Influenza A (H1-2009)

With the Thanksgiving holiday just past here in the United States, 2022 is starting to come to a close. It has been quite year for me, including losing a parent, starting a new job and buying a new farm. With the new job I’ve started to travel more, and for the first time in years I’ve gotten very sick from a business trip. It’s not something I’ve missed.

TL;DR; Getting the flu as an older adult sucks. During flu season mask up and take as many precautions as you can to prevent exposure.

Up until about August of 2019, I was doing about 85,000 “in seat” airline miles a year. I was away from home about 50% of the time. In July of 2019 I was in a bad car accident, and just as I was recovering the COVID pandemic hit, and for nearly three years I did almost zero travel.

The upside was I didn’t get sick. Between masks, isolation and lots of hand washing I just wasn’t exposed to anything that could make me sick, to the point that I’d forgotten how debilitating it can be.

Times are changing. People are traveling more and it seems like we as a society have just made the decision to forgo some of the habits we picked up during the pandemic. When I started traveling again in June of this year, people were still wearing masks indoors and on planes, and most events had a mask requirement as well. That is no more. Two weeks ago I got the opportunity to go to Helsinki, Finland, and I saw very few people out in public in masks either in the USA as I traveled there or in Finland itself. I found myself less inclined to wear one as well, but I usually kept it on when being inside for any length of time.

I’d been to Helsinki twice before, and as it is a really cool town I was looking forward to returning. It is also seven hours ahead of New York, my home time zone, and that can make things a bit awkward. I found a relatively inexpensive flight on Finnair direct to Helsinki from JFK which arrived mid-afternoon on Wednesday.

So far so good.

People often think of Finland in winter as being cold, and it is, but for once it was actually colder at my home in North Carolina. Usually when I travel I try to stay at Marriott properties. I really enjoyed the hotel I used last time, but all three Marriott affiliated locations were booked. It turns out that a famous European start-up conference called Slush was going on at the same time as my meeting. The Raddisson I booked was okay, but it wasn’t in a very vibrant section of town. I just grabbed some snacks at a local convenience store, tried to stay up as late as possible and then went to bed.

My meeting was an all-day conference on Thursday, and as it was being streamed they set it to start at 3pm (15:00) local time which mapped to 8am New York time. That meant it was also going to run until 10pm or so followed by a meal. Our host, Monty, had arranged for this to happen at his house, and I didn’t make it back to my hotel room until early Friday morning (I’ll post more on the conference later).

Now, usually when I travel from Europe back to the US I leave a little before noon and I get home mid-afternoon. There were a couple of flight options like this but they all pretty much doubled the cost of the ticket. Not sure why. So even though I was eager to get home for the start of the Thanksgiving week, I took the evening flight out at 5pm which gave me a little more time to spend with the folks on Friday who were still at Monty’s. The downside was that I wouldn’t land at RDU until midnight and it would take even more time to make it home.

I slept until about 8am, showered, packed and ate breakfast, aiming to arrive at the house around 10:30. I don’t remember feeling bad, although I had developed a slight cough. My body had no idea what time it was, however. I spent some more time with my gracious hosts, got to the airport and boarded the plan without issues.

The plane had a coach seating arrangement of 2-4-2 and I was lucky enough to get on a row with not only extra legroom but also I was the only person in the “4” section. Score. After the meal I pulled up all the armrests, gathered the extra blankets and pillows into a little “nest” and tried to get some sleep.

This is when I started to feel bad. Have you ever had one of those days where you were just dragging and you managed to grab about 30 minutes of a “cat nap” and then you felt great? Have you ever had the opposite happen, where the nap makes things worse?

This made things worse.

When I finally gave up on sleeping I woke up with a splitting headache and we were still a couple of hours from JFK. (sigh)

I’m happy that for the most part the rest of my trip went as smooth as possible. By this time I had added feeling nauseated to having a bad headache and I was pretty sure I was running a fever. I tried to sleep on the flight to RDU and managed to get home just before 2am.

Andrea and I came up with a routine when it comes to travel, and I always isolate for a night or two when I get back from a trip (longer for those trips involving conferences or lots of people). I crawled into the guest bed thinking that all I needed was a good night’s sleep and I’d be better.

I didn’t get that sleep. I tossed and turned and dozed a bit but then a third major symptom arrived: shortness of breath. To feel my best I had to actively monitor my breathing and pretty much force the air in and out.

At this point in time I decided to activate my medical deductible.

While we live in a somewhat rural section on North Carolina, we have easy access to the UNC Health Care System, a selection of hospitals, doctors offices and clinics. There is a UNC Urgent Care facility about ten miles from my house, so about 8:30 I on Saturday I got dressed and asked Andrea to take me there.

When I got to reception there was a sign about not being able to take patients until about 10am for some reason, but the magic words of “I … can’t … breathe” had the desired affect and I was seen pretty quickly. They noticed that my pulse-ox was a little low (97%) but if I was talking or walking that would drop as low as 92%. There first thought was that I might have had a pulmonary embolism during flight, and they took a couple of chest x-rays and an EKG in order to grab more data. They also did a nasal swab to check for COVID, the Flu and RSV. The care provider wanted me to get some blood work done but if they did it at the clinic it would take hours for the results, so she asked me to drive about 20 minutes away to the hospital in Siler City where the results would come in faster. Then I was to go home and wait for further instructions.

That went smoothly and I was back home just about to get back into bed they called to tell me to go to the UNC Emergency Department. The pulmonary embolism was still a possibility and they wanted to schedule a chest CT scan.

So we got back in the car.

A downside of UNC Hospital is that it is colocated on the UNC campus and last Saturday was also the day of a huge rivalry football game. That made parking an issue but since Andrea just dropped me off at the Emergency Room entrance it worked out okay. Pretty soon I was in a room of my own being fitted with a heart monitor, pulse-ox, oxygen and an IV. Between the travel, headache, nausea and getting tested I had not consumed many fluids. The nurse hung a liter of lactated ringers and I was very grateful, grateful enough to actually doze off for a bit.

Me getting settled in the UNC ED

That peacefulness ended when I woke up to see the bag was nearly empty and realizing that my bladder was nearly full. While I would have been happy with a curtain and a jar, they took the time to unplug me and escort me down the hall to the toilet.

When I got back I got the diagnosis that I had a confirmed case of Influenza A. This was actually good news as it lessened the chance of a pulmonary embolism, but they still wanted to do the CT scan.

While I waited for my turn I did try to look at my phone to keep up with what was going on, but my head hurt to much that looking at screens was painful. I did see that there had been a mass killing in Idaho, which made me want to stop looking anyway.

The scan itself was a non-event. I’ve had several in the past and they don’t bother me, although this one was “with contrast” and that it always a little weird. Just before they take the pictures they push in what is basically a dye to increase the contrast shown in the scan. But whenever I get it I get momentarily flush and it almost feels like I’ve been incontinent. The moment passes quickly but I’m glad they told me to be aware of it.

After the scan came back normal they decided to send me home. If I have any complaint about my care it would be that once it was determined that I had the flu I wasn’t given much direction. I asked for Tamiflu (although I should have asked for Xofluza) but outside of that they didn’t give me much advice for treating symptoms.

At this point in time I just wanted to get home and get into bed. This happened about 6:30 on Saturday night.

The next few days were pretty much a blur. My fever would bounce between 100F and 102F, and I would either be sweating through my clothes or shivering so hard I thought I was having a spasm. The weird part was trying to understand how my brain was trying to process this whole experience.

