Driving Reflexes

Last night Kish and I went out for dinner for Valentine’s Day. Our restaurant destination was within walking distance, but given that many of the sidewalks along the way are still snow- and ice-covered, and the fact that it would be dark by the time we walked home, we decided driving was the safer approach.

As I got into the car, I realized with a start that it was the first time I’ve been behind the wheel of the car for . . . well, I don’t know exactly how long. Weeks, for sure, and maybe a full month. There has been no period in my adult life where I have gone for such a long period without driving. And the reason is: there’s just been no reason to drive anywhere. Kish has been out, but I’ve limited my movement to walking around our neighborhood, walking to work on a few occasions, walking to get a haircut, and walking to restaurants. It actually felt weird to slide into the driver’s seat.

We use the car so infrequently, and for such short trips, that we couldn’t even remember the last time we filled the tank. When was the last time you ever wondered about that? Gas prices are going up, apparently, but we certainly aren’t contributing any pressure to the demand side of the pricing equation.

Although it felt strange to drive, the deeply ingrained driving reflexes and motor memory came back with a rush. Driving again was like riding the proverbial bicycle. Still, the experience did make me think that I should take the car out every once in a while, just to keep the reflexes sharp. Put me down for a Drivers’ Ed refresher course.

A Neutral Place In The Bidding Wars

If, like us, you aren’t in the market for a house right now, consider yourself lucky. The real estate market is crazy right now — so crazy that bidding wars for homes are commonplace. It’s not just a seller’s market, or even a seller’s market on steroids. It’s more like a seller’s fantasyland where any imaginable price or egregiously unreasonable condition can be put on a house and some desperate soul will accept it just to get their foot in the door. If you know anyone trying to buy a house right now, you’ve heard ridiculous stories of some listings getting more than 30 offers and selling for prices more than a third above the asking price.

This CNBC article sketches out some of the macroeconomic indicators at play. The number of houses listed for sale has fallen to a record low. More than half of all prospective home buyers are facing bidding wars for the house of their choice, and the primary reason people who are in the market for a new house haven’t bought a home already is that they’ve been repeatedly outbid. More than half of new homes offered for sale are in contract in less than two weeks.

And here’s another sign of a superheated real estate market: a Google search for bidding wars will call up multiple website pieces advising on tips and strategies on how to win the inevitable bidding wars, like “11 Tips To Win A Bidding War On A House” or “Best Strategies To Win A Bidding War.” What are some of the strategies? Stay on top of the market in your target area and go see new listings the minute they appear. Pay cash if you can, or be pre-approved for financing, so you aren’t requesting financing contingencies. Offer more — sometimes far more — than the asking price. Agree to quick closings. And if it’s a house you really, really like, be prepared to waive the home inspection contingency, take the place as is, and hope that such a decision made in a crazy market doesn’t come back to bite you when you discover a new roof is needed immediately. Anybody who has bought a house knows just how risky that last strategy can be.

Those of us who are in the Switzerland position in the bidding wars — that is, neither buying nor selling right now — can view all of this with academic interest, but if you are a first-time home buyer this craziness has to be incredibly frustrating. Those of us who have homes can hope that the superheated market continues until we sell, but unless you’re moving into an apartment or an old age home, you’ll be a happy seller on one hand and a frustrated potential buyer on the other. I’d rather see things get back to normal.

“I Hear You”

I’ve noticed there’s a new phrase that, seemingly overnight, has become a staple in virtually every conversation, from simple chit-chat to multi-party business videoconferences.

The phrase is “I hear you.” It is used when one participant in a conversation is responding to an observation or argument that another party to the conversation has just made. The responses now often begin with “I hear you.” The responder might then proceed to agree and raise an additional point or gloss on what was just said, or amplify the point in some way, or follow “I hear you” with “but” and some form of disagreement. But the responder wants to make sure that the first speaker knows that his or her statements has been understood and assimilated, and they aren’t just people talking across each other. The “I hear you” statement is a way to get that point across. (And in a world of sometimes glitchy and frozen video connections, “I hear you” may also signal that you’re not experiencing technical difficulties, too.)

I’ve been interested in the spread of “I hear you,” and I wonder if linguists are, even now, tracing the use of the phrase back to its roots. I think the use of the phrase is a way of showing verbal respect and acknowledgement, even if the phrase might be followed by disagreement. It’s a form of polite, sensitive behavior that is an outgrowth of the desire to make sure that everyone is being heard and their views are being respected. I wonder if “I hear you” might soon become a basic building block of manners in the modern world, as common as “please” and “thank you.”

Snow Blow

On Game Of Thrones, the legendary saying of the Stark clan is: “Winter is coming.” In Columbus, winter isn’t coming: it’s here, in full force.

This central Ohio winter has been highly unusual by weather standards. There have been prolonged bouts with cold weather and lots of snow, without much melt. We got more snow last night and it is supposed to snow again this morning, and the snow mounds are really starting to pile up. And a glance at the cellphone weather app advises that there is no apparent relief in sight: temperatures are supposed to stay well below freezing as far as the app predicts, and there are multiple days with more snow in the forecast.

This is weird weather for Columbus. Normally we’ll get a few significant snowfalls and some cold days at different points during the winter, but with breaks of temperatures in the 40s when the snow melts. During this recent cold snap, we haven’t had any of those warm days to clear the streets and sidewalks. So the snow continues to pile up, snow shovels are getting more use than ever before, progressive layers of ice have sheathed the streets and the sidewalks, and the overall feel is a lot more like Winterfell than Columbus.

If you’re a cockeyed optimist trying to find a positive in all of this, here’s one: with many people continuing to work remotely, at least there are fewer people commuting to work in the morning and fewer traffic jams caused by snowy driving conditions. It’s a lot easier to find the negatives. If you’re a kid who is already taking remote classes, you’re not actually getting the benefit of those treasured snow days. And if you’re somebody who is heartily sick and tired of being cooped up in your house and are itching to get out and at least get some fresh air, the snow and the treacherous footing and driving conditions just accentuate that stifling shut-in and housebound feeling.

We’ve all had to endure a lot during this seemingly unending COVID period. A colder and snowier winter than normal just adds to the list.

A New Blue

As a kid, I figured that the spectrum of colors was pretty much fixed, defined by the different hues in the rainbow, and in the natural world, and in the Crayola 64 collection of crayons with the crayon sharpener built into the back of the box where the crayon your kid sister was trying to sharpen broke off and you could never use the sharpener again.

Then, as I grew older, I realized that new colors were being developed virtually every day, primarily for the purpose of requiring mystified husbands to go into paint stores and try to distinguish between tiny gradations shown on tiny paint sample squares, when their wives were trying to figure out which color to paint the dining room. I question, for example, whether “sea foam” was actually a color until some paint mixologist at Sherwin Williams or Benjamin Moore chuckled with evil glee and decided that tantalizing people with “sea foam” would make the home redecoration choices even more difficult.

But blue colors are different. Shades of blue tend to fade easily, and often contain toxic elements. That’s why it’s noteworthy that recently, for the first time in two centuries, a new blue pigment that is stable and doesn’t fade has become commercially available. It’s called YInMn, which is short for some of the chemical components of the color — Yttrium, Indium, and Manganese — and it was discovered accidentally by scientists at Oregon State University who were testing materials for use in electronics applications. They applied extreme heat to the compound, and the vivid, eye-popping blue shown above emerged. You can read about the discovery of the pigment and the chemistry behind it here.

The people are the paint stores are already smiling about it, and putting the YInMn paint squares out there in the sample case, right next to cobalt, lapis, and azure, ready to trap the next unwary husband asked to express an opinion about which one he prefers and then forced to explain why he likes that one better than the rest.

A Sad Day In Browns Town

I was saddened to read today about the death of Marty Schottenheimer, at age 77, of complications from Alzheimer’s Disease — a condition he and his family dealt with for six years. Schottenheimer coached for a number of NFL teams, including the Chiefs, the Washington Football Club, and the Chargers, and compiled a record that included 205 wins, putting him eighth on the NFL all-time wins list.

Of course, those of us who are Cleveland Browns fans will always associate Marty Schottenheimer with the Browns. He ascended to the head coaching position in 1984, after Sam Rutigliano was fired, and never had a losing season with the Browns. It was clear from the get-go that the Browns had a keeper in Schottenheimer, and in his first full season he guided the Browns to the playoffs, where they almost knocked off the heavily favored Miami Dolphins. When UJ and I watched that game, we decided the Browns were on the upswing and we should buy season tickets to the Browns games for the following year. Thanks to Schottenheimer and the team he led, we saw some great games and lots of wins. Unfortunately, Schottenheimer had a falling out with owner Art Modell after the 1989 season, when Modell insisted that Schottenheimer hire an offensive coordinator and stop calling plays. He refused and quit, and the Schottenheimer era abruptly ended.

That era was brief but glorious. It would have been more glorious still if bad luck and cursed fates hadn’t caused the Browns to lose two AFC championship games, in 1986 and 1987, that denied a talented, deserving team a chance to finally play in the Super Bowl. But The Drive and The Fumble went against the men in orange and brown and their tough, hard-nosed coach — who, in the aftermath of The Fumble, went to hug Earnest Byner, the player who had the ball stripped just as he seemed to be crossing the goal line to cap an amazing Browns’ comeback. That showed you what kind of person Marty Schottenheimer was. He was a players’ coach, not an owner’s coach. And while it often seems that the football gods have it in for the Browns, I don’t know of a Browns fan who doesn’t appreciate what Marty Schottenheimer did for the team and the fans and for the community. We were lucky — for once — to have Marty Schottenheimer as our coach.

Alzheimer’s is a cruel disease that robs the afflicted individual of what defines them, and robs the individual’s family of their loved one. It says something enormously positive about Marty Schottenheimer and his family that they were open about his condition and his years-long battle, and tried to make something positive out of a devastating prognosis.

Marty Schottenheimer was a great coach and a great man. It’s a sad day in Browns Town.

One Of These Days . . . .

We’ve heard some really good things about Sicily. Richard went there a few years ago and raved about it — including Palermo, shown above. It looks scenic and interesting, doesn’t it? So we planned a trip there last May, with friends who have some family history and relatives in the area, to see Sicily for ourselves.

Alas, COVID hit, and our trip was postponed to the fall. Things weren’t better then, so the trip got postponed again, to this coming May. Then we got a call from the airline a few days ago, telling us that the flights on our journey to Italy were designated some kind of special “COVID flights.” We would need to bring evidence that we had taken a particular kind of test (that we would pay for ourselves, incidentally) within 72 hours of the flight and received negative results before we could board the first leg of the flight. And we would have to get tested again at airports as we made our way to Rome, and apparently need to follow a similar process before coming home after our tour of southern Italy and Sicily ended. The implication, of course, was that if any positive test results showed up along the way we’d be stuck where we were, unable to board a flight. And the idea of arranging for COVID testing in a foreign country where I don’t speak the language didn’t seem like much fun.

The process was obviously prudent, safe, and certainly understandable for the airline. And we’ve paid attention to State Department warnings and gotten shots to prevent various local diseases before traveling to other overseas locations in the past. Still, this process seemed different, because we would constantly be reminded of the brooding, ever-present threat of infection and the consequences if it happened to us. It’s not exactly the best way to enjoy a carefree trip to an exotic destination.

