1/6 could have been a lot worse

A year has come and gone since a violent gang of insurrectionists stormed the U.S. Capitol. At the time I remember trying to keep my wife calm by projecting false confidence that it would soon get under control.

It did, but not before a lot of damage to the building, injuries, defacements and the deaths of at least five people. A year later, more than seven hundred people have been charged with crimes from the event, most of them misdemeanors. It’s only in the last week or so that we’ve seen charges of seditious conspiracy against a number of leaders of the so-called “Oath Keepers”.

We were lucky. We were not lucky in preparing the necessary law enforcement for the event, which I warned about on January 3, 2021. It was entirely foreseeable. But we were lucky in that it wasn’t a whole lot worse.

Obviously, it was very bad. The last ones to breach the Capitol were the British army during the War of 1812. This time it was our own citizens. It was very bad for those who died or were injured. Many of those injured incurred permanent disabilities, mostly PTSD. A few of them took their own lives. It was brutal and crazy but with one exception no guns were used, at least by the insurrectionists. Their most lethal weapons were apparently bear spray and flag staffs. The gallows they placed on the Capitol’s frontage was symbolic; it wasn’t tall enough to actually hang anyone or sturdy enough to finish the job.

The insurrectionists’ intentions though were clear enough: they wanted to overturn the results of the presidential election. They succeeded in postponing the process to the wee hours of January 7.

The Oath Keepers though were likely not the only group with firearms on standby. You have to have a firearms permit from the city to bring guns into the District of Columbia. The Oath Keepers kept a cache of firearms in their hotel in Arlington waiting for the moment to bring them in. They weren’t ready, at least at the insurrection’s start, to break the law so flagrantly. The result was a violent melee in and around the Capitol fought mostly with bear spray, flag staffs, Billy clubs and fists.

Imagine the scene if these insurrectionists had come with guns, which would likely have been the more lethal, semiautomatic types. Imagine the casualties on both sides. Members of Congress likely would have been among them, with dozens, if not hundreds, killed. There would likely have been many more of the insurrectionists dead and wounded.

Most likely the insurrectionists would not have succeeded and most likely most of them would be dead. That’s because the National Mission Force was on standby. With shoot to kill orders and armed with all the technology and training needed, they would have brought the situation under control with stunning and quick lethality.

If you have to have an insurrection, as bad as it was, what transpired was about the best possible outcome. Casualties were mostly property and not people. Firearms were almost not used. There was no particular moment that could be used to recruit others to try again. The insurrectionists showed stunning stupidity by streaming a lot of it and leaving electronic footprints all over the place that could be used to charge them. They came off very badly as seemingly unwashed, untrained hotheads who didn’t know what they were doing.

This doesn’t excuse the botched preparations to fully protect the Capitol or our former president’s obvious incitement of a riot, sedition and his foot dragging to get the situation under control. I do hope that eventually he is brought up on relevant charges because it’s clear to anyone with a brain, on both sides of the aisle, that Trump was instrumental in the whole thing. It was entirely preventable. He just had to civilly accept the result that he lost, and wouldn’t.

It’s unlikely that the Capitol will ever be breached again by insurrectionists, or anyone. That’s not to say civil war is impossible or attempts to overthrow the government can’t happen. But it’s likely to happen through corruption of the system, which has been underway for a long time now.

Upgrading to a Mac Mini

For those who don’t know, the blog is a side project. I earn money selling my web services over the internet. It works out great because I can work from home, being otherwise retired, and it’s work I enjoy.

2021 was a banner revenue year for my small business, which also means I’ll be paying more in taxes. These taxes can be somewhat offset with business expenses, which tend to be few as I don’t need much except a computer and an Internet connection. Given that I was flush with business income and my computer was eight years old, it seemed a good time to get another one.

Since 2008, I’ve ditched Windows for a Mac. I replaced the Mac once in 2014. A couple of years later, frustrated by having is slow down unacceptably, I had a shop replace the disk drive with a one terabyte solid state drive and bump up its memory to 16 gigabytes. Since then it’s been a solid machine, which is why I didn’t feel the need to replace it.

A year ago I would have told you I’d replace my Mac with some souped up computer than runs Linux. That’s because I know what I’m doing from the command line and for the most part I use the computer to earn money, not to play games or as a form of entertainment.

But Apple’s recent introduction of new Macs with their new M1 chip convinced me that there was now a compelling reason to stay with a Mac. With the M1 chip, Apple ditched Intel in favor of its own in-house chip, the M1. Intel chips are based on a CISC (Complex Instruction Set Computer processor) architecture. The M1 and most CPUs in mobile devices use RISC (Reduced Instruction Set Computer processor) architecture. Providing there is the software to support these chips, they tend to run much faster. These RISC-based chips are definitely the future for desktop and laptop computers. Who doesn’t like faster speed and more efficient use of energy?

I ended up buying a Mac Mini, with a 512 gigabyte solid state drive and 8 gigabytes of memory. I bought it for $869.99 on Costco’s online web site. I skipped buying another iMac. Apple has really jacked up their prices on iMacs. While they have the ultra-fast M1 chips in the Mac Mini, you essentially pay an extra $800 or so for a fancy monitor with a built in camera and microphone. If you are going to stay with a Mac, the Mac Mini is a better buy.

You don’t have to give up anything with a Mac Mini, but should give up less money to Apple. I would need a new monitor, something with retinal display, which my old iMac didn’t have. I’m not too picky. I found this 28 inch Acer gaming monitor at just under $300, also at Costco. I also ordered a web cam for about $25. Altogether, I spent about $1250.

