Hot Shot

I like spicy food. In my never-ending quest for heat, when I go out to eat I’ve gotten in the habit of asking what kind of hot sauces the restaurant has available. I’m always on the lookout for something new and good to add to the home refrigerator hot sauce collection.

Yesterday I tried Yellowbird Habanero Condiment for the first time. My technique for sampling Yellowbird, like any newly discovered hot sauce, is to start first with trying it on french fries, then moving to liberal application to the sandwich if the sauce passes muster. I think a bit of caution is prudent when you’re talking about unknown, random hot sauces. That way, if the sauce doesn’t hit the spot, I only lose a few fries and not the entire sandwich.

I’m happy to report that the Yellowbird sauce gets an enthusiastic thumbs-up from me. It’s on the hotter end of the heat scale, but not so far that it could be featured on a Man vs. Food episode. It gave just enough to give the food some zing, paired well with both the fries and my fried chicken sandwich, and provided the incentive for a slug of cold beer. It had very good flavor, too, which is something some hot sauces neglect in their quest for unendurable, crippling fieriness. And it left my lips with a pleasant heat level when the dining is done, which is another telltale sign of a good sauce.

I’ll be looking for Yellowbird in my neighborhood grocery store.

Butter Coffee?

I’m an old fuddy-duddy with respect to some things–like reasonable napkin size at restaurants, for example–butt I am willing to try something new now and then. And when I saw that this food truck offered “butter coffee,” which certainly sounds like a weird combination to me, I felt like I had to give it a taste.

Butter coffee is exactly what it sounds like: black, fresh roasted coffee blended with “grass fed unsalted butter” and “cold pressed organic MCT coconut oil.” The woman working in the truck noted that it is popular with the keto/low-carb diet crowd. And it tastes like what you would expect when butter is melted into coffee. It is buttery, for sure, but the combination of the butter and the coconut oil cuts against the bitterness and blackness of the coffee. It’s a pretty smooth drink that tastes somewhat like buttered popcorn, and I finished all of it.

It would not be a favorite of people who like sweets, for sure, but I could see getting it again.

A Tipping Point

Yesterday we went to a restaurant. When we sat down after finding our way to a table on our own (“Sit anywhere you like,” the hostess helpfully said) we were confronted by this increasingly familiar QR code item on the tabletop. I’ve been in restaurants before where you use the scanning feature of your cellphone to connect in order to call up the menu.

But this scanning feature was more extensive. You not only called up the menu, you placed your order yourself–hitting a “send to kitchen” button when you were done–and then proceeded to pay for the order, entering in our credit card information on the key buttons of our phone. But when I got to the “tipping point,” where I would put in a gratuity for our waitress, I was stumped.

What is the proper tip amount under these circumstances? By the time I was entering the tip amount, our waitress had literally done nothing; the whole process had been entirely self-serve. By tipping at the outset, there was no connection whatsoever between wait staff performance and the tip, to say nothing of the fