOT believe Garrrick is the best actor in the play, because Garrick behaved exactly as a normal person would, when seeing a ghost. He prefers the bloviating of the king-- because THAT is acting. Good stuff-- and a fine collision of worlds with another (excellent) book I read called The Club.

"He the best player!" cries Partridge, with a contemptuous sneer, "why, I could act as well as he myself. I am sure, if I had seen a ghost, I should have looked in the very same manner, and done just as he did. And then, to be sure, in that scene, as you called it, between him and his mother, where you told me he acted so fine, was never at a play in London, yet I have seen acting before in the country; and the king for my money; he speaks all his words distinctly, half as loud again as the other.—Anybody may see he is an actor."

I'm proud that I finished this book, and excited to be free of it. It weighed on me each and every day, the way that one's social class constricted the folk of 18th century England. I am glad to be free (somewhat) of that burden . . . although it is certainly economic class distinctions that gave me the time during quarantine to read this book-- my house is big enough for me to find quiet spaces, I'm working from home on my own schedule, and I'm not worried where my next meal is coming from. There are plenty of people in much worse situations, though we consider ourselves beyond all this 18th-century class tomfoolery . . . social distancing has been happening in America long before Covid-19.

Required Listening (If You Care About U.S. China Relations)

The new episode of the Freakonomics podcast "Will Covid-19 Spark a Cold War (or Worse) With China?" is a nuanced, non-partisan take on what the consequences might be globally, particularly with China, due to this pandemic.

The episode is going to be difficult for liberals who like to believe everything Trump has said or done is wrong. It's going to be difficult for ethical relativists who don't think you should evaluate a culture. It's going to be difficult for dyed-in-the-wool conservatives, who believe globalization and free trade are always the answer. It's going to be difficult for multi-culturalists who believe that criticizing the Chinese government could lead to racism against Chinese people in the United States. It's going to be difficult for Americans in general because we've trusted China too much, we've not recognized that the Chinese government is at odds with our core values, and the Chinese response to the pandemic has painted this in black and white.

Steven Dubner talks to Michèle Flournoy, who runs a strategic-advisory firm called WestExec. She is a once and perhaps future government official.

This is how Flournoy describes herself.

FLOURNOY: In my former life, I was the undersecretary of defense for policy in the Pentagon in the Obama administration. And in that capacity, I dealt with a full range of policy issues, including U.S.-China relations.

And he talks to Michael Auslin, a historian whose forthcoming book is called Asia’s New Geopolitics.

Here's how Auslin describes himself.

Michael AUSLIN: I am a distinguished research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford and before that, was a professor at Yale.

DUBNER: And I hate to force each of you to reduce yourself to a label, but if you had to categorize yourself on the China-hawk/dove spectrum, where do you stand?

FLOURNOY: I’m a clear-eyed pragmatist. I see the challenges and threats pretty clearly, but I also am willing to work towards areas where it’s in our interest to cooperate.

AUSLIN: I’m not a China hawk; I’m a C.C.P. hawk. I just think that we understand the nature of the Communist Party in that it is adversarial to the values and systems that we cherish.

The three of them discuss China's culpability in this pandemic-- and all agree that the CPC's cover-up of events, quashing of scientific opinion, mismanaging information, destruction of samples, lowballing the death toll, and hoarding of personal protective equipment makes them responsible for the global nature of the crisis. Neither Auslin or Flourney is surprised by what China did-- and they both say that we should have learned our lesson sooner. 

Auslin is probably a bit more conservative than Flournoy, but neither of them really talks much about Democratic and Republican politics. The show is more about tactics, globalization, the many promises China has broken over the years, and how we want to shape our narrative with China. We want to think that the fact that we've incorporated them into the global economy has liberalized and democratized their politics, but this doesn't seem to be the case. 

Also, the word "transactional" seems to be creeping into a lot of current writing. Flournoy says Trump has been TOO "transactional" with China and should have sought more coalitions. Auslin says that being "transactional" with China may be the only way forward because they do not share the same core beliefs as America.

The main thing is this: even once the pandemic wanes, our relationship with China is more fraught than ever. This podcast gives some hints as to how that future may play out.

Good News and Better . . .

We got the lab report back. The ancient ceiling above our sub-ceiling in the basement NOT asbestos. So we haven't been damaging our lungs during a pandemic that could potentially damage your lungs.