I like to sleep, but it often takes me a long time to fall asleep. My brain usually uses that first hour or so to unpack the events from the day and then it signals the time for “sleep”.

But by this point in time my “day” had been so screwed up that my brain really didn’t know what was going on. I remember for I time I was convinced that while I was in Helsinki my hosts had inserted some sort of probe into the base of my neck and that they were controlling what I was seeing. I was actually still in Helsinki and if I could just concentrate hard enough I could break through their technology. What’s funny is that it actually worked. There were times where I would see the vague outline of my darkened guest room break apart to reveal the light wood of Monty’s house in Finland. This was pure hallucination of course but it just made me want to try harder. The backstory my fever-ridden brain created was quite detailed.

In calmer times I was just plagued by earworms. I have a couple of albums I listen to when I travel as they provide enough background to block out the crying infant but not enough to keep me from napping. Those songs were in pretty heavy rotation in my head (in fact if I pause there is one of them roaming around back there now).

I remember there was a four-hour stretch of time where I could hear nothing but the song “Henry Kissinger” by Monty Python. I hadn’t thought of that song in years yet here it was, flowing gracefully, and non-stop, through my noggin’ for nearly four hours.

Death could not come swiftly enough.

Early into the week I started having a number of false breakthroughs. Just when I thought my fever had broken it would return, but at least it wasn’t to the levels I experienced over the weekend.

While I still slept most of the day, I was able to look at a screen for a bit (apparently the mass shooting I thought was in Idaho was in Colorado) and I would drink as much fluid as I could manage. My throat was raw from coughing, my lips were severely chapped and I I’d lost most of my senses of taste and smell.

Wednesday was the first day I could honestly say I was better than the day before. I got up around 5am for my usual fluid intake, and when I woke up at 7:30 or so I found out that I had sweated through my T-shirt, but my fever seemed to have faded. I made the decision not to join my family for Thanksgiving dinner on Thursday and instead used the time get some real rest, and on Friday I started trying to return to normal. I managed to get through a lot of e-mails and the news backlog (apparently that mass shooting I though was in Colorado was in Virginia).

I also made the difficult decision to skip this year’s Amazon Web Services re:Invent conference. I was one of the the lucky few from our department to get a ticket, but I’ve heard it can be physically challenging in the best of times and I was certain I wouldn’t be ready.

I’m writing this up on Saturday morning. If I had not contracted the flu I would be on my way to Las Vegas, and even though I am feeling much better the thought of flying brings back the nausea at the moment.

There are a number of things that depressed me about this illness, and one of them is that this is the first time “the flu” has taken so much from me. As I sometimes view bad cases of the flu as an old person’s disease I think this means I have to consider that I have become old.

Flu Test Results

The strain I contracted is the one from the 2009 “Swine Flu” epidemic, which was pretty nasty, although at times I felt like it was the one from 1918.

In any case I know that there is a strong desire if not outright need to move on from pandemic restrictions, but if you are one of the three people who read my blog you are special and I want you to take care of yourself. I don’t want you to have to expend a lot of mental energy trying to break through a spinal implant given without your knowledge.

Mary Balog (1942-2022)

My mother passed away after a short illness. This is what I said at her memorial service.

Mary Balog

Aujourd’hui, maman est morte.

That sentence is usually translated as “Mother died today”. It is the first line in the story “The Stranger” by the French author Albert Camus.

I hate to admit it, but I’ve never read “The Stranger”. Perhaps I was out the day it was taught. And I most definitely didn’t bring it up to show off my French skills, because I had to spend several minutes with my friend Bob to work on the pronunciation, and am still not sure I got it right.

The real reason I mention it is that I recently read an article about that sentence the The New Yorker in an article entitled “Lost in Translation”. The point of the article was that the French word for “mother” is actually “mère” and “maman” is something between “mommy” and “mom”. It goes on to examine how that might affect the reader’s feelings for the main character in the story when read in translation.

But that’s not important. What’s important is that my mother was most definitely a “mom”.

Looking out at the people here today I’m sure many of you understand what I mean.

Why does it matter? “Mother” to me seems very formal, whereas my relationship with Mom was closer to friendship, but even more so. Not only did she do all the “mom stuff” like care and nurture me, she was also interested in my life as a whole and loved to share things with me.

My sister and I have been blessed with two amazing parents. My father, well Dad, is kinda of like my left brain. He taught me how to reason and to love discovery and science and math and all that stuff.

My Mom was my right brain. She taught me how to be creative, and how to feel and get the most out of life. From her I get my love of cooking. Mom loved to cook . Even in the past year, when her health wasn’t the best, she would still try out new recipes.

But in fact I think that the act of cooking was secondary to the pleasure she took in feeding others. I can remember that during the “high holidays”, Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas, our house would often be filled with people outside the family, friends and neighbors, who she loved to have over. She never met a stranger.

Together my parents formed a whole that was stronger than its parts.

When I was working on my four year college degree, which actually took me seven years and spanned three schools, I spent one summer working alongside Mom at Mid-State Plastics in Seagrove. We’d commute together, have lunch together if our breaks coincided, and often go to the store afterward.

When I lived in California I developed a taste for Granny Smith Apples, those firm, green apples with the slightly sour flavor. We were at the store and I picked up a few of them to eat. Mom was like “Put those back. Thems pie apples”. No, I said, they are really good. You can just eat them. She repeated that, no, those were for pies, and me, being stubborn, said that I was going to eat them.

This went back and forth for a little while and she looked me right in the eye and loud enough for most of the store to hear said “You’re not too big for me to spank your ass”.

A celebrity once said “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve immortality through not dying.” While that is a noble goal, it seems very hard to achieve, and I think the closest we can come to it is by living on in the hearts and minds of people’s lives we’ve touched. We are still alive as long as people remember us (and if you don’t believe me you can check out a documentary on the subject by Pixar called “Coco”).

Mom touched a lot of people, and I ask you to honor her by continuing to be kind to one another and the people you encounter. Thank you for coming to this celebration of her life.

Review: Jackpot: How the Super-Rich Really Live

I like classic cars. To me they are rolling pieces of art, and the pinnacle of car shows is probably the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance. Several months ago an article featuring that show popped up in my timeline. It was by Michael Mechanic and it led me to his book Jackpot: How the Super-Rich Really Live – and How Their Wealth Harms Us All. It’s an entertaining and well-researched look into the lives of the very wealthy, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in such things.

TLDR; This is a very long post containing lots of personal stories. Feel free to skip and just buy the book.

Jackpot Book Cover

I grew up in a small town in North Carolina called Asheboro. I don’t really remember being exposed to very wealthy people back then. Of course we had our rich people, mainly business owners or doctors, and they lived up on Dave’s Mountain, or what we just called “The Mountain”. The poor people, mainly Black, lived in a section of town called “The Hill”. But in my solidly middle class neighborhood I don’t remember wealth really being a thing.

When I graduated high school I moved to Los Angeles to attend college. That was my first real contact with wealthy people. One of my friends was in a family that was considered one of the top ten wealthiest in the country, worth billions of dollars back in the early 1980s when a billion dollars meant something. My friend was very down to earth (he drove a ‘vette, a Chevette) and in the brief experience I had in his world I didn’t see much in the way of conspicuous consumption, it was more just the scale of things.

