If you find the smell of restaurants’ truffle dishes foul, it does not mean that you do not like truffles; it could indicate that you have good taste and do not like petroleum on your plate. Unlike that intense gas-like smell, the aroma of real truffles is mild and complex.The truffle industry is a big scam. Not just truffle oil, everything by Matt Babich
Rolling the Dice
It is very hard to know what the right answer is these days when it comes to pandemic safety.
Government data carries lots of caveats, but roughly 1 in 100 reported cases still lead to death1 E.g. LA County reports 1017 new cases and 14 new deaths today, 3,476,928 new cases and 33,889 deaths since the beginning.. The majority of people I know have become ill with COVID-19 at least once, but most recent infections have been relatively mild with few long-term consequences2That said, I know people who have had awful symptoms that go on for months..
So what – if any – precautions are still warranted for a reasonably healthy adult?
Two weeks ago I went on a work trip to Chicago. I wore an N95 mask everywhere I could: in the airport, on the plane, in the taxi, on the crowded trade show floor, and in private meetings with vendors. I even wore an N95 mask to the cocktail hours!3I had to forego the cocktails, obviously. Guess how many other attendees were likewise adorned? By my count, no more than 1 in 500. At a convention for cleaning industry professionals.
It was awkward and uncomfortable to be masked throughout the week, but it was possible. Where it was not possible was at the group dinners. I had something resembling a panic attack when I entered this room, awash in the noise of hundreds of humans packed in like sardines in a can:
For the sake of propriety I endured the dinner and enjoyed good food, good wine, and good conversation. I flew home on a Thursday with plans to fly right back out again on Saturday for vacation in London.
On Friday I got the email that the person sitting next to me at the dinner had tested positive. Despite all my best efforts to stay safe, the dinner and social niceties did me in. So much for that trip to London! Now I get to stay home and quarantine instead.
Except, of course, that’s not true. While the CDC offers tepid and widely ignored recommendations, there are no longer any formal requirements for travel: no need for vaccination, testing, tracing, quarantine, or masking. No more government-sponsored sick time. Far fewer flexible rebooking options by airlines and hotels. Even the free vaccines are going away at the end of the year!4Pfizer plans to start charging $120 per dose in 2023.
So what is a concerned individual to do? What is the right course of action for someone who believes we live in a society and should take care of each other? Luckily, I did not get COVID (this time) and did not have to make that decision. But in the airport, waiting for our flight to London, an older couple sat down near us with coughs and sniffles. Then they pulled out COVID rapid tests and listened loudly to the audio instructions while fumbling with the packaging. In the airport. While waiting to board the flight. Surrounded by other travelers.
I know public health policy is hard. I know public health communication is hard. I know everyone is tired of this, and the politics are fraught. I know Joe Biden says the pandemic is over and we now live with endemic COVID. And I can see that for most people, the new normal is just the old normal. But it is hard to believe that this is the best approach, that we individually and collectively are doing the right thing to properly balance risks and make a just, equitable society.
Anyway, I’ll let you know how things go in London. Maybe the UK has a better approach.
The ‘End’ of COVID Is Still Far Worse Than We Imagined
A brief, no-nonsense rundown of the various stages of the pandemic leading to the “new normal” of today. My biggest takeaway from the article is the reinforcement of the idea that neither total eradication nor herd immunity were ever achievable, no matter how many lockdowns and other public health interventions we tried.
Everyone has a story, this is ours
It is October 17th, 2019. We are in a drab procedure room at the Kaiser hospital complex in Hollywood. I am holding the hand of my wife – my brave, strong, amazing partner – as her procedure is about to begin.
It is June 1st, our wedding day. The celebration is joyous, we are surrounding by friends and family, we are so happy and our future is bursting with possibility.
It is June 14th. We are on our honeymoon, and we just checked in to an amazing cliffside hotel on the island of Santorini, Greece. We are sitting by the pool and sipping cocktails while gazing out at an endless expanse of blue ocean. We take the steep stairs down to our hotel room, tipsy and holding hands.
It is August 28th. We are sitting anxiously in an exam room, waiting for the doctor to perform our first ultrasound. She shows us the little clump of cells that will grow into our precious baby boy. Everything looks good, she says.
It is early October. We put a silly little sticker on her belly that says “11 weeks” and take pictures. We excitedly plan for our future. We can’t wait to tell our family and friends.
I don’t remember what day it is. I just remember the profound silence when the doctor turns on the audio loop and there is no heartbeat.
It is October 17th, 2019. We are in a drab procedure room at the Kaiser hospital complex in Hollywood, waiting for our abortion procedure to begin. We are so desperately sad. Our baby was so very wanted. My wife looks at the doctor anxiously and asks, innocently, what would have happened if this was 50 years ago, before Roe vs. Wade?
The doctor answers, without hesitation, you would have died.