Good news.

Even better news.

I was on the back porch-- drinking a beer and playing the guitar-- when our neighbor's generator went on. God knows why-- the power is fine. It just happens sometimes. Even though it's two houses away, it's fucking loud. So I went inside and sent them a mildly irate email . . . and they shut it off.

So I'm going back outside.

Quarantine Workouts (Mental and Physical)

I am proud to announce that my son Ian and I completed a set of six sprints up "Deadman's Hill" on Monday. This is one more than our last effort. We're trying to build up to 8 reps. "Deadman's Hill" is a steep incline at the end of our block-- the sprint is a tenth of a mile (528 feet) and (according to Google maps) you gain fifty feet of elevation during the run. That's about a ten percent grade. It's brutal. We always finish morning workouts during double sessions at the hill, and the soccer players do several sets. Coach runs them in class order-- seniors, juniors, sophomores, freshman-- so they get a bit of a rest in between. We did not have this luxury. We ran up, walked down, and did it again. My son Ian (14 years old) is 99 pounds, so he had an easier time than me. I think I maxed out my heart rate and then some. I will provide a video of the final interval the next time we do it. It will be slow and disturbing. 

Tuesday morning, my sixteen-year-old son Alex told me that after everyone went to bed, he got a video call from a tennis player buddy of his. Ten students were trying to do 10,000 push-ups in one day, but they needed help. It was getting late and they weren't going to make it. From 11 PM to 11:45 PM, Alex did 450 push-ups. This put them over the top. A couple kids did over 2000 push-ups in a 24 hour period. Alex is very sore.

My mind is also obviously working overtime to process all the new normal, and I don't have to get up as early as norm, so I'm actually remembering some of my dreams. While I normally never talk about dreams or want to hear other people's dreams, we are in weird times. Perhaps they are premonitions.

Dream #1

I was attending an interminable faculty meeting in the auditorium-- it was dark and boring and I was getting sleepy-- but my only ray of hope was that my friend and colleague Zach had smuggled a baby raccoon into the meeting and he was going to release it at the appropriate moment to cause maximum chaos. I helped concoct the plan, but my friend had the raccoon in a bag. We didn't sit next to each other, to avoid suspicion. I was waiting and waiting for him to release the baby raccoon, the meeting was so boring, but he was stalling. I was frantically signaling to him. Release the raccoon! Release the raccoon!

He finally did and it climbed up the wall, like a monkey, and made it's way to the stage. Everyone freaked out. Pretty sweet dream.

Dream #2

Warning: this one is not as sweet. I was at a funeral, but in an open field, more like a party. It seemed similar to the memorial for an actual fraternity buddy who died in a motorcycle crash many years ago (but it was not for this person). When I inquired about the person who died-- a college friend of mine-- my friend Joe told me that guy's funeral happened the day before . . . I had missed it, gotten the date wrong, and that this funeral was for another college friend (who had died at yesterday's memorial event). I was totally broken up and surprised and sad. I did not like this dream at all. I'm leaving the names of the dead people out of this for obvious reasons, I don't want to hex anyone. I hope I'm not clairvoyant.

Remember When Your Biggest Concern Was Being Attacked by Feral Hogs?

Back in October of 2019, I was worried about this impending menace:

I was so wound up about feral hogs that I wrote a long post about them.

I was enthralled by a vision of giant fecund razorbacks ravaging their way across our country, tearing up crops, fields and ponds, thundering through suburban yards, slowly making their way towards the coasts. I even (temporarily) changed the name of my one-man-band to Feral Hogs at the Strip Mall.

Those were simpler times.

I've since changed my Soundcloud moniker back to The Moving Rocks, but I did finish a song celebrating this possible porcine apocalypse. I updated the lyrics some to reflect our current situation--obviously, the feral hog scourge has been pushed to the back burner-- but there's no question that as we invade various spaces on our planet, we're going to uncover some nasty creatures. Not all of them can be shot with an assault weapon.

The song is safe for work, home, working at home, and listening when there are kids in the room, so check it out. I'm quite proud of the guitar riff, I had to use some unusual scales and chords to get the groove I wanted. The sound is certainly inspired by the wonderful and creepy song "Ghost Town" by The Specials.