While I would get introduced to his friends wearing watches worth more than my yearly tuition, his house, while large, wasn’t extravagant, and the main difference between his bedroom and mine was the size (his was larger and had its own bathroom). He taught me a lot about how money worked in Beverly Hills, and the stratification even among the wealthy (the wealthiest families lived north of Sunset, and it went down as you moved south of Sunset, north of Whilshire and then finally south of Whilshire).

Me in Beverly Hills circa 1986

The school I was attending, Harvey Mudd College, was home to a lot of smart people, and several of my friends, upon graduation, moved to Seattle to work with this little start up known as Microsoft. Many of them are retired now, as they’d hit the jackpot. During the next few years Microsoft stock would split 8 times. So if you joined with, say, options on 1000 shares for one dollar, you now had 256,000 shares at 1/256th of a dollar per share.

The end of the 20th century was a lot like the end of the 19th century. In the latter businesses such as railroads and oil minted a large number of nouveau riche, and at the end of the former computers and the Internet did the same.

I was not one of them. However, even though I’m not in the 1%, or even the 2%, I have a number of friends who are and so I like to say I’m “1% adjacent”. I get to see some of the benefits and problems their wealth brings.

The title Jackpot refers to this, sometimes sudden, increase in wealth. The book starts off with an Introduction where we meet Nick Hanauer. In the early 1990s he put up $45,000 for a 1% stake in Amazon. As you can imagine, it is worth considerably more now. While Hanauer states he is “not a billionaire” he is worth hundreds of millions of dollars and unlike others who “spend the rest of their days trying to make their big pile of money even bigger” he wants to use his money for something more meaningful.

In addition to profiling the lives of the wealthy, the book aims to look at the social impact of wealth disparity. Most of the very rich are, indeed, focused on making themselves richer versus the improving society as a whole, and Jackpot examines the reasons why.

When large amounts of wealth is held in the hands of the few, it can lower the standard of living for the rest of the population.

As an example, when I was in primary school we learned about the difference between “mean” and “median“. If you have an array of values, the “mean” is the average of those values (add them up and divide by the number of entries). The “median” is the middle number of those values if they are arranged in order. For many distributions the mean and median are the same.

Suppose I have this series:

1, 2, 3, 4, 5

In this case the mean is “3” (15/5) and the median is also “3”.

But what if I change the last number:

1, 2, 3, 4, 10

Then the mean goes to “4” (20/5) while the median stays at “3”. The median is important in that it represents the value at which half of the samples are less and half are more. In many cases it is more representative of the “common” value than an average.

How does this relate to the super-rich? Well according to the Survey of Consumer Finances (SCF) by the Federal Reserve the median household net worth in the US was $121,411 in 2019. But due to the ultra-wealthy the average household net worth was $746,821, over six times greater. Looking at my simple example above you can imagine how skewed those top numbers have to be in order to cause such a difference.

One thing I love about Jackpot are the copious notes. I have pestered the author numerous times over the last few months to run down his sources that weren’t apparent from the appendices, and I like the fact that his book is well researched (and that Mr. Mechanic has been very tolerant of my pestering).

I can remember the Occupy Wall Street movement back in 2011 which was the first time I’d ever heard the term “The 1%”, referring to those people who are in the top 1% in net worth in the US. To many it means the very wealthy, but as we learn in the Introduction the bottom threshold for being in the 1% is $5.6 million (in 2019).

Being “1% adjacent” I can say that those who are just over that threshold aren’t the super rich. As Mechanic puts it “they are just 5 percenters with a nice house and a bigger security blanket”. My 1% friends don’t worry much about where their next meal is coming from or where they are going to live, but they aren’t out buying yachts. When we talk, the number one financial issue tends to be preparing for retirement. In North Carolina the average cost per person for assisted living is $45K/year, and by the time we reach the age where we might need it, it will be closer to $100K/year for a nice facility. Assume you might need it for 20 years and then you are looking at $2 million total, perhaps twice that for a couple. It takes a huge bite out of that $5.6 million.

When people think of “The 1%” I believe they are really referencing “The 0.1%”, which is a net worth of around $29.4 million. That’s when managing your money becomes a task in an of itself. It is above the level where you can avoid inheritance tax, and while you may have money worries retirement won’t be one of them.

The next tier is “The 0.01%” which has an ante of $157 million in net worth, where your wealth can take on a life of its own, and “The 0.001%” or the billionaires, even though admission to that club comes in at a paltry $800 million.

After the Introduction, the book jumps in to the idea of hitting the jackpot, which can take many forms. Most of the people I’ve know who have hit the jackpot have been in tech, or they’ve owned businesses that are related to tech, but you can hit the jackpot by winning the lottery or getting an unexpected inheritance. They all come with their own set of problems, but the common theme is going from “normal” money to crazy money. Apparently you end up with a lot of new friends when that happens, as well as relatives you never knew you had.

I have to admit that I play the lottery, but I have a particular rule. I can only spend $1 for every $100 million in jackpot prize money. Since the minimum ticket price for Powerball or Mega Millions is $2, I don’t play unless the jackpot is at least $200 million.

That limits how often I play but also gives me a certain level of entertainment. The odds of choosing the winning numbers in Powerball, for example, are over 292 million to one (close to picking a particular American adult out of the total population). The minimum jackpot is $20 million but to be honest even though $20 million would be life changing, it isn’t as life changing as $200 million (sort of like the difference between the 1% and the 0.01%). Part of my lottery fantasy involves calling my lawyer, who would assist in helping us remain anonymous. Another part involves hiring an Air Force friend of mine to pilot my private jet (grin).

Which leads us to the next section of the book, which is what to do with all this money. Of course the ultra-rich are known for owning multiple houses, exotic cars and boats, but what is funny is that extravagant spending on items is not common among my wealthy friends. They tend to be much more frugal, and when they spend money they spend it on experiences.

A couple of things to unpack here. When it comes to cars, as much as I love nice cars the most we’ve ever spent was $52K on a new Lexus, back in 2010. I really like getting a deal, and there are some amazing deals to be had in the secondary car market. I’m addicted to a website called Bring a Trailer, which is where I bought my 2003 Mercedes SL55. It was $129K new (or $183K in 2021 dollars) and I got it for just over $30K. Now $30K isn’t chump change but considering a new Camry will cost more it is a bargain. On Bring a Trailer I’ve seen pristine Bentley’s go for $50K as well as nice Aston Martins. Of course someone just bought an Integra for $112K so not everything is at the bottom of the depreciation curve, and now people who were kids in the 1990s have the wealth to buy the cars they wanted when they were young.

Even where I live in rural North Carolina it isn’t rare to see a high end BMW, or a Tesla Model S on the road, both $100K+ cars, but there would be a social stigma associated with driving, say, a Ferrari around town. A new Corvette or a high end pickup, sure, but conspicuous consumption is frowned upon.

I’m reminded of an apocryphal story about Rolls-Royce. In the late 1970s the company was not doing well, surviving mainly on its airplane engine business. In the car business they were seeing increased competition from competitors like Mercedes and BMW. The new Rolls-Royce CEO’s course of action was to triple their prices. Demand shot through the roof. While certain rich people could afford a $80K car, only the most wealthy could buy a $240K car. In microeconomics when demand goes up with price it is called a Giffen Good and these always reflect value external to the good itself, such as being able to broadcast one’s wealth by what car you drive.

It’s not all happiness, though. One friend of mine bought a McLaren. He loved the beauty of its engineering but the darn thing often wouldn’t start. He seemed really happy when he sold it.