Both the computer and the monitor arrived on Thursday. The Mac Mini is pretty small: about eight inches by eight inches and an inch tall. Generally, Apple does a good job of getting you up and running. I was initially baffled when I turned it on and plugged it into my monitor. Was I setting up the Mac or the monitor? It was hard to tell. The screen had an illustration of what looked like a gaming machine. It was actually an illustration of a Mac Mini, just way too skinny. There was nothing that really told you what to do. Eventually I realized I had to plug in both a wired mouse and a wired keyboard to start configuring the machine, which I should have realized. There wasn’t even a piece of paper in the box telling you this.

Once initially configured, there was the matter of moving my files from the old machine. I didn’t have much spare hardware and there were only two USB-A ports on the Mini Mac, so I had to continually plug and unplug my keyboard and mouse from the old machine and move it back and forth between machines to begin the process of moving all my stuff. I needed a USB-A port for my TimeMachine backup USB drive. It took nearly a whole day to move my 400 gigabytes of files to the new machine. It probably would have been faster had I selected the option to move files using WiFi.

So the process of configuration and migration was definitely less than optimal. But it was worth the hassle. The Mac Mini boots fully in about ten seconds, about six times faster than the old machine. It shuts down in about ten seconds too; the old machine could take a minute or more sometimes. At least the migration program intelligently fetches updated software (when it can) for your apps. Only a few of the programs I use every day didn’t have M1-compatible versions, and it’s hard to tell with the other programs because the machine is so dang fast that it’s hard to believe these programs are being emulated.

This is my first large screen with retinal display and I find it stunning. Everything is so clear and crisp. One of the few things that wasn’t as good is the built in speakers. They are tinny on the Mac Mini and if it’s in stereo, you can’t tell. Fortunately, I have a set of spare speakers with good fidelity that I plugged into the earphone jack, which rendered much better sound than even on my old iMac.

There were a few minor hiccups. I had to login to a host of websites again. Facebook kept giving me a “Sorry! Something went wrong!” error screen with no explanation on how to fix it. The online help didn’t help either: clearing cache and cookies did nothing. I was able to bring it up in Safari, which I don’t ordinarily use, but not in my primary browser. After a few hours, the problem mysteriously disappeared. Also, I couldn’t dim or brighten the monitor from the keyboard like I used to, until I did some searching and found MonitorControl that did the trick.

Aside from a business deduction, my primary interest in this machine was speed. I can’t do much about internet upload and download speeds, but the M1 processor(s) is truly a speed demon that is just stunning. In most cases a millisecond after I press the return key or click on a button, it’s done. Most programs load in a second or two. I’m working on a job for a client, a complex upgrade for a system. It should go much faster than a similar job would have gone on my iMac.

The web cam has still to arrive. I didn’t find much in the way of higher resolution web cams, at least not with 60 frames per second, but a good 1028 x 768 pixel camera will do fine for now. It’s all this plus I can keep running all my old Mac software too, and the same consistent user interface and extremely high reliability that I’ve enjoyed for thirteen years now that is hard to find on Windows. With all this speed, perhaps I can leverage it to earn more money from clients in the years ahead.

Who’s really profiting from crypto?

So I’m continuing to explore cryptocurrencies and specifically why anyone would want to buy them. One obvious reason is greed. While returns on most cryptocurrencies is marginal or negative, as pretty much anyone with a computer can make their own cryptocurrency, the big name cryptocurrencies tend to appreciate exceedingly well. They get a buzz, so that alone makes people want to buy them. It’s gotten to where I can buy Bitcoin at a kiosk at our local grocery store.

In the last five years, one BitCoin appreciated 4075%. You won’t get that return in an index fund. In 2017, Ethereum was virtually unknown and could be purchased at $9.59 each. It’s now worth $3232.61, so it’s up nearly 40,000%! (Technically, Ethereum is the platform, and Ether is the digital currency.)

There’s no way to know which of these coins will take off while the vast majority of them languish. It probably can’t hurt to buy at least some of these coins on the hopes that while most will languish a couple might take off and you could profit from those purchases. Even with established digital currencies though, there are major ups and downs. My BitCoin investment is worth a modest $140.59 at the moment, and my Ether is worth $90.89. A few months ago though my BitCoin was valued at closer to $200. I bought the Ether only recently, but at the moment I’m losing money on it as I spent the $100 in cash in my BlockFi account for it.

Obviously my investment is trivial, but it’s there mostly to get my head around this stuff. So far for me the return has been good but not great. Since it can all appreciate or depreciate very quickly, it doesn’t seem wise to invest too much. It’s clear in general though that digital currency millionaires are very few and that most of us who are late to the party will assume more of the risk because these coins cost more to buy.

I did watch a YouTube video on these currencies recently. It evolved into a discussion on what money is and talked about the gold standard. The U.S. dollar was once tied to the gold standard. What made the dollar valuable was that gold itself is time consuming to mine and process. The gold in our nation’s vaults was “proof of work”. The gold was valuable because it was hard to acquire, which made the dollar valuable because the number of dollars in circulation was (in theory anyhow) proportional to the amount of gold in our vaults.

Digital currencies are trying to create “proof of work”. “Mining” a BitCoin, for example, requires a lot of computing resources and energy use. The computers you use aren’t free and the electricity they use to create it is not free either. Maybe the algorithms used to create the currencies are free but if you manage to mine a new BitCoin (it’s becoming computationally prohibitive) you will sure expend a lot of treasure to do so. This in theory makes the coin worth money.

What makes it valuable though appears to be that buyers reward BitCoin sellers for the hassle it took them to create the coin. The energy and computer resources it took to make the coin can’t be recovered. Gold though is different. It’s a physical thing, although it is expensive to store because it has value and it’s not easy to use it to pay for things as it is, in effect, too precious to be used for routine financial transactions.