Then the other shoe dropped, and our trip was formally cancelled and deferred again — this time for a full year. Everyone hopes that, by 2022, the vaccine will have been fully distributed, the lurking COVID threat will have been resolved, and people will be able to travel again without all of the rigamarole of constant testing and ever-present masks and worry about potential exposure. I’m sure the people of Italy, where tourism is such an important part of the economy, are more eager for that than anyone.

We’re not alone in this; COVID-19 has wreaked havoc with spring travel plans for people throughout the world. I’m not complaining, really — it is what it is, we’ve had to cancel trips before for various reasons, and a masked, tested tour is not how you would ideally want to see a place like Sicily, anyway. But I do think about the recent retirees who made travel abroad an important part of their retirement plans. They’re sitting at home, watching the clock tick, wondering when they will actually be able to take the trips that they envisioned, and hoping that those trips will actually happen . . . one of these days.

An Abominable Snow Man

I don’t particularly want to be reminded of the abominable pandemic during a walk around the neighborhood, but I had to applaud the Calvinesque creativity of whoever came up with this googly eyed, mask-wearing, mop-wielding, disinfectant-brandishing snowman. I got a laugh out of it, and the German helmet is a distinctive touch for a German Village snow creation.

Scarfed Up

It’s been cold here recently. So cold, in fact, that some Good Samaritan put a colorful scarf around the neck of the seated lady statue in the Peace Park at St. Mary’s church in our neighborhood.

Don’t be surprised if the statue gets some more donated winter garb this week, because the temperature is supposed to drop even farther in the next few days. February tends to be the bleakest month of the winter, but it is also frequently the coldest. It’s the month where you root around in your closet for the fur-lined Mad Bomber hat that would be too hot to wear when the temperature is in the 20s, and the ugly, bulky, scratchy scarves knitted for you years ago by your great aunt Gertrude, and every other layer you can add to protect against the chill. In February, fashion goes out the window. For the hardy Midwesterner, it’s all about holding on to every scrap of warmth and covering as much exposed skin as possible.

Bundle up, folks! We’re heading down to the teens and single digits.

Vacci Nation

In the history of modern medicine, there probably have never been as many people talking about vaccination, or as many news stories about vaccination plans, or as many charts and updates on the number of vaccinations, as is happening in America right now. When I was a kid and regularly went to our family doctor to get the next vaccination on my personal vaccination card, for example, I don’t remember there being much talk about it. You needed to get vaccinated, you went to the doctor and got your shot, and that was all there is to it.

But that’s not the way things work in the world these days. Between the extraodinary impact that the coronavirus has had on the world, and the hope that the vaccine will not only protect against the vaccinated individual getting COVID, but also finally move us to achieving “herd immunity” and getting back to normal — whatever that might be right now — people can’t help but talk about vaccination. And, thanks to social media, we’re being treated to lots of pictures of masked people getting their shots in real time or proudly displaying their upper arm punctures. The social media frenzy is so great that some people are actually posting “selfies” of their COVID-19 vaccination cards — leading the Federal Trade Commission to warn people that doing that isn’t a very good idea, because fraudsters could take the information from the cards and use it to achieve identity theft.

I had a virtual happy hour with some friends from the firm on Friday, where the conversation is typically limited to office chatter, sports, bad attempts at humor, and general bitching about the world. But on Friday, vaccination crept into the conversation, too. It’s safe to say that it is the first time this group has ever talked seriously about vaccination. What’s next on the agenda — the importance of dietary fiber?

It’s understandable that people are talking about the vaccine, and when they will be getting their shots. But for me, we’ll know that we’ve really returned to normal when people have stopped talking or posting selfies about getting vaccinated — or COVID-19, period.

Galileo And Me

Scientific legend has it that a young Galileo Galilei conducted an experiment that helped to define some of the properties of gravity. In order to test Aristotle’s notion that objects fall at different rates according to their weight, Galileo is reputed to have taken two balls with materially different weights to the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa and dropped them simultaneously. According to the story, the balls fell to the ground below at the same rate of acceleration and landed at the same time — thereby showing that Aristotle was wrong and the invisible force of gravity acts equally on objects with different masses. Galileo’s findings still hold up — even when modern-day scientists test the effects of gravitational acceleration at the atomic level.