The second thing to unpack is that another way to spend money is not on things but on experiences. Seen all those multi-millionaires going into to space?

Even my frugal rich friends are prone to spend more money on a prime experiences than on a nice thing. This reminds me of another great book called Happy Money that did research showing that the happiness that people get from buying things tends to fade a lot more quickly than the happiness they get from an experience, especially if that experience involves some form of anticipation.

Being 1% adjacent I’ve been able to experience some things the wealthy take for granted. I like fine dining, and years ago I was able to eat at my first and only Michelin three-star restaurant, the Alinea in Chicago. At around $600 per person, including wine paring, it isn’t cheap, but I thought the experience was worth every penny. Note that for me this is a once in a decade thing.

The other thing the very wealthy do is take elaborate vacations. Again, I don’t have the means to copy them but I did travel a lot for work, and using points and miles earned from that travel we have been able to experience how the other half lives. We’ve stayed in high end hotels in numerous countries and we get there flying either business or first class, but that involved a lot of planning and the judicious use of said points and miles.

For example, we had the desire to visit New Zealand. Using my American Airlines miles we got business class airfare but part of the trip was on Air Pacific (now Fiji Airways) and it took us through Nadi, Fiji. We decided to spend a few days there on a layover, and I found an amazing resort called Navini Island. It looks like the all-inclusive resort now runs a little over US$500/night but when we went it was less than $400/night per couple.

Meanwhile, there is another resort in Fiji called Turtle Island. While Navini is very small, about 6 acres, Turtle Island is 500 acres and was the site of the 1980 film The Blue Lagoon. Although I can’t find a current cost online I remember it running around five times that of Navini, more like US$2500/night per couple.

The reason I bring this up is that I first heard of Turtle Island from a 2008 blog post [link currently broken] by Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert. He went there and had an amazing time, but I couldn’t understand what would make it five times better, so I sent him an e-mail asking his thoughts. He wrote back “I wasn’t in charge of Fiji island picking but it was worth the money.”

My guess is that at his wealth level the difference didn’t matter as much as it would to someone like me.

However, one of the nice things about being 1% adjacent is that sometimes it doesn’t cost me anything to take a vacation. Several years ago we went to Chicago. When I mentioned to a friend of mine who lived there that we were coming, he was like, hey, I’ll be out of town that weekend, why don’t you stay in my luxury high-rise apartment? So for the cost of an hour or so cleaning up after our visit and a nice bottle of tequila as a thank you gift, we got to stay in an amazing place costing thousands of dollars per month.

In another instance I was going to London on a business trip. I had another friend who had a Council Flat outside of Borough Market, but when I was going to be in town her and her husband were staying at their place in Paris. They offered to let me stay in their flat for the cost of a cleaning fee, about £50. Much less than the cost of a hotel and it was a nicer experience being in a neighborhood in London than in a city hotel.

This is another thing that is brought up in Jackpot. Rich people tend to have rich people friends, and so they often don’t have to spend much to take a vacation. Bill might want to visit the Maldives so he just stays at Jeff’s place, and when Jeff wants to take a vacation he might crash at Bill’s place in the Caymans.

One place where the rich are different from others is in their houses. If you want to buy a $400K car you can’t just park it on your suburban street, and expensive houses tend to clustered with other expensive houses. One thing these high-end neighborhoods pride themselves on is privacy, but another way to look at it is isolation.

In the firmly middle class neighborhood where I grew up, everyone knew everyone else. If I happened to be at Alan Bass’s house at lunch time, his mother would feed me. The same as if he were at mine, my mom would feed him. I can remember riding my bike down our hill at speed and I wrecked trying to take a corner (I think I was around five). I crashed in Archie Farley’s yard, who taught physics at the local high school, and he came out, calmed me down and took me home. I’m not sure this would happen in a rich neighborhood, or if such play would even be allowed.

Mechanic talks about the effect this has on the rich, and how things like houses turn into a competition with one’s neighbors. As Sam Polk states in the book “Most of the search for wealth is not about how good the stuff is. It’s about what the stuff says about how valuable a person you are.”

Now once you have the house and car, what else could you want? How about attention. Of course all this money isn’t worth anything if you aren’t around to enjoy it, so you need to stay healthy. The rich have access to all sorts of concierge level medical care that the rest of us couldn’t afford.

I have some friends who used to get yearly checkups at the Mayo Clinic. These were two-day “head to toe” affairs where all aspects of their health were evaluated. One thing they really liked about the service was that each different physician they saw shared information, so there were few forms to fill out and little repetition. If you are rich your time is important.

When I was in college hanging with my friend with the ‘vette, he told me that in addition to the green, gold and platinum AMEX cards that there was a special “black” card for the ultra-wealthy. At the time it was an urban legend, but in 1999 they decided to make it a reality with The Centurion Card. This invite-only card apparently gets you access to amazing concierge services. No one knows what it takes to get an invite, but I had a friend who spent $35K/month for years on his AMEX card and didn’t get one.

The second part of the book focuses on various aspects of being super-wealthy. In many cases it is driven by the desire to keep up with your peers.

At some point, your wealth requires both people to manage it and to isolate you from people who would seek you out in the hope of getting some of it. Can you trust the people who manage your money? One of the things that stuck out about this part was that people I know in the 1%, but not the 0.1%, are often affected by things out of their control but they don’t have the resources to, say, hire lobbyists to get it addressed. One recent change to the tax code involving foreign assets has a friend of mine looking at spending $250K just to properly file their taxes and that isn’t a negligible amount to them.

Tax law often has unexpected consequences. When it was made mandatory that public corporations report executive compensation, the idea was that by making it public it would shame them into keeping such compensation modest. The exact opposite happened, and executive compensation skyrocketed. From the book:

In 1965, according to the Economic Policy Institute, the CEOs of the 350 largest public companies collected about twenty-one times as much compensation as the typical worker, on average. That’s a big difference, but people could still relate to one another. As of 2019, the ratio was 320-to-1.

Another issue facing the rich is interactions with those who have less than them. Being 1% adjacent I seem to be able to get along well with those both above and below my economic bracket, but I can remember one embarrassing mistake I once made.

We were out with another couple who we hadn’t seen in awhile, and we all liked good food. We were at a high-end Italian restaurant and we were getting treated very well, since I had been introduced to the owner through one of his relatives I knew from one of my customers. We had a long meal with several courses and a number of bottles of wine.

When the check came I just suggested we split it, as this is very common among my friends as it makes things simple. I realized my mistake the moment the words came out of my mouth, judging from their expression. I had forgotten that this other couple didn’t make as much money as we did. They were both in very respectable positions but some of those don’t pay as much as a job in tech. But once the words were out I couldn’t take them back. I should have at least offered to pay for the wine, since it was my idea to order most of it. I felt horrible.

I later made it up to them by taking them out to an even nicer restaurant and insisting on paying, but I can’t help but wonder if they had to do without something because of that first meal we shared.

Jackpot also talks about issues around romance and security. If you are wealthy and single, how would you know if someone was interested in you and not just your money? Most of the rich people I know found their partners before they became rich, but one multimillionaire I’m acquainted with has just decided never to get married because they simply can’t tell.

With respect to security, I knew a person who was working with a billionaire and brought him a small, wrapped gift, which he put down on the conference table they were using. Very calmly one of the billionaire’s security team discreetly picked it up to be opened and examined later.