But inarguably the existence of these coins proves “proof of worth” because creating these coins is hard to do. If you don’t believe me, try creating one yourself with some spare PCs. For me the question then becomes, “Yeah, so what?” I can dig a hole ten feet deep in my backyard. The fact that I dug it indicates proof of work, but is it valuable? Maybe it would be if I turned it into a root cellar. Building a root cellar is probably cheaper than building an extension to my house for this purpose. With digital currencies though, the fact that you own some part of a virtual coin that was hard to create doesn’t mean much unless you can do something with the coin.

And with most of these coins, their primary value is not to buy stuff with them, at least not directly for most coins, but that they can be traded. Unlike U.S. currency, a digital coin is infinitely splitable. I own 0.00298038 of a BitCoin. I don’t prove ownership of it by pulling it out of my pocket, or from a piece of paper properly notarized saying I do. I own it because a record exists in multiple BitCoin blockchains stored on publicly accessible servers worldwide. I’m pretty sure it’s not directly tied to my name and address, but indirectly with my email address. I can verify my ownership if needed with the private key in my digital wallet or on the BlockFi digital exchange if I exchange it for something else, such as U.S. dollars.

It turns out though that there are other ways these coins generate “proof of work”: the hassle of creating records that show the transfer of these coins from one person to another. These blockchain servers don’t work for free: you have to compensate them for the hassle it takes to make these trades, generally in a percentage of the coin you are trading. If you have a digital coin broker, you compensate them, who probably become the entity to ultimately compensate those who place the transaction on multiple registers. For example, you can see the fees BlockFi charges here. You can think of these fees as similar to interest charges on your credit card or the fees that Visa or Mastercard charge businesses to manage credit card transactions, costs which are largely passed onto you in the form of higher prices.

So in effect these are like taxes, which means that digital coins aren’t quite coins and their price is a bit inflated to cover the cost of using them. If I use some coins to buy a pack of gum at the drug store I may pay a sales tax, but the store won’t have to pay Visa or Mastercard for the privilege of taking my real coins.

If your head is spinning, I’m not surprised. None of this is obvious to most people when they buy digital currencies, but you will be charged coming and going into this market. The profits go to those that “mine” the coin and the brokers that let you trade the coin. They also go to you if you exchange the coin for more than you paid for it after factoring in these fees. But the risk is on you. You will be charged to get into the market, and if you decide to cash in your chips, unlike the casino, you’ll be charged on the way out too.

I suspect except for a few lucky millionaires the real winners are the miners and the brokers managing all this technology, and it won’t be you.

Religion likely killed Jerry

Jerry (not his real name) is dead. Jerry, age about seventy, died recently of covid-19. Jerry could have been vaccinated but chose not to be.

Jerry is also the first person I know personally to die needlessly of covid-19. With 800,000 deaths you would think I would know some others, and perhaps I do. I either don’t know that they died, or that they died of covid-19. In general though, like most people, I tend to associate with others who share my beliefs. I can’t think of one of my friends who doesn’t believe in the efficacy of covid-19 vaccines.

As Jerry is a friend of a friend, I only know about Jerry’s method of demise through my friend. I couldn’t call him a friend as I only met him a few times. But unquestionably he was a decent man, giving by nature and friendly. He had an odd couple relationship with my friend, who’s a flaming liberal. They worked together for many years for a Beltway bandit and stayed friends after she left the company and he retired.

They took many vacations together. My friend has been posting pictures of them from many vacations from exotic locations like Zanzibar and Guatemala. You wanted to be a friend of Jerry’s. He was a reliable guy with a big smile and a hearty handshake.

But after retirement Jerry had plenty of time. Ex-military, he was Christian by inclination. He found himself going one of these mega-churches in the Northern Virginia suburbs overrun with evangelicals and became one himself.

Along the way he also found, voted for and pushed the candidacy of Donald Trump, perhaps America’s most prominent sinner. Trump was a sore spot between my friend and him, but they managed to remain friends in spite of it. I got the feeling they saw less of each other. Anyhow, she moved to Florida and the distance between them made seeing each other a lot more problematic.

Like many of us, Jerry got sucked into an information bubble. He distrusted pretty much any media except those that told him what he wanted to hear. It appears that he grew to believe that covid-19 wasn’t real, but definitely that getting vaccinated for it was against his principles, principles repeated endlessly in his newsfeeds and among his friends. He was also conspiracy minded and became a believer in QAnon, a belief shared by some members of his family. His faith gave him overwhelming confidence that God would protect him. By being a model of that faith and his beliefs, he was confident that he was protected.

I don’t know too much about his death other than he wasn’t vaccinated and covid-19 killed him. Of course, there would have been no guarantee that had he been vaccinated covid would not have killed him, but it would have stacked the odds greatly in his favor. All we can say is that he is dead and if there is a heaven he’s doubtless there right now. St. Peter was probably surprised by his early arrival.

But his death hardly brought peace to his family. He has a pro-Trump daughter, and she is trying to push out the other daughter who stopped talking to Jerry because of his politics. His pro-Trump sister is not talking to anyone. It doesn’t sound like Jerry’s convictions are going to help his family heal from his passing and I suspect his funeral will be lightly attended.

It’s hard to say what flipped Jerry into an anti-vaxxer. But it’s not hard to see contributing factors. Ex-military people are largely conservative types. Evangelicals have extreme faith in God and a predisposition toward absolute certainty that their faith seems to require as a condition of membership. They take comfort in communing largely with each other, which tends to reinforce their shared beliefs. You don’t have to do much research on the internet to find out that there is a huge overlap between conservatives, evangelicals and QAnon supporters. If you are in one of these groups, you’ll probably find yourself in the others too.

If you ask me, Jerry’s death was aided and abetted by his evangelical church. While a few faiths like Unitarian Universalism open minds, most tend to shut them and bar the doors to rational thought. No wonder then that about thirty percent of American are now Nones, i.e. don’t affiliate with any religion. This percentage is going to only increase until we are a majority sectarian nation, as is most of Europe. Dogmatic, close-minded but otherwise really nice people like Jerry who die needlessly from a treatable disease are accelerating the trend.