I conducted my own impromptu experiment with gravity yesterday morning, and can attest that gravity is still out there, working the same way it always has.

I was just starting my morning walk. We had been subjected to the dreaded “wintry mix” overnight, and the footing was treacherous. The parking lot at the corner had been cleared of snow and looked to be dry and safe, so I decided to take a short cut through the parking lot. As I proceeded with a jaunty step across the lot, my right foot hit a patch of black ice, my feet shot out to the left, and I landed hard on the asphalt surface on my right side. I gingerly picked myself up, checked to make sure that I was in one piece, then carefully made my way back to our house, figuring that the wise course would be to skip any further icy adventures that day. Fortunately, I had on several layers as well as my own more than ample personal padding, no bones were broken, and I’m sore, but not badly bruised.

It’s the first time I’ve fallen to the ground in a while, and it got me to thinking how amazing gravity is. I probably fell no more than a few feet, but I struck the pavement with breathtaking (literally) force, as if one of the Ohio State linebackers had hit me at full speed and laid a crushing blow on my right side. The experience made me think that I need to be a lot more judicious about walking during the winter, because gravity is always out there, brooding and ready to yank you down.

I’m just grateful I wasn’t falling from the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

Answering The “Kid Questions”

Every parent has had to field their fair share of “kid questions”: those innocent, wide-eyed inquiries that presuppose that Mom and Dad know everything there is to know in the world and can explain it, besides. The classic “kid question,” of course, is “why is the sky blue”?

“Why does food stick to what is supposed to be a no-stick pan?” is another good example of a kid question. And depending upon a parent’s mood at the time, and whether the parent is trying to use a spatula to lift a stuck egg from a frying pan without splitting the yolk, answers might range from some quasi-scientific-sounding mumbo-jumbo that you figure will satisfy the kid and cause him or her to stop asking those infernal questions to an honest answer that will give the kid more information than they bargained for, like: “Well, Tommy, sometimes in life things don’t work like they are supposed to, and you’re just going to have to get used to it, okay?”

It’s nice when science lends beleaguered parents a hand and provides information that will allow them to answer those tough questions. Researchers at the Czech Academy of Sciences have done just that by carefully examining the no-stick pan issue and publishing their research in the Physics of Fluids journal. The scientists found that dry spots can form even on oiled, “no-stick” pans, and that’s where the food sticks. The dry spots are created by a process called thermocapillary convection, in which oil moves from the hot center of the pan to the cooler edges, and the thin coating of oil in the center of the pan becomes destabilized and eventually ruptures — leaving that dreaded dry spot that threatens to ruin your otherwise perfectly cooked egg. (And if you don’t want thermocapillary convection in your kitchen, the scientists helpfully note: “To avoid unwanted dry spots, the following set of measures should be applied: increasing the oil film thickness, moderate heating, completely wetting the surface of the pan with oil, using a pan with a thick bottom or stirring food regularly during cooking.”).

So there you have it: thermocapillary convection is the right answer. And the great thing about that answer is that once you start talking about thermocapillary convection, capillary length, and oil destabilization, your kid will probably lose interest and stop asking those questions. It turns out they probably didn’t really want an actual answer, they just wanted to reassure themselves that Mom and Dad do know everything there is to know.

Feel free to use “thermocapillary convection” to answer other kid questions, including the “why is the sky blue” head-scratcher. It will serve until your children reach the teenage years, when the questions stop and parents suddenly become far less knowledgeable than friends. 

Drinking Like The Colonials Did

Are Americans drinking more as the pandemic continues and many people remain largely shut into their homes? Although we can’t say for sure because no authoritative studies have been done, and people probably wouldn’t tell the truth anyway, the magic 8-ball would tell us that “all signs point to yes.” But it’s also true that modern Americans would need to drink a lot more — in fact, more than double their consumption of spirits — to even come close to the daily intake of our colonial forebears.