In 1994 a rather controversial book called The Bell Curve was published that showed how society filters people out by cognitive ability. The first separation is between those people who finish high school and those that don’t, followed by people who go to college versus those who don’t. College students are further filtered by which schools they attend. One statistic, that I’m quoting from memory, was that if you distributed people with a Ph.D. degree throughout the population, the average person would know about two. I can name twenty without straining very hard.

The same thing happens to rich people, especially their children. They go to private schools with other rich people’s kids, and then on to elite colleges and universities, thus often isolating them from people who aren’t rich. Plus, when it comes time to enter the work force, they have the connections to get those high paying jobs.

And what about the security of those children? While you might think the worst thing upon hitting the jackpot would be a shirttail relative hitting you up for money, what if a not so nice person wants access to your money through kidnapping.

Being the child of rich parents has its own problems. One often associates drug use with the poor, but one study of 1800 students in Texas found that 30% of both the richest and the poorest kids reported using drugs, compared to 18% of the middle income students.

As I don’t have offspring, the sections on the issues rich people face with respect to caring for their children as well as passing on wealth were interesting, but didn’t really resonate with me. However, at the end of Part II Mechanic begins to address how this wealth inequality affects society. One paragraph I highlighted

Successful people tend to feel deserving of their lot, research suggests, regardless of whatever advantages they may have enjoyed in life. As a corollary, they tend to view less fortunate people as having earned their lack of success. “So you’re more likely to make sense of inequality,” Piff explains, “to justify it, make inequality seem equitable”

The “Piff” in the above quote is researcher Paul Piff, who sometimes uses the game Monopoly to explain wealth disparity. People who lose at Monopoly tend to blame it on bad luck, whereas winners often brag about their superior strategy. Even though the game is heavily skewed toward random events, winners feel that they have earned their win.

I was exposed to this a lot growing up. Poor people were poor because they were lazy, not because of external factors.

Being a member of the oppressive color, language, age and gender, I was a beneficiary of the American Dream. My grandfather worked in a coal mine and died of Black Lung Disease when my father was 17. My father grew up in a four room house, not a four bedroom house, and supported his family by taking an apprenticeship at Westinghouse and attending night school at the nearby university. His seven year journey to a degree was broken up by a stint in the Reserves. To say he worked his ass off is an understatement, but that allowed him to to get a good job in manufacturing and to provide a nice existence for my mother, my sister and myself.

I used my middle class security to get options not available to everyone else. I was lucky enough to attend the NC School of Science and Math for high school, and that allowed me to get into good colleges. I didn’t do very well in school but I had a safety net in my family that did eventually see me graduate, and later in life my ability to take risks allowed me to start my own company which was sold two decades later for a modest, but not insignificant, payday.

Success is often a combination of hard work and a lot of luck.

The final section of the book talks about how wealth inequality skews the game in favor of the wealthy, and how wealth is skewed toward those in the highest percentile (remember my mention of median vs. mean wealth above). Wealth grants you access to politicians, who can, in turn, help protect and increase that wealth.

As someone who lives in the South, I am surprised at how many people vote for politicians who don’t have their best interests at heart. I think, in part, it is this myth that with hard work anyone can join the 1%, and in turn the 1% can join the 0.1%.

I can remember during the Obama administration he worked to implement tax cuts for the middle class. As I was driving to the office one day I got behind a dually pickup truck that had one a sticker saying “I’ll keep my guns, my money and my religion, and you can keep ‘the change'”.

This was an obvious criticism of Obama, and when I got closer I saw that the truck belonged to the owner of a local RV park. I couldn’t help but think that I probably paid more in taxes than this guy made that year, but he was of the opinion that Obama’s policies would hurt him.

The differences in wealth distribution are staggering. In 2019 if you were in the 90th percentile (the top 10%) you had an average individual (not family) net worth of $2.8 million. For the 80th percentile that dropped to $555K, for the 70th it was $293K and for the 60th percentile it was $152K. At the 24th percentile your net worth was around $199 and it quickly drops below zero after that.

Often when talking about wealth, annual income is referenced along with net worth. To be in the 1% you need to have an annual household income of around $481K per year (in 2019). I always discount that as I know a number of people who work in Silicon Valley who make very high salaries but due to the cost of living have little net worth. If those people can’t manage to generate wealth I think it would be very difficult for someone making a lot less to manage it, but there is still that dream.

The dream is perpetuated by any number of “wealth gurus” who promise riches to those who pay to attend their seminars. They fuel “false beliefs about wealth and mobility” that all you need to do to become wealthy is work hard. One of my favorite quotes from the book:

Anyone who builds a company works their tail off. But some founders are more clear-eyed than others. Jerry Fiddler worked one-hundred-hour weeks at Wind River Systems, but “anybody who tells you that they are wealthy because they work harder is either lying to you or they’re lying to themselves. My cleaning lady works harder than I do and doesn’t make as much money,” he told me. “The work is necessary, but it’s not sufficient.”

The book also addresses the differences in wealth and race. I found this particularly interesting considering the current outcry against Critical Race Theory (CRT). When the whole CRT outrage popped up a few months ago, I had never heard of it, so I did a little research. It is a bit esoteric, being a subject taught in graduate level law programs for those who are seeking a doctorate in jurisprudence, and isn’t a common subject for most law students. My interpretation of CRT is that, since there are no significant genetic differences between White people and people of color, the differences in outcomes concerning wealth and influence must be due to something else.

That’s it.

Seems pretty straightforward, right?

I think part of the furor over CRT comes from this idea people have that the playing field is level for everyone and they “earned” their wealth through hard work, not realizing the indirect help they had along the way. I’ve worked very hard in my life, as did my father and his father, but we all had certain advantages that created an atmosphere where we could succeed. From the book:

“I run on the beach,” Paul Piff told me by way of illustration. “Some days I feel like I’m going particularly fast, and on those very same days, when I’m coming back, I feel like, ‘Whoa, that is a heavy wind and it’s making me go slower.’ I didn’t realize when I was going fast that there was wind pushing me.”

When people claim that race makes no difference in the US, all you have to do is look at the nation’s billionaires. In 2020 there were 788 of them, and considering the population of the US is 13.4% Black, we should have 105 Black billionaires.

There are seven.

Every week I meet up for lunch with some gentlemen who call themselves “The Old Farts Club”. Most are in their 70s and 80s, and in the past were involved in local politics. One week I brought up the idea of reparations, meaning a one time monetary payment to descendants of former slaves as restitution. I haven’t made my mind up on whether or not this is something we, as a society, should do, but as an extreme extrovert I tend to do my thinking out loud.

So I decided to do the math, but I had a lot of trouble finding consistent numbers for household wealth (or even the number of households). Using the numbers from the book, the median net worth of White US households is around $171K, and for Black households $17K, for a difference of $154K. So I asked myself, what would it cost?

The next step would be to determine the number of Black households in the US, and I get values from 10 million to 15 million. Taking the average, 12.5 million, I come up with $19.2 trillion, which is less than the current US debt of $28 trillion (as I post this) but it is still an astronomical number that illustrates the impact race has on wealth in this country.

Another minority impacted when it comes to wealth are women. Even though they make up more than half of the population, they only represent 7.4% of the CEOs in the Fortune 500. There are a number of reasons for this. It was mentioned that one way to financial success is to go to the right college, but the Ivy league schools were some of the last to go co-ed. Also, a lot of people who hit the jackpot do so in tech, and tech is a male dominated field (think of the “tech bros“). The irony is that evidence suggests that women make “superior stewards” of wealth but they are often excluded from the top ranks of finance.