Feral Hogs (at the Strip Mall)

Feral hogs at the strip mall
Feral hogs at the mall
These little piggies are having a ball
These little piggies want it all

Pangolin in the market
Horseshoe bat in your soup
Rhino horn in the basket
Circus cat, flaming hoop

Crocodiles in the sewer
bedbugs roam between the sheets
Snakehead fish in the river
Multiply while you sleep

Bone Tomahawk!

If you're looking for something to watch that will make the menace of Covid-19 seem trifling, check out the Old West/horror flick Bone Tomahawk. 

Warning: at times it is gruesome.

The story is set in the late 1800s, out in the fabled West, in a small settlement (ironically) called Bright Hope. 

It's back in the days when if you get wounded in the leg, you might die of gangrene. And the sheriff-- Kurt Russell-- has a penchant for shooting suspicious folk in the leg.

But gangrene is the least of your worries if you live in Bright Hope. We learn what the real danger is from an erudite Native American the townsfolk call the Professor. Only he could deliver the bad news (if a white-man described what is to come, it would sound like xenophobic racist bullshit). The Professor explains that the two good people who have been abducted-- a helpful and pretty wife and the deputy to the sheriff-- have been taken by a tribe of indigenous cave-dwelling cannibalistic troglodytes.

He is not optimistic about the prospect of saving them.

The movie becomes comic for a bit, as a ragtag band of folks: one on crutches, one old, one something of a fop, and Kurt Russel-- the old sheriff with a few tricks up his sleeve-- make their way through the high plains to the troglodyte caves.

It's The Searchers meets The Descent.

There are some great lines and a wonderful campfire conversation about how hard it is to read a book in the bath (with a brilliant low-tech solution).

Then things get ugly.

This was a nice break from the gritty realism of The Wire and Better Call Saul and Bosch and even The Expanse (which is as realistic as you get for a sci-fi show, pretty much the opposite of Star Wars).

Comment of the Quarantine!

Yesterday, I lamented the fact that some of us are not cut out for all this extreme hygiene during the quarantine. Masks, gloves, hand-washing, no face-touching, six-foot distancing. It's an OCD ballet, and I can't find the rhythm.

It's because I've become inured to people and germs. I teach in an enormous, crowded high school.

Kids come to school sick, they cough, they drool, they fall asleep with their snot-covered faces plastered to the desks, they blow their nose while you're giving directions, and they occasionally leave menstrual blood on chairs (seriously, this has happened more than once . . . you call the janitor instead of doing the clean-up yourself).

I eat in a tiny office shared by twenty other teachers. There's always random food on the table, often long past the expiration date. I bring a cooler because I'm scared of what's inside the refrigerator.

Thousands of people are touching the doorknobs, staircase railings, and bathroom surfaces each and every day. If you need to get from A Hall to F Hall during the five-minute passing time, you inevitably get stuck near the library in a mass of bodies that resembles an Anthrax mosh pit. It's no place for claustrophobes, germaphobes, or tiny sophomores.

Ironically, this year our school decided to crack down on two things. Teacher absences (especially sick days on Mondays and Fridays) and bathroom passes. Obviously, the teacher-absence thing went out the window when the pandemic started. Teachers were encouraged to stay home if they were sick-- which is how it should be. We get our sick days for a reason, so as not to spread virulence in a building with 3000 closely-packed inhabitants.

The bathroom passes are another issue. Students are required to take a laminated pass if they leave to go to the bathroom. These passes obviously harbor bacteria, fecal matter, and worse. They are disgusting. But star commenter Zman offered an elegant solution:

You should keep the bathroom passes in a glass cylinder of Barbicide like the combs at the barbershop.

While I'm sure when we finally go back to school, we will abolish shared, laminated passes for some other more hygienic system, I am definitely going to take my old passes and put them in a glass cylinder of Barbicide on my desk.

I can never pass up some good prop comedy.

Thanks Zman!

What Is the Cost of a Quarantine Bagel? Maybe Dave's Life . . .

On Tuesday at his daily press briefing, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said that the economy and public health are not an either/or scenario. He's right, of course. An increase in public health is going to help the economy. But he also said something that's patently false. 

“But if you ask the American people to choose between public health and the economy then it’s no contest, no American is going to say accelerate the economy at the cost of human life because no American is going to say how much a life is worth.”