Colonial Americans consumed amazing amounts of alcohol. The accepted estimate is that, on an annual basis, they quaffed more than twice the amount of alcohol we enjoy — guzzling somewhere between five and six gallons of pure alcohol every year. The neighborhood tavern was a huge part of colonial culture, so much so that entire books have been written about taverns and drinking in early America. And the people who frequented the taverns weren’t just plotting revolutionary activities, either; they were slamming down prodigious amounts as they fumed about the tea tax, the stamp act, and the other depredations of the British Empire.

Historians believe that the Americans of that era drank more than Americans of any other era. As one historian put it: “Revolutionary War era persons drank a phenomenal amount. We have here an account of a gentleman’s average consumption: ‘Given cider and punch for lunch; rum and brandy before dinner; punch, Madeira, port and sherry at dinner; punch and liqueurs with the ladies; and wine, spirit and punch till bedtime, all in punchbowls big enough for a goose to swim in.'” 

A few years ago, a blogger decided to try to keep pace with the daily intake of the colonials and wrote about his experience. He survived, and his account of his well-lubricated quasi-colonial day is worth the read, but I wouldn’t recommend trying to duplicate the experiment.

People obviously should be mindful of what they are drinking and how much, but at least there may be some comfort in the fact that what is happening in the boozing department now doesn’t really hold a candle to our Revolutionary War-era ancestors. At the same time, we also should recognize that those dawn-to-dusk drinkers produced the Declaration of Independence, organized the Boston Tea Party, convinced the French to support their cause, and ultimately defeated the most powerful nation on Earth. It should make us admire the “founding fathers” all the more.

Comic Relief

In the midst of a cold, dreary winter and a continuing pandemic and quasi-lockdown, I really enjoy a good laugh now and then. So lately I’ve been trying to use Facebook to join groups where the posts are likely to give me a smile.

My two favorite comic strips, ever, are The Far Side and Calvin and Hobbes. That opinion apparently is shared by many people out there in social media land, because there are lots of Facebook groups just for fans of those classics from days gone by, where the participants can post favorite selections from those legendary strips. By joining the groups, I now get a regular feed of Gary Larson’s takes on cows and dogs and insects and scientists, and Bill Watterson’s treatment of Calvin’s Mom and Dad and disgusted friend Suzy again. And a recent post made me remember how much I enjoyed the Calvin snowmen strips like the one above — which seems apt, right now, with those of us in Columbus being in the middle of a frigid, snowy period.

Social media obviously has some pluses, and just as obviously has a lot of minuses, too. I figure it makes sense to reorient and exert some personal control and direction over the whole Facebook experience, mix some humor in with the politics and the ads, and try to put the social media world to better use.

The Shovelton Workout

We got a lot of snow overnight — by Columbus standards, at least — and walking was impracticable, so this morning’s exercise consisted of shoveling our front steps, the sidewalk, and the brick walkway to our backyard.

I’d be in much better shape if I had to shovel snow every day, although I’m certainly glad I don’t need to do so. It involves just about every form of exercise you can think of — bending, scraping, lifting, and then turning to hurl the snow from the shovel to your snow mound. And at our house you get your steps in, too, because there is only one plausible snow mound area and you end up lifting the snow on the shovel and carefully carrying it to that one accumulation point to be tossed onto the pile.

Why hasn’t somebody invented an exercise device that approximates shoveling snow? You could call it the Shovelton. Workout participants would don their winter coats, hats, and gloves, grab the Shovelton shovel, and shovel away. The screen could add urgency by showing an approaching garbage truck, requiring you to quickly clear a path to roll out your recycling bin, and you could up your workout by choosing the “plowed street” option, in which the snowplow has deposited huge mounds of snow and cinders that block your sidewalk and driveway and must be cleared away so you can get to work on time.