The final part of the book talks about the options the rich have for giving away their wealth. There is a lot to consider, including how much to leave to family and deciding which organizations should get those funds. The Giving Pledge is a promise by some of the world’s wealthy to give away half of their fortune either during their lifetime or before they die.

I have spent a lot of time thinking of the impact the ultra-rich could have if they decided to part with even a fraction of their wealth.

I have a friend who is a policeman in Durham, NC, and I occasionally go on ride-a-longs with him. On one of those he had to respond to a shooting at McDougald Terrace (known locally as “The Mac”), a housing project that evokes Chicago’s Cabrini Green and is home to around 300 families. There have been a lot of issues with the buildings, and there is a plan underway to renovate them, at a cost estimated to be near $20 million.

While that is a lot of cash, it’s “lunch money” to those worth hundreds of billions. Bill Gates once said he could spend $3 million a day, every day, for 100 years and not run out of money, and that assumes he doesn’t make another cent.

As you can probably guess, I really enjoyed this book, and I don’t read much non-fiction. When I was in school I studied Spanish, and with that came the study of countries that speak Spanish as their primary language. A lot of them, especially in the western hemisphere, have not been very politically stable. My teacher pointed out (in the late 1970s) that the reason these countries have such issues and the United States doesn’t has nothing to do with language but instead it is because the US has a large middle class. In countries where wealth is hoarded by the few, that wealth tends to get redistributed by revolution. But the middle class is shrinking which doesn’t bode well for the continued stability of the United States. The first step in stopping this is understanding why, and this book is a good start.

COVID Update

Today is Day 11 since I first showed symptoms of COVID, and I plan to stop isolating, but I thought I’d share some frustrations about the whole experience.

Once I tested positive my main concern was not infecting others, especially Andrea. I immediately isolated myself to the master bedroom and the study, which is a room off the master bedroom with its own door to the outside, while she kept to the rest of the house. We banished the pets from the master bedroom as well. I know cats can get COVID and I believe there have been some cases where dogs have it and I didn’t want to risk them getting infected from me. I only know of two confirmed cases where animals have given COVID to humans (minks and hamsters) but I didn’t want to take any chances.

My dog was not happy.

I reached out to my primary care provider with UNC Health Care, but as I get the opinion he tends to think COVID is no big deal, he wasn’t very helpful. So I turned to the CDC which gave me this advice on isolation:

  • Isolation can be discontinued at least 5 days after symptom onset (day 1 through day 5 after symptom onset, with day 0 being the first day of symptoms), and after resolution of fever for at least 24 hours (without the use of fever-reducing medications) and with improvement of other symptoms.
  • These people should continue to properly wear a well-fitted mask around others at home and in public for 5 additional days (day 6 through day 10 after symptom onset) after the 5-day isolation period.

Hrm. I got the whole isolate for five days thing, but I was a little confused about the second half. Of course I minimized the time I was around Andrea and I was always wearing an N95 mask when I had to be out, but I wasn’t going to sleep in it so obviously I still needed to isolate for the full ten days, right?

After two years of this mess, I found isolation to be very difficult. It was easy to get through it when I could spend time with Andrea, but being apart sucked. We used text messages to communicate, and as we still have wired phone service it turns out that our awesome vtech cordless phones have an intercom function, which we ended up using a lot. My symptoms faded after about five days but Andrea came down with cold symptoms as well, and hers were worse than mine. The day after I tested positive she got a negative PCR test, and when our free government lateral flow tests showed up she took one of those and it was negative as well.

For me Day 5 was last Thursday, so I decided to take one of those government tests. If you haven’t used one, it is pretty simple. You take a nose swab and then you place that into a buffer solution. You then place four drops of the solution onto the test device. There is an absorbent strip that will pull the liquid over to the testing area which consists of two sections, a “T” or test section and a “C” or control section. The line for the control section is always supposed to appear in order to demonstrate the device is working, but the “T” line should only show up if you are positive for COVID. When the liquid on my test hit the “T” line it immediately turned red, so I knew I wasn’t ready to end isolation.

COVID Linear Flow Test

On Friday Andrea got a second PCR test as she was still having a pretty bad cough and sore throat, but it turned out to be negative as well. If she was exposed to COVID, either at the same time I was or through me, I think the reason she never developed enough of a viral load to test positive is that her booster was given just before Christmas while mine was back at the beginning of October.

One of the benefits of testing positive at a research hospital is that UNC was happy to enroll me in three research projects. Andrea and I are both participating in one that is studying how COVID might be transmitted in a household. Every day we both take nose swabs as well as filling out a questionnaire about how we are feeling and how much we interact. This goes on for ten days so I hope they get some good data out of it.

Another concerned the question of whether over the counter mouthwash could kill the virus. I ended up having to spit in a tube, then I used some mouthwash, then I spit in another tube as well as three more 15 minutes apart.

Finally, on Monday I start a long term COVID study where they will take various fluids out of me, periodically, for a year.

Science!

It’s a little inconvenient but I hope they get some useful information out of it.

As I am very eager to end isolation the next question I had was, when? I thought the best thing to do would be to get another PCR test at day 10 and if that was negative I could assume it would be safe to stop, but UNC doesn’t want you to get another test until 90 days after you last tested positive. I found some advice on a UK website that suggested you needed a negative test before stopping isolation, so I did find a place in Chatham County where I could get tested.

That test came back negative this morning. Yay! I really don’t know what I would have done if it hadn’t.

So now I’m busy washing all the sheets I slept in for the past ten days and luckily it is supposed to be warm this afternoon so I plan to open up the windows and air out the bedroom and the study. I’ll still minimize all contact with others outside the home until at least Monday, but I should be recovered and non-contagious. On the upside, being triple vaxxed and having had COVID my antibodies should be as strong as ever.

A lot of places, including North Carolina where I live, are starting to drop mask mandates and I’m still a bit hesitant, especially due to my recent positive test. Even before that I came up with a metric that I plan to use to define “normal”, which is based on current hospitalizations in my State. When I started tracking them they were just above 4000, and as of yesterday they were 2215. Once it drops below 1000 I’ll feel more confident about being more relaxed about COVID, and as always I hope my three readers remain safe and healthy.

Feelin’ Pretty Positive

Despite my best efforts, I’ve been diagnosed with COVID-19.

COVID Positive Test Result

I am not happy with this at all, considering that while many people in my State have giving up on wearing masks I’ve continued to take all precautions when going out, including wearing a mask and hand washing. I’ve also had three shots of Pfizer’s vaccine, the last being on October 5th, and that pretty much lines up with the CDC reporting booster effectiveness fading after four months.

My infection started out like a cold. I have a pretty standard reaction to getting a cold. First, I get a mild sore throat which is soon followed by nasal congestion. Then my throat gets more painful for a couple of days and as that fades my congestion gets worse. Finally that fades and I’m done.

When I get that first sore throat I usually take Zicam. Of all the “remedies” recommended for colds, over the years taking zinc seems to shorten my cold’s duration. It could be the placebo effect but it seems to work for me.

On Saturday I noticed the start of a sore throat, so I started taking Zicam and paying attention to my temperature, which was normal. Saturday was beautiful, weather-wise, so I did a lot of work outside, but Sunday was gray and rainy. I started having mild nasal congestion and fatigue, so since the weather was conducive to staying in bed that’s what I did.