Jerry did lead an authentic life and stayed true to his principles and faith. But I think it’s fair to say that they also killed him.

Up your game with an N95 mask

So I’ve taken to wearing an N95 mask. I don’t use it all the time, obviously, but I do when I’m out (or rather indoors) with the rabble. I wore it yesterday in the pet food store and also at the Costco. At the latter, I surreally saw quite a number of unmasked patrons. I’m guessing the Town of West Springfield (Massachusetts) isn’t requiring indoor masking, which is crazy.

I also picked up Chinese food the other day in nearby Williamsburg (Massachusetts). I of course was wearing my N95 mask but one of the patrons came in and picked up his order without having any mask on. I’m pretty sure it’s required in Williamsburg, so I suspect this man was one of these free-range “I don’t care if I get it and infect you too” types. You can bet I was really glad I had a N95 mask on then.

Other types of masks reduce the likelihood that you will get covid-19 but are much more about helping ensure you don’t pass it on to others. Covid-19 is typically asymptomatic for days, which is why it’s so hard to stop its spread. Thoughtless boobs though clearly don’t give a damn. Or maybe they are fully vaccinated and figure this means that can’t get it. Vaccinations and boosters definitely lower the odds, but they are designed to keep you out of the hospital, not from getting the disease.

Perhaps you read this story on Reddit, which has been widely shared. Basically, a doctor has called it quits after being assaulted by a family of anti-vaxxers, shortly after informing the family that the father had passed away. In the case of this story on Reddit, the family was deeply upset that the doctor wouldn’t save the father by injecting Ivermectin into him and giving him massive doses of Vitamin C.

I confess I was wondering if this was made up, but I doubt it. Health care workers are quitting in droves due to harassment like this, not to mention the stress, long hours and fatigue of taking care of those down with covid-19. The vast majority of these people can accurately be describe as covidiots, i.e. those who aren’t vaccinated from it but easily could have been. These covidiots are making life very difficult for the rest of us. For example, there are all these people that need theoretically “elective” surgery for issues like heart valve bypasses but can’t schedule them because hospitals are overwhelmed with covidiots. A lot of these people will die, not of covid, but because they can’t get the timely treatment then need.

This Omicron wave looks like it will be short but very intense. Covid-19 is getting harder to avoid. An N95 or KN95 mask, which can actually block the virus in most cases, is one of the few tools left. I had given away to a local hospital my one N95 mask at the start of the pandemic because our local hospitals were looking for donations. Other than wearing a N95 or KN95 mask, there’s not much certain about avoiding it other than staying isolated. We excel at that, which will mean just me and the missus for Christmas this year.

Given the hassle of coping with it, it’s understandable why so many of us are at wits end. Our case as a retired couple makes things pretty simple. We’re not juggling school aged children. But just throwing up your hands is stupid. The United States has over 800,000 official covid-19 deaths and reaching a million deaths is a virtual certainty. The rational person uses every tool at their disposal and is careful to judge acceptable risks.

It was acceptable for me to go on a cruise recently. The odds of acquiring the disease were not zero, but acceptable. Holland America’s ships are comparatively small, the passengers tend to be age 60+, and the testing to get on the ship was rigorous. That plus all the indoor masking and shore excursions where you were masked and in a bubble made it acceptable. I would have avoided booking cruises on large cruise ships. Perhaps you read about large outbreaks on Royal Caribbean’s Odyssey of the Seas and Symphony of the Seas because these ships are enormous and the cruisers younger.

As this pandemic keeps rolling on, I’m also developing a sense of when to chance the odds and when not to. This makes living with the pandemic easier. When we booked the cruise in early September, I judged that booster shots would probably be available and that a wave was likely to crest on or after Christmas. I bet that cases would be manageable in early December when we were to cruise. But I booked with cruise insurance just in case I was wrong.

By the time we were back in port, it was clear the Omicron wave was going to hit us shortly. That’s when I judged the odds were too high again and went to my next line of defense: the N95 mask. Wearing the mask is not that uncomfortable, it’s just harder to put on and tighter than I am used to. As it is much snugger though, it also feels safer.

I’ll let health officials judge the odds because they will be much better at it than I will be. Infection and hospitalization rates will tell me what I want to know. That the Omicron wave is likely to be sharp but brief also suggests the pandemic is winding down. More of us have been vaccinated or acquired some immunity from being infected. The virus is running out of new hosts. It is likely that toward late 2022 that it will move from pandemic to endemic, allowing life to return to some semblance of normal with periodic minor spikes.

The new best practice is to wear an N95 or KN95 mask when indoors with the public. These masks are not too hard to acquire now either. It’s time to up your game, if you haven’t already.

Inadequate to the stormy present

“The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.”

Abraham Lincoln

This quote has been rattling around in my brain for the last week or so. This quote was sent by Abraham Lincoln in his letter to Congress on the state of the nation during the midst of the Civil War, before state of the union speeches became a tradition. A week later, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which emancipated slaves in territories conquered by Union forces. It was a brilliant but unappreciated move by Lincoln, decried of course by the South, but was likely pivotal in winning the Civil War.

We could use an Abraham Lincoln right now. What happened to Lincoln is likely to happen to others that the radical right doesn’t like. The good news is that a year ago we got rid of Donald Trump but only barely was able to keep him from illegally retaining power. The bad news is that we elected Joe Biden, not a bad man by himself, but at least so far not the sort of leader we need for our stormy present. Joe is convinced that by providing pandemic relief and funding ambitious infrastructure bills America will somehow come back together and there will be a big kumbaya moment. It makes me slap my head with a big Homer Simpson “Doh!” I really hope he’s not this stupid.