What my garden taught me about infertility
[T]here is a sensation universal to all humans. It is that feeling you get when you’re standing outside somewhere and look up to see trees blowing in the wind, or stumble across a stream running over rocks. As you listen to that gentle creaking, or that low-tone burbling, what you feel at that moment is the deep satisfaction that comes from witnessing Being, in all its irreducible and incomputable eddies and swirls. Your eyes are satiated. There’s probably a German word for it, and if not, there should be. But whatever that feeling is, modern films are as distant as can be from it. For after partaking in the empty calories of modern cinema, your eyes are still hungry.Eric Hoel, CGI Did In Fact Ruin Movies
The Case Against Crypto
When we moved into Hacienda de la Tortuga I went a bit overboard designing a home network using the Unifi platform. I spent many hot, dirty days running ethernet cable through the basement crawl space and attic. The end result included, amongst other things, five wireless access points and six security cameras.
Our wireless coverage is pretty great, although that does not do anything to alleviate the frequent Spectrum outages. The cameras are a different story. Their motion detection is pretty awful, constantly being triggered by branches and wind, regardless of how I tweaked the sensitivity settings. Twice the system crashed and lost all of my footage. The second time was while we were in Hawaii and our sewer was backing up, which would have been an excellent time to check on the house and see what the plumber was doing.
After that I ripped out the Unifi cameras and switched to a system called Reolink. This involved running additional wires, more crawling under the house, and installing a bunch of mounting boxes. The cameras turned out to be huge, so now it looks like we are living in a secure government facility, or a prison yard. The picture quality is great and the recording is reliable, but the fancy “person and vehicle detection” does not work at all.
Today I went down to Home Depot and picked up one of those video doorbells. It was cheap, easy to install, and has cloud-based object detection that can pick out people, cars, animals, and packages pretty reliably. When someone comes to the door it lights up and sends me a push notification. I can choose 20 different chimes. For a couple bucks a month all of the storage is taken care of.
I guess there is something to be said for consumer-level technology. Reolink and Unifi both offer local storage and lots of configuration options, whereas the consumer products are simpler and require cloud subscriptions. You obviously need to choose a company that has a good security and privacy track record, and that can sometimes be hard to know. But in exchange the technology is inexpensive, feature-packed, and simple.
If I had it all to do over again I would not have run all that cable or installed all that fancy, expensive equipment. I was never concerned about playing CSI, I just wanted to see what animal was eating my vegetables and when a package was at the front door. I’m seriously considering ripping it all out and just sticking with the video doorbell and maybe a few additional cheap cameras.
But then there will be so many holes to patch. 🙁
“Humans have a fundamental need to create and maintain a narrative for their lives in which the universe is not implacable and heartless, that terrible things do not happen at random, and that catastrophe can be avoided if you are vigilant and responsible. We are vulnerable, but we don’t want to be reminded of that. We want to believe that the world is understandable and controllable and unthreatening, that if we follow the rules, we’ll be okay.”Ed Hickling in The Washington Post
Flowers in the dark – notes from the infusion center
A poignant meditation on living with chronic illness.
The FDA vs. cost-benefit analysis
“In the long run, I think the way technocratic institutions safeguard their independence and build their legitimacy is by doing a good job. You want people to think ‘these guys seem like they know what they are doing.'”
Instagram Has Become SkyMall
“Maybe this is a glimpse of the inevitable heat-death of ecommerce: Bots trying to convince other bots to buy stuff no humans would ever click on.”
The Unintended Racial Horror of ‘Lovecraft Country’
I loved Lovecraft Country the book, and enjoyed certain aspects of the television adaptation (notably the brilliant pilot episode), but I’m not surprised the second season has been cancelled given the unevenness and problems of the first season. This article from last October does a great job of explaining where the show went wrong, including its over-reliance on historical “name-dropping” in place of actual character and plot development.
Woodworking for squirrels
About a year ago I created a tiny picnic bench as a gift to my mother-in-law. The quick project was wildly successful, as demonstrated by this photo of it in action in her backyard!
But squirrel bench v1 had some design issues. The glue and brads holding it together were no match for the heftier squirrels, and it started coming apart. While my father-in-law fixed it with some strategically placed screws, I worry about the long-term durability due to the thin wood pieces.
I have a lot of wood scraps and cutoffs from a bigger (unfinished) project, so I decided the time was right to make a second attempt. Plus it was a great excuse to finally buy a drill press.
Squirrel Bench v2 has some serious upgrades. This time I ripped redwood to standard length on my table saw and rounded the edges at the router table to make the pieces look more like dimensioned lumber. The new design is heftier and uses screws rather than brads. The bench is a bit bigger and more uniform, so it should be easier to mount to a tree or post, and should stand up better to fat squirrels.
And I made five of them. That’s how much wood I had, so why not?
The whole project took about six hours of my time, plus wood, screws, and my fully equipped shop. A roughly equivalent made-in-China version on Amazon goes for about $20, so it is a good thing woodworking is my hobby and not my livelihood!
I think they would make good Christmas gifts, but it is only June! Fourth of July gifts, maybe. Anyway, I’m very satisfied with the result and can’t wait to see pictures of them in use!