We had plans to visit with friends to watch the Super Bowl, but I cancelled them. I felt bad since they had prepared a lot of snacks, but after my positive test all that guilt went away (and they seemed relieved).

I still wasn’t feeling well so I ended up going to bed about five minutes into the third quarter. I did have a mild fever at the time, 99.4F, so out of an abundance of caution I scheduled a COVID test for Monday.

We live close to UNC Hospital in Chapel Hill, and they use an patient portal from Epic called “My Chart” that makes it real easy to do things like schedule a COVID test and get the results. I’ve had several done at their drive through testing site and the list of available appointments was wide open. I chose one for 11am.

When I woke up on Monday my fever was gone and I felt better, but I decided to keep the appointment. I was the only car there (one other showed up while I was filling out paperwork) which was quite a change from the other times I had been tested. The technician was very thorough (she got that swab up there) and the whole process took less than ten minutes.

About five hours later I got my positive result.

I was way more depressed and upset than I thought I would be, and Andrea and I immediately went into lockdown mode. My office is right off the master bedroom, so I took over those two rooms while Andrea stayed in the rest of the house with the pets. I do need to go out for food and drinks so I put on a mask to do that, and Andrea is on her way to take a COVID test as I write this.

If she’s negative, which I hope, I assume I’ll isolate through the weekend. If she’s positive, then I guess there is no reason to isolate from each other.

Being a geek I wanted to know as much as I could about my infection. The PCR test was performed using the “Abbott Alinity m Resp-4-Plex assay” and I did find mention that there was a chance of false positives in the past, but apparently that was due to the way the samples were mixed and has been corrected (fluid from one sample could get into another). My results also have a “Flag” of “A” but no one can tell me what that means. I asked my GP if the test could tell me the variant, and he said no, but I assume it was Omicron.

I use the SlowCOVIDNC app on my phone, so I felt duty-bound to inform any other user who has been around me of my positive test. In order to do this you have to have a PIN, but when I went to the site to get one, it couldn’t find my positive test. I called the number as requested and was told it could take up to 24 hours for them to receive my test results.

This morning I got an e-mail from UNC with a link that lead me to a cute little “chat” screen that walks you through the “now that you have COVID” scenario.

UNC COVID Chat Screenshot

Basically follows CDC guidelines that you isolate for five days, and mask for ten.

I did finally receive an e-mail from the “NC COVID Community Team”, which is associated with the SlowCOVIDNC app, sending me more information about my positive test result. I figured. in that case, I should be able to get my PIN but once again the website claimed it couldn’t find my record. However, when I called the help number they were able to give it to me and now I’ve updated the app to notify anyone who was near me over the last two weeks. I really can’t imagine it finding any one but it doesn’t tell you the number of people it will notify.

As for symptoms it feels like a mild cold with the exception of body aches. My neck is really sore and as I was working this morning (yay, remote work) the pain spread through my joints to my arms and hips. I’ve decided to work as much as I can but it looks like half days for awhile, so I took a long nap after lunch and the pain seems to have subsided a bit. It’s apparently due to inflammation caused by my body fighting off the infection, and I’m going to take some Advil and hope that helps.

I’ve heard a lot of people that have had COVID say that it is no big deal, and compared to, say, my traffic accident, that’s true. But people are still dying from this thing and even young people have lost limbs, and the long term affects are still unknown. I’m a bit touchy at the moment when I read news articles that say it is way over time to just get back to normal, because I did almost everything I could to avoid getting infected and it wasn’t enough. I’m harboring a little anger at the person who gave it to me as now my productivity has been cut in half for probably a week and I had to spend Valentine’s Day separated from Andrea. Not huge sacrifices compared to some but what pisses me off is that this whole thing could have been avoided.

Anyway, stay safe, get your shots, keep wearing those masks and be kind to one another.

New Year’s Ham and Corn Chowder

By definition a tradition is “a specific custom or practice of long standing”, but then how do “new” traditions get started?

In the case of our New Year’s tradition, it came down to a newsletter from 1996.

In the southern United States, the traditional New Year’s meal is collard greens and black-eye peas. I’m not a huge fan of either, and usually by New Year’s Day I’m still dealing with holiday leftovers.

One thing I struggled to deal with was the leftover Christmas ham. A tradition in our family, there is often so much other food that there is plenty of ham left after Christmas dinner. I was thinking about this at the end of one year decades ago when I came across a newsletter I had saved from the winery Clos Pegase.

In the early 1990s, Andrea and I lived for a year in Sonoma County, California, which was just a short ride over the hills to Napa Valley. Considered the heart of California wine country, it was also home to a vineyard created by Jan Shrem dedicated to Pegasus, the winged horse from Greek mythology.

Winter/Spring 1996 Clos Pegase Newsletter

In this newsletter was a column called “Matchmaking with Mitsuko” written by Shrem’s wife. It had a recipe for “Winter Chowder” which I adopted for our annual tradition. I thought folks might like it so I’m sharing it here.

New Year’s Ham and Corn Chowder

  • 1 pound (or more) leftover Christmas ham. Ours is usually smoked and you can substitute bacon or other meat.
  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 1/2 cup butter, plus two tablespoons for browning the ham
  • 1/2 cup all purpose flour
  • 2 cans creamed corn
  • 1 quart half and half
  • 2 cups chicken stock
  • 2-3 russet potatoes, peeled and cubed)
  • white pepper to taste

I cook this in a Crock-Pot but you could use a heavy pot on the stove as well. You are mainly cooking this to make the potatoes tender but I also like to slowly blend in the flavors.

Place the ham in a food processor and pulse until chopped (I usually do it until the pieces are pea-sized).

In a skillet heat up the two tablespoons of butter until melted. Add the onion and saute until tender, then add the ham. I usually stir it until bits of the ham start to caramelize.

Dump the onion and ham into the Crock-Pot and add the creamed corn, half and half, chicken stock, potatoes and white pepper. Turn the Crock-Pot on low.

Wipe out the skillet and add the 1/2 cup of butter and heat until melted. Slowly add the 1/2 cup of flour while stirring to create a roux. I don’t let it get too brown, just to a light tan.

Add the roux to the Crock-Pot and stir until everything is incorporated. Cook on low for five to six hours, stirring occasionally until the chowder is bubbly and has a thick consistency.

Serve in bowls and top with oyster crackers.

Ham Chowder in Bowl topped with Oyster Crackers

Hello 2022

New Year’s Day is one of my favorite holidays, second only to Thanksgiving. Even though the timing is arbitrary (it falls well after the winter solstice and a few days before perihelion) and nothing substantial really changes in my life from those few minutes before midnight until a few minutes after, I like the idea of getting a somewhat clean slate and a fresh start.

After the train wreck that was 2020 and the “not much better” that was 2021, I am cautiously optimistic about 2022. I’m going forward without resolutions except trying to become a better person, but I am trying to do that all of the time. But I am refraining from statements like “2022 is gonna be great!” etc. For example, where I live the high temperature today was 78.4F (nearly 26C) which is not what I expect on the first day of January. Is that just a nice day or the harbinger of something worse?

For me the main thing about 2022 is that it is the first year I’ve ever experienced that contained three 2s. It made me think about how often that has happened, and it turns out this is just the third time.

The first “three 2” year was 222, of course, and it took a thousand years before 1222 became the second year. Now eight hundred years have passed since then to get us to 2022.