What’s going on in our country now is revenge for the South losing the civil war. Republicans area pissed beyond belief that demographics are turning against them and that those people could exercise real political power. It’s going to get much, much worse but it will probably be a slow-moving horror. But if Biden and Congressional Democrats were to think anew and act anew, it’s possible much of it can be avoided.

The horrible gerrymandering and voter suppression underway has been unfolding for decades and has reached level 11. As bad as this is though, it’s not nearly as bad as the soft coup Republicans are unfolding for the 2024 elections. They plan to win the 2024 elections through gerrymandering and voter suppression if possible. But if not many states hope to enact laws that would allow their state to choose electors at variance to the popular will, or empower corrupt election officials who will claim that fairly run elections were not, and proclaim a different result. The Brennan Center for Justice summarizes the more brazen efforts currently underway. It’s depressing reading.

There are obvious things that urgently need to be done but little likelihood they will be done. For example, Congress could pass a law outlawing gerrymandering and protecting voting rights. We needed this months ago and some tentative rumblings in the Senate suggest something might happen, if two Democrats (Manchin and Sinema) can be coaxed to allow an exception to the Senate’s filibuster rule. Manchin is a maybe. Sinema looks like a no. Budget reconciliation rules allow avoiding the filibuster for budget bills, but don’t for something as fundamental as voting rights. But even if it can be done, there will be inevitable court challenges which makes it unlikely it could work in the 2022 election. That something this obvious can’t win the support of fifty Democrats indicates just how pointlessly dogmatic some of these dogmas of the quiet past are.

Make no mistake: Republicans are gunning for one-party control that can’t be changed because they will control the election levers that make it impossible, ending democracy, at least at the national level. It will be like voting in Russia when you know Putin will win because the ballot boxes will be stuffed and anyhow, they will control the ballot boxes. It won’t be true in all states and not all at once, but it will be enough to cement control.

The question then becomes: do Americans put up with it? It’s likely to be moot as when they have the lever of power, the crazies are likely to be in charge, so it will be retribution time. They will go after their political enemies and they will leverage as best they can the full power of the state and the courts to persecute, imprison, maim and kill those they don’t like or feel weren’t nice to them. And if they can’t do it, they will look the other way and let their vigilantes do it for them.

They say you don’t negotiate with terrorists, but Republicans are political terrorists. Bipartisanship is now a myth. Passing voting legislation is a possible way out of this but rest assured even if passed it’s likely to be stricken down by the courts on various pretexts. Even so you can count on hoodlums and vigilantes implementing de-facto Jim Crow laws to ensure whites vote disproportionately.

So essentially it’s unlikely there is any peaceful way to reach a kumbaya moment. Republican voters, egged on by hard right conservative media, won’t allow it. For myself, I hope that Covid-19 and what’s left of a functioning government, along with general disgust by enough people paying attention, that we can turn things around in the 2022 election. The odds are very long, but even if Democrats retain power, Republican states are working relentlessly to stack the deck in 2024.

Hang onto your socks, folks.

West Indies ports of call

Cruising is supposed to be about relaxing, but it’s often more about being busy which usually means getting off the ship and on one or more shore excursions. While we got a few sea days at the start of our cruise, at it winds down it becomes a haze of memories of various islands, most of them independent countries, here on the far eastern edge of the Caribbean Sea.

Some general impressions though should set expectations if you are planning to cruise this part of the world. First, most Caribbean islands are quite mountainous as most are volcanic and arose from the sea. Second, because they are mountainous and tend to be narrow, plus that many of these countries are not particularly rich, the roads are bad and steep with hairpin turns and narrow lanes. On most islands, the traffic moves slowly if at all because the roads can’t keep up with the number of cars. Also, almost universally, cars drive on the left because most are former or current British protectorates. This includes, strangely, the U.S. Virgin Islands. On Barbados, for example, if you want to tour the east side of the island, it means taking a lot of these back roads that are poorly marked and not well maintained. But in general all these islands are gorgeous to look at and enjoyable to visit. Most are second-world countries and the islanders are overwhelmingly Black. Many are suffering from high unemployment rates and some from civil unrest related to covid-19 and limited opportunities for its citizens.

St. Martin. More frequently referred to as Sint Maarten (Dutch spelling), the island is quite small and compact. It’s also split into a French and a Dutch side, with just one road connecting the two parts of the island. Civil unrest kept us out the the French side. It’s nice to visit but unfortunately our tour of the island revealed it was nothing special with a large gap between the haves and the have-nots.

St. Martin
St. Martin

St. Lucia. Of the islands we visited, this is the one we could most want to live on, if we were the type to prefer to live in the tropics. Pronounced LOO SHUH it looks a lot like Hawaii. It’s not as expensive as Hawaii, but a pretty expensive place to live nonetheless. It is one of the few islands in this area that is still part of the British Commonwealth. It also has two incredible natural landmarks: the volcanic cliffs of Gros Peton and Pitit Peton, with Petit Peton’s sheer cliffs dropping nearly straight down over 2000 feet into the Caribbean Sea. To sail past them was the highlight of our cruise, made all the more special by localized showers that produced a vibrant double rainbow. Plenty of resorts are here catering to well moneyed tourists. This is definitely an island to spend a week or two at if time and money give you the privilege.

Gros Peton and Pitit Peton, St. Lucia
Gros Peton and Pitit Peton, St. Lucia

Barbados. This is a sizable island by local standards but it sits so far east and south that it avoids most hurricanes. Unlike most of the other islands, its origin is not volcanic. The eastern coast, which is hard to get to, is more picturesque. The beach at Bathsheba looks a lot like Oregon’s memorable coastline, just with palm trees. The main city of Bridgetown is pricey and flashy with a huge wealth gap, but is a favorite playground for wealthy mostly North American tourists. Rhianna grew up here and has a huge and pricey seaside estate, but our tour operator also took us by the house she grew up in a lower income neighborhood.