This is logical silliness. We HAVE to put a value on human life. It can't be worth nothing-- then you're Stalin. It can't be sanctified and worth an infinite amount, because then you can't allocate resources. 

Plenty of Americans say how much a life is worth. Americans that work in federal agencies that decide whether a regulation is too costly to enact. Car manufacturers say how much a life is worth when they decide which safety features to add to their vehicles and which to leave out (and how much to charge for them).  Actuarial workers say how much a human life is worth on a daily basis.

Professor W. Kip Viscusi says how much a human life is worth. He gets specific about it.

Often, these federal agencies rely on Viscusi's number. Back in 1982, one statistical human life was worth 300,00 dollars, but Viscusi revised this figure. He used data on dangerous jobs-- he looked at how much more a worker needed to be paid to accept a job that had a higher risk of death. He came up with three million dollars per statistical life-- ten times the old amount. Because of inflation, that number is now estimated by the federal government to be around 10 million dollars. 

Planet Money Episode 991: Lives vs. the Economy give an excellent rundown of this math (along with an interview with Viscusi himself!)

And that's why I was able to go and get bagels yesterday morning. We haven't completely shut the economy down. We are still allowing people to shop at Wal-Mart and get take-out food and go to the grocery store as many times a week as they'd like. We're still delivering and receiving mail. We're still ordering from Amazon. 

Do these things spread the virus? 

Absolutely, but at a lower rate than normal. But not at a rate of zero. If one human life were priceless, we'd have to shut it all down. We'd get one chance every two weeks to go to the grocery store. We'd be eating beans and rice. By leaving some businesses open, we're making a cost/benefit decision and putting a price on the lives that will be lost because social distancing is fairly voluntary. And imperfect, as you will learn at the end of this post, when I describe my journey to buy bagels.

We'll keep making these decisions, balancing public health and the economy, and recognizing that plenty of people WILL be deciding what a statistical human life is worth. That's why the speed limit isn't 15 miles an hour. If it were, we would save many many thousands of lives, but we've decided that those lives are worth time and convenience. How many statistical lives are 50,000 jobs worth? I don't know, offhand, but someone is going to have to make that decision. The same way we know opening bars will lead to some drunk driving deaths and some cirrhosis of the liver. And some spread of Covid-19. At some point, that number will be low enough that we will reopen. But it's never going to get to zero.

Some people are better at minimizing the risk than others. That's baked into the system. I don't seem to be very good at minimizing the risk. 

Yesterday, I went to the La Bagel in Edison. I put on my mask, picked up our order, and carried it back to the car. The place was busy: four customers and four people working. One of them was a uniformed health care worker. Everyone wore masks, but still. The virus is around.

I got my bagel toasted and with cream cheese. I had never gotten my bagel toasted before, but my wife gave me this option. La Bagel is only a four-minute ride from my house (three minutes, really, because there's no traffic) but I decided I needed to eat my toasted everything bagel with cream cheese NOW. In the car on the ride home. I was hungry.

I didn't realize that the cream cheese would be slightly melted from the toasting. I got cream cheese all over my hands. I licked the bulk of it off-- which is probably not proper pandemic hygiene. Then I put the bagel down on the console so I could find some napkins. After getting the napkins out of the bag, I noticed that I put the bagel down on a pair of used gloves. Also probably not proper pandemic hygiene. But I ate it anyway, of course.

In the next few minutes, I got cream cheese on all kinds of surfaces, including my mask. I licked my fingers clean and ate a bagel that had touched my mask and some gloves. 

I'm not a doctor. 

I don't have this protocol down pat. I'm like most people. And we still have a whole mess of people behaving like this, so the virus will spread, slowly. Hopefully, slowly enough. But this is a tough adjustment for me. 

I'm used to teaching in a classroom all day. Kids cough on pieces of paper and then hand them to me. The desks are sticky and gross. There's never enough tissues. I touch my face, pick my nose (you can't teach with a booger) and cough all kinds of droplets into the air. I'm used to seeing one or two sick kids in every class I teach. They slobber on the desks and blow their noses. And I don't even want to get into the bathroom passes . . . yikes. This is business as usual when you do five 45 minute classes a day. There's no way we're going to be able to control the situation inside the schools, but we're eventually going to open the doors anyway. 

Here are a couple of other good podcasts on this topic:

A New Sentence Every Day, Hand Crafted from the Finest Corinthian Leather.