The next one is a rather rapid one hundred years away to 2122, then eighty years to 2202 and then it is just eighteen years to 2220, which will start a ten year run of “three 2” years.

I kept trying to figure out if there was a pattern:

1000, 800, 100, 80, 18

and perhaps there is some sort of mathematical series that defines when these numbers with duplicate digits appear, but I haven’t been able to find one.

For example, for “three 1” years you get 111 followed nine hundred years later by 1011 followed ninety years later by 1101, followed nine years later by 1110, which starts its ten year run:

900, 90, 9

Seems like there should be some way to express this but I’m not seeing it. Note that if you multiply these numbers by 2 you get 1800, 180 and 18, which looks familiar (grin)

So there you are: my gift to you for 2022. Figure out if there is a way to express the distance between numbers with duplicate digits, and any case I hope that 2022 is a great year for you and yours.

Review: Amazon’s The Wheel of Time

Amazon Prime Video has started to release episodes of the first season of their adaptation of Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time (WoT) series. I have a few thoughts about it and thought I’d put them here. While I’ll try not to spoil anything major, no guarantees so if that is important to you don’t read on. I’ll update this post as new episodes come out.

TLDR; I am pretty new to The Wheel of Time story, having so far only finished the first book and I’m most of the way through the second, but I am cautiously optimistic that Amazon will do a good job translating this story to television.

The success of HBO’s adaption of Game of Thrones (GoT) sent other streaming services looking for material for similar shows. Robert Jordan’s fourteen book The Wheel of Time series was a natural choice, but like Game of Thrones it could be considered un-film-able.

The Wheel of Time is an epic fantasy which, of course, means it is a struggle between Good and Evil, Light and Dark. In this case power, i.e. magic, is given to those who can “channel” the True Source, the driving force of the universe that turns the Wheel of Time. Often represented with something like the yin-yang symbol, it consists of a male half and a female half. Only men can access the male half and only women can access the female half, and people who can channel this power are known as Aes Sedai.

The main antagonist is Shai’tan, The Dark One, imprisoned at the moment of creation by the Creator in place called Shayol Ghul. He can still wield influence from his prison, and is constantly working to free himself. In the Age of Legends, he almost escaped his prison, but Lews Therin Telamon, known as the Dragon, and a hundred male Aes Sedai were able to reseal his prison. But in the process, The Dark One was able to taint the male half of the True Source, causing all who used it to go mad. In their madness they engaged in what is called The Breaking of the World, reshaping the land and scattering its people. Since then only woman were allowed to channel the True Source and become Aes Sedai.

The action in the books starts some 2000 years later when the prophecy predicts that the Dragon will be reborn to face off against the Dark One and either destroy him forever or cause him to be freed to begin an age of darkness.

At least that’s what I get from having read the first book and most of the second. As I mentioned, there are fourteen of the darn things, so there is a lot of material to cover. Jordan died from a heart related illness after Book 11, but he had enough notes that his work was finished by the author Brandon Sanderson. Overall my friends who know these things are pretty positive on the series as a whole (although Book 10 seems to be universally loathed) and so a couple of years ago I asked for and received the books as a gift. I decided to start them once I saw that Amazon was adapting them to a television series.

When I was in my long and storied college career, I took an elective course called “Film and Novel”. I thought it would be something where we read a book and then saw a movie version, but instead it was an examination of how the structure of a film narrative differs from that of a book. For example, if you are reading a ghost story, and someone sees a ghost no one else can see, it is pretty easy to get that from the written word. But what about when you are watching a movie, and you see the ghost, too, right there on the screen. There are conventions used in film that let you know that maybe the ghost isn’t real, such as other characters not seeing the ghost, or when the main character points it out and the camera shows the same shot but the ghost is missing, etc.

In any case, the course taught me to judge a film narrative separately from a written narrative. In other words, the book isn’t always “right” and the story told by a film adaptation can be just as valid.

Getting back to Amazon’s WoT, after four episodes I’m feeling kind of neutral. There are only eight episodes in the first season so they are having to do some serious editing to get the story down as I believe they want to cover the entire first book, at least based on the episode titles. Of course those changes are going to result in a much different story than the one told in the books. For example, in the books much is made of a sword carried by Rand al’Thor which is marked with the image of a heron. In the series there is a single shot, a nod to those who have read the books, and then it never comes up again.

The story focuses around five young people from the remote village of Two Rivers. All five of them are ta’veren, a person around which the Wheel of Time weaves a story, but only one of them can be the Dragon Reborn.

The first major change is that these characters, who are around seventeen in the books, are now portrayed in their early twenties. This allows for a little more sexuality, and considering the gratuitous use of sex in GoT it was a bit off-putting to me. There is also a dark turn in the first episode that I also thought was a little too much and it seemed a desperate ploy to make the story more “gritty”. It seemed to be there just to make it appeal more to the GoT crowd, and WoT is a much different story.

I’m pretty okay with the casting, and it is obvious they turned the diversity dial up to 11. I can’t begin to catalog the different ethnicities represented by the cast, although the nerd in me is a little unhappy that the people in the town of Two Rivers are so different (from a story telling perspective, not a Hollywood inclusion perspective). I mean, this town was supposed to be isolated from the rest of the world for 2000 years, and in that time inbreeding should have made everyone look pretty much the same (well, unless they are a bunch of racists and only bred along ethnic lines). I get why they did it, though, and so I’m able to overlook it, and at least Rand has red hair.

Where they didn’t get very diverse is with the evil foot soldiers, the Trollocs. In the books they were a mish-mash of different animals: some had goats heads, some those of a bear or a wolf, and even others looked like birds. These Trollocs all look like goats, and I couldn’t help but think that they lifted the model from the Khazra goatmen from Diablo III. I guess even with a reported budget of US$10 million per episode they have to cut corners somewhere.

On the upside, I love how they represented the Trolloc’s bosses, the Myrddraal (the Fades). Spot on.

One of the main things I dislike about the show is that they imply that a woman could be the Dragon Reborn (there are two women out of the five people from Two Rivers). Look, I’m all for gender diversity in story telling, and in the books woman play a major role if not a dominant one, but the whole point of the Dragon Reborn is that it is a man who can channel the True Source without going mad. Even in episode four, where one of the female characters displays great power, they are still hinting that a woman could be the Dragon. I could more easily overlook it if it wasn’t key to the story, but if they follow the books everyone will know who the Dragon is by the end of the season, so I guess it is moot but it still grates on me a bit.

Overall, we’re halfway through Season One and I’m not looking for those four hours back. My main complaint is that you just can’t tell a story like this correctly in such a short amount of time. A large part of epic fantasy involves large amounts of boredom and tedium punctuated my moments of sheer terror, and Hollywood seems eager to cut the slow bits out when filming such stories (well, unless you are Peter Jackson then you get nearly eight hours to cover a story that fits into a 280 page book). Andrea, who hasn’t read the books, seems to be enjoying it, although I have to fill in some of the back story.

They apparently have at least eight seasons planned, so if the show is successful I’m certain I’ll have more to both praise and complain about. I’ll update this post as the season progresses.

UPDATE: Having watched all eight episodes I’m still pretty neutral on the whole thing. I mean, it tells a story, just not the story I enjoyed from the books. Andrea, who hasn’t read the books, liked it, so it obviously works on some level.

I felt the same way about season one of The Expanse but I enjoyed the following seasons, so maybe the same thing will happen with WoT.