Bathsheba, Barbados
Bathsheba, Barbados

Dominica. Pronounced DOH MEAN E KUH, this is of course a completely different country than the Dominican Republic elsewhere in the Caribbean, though just as thoroughly Black. This is an island for people that live in Seattle and want to leave because they want more rain. Parts of the island get 400 inches of rain a year. We arrived in the dry season and still got drenched a few times. Overall, it’s a poor country with an unemployment rate north of twenty percent. The capital city Roseau looks modern, but if you get off the main roads most of the housing is cheap and distressed.

Roseau, Dominica
Roseau, Dominica

St. Thomas. Part of the U.S. Virgin Islands, this was a port of call on our first cruise in 1995. The island is more bustling, bigger and busier than I remember. It’s practically a desert and was devastated by two back-to-back hurricanes a few years ago, from which is looks fully covered. Five cruise ships were in port when we were there. You can get some amazing views if you can make it to the top of its mountains where you can also see the picturesque islands that comprise the British Virgin Islands. I can see its popularity as you are technically in the United States and if you like shopping it is plentiful and prices are low. Also, there are no sales taxes. Frankly, it’s a gorgeous and modern island and feels all grown up now. Perhaps as a result though it feels somewhat conventional rather than special.

St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands
St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands

St. Kitts and Nevis. If you are worried about an upcoming civil war in the United States (a distinct possibility, in my opinion) and have $150K disposable, then construct a home in St. Kitts and Nevis. This will entitle you to citizenship and you can keep a dual U.S. citizenship. Land prices are cheap, and the traffic almost doesn’t exist. Certain neighborhoods like Frigate’s Bay are somewhat pricey and pretty tony. The island definitely feels like the bargain of the West Indies, plus it’s a nice and pretty island. A huge dormant volcano with rain forest dominates the island and is usually partially covered by clouds. Nevis (pronounced NEE VIS) is a twenty minute ferry ride away. Alexander Hamilton was born on Nevis and as a result could not become U.S. president, as he was not born in the United States. Close by is an island we did not visit but came close to, which is important in American history: St. Eustasius (Dutch). In 1776, the Dutch garrison here was the first to salute (by firing its cannons) at a U.S. naval vessel carrying the new American flag. This pissed off the Brits enormously, who later ransacked and burned much of the island. But as we know both the Dutch and the Americans got the last laugh.

St. Kitts from a scenic railroad
St. Kitts from a scenic railroad

And that was it for our ports of call, except for Holland America’s private island of Half Moon Cay tomorrow. We should berth in Fort Lauderdale on Sunday morning and be come an hour or two after sunset there, where snow finally paid a visit in our absence.

2021 cruising report

So we’re out here in what is still known by some as the West Indies. More specifically, we’re in the leeward islands of the West Indies, one of the few places in the Caribbean we haven’t hit before on a cruise ship. This is our fourth consecutive trip with Holland America, but our first cruise since cruising restarted and pandemic protocols were implemented. Is it worth the hassle to get aboard this cruise? Are we likely to get covid-19? How have things changed since those pre-pandemic cruises?

In a way, we’ve been on a pandemic cruise before, having taken a JoCo theme cruise on Holland America in March 2020. We had our temperature checked before we were let onto that ship, as covid-19 was just becoming a thing then. We took that cruise despite many good meaning people warning us not to.

It turned out okay with no cases on our ship. We had invested about $6,000 in that cruise and it was hard to flush that money down the drain. In the pandemic era though we bought cruise insurance which we didn’t need. Or maybe we will need it. One rumor going around the MS Rotterdam (our cruise ship) is that if we get Omicron covid-19 cases, we could be detained for up to fourteen days before being off boarded in Fort Lauderdale.

Needless to say, that’s not on our plans. I hope cruise insurance will cover that, but more importantly we have two cats at home and no guarantee our cat/house sitter could stay an extra two weeks in this event. Also, my wife will run out of medications long before the two weeks would be up.

But I can sense it’s a needless worry. Everyone on board presented vaccination certifications to get on the gangway. We also presented recent PCR or antigen tests. Moreover, since this is Holland America, this is basically a cruise ship full of old farts like us. Seniors are a disproportionately vaccinated group. Then there are all these covid-19 protocols on board. With a few exceptions like meal times, you are masked unless outdoors, in your stateroom, or eating. And you are constantly washing hands. The ship has hand washing stations going into the buffet on the Lido deck. You mostly travel only on Holland America excursions and are masked on those too.

Is this too much hassle though to cruise? That’s an individual judgment, but it isn’t for me. Most of the time I am inured to the masking requirements. I don’t need the masks I brought. Holland America provided a number of super comfortable masks for free, masks that will follow me home and probably become my everyday masks. It’s certainly possible that a case or two of covid-19 could develop. But if there is any place on the planet where herd immunity has been achieved, it’s probably on our cruise ship. We’ve pretty much all had booster shots too. That and all the sanitation suggests to me we’d be more likely to get covid-19 from wandering masked inside the local Big Y grocery store than here on this ship.

Other cruise lines though may not be as anal about covid-19 as Holland America, but probably are. Some like Carnival cater to a younger and arguably wilder crowd. Some of these cruise lines have reputations for being wild party ships, where you can find overly intoxicated drunks passed out in the hallways. These sorts probably aren’t beyond ginning up some fake credentials to get on board a cruise ship. So if you have to take a cruise, you may be better with one that caters to oldsters, like Holland America.

Holland America’s Rotterdam, which we are on, is its newest ship. It’s still being broken in, as it had its first paying passengers in October. Walking the promenade, you can still smell the newly varnished wooden rails. Having sailed the Nieuw Amsterdam, the Oosterdam and Westerdam, it’s interesting to observe what has changed. In general, you get pretty much the same experience. For Holland America, the Rotterdam is a large ship, but not nearly the behemoths in the Royal Caribbean fleet. We’ve come to appreciate smaller ships and actually prefer them. We also appreciate an older set of passengers.

You do miss a few things on Holland America, compared to other cruise lines. Norwegian, while having a reputation as a party ship, has fabulous shows. Holland America though has a fabulous variety of musical venues: a blues club, a rock and roll club and a number of piano bars. The quality of the performers is top notch. We are a bit highbrow and prefer Lincoln Center Stage, where a classical quartet performs three 45-minute shows a day, with one being a repeat of an afternoon performance. It doesn’t matter which venue you choose. You can easily move from one venue to the other; they are all quite excellent.

The Rotterdam also has a new stage with all the latest high technology including wall to wall LED displays, making you feel like you are looking at billboards in Times Square. We saw an amazing dance performance on the Main Stage that used all these lights quite effectively. Their main stage is probably state of the art for the cruise industry at the moment. Just don’t expect Broadway musicals or synchronized bungees jumpers falling from the ceilings like we saw twelve years ago on Norwegian.

All cruise lines specialize in picking your pockets, and Holland America has gotten more creative at it since the pandemic. It used to be at dinner you would get a basket of rolls to share with your fellow table mates. Now they give you one. All the menus offer premium choices for extra money, even in main dining. For $75 you can order an enormous steak and $3.95 gets you fresh squeezed orange juice at breakfast. There is still silly towel art on your bed at night, but chocolates on your bed at night are problematic. There is also a new club, Club Orange, which is exclusive which means if you want a private dining area, you got to pay up, part of the “ship within a ship” concept a lot of cruise lines are doing.

Holland America has always served normal portions, unlike the other cruise lines where you can easily pack 4000 calories into a meal. It didn’t matter though because the quality of the food was always outstanding. Gala night though disappointed. The filet mignon was excellent, but there was no baked potato and the meat could not have been more than four ounces. So you had this enormous plate with a tiny steak and a few tiny vegetables. The Lido deck is always available of course, but even there the buffet seemed smaller than on previous cruises. Moreover, there were hours like 9:30 PM when it was completely shut down.

It’s hard to complain too much though. It’s a pleasure to go cruising again, even with a mask on much of the time. It’s a pleasure to travel and a pleasure not to be stuck at home. It’s a pleasure to converse with strangers over shared meals and actually socialize, something this introvert generally avoids.

Shore excursions are a bit chancy. We’re not stopping in Guadeloupe, which had recent riots caused by crowds of anti-vaxxers. Even here in today’s port of call, St. Martin, the French side was off limits. There was civil unrest there too, this one due to lack of work for younger people. I have a feeling there will be more of this in other destinations before we berth back in Fort Lauderdale in eight days.

Life may be surreally nice on our cruise ship, but it’s hardly representative of most of the world right now.

Traveling in the age of covid (part two)

Time to get this vacation thing on! But boy, it’s sure a hassle. We’re on a cruise out of Fort Lauderdale today and getting on the ship is like running a marathon. It’s also become more expensive. It’s hard to quantify the additional expense as certain things, like WiFi, are now part of the fare. In addition, in the age of covid-19, it’s stupid to not add travel insurance so there’s that, for both the cruise and our flights.

Shore excursion prices look higher too, but there seems little point in booking shore excursions when the itinerary can change. It changed about a week ago, so we’re just going to wait until we get onboard the ship and listen to the lectures before booking shore excursions … and hope they aren’t sold out.

But perhaps the most annoying thing of all is meeting the covid-19 testing requirements. You have to present a negative PCR or Antigen test and it can’t be more than 48 hours old, plus the test must be observed. This meant we had to get a test on Monday and we had to hope we’d get test results back before our cruise departed. CVS Pharmacy says it takes 24-48 hours for test results, but there is no guarantee. My wife got her results back in under a day. We were tested at the same time, so why didn’t I get mine? Was there a snafu?

Before scarfing down a dinner at a Bradley International brew pub last night, I called CVS. I eventually learned that my results simply weren’t available yet. I thought maybe they got lost. They arrived sometime in the middle of the night while we slept peacefully at a Hyatt hotel here. Of course, we both tested negative.

So we’ll be on board our ship. Our hotel was strategically chosen because they offer free shuttles to and from the airport and the cruise port, plus a complementary breakfast. Cruising is still struggling to come back here. It was made harder by Governor Ron DeSantis trying to impose on cruise lines a requirement that they take unvaccinated passengers. It was a pointless exercise designed to prove his street creds among Republicans, because it’s the federal government sets these requirements. Plus cruise lines don’t have to dock in Florida, and having cruises overwhelmed with covid-19 cases taints their brands. Using Florida is just more convenient for them. Until recently, if you wanted a Caribbean cruise you flew to some place like the Bahamas, assuming they would let you in.

The flight to Fort Lauderdale last night was interesting. It was my first time on a plane since the pandemic. It’s always a bit chancy to take an evening flight the day before a cruise, and as we approach winter, snow delays were a possibility. But weirdly all flights out of Bradley International were on time and the flight was extra smooth. Everyone wore masks, but on both the plane and in the terminal I noticed dissenters who think that wearing a mask but not putting it over your nose counts. It doesn’t. I wish police would arrest these scofflaws. Thankfully, there weren’t too many of them.

While wearing masks on a flight is a new thing, I was glad for it. In addition to reducing the likelihood of acquiring or passing on covid-19, they reduce the likelihood of acquiring all sorts of sicknesses. The lady next to me was suffering from some sort of cold. Wearing her mask might keep me from getting whatever she got. So I’m hoping that one result of this is that when the pandemic is over that the masking requirements in airplanes and terminals remains. It’s a sensible precaution and really no bother at all.