The 20% Doctrine
For years I believed that tipping service staff was a “reward” for good service, good food, or a good experience. In 2003 I was shocked to discover that the federal tipped minimum wage was $2.13 an hour. After that I started being more careful to always include some sort of tip, even if service was terrible. But the fundamental idea that “tipping” is an add-on remained with me.
Nearly 20 years later, the federal tipped minimum wage has not budged from that absurd number. But the COVID-19 pandemic has made it more clear than ever how essential and how under-compensated service workers are.
My first job out of college was in IT support, and I made $17 per hour. On days when I solved a complex technical problem for a VIP and saved the day, I made $17 per hour. On days when I made mistakes or messed things up, I made $17 per hour. On days when I was feeling cheery and friendly, I made $17 per hour. And on days when I was feeling crabby or distracted, I still made $17 an hour.
Over time I learned, grew, got better at my job, got promoted, and got pay raises. When I did well I was praised, and when I did poorly I was given a stern talking to. But never once did it cross my mind that having a bad day would result in me getting paid less, or not at all.
For service industry staff, that is the reality every day, and it is absurd. Leave aside whether the waiter or bartender or Uber driver does a good job. There are a hundred things out of their control, like the kitchen being backed up, bad traffic, or someone else making a mistake. And yet we compensate people in these positions based on the idea that they have control over everything that happens.
Workers should be paid fairly for work performed. The idea that the customer should have any control over that just does not make sense to me anymore. If you are dissatisfied with a service experience, you can talk to the manager. If you are sufficiently upset, you can stop patronizing the establishment, or leave a bad review. But I no longer believe it is morally justifiable to deprive anyone involved with the transaction of their livelihood.
So here is my new philosophy on tipping: I don’t. I do not believing in tipping as a concept any longer. I believe we should pay for service, and if service is not included in the price of goods, it should be included as a service fee. And if the service fee is not a line item on the bill, it is my responsibility to provide it anyway.
What is a fair and reasonable service fee? I think the market has spoken, and made it clear that it is 20%. So I have started adding my own 20% service fee anywhere I see a tip line. It has felt weird at times, and it certainly makes things more expensive than I am used to, but I think it is the right thing to do.
When I order at a table I leave 20%, regardless of the level of service I receive. When I order from a counter, or visit a buffet, I leave 20%. Coffee shop? 20%. Order ahead and pick up? 20%. DoorDash? 20%. Taxi ride? 20%. Once you start seeing the 20% service fee as a standard cost, everything becomes simpler and less stressful.
Surely there are exceptions? Not really. When I go somewhere that adds on a service fee of any amount, I do deduct that from the 20% and leave the remainder. So if a restaurant has a poorly explained and unadvertised 3% service fee for employee benefits, I get briefly pissed off about the subversion, but then leave 17% as a “tip” to make the service fee what it should actually be. And when a delivery service includes a service fee that I know goes to the driver, I will deduct that. But in general I just default to a straight 20% and call it a day.
What about exceptional service, stirring conversation, free appetizers? Shouldn’t I, the customer, have the right to reward a server for their sparkling personality or pretty smile? In a word, no. I still leave the necessary and correct 20% service fee, same as always. But if I am feeling generous or grateful, I will add on a bit extra, and let myself feel like the patron of a quaint European cafe where service cost is included but Madame or Monsieur sometimes leave a few extra euros on the table to show their gratitude for the excellent espresso.
How do you tip these days? Have you reconsidered at all, in light of the pandemic and everything that has been happening? I have found since adopting the 20% service fee approach that I feel better, lighter, less stressed about tipping. Give it a try and see what you think!
The battle for 1042 Cutler Street
Landlords and tenants suffer in a broken economy.
I Like That The Boat is Stuck
Inside a Covid ICU, Through a Nurse’s Eyes
In this pandemic time of isolation and loneliness comes a story of being alone while surrounded by people. Nomadland is a beautiful and poetic exploration of the wanders, the displaced – modern day hobos.
America is often described as the “richest country on Earth,” but a more accurate twist is that we are the country with the richest people. The Great Recession starkly demonstrated the radical wealth gap and the gaping holes in our frayed social safety net, as many older Americans became jobless and houseless. Nomadland explores the community of thousands of road wanderers in their assorted vans, campers, and RVs who crisscross the country in search of work, opportunities, and connection.
There is beauty to be found everywhere in this vast, amazing country and its varied people. But there is also sadness, and grief, and emptiness. With no fixed addresses, the nomads live on the edge every day – a flat tire or an unexpected health issue can spell disaster.
But there is more here than meets the eye. Are these displaced Americans on the road because they are broke, or because they are more deeply broken? And what does that say about our society, and the things we believe in?
I’m reminded of an article I read near the beginning of the last presidency, “I Don’t Know How To Explain To You That You Should Care About Other People“. We can quibble on the details, the policies, and the prescriptions, but I don’t see how anyone with a soul can watch this film – populated by real wanderers portraying fictionalized versions of themselves – and not care.