More masking is happening in Florida than I expected. People wore masks in the terminal, and outside of it. Here in our hotel people are mostly masked. This could be because Fort Lauderdale is a relatively blue part of Florida. Or it could be that the Delta variant, which knocked Florida for a loop, knocked some sense into a lot of the people here. Curiously Florida now has one of the lowest covid-19 infection rates in the country. This is likely because Delta tore through the state. One effect of all those deaths and hospitalizations is to make the virus harder to transmit.

But we’re ready. With a fresh booster shot coursing through our veins and masks up the wazoo, we’re ready to cruise. Some masking will be needed on the ship, but it will be minimally invasive. The West Indies awaits.

Stay calm and stop doing stupid stuff

Was my last post too alarming? I actually hope it was. But I’m hardly alone thinking the end is nigh for democracy in our country. Thanks to gerrymandering, the number of competitive House districts is now nearly nonexistent. An institute that monitors the health of democracies listed the United States as a backsliding democracy. It’s hard to ignore such blatant signs, as if virtually the whole Republican Party marching in step with Donald Trump was somehow not enough evidence.

At least I can say that the United States is part of a larger trend wherein people decide to trade in messy self-governance for autocrats. We’re hardly the only country with antivaxxers either, as recent demonstrations in Europe show.

But perhaps our institutions are stronger than they appear to be and we’ll weather this somehow. Perhaps at least the Senate will remain in Democratic Party hands after the 2022 election. Perhaps the combination of the so-called Build Back Better bill and the recently enacted American Recovery Act will tame inflation and improve things for ordinary people sufficient so that voters will reward Democratic candidates next year in numbers sufficient to overwhelm voter suppression efforts. Giving in to despair is a pretty good way to ensure the outcome you don’t like.

Meanwhile, I can at least stop doing the stupid stuff. Emotions are more powerful than reason. It’s something Republicans have figured out decades ago and have hammered home to great success. But sometimes it can be counterproductive, such as if it makes you virulently antivax.

I too am sick of living life behind a mask, but not stupid enough to go around unmasked in potentially dangerous situations. So I’m likely to still be around if the Apocalypse happens. It’s unlikely many of these antivaxxers will be. In the interim I can hope that maybe sufficient numbers of us same people will wrest control of our politics again. It’s lately led me into dark places like suggesting we encourage antivaxxers.

There is good news out there, if you look for it. Antivaxxers are a virulent minority. Most of the rest of us are sensible enough to get vaccinated. A couple of weeks ago I got a booster shot. I got Moderna shots, but for a booster I chose Pfizer. I read that Moderna recipients might get a slightly higher boost from a different messenger RNA type shot.

This vaccination business is a long slog, but it’s helping reduce covid-19’s mortality rate. Bloomberg has been tracking this stuff. Worldwide, 7.73 billion vaccine doses have been administered. 451 million doses have been administered in the United States. 1.45 million doses were administered just last week. Now anyone who had a shot more than six months ago can get a booster. In addition, children as young as five can now get a vaccine. About sixty percent of Americans are fully vaccinated and 10.6 million of us have gotten a booster vaccine dose too. All this is very encouraging and suggests that we’re beating this thing.

All this happened of course during a period of major civil unrest and protest. Americans don’t like to be told what to do, but most of us understand vaccination is both in our self-interest and in the national interest. Most of the hesitant will reluctantly get vaccinated if life becomes too difficult for them otherwise.

By President Biden pushing mandatory vaccinations where possible he is also slowly turning the pandemic into an endemic disease. We’re likely to get at least one more wave this winter, as one is underway in much of Europe. But the disease is becoming less lethal simply because more of us are vaccinated. With my latest booster shot, there is probably a better than even chance that even if exposed to the virus, I won’t develop any symptoms. If I do it’s very unlikely I will require hospitalization and with no other chronic health conditions (unlike Colin Powell), it’s extremely unlikely to kill me.

This was my thinking a couple of months ago when we booked a cruise in the midst of a summer spike. I anticipated a booster, but also likely falling infections by the time we took our cruise which starts in eight days. Cases will likely be on the rise again by then, but by being on a cruise where everyone is vaccinated and tested, and who wear masks in most public spaces on the cruise, and by our likelihood to ward off any infection being pretty high due to the booster, it’s more than reasonably safe, much safer than our last cruise at the start of the pandemic in March 2020.

Most of the time we will use cloth or paper masks, but we’ll also carry an N95 mask for use when we are in crowds in airports and in Florida. I can still sit on the promenade deck unmasked, enjoy the open oceans and read in a deck chair. I can also do this on our balcony. And I can enjoy the company of amiable strangers over meals with little likelihood of infection. It’s not a zero risk vacation, but by remaining with a tested crowd and donning masks when needed, I can enjoy life with people again, at least for the duration of the cruise.

Antivaxxers have repeatedly ignored government recommendations at the cost of many lives. They did this under the illusion they were exercising freedom, when it’s impossible to be free if you are dead. The State of New Hampshire’s motto is Live Free or Die. By ignoring the government and the medical establishing, for antivaxxers it’s increasingly live free and die. For me and most of the rest of us, it’s live with some reasonable constraints on our freedom and you can be reasonably free to enjoy life and not die.

Sensible people realize that medical science is imperfect. Novel viruses like this coronavirus variant take a while to be understood and for sensible mitigation strategies to be figured out. You simply do the best you can with the best information out there, which will come from people who do this as a profession. Follow their guidance as the pandemic evolves. Don’t do the stupid stuff. Listen to your head, not your heart when it comes to something as fundamental as staying alive.

If you are sane like me, it’s a completely reasonable and sane way to get through this and to be around for what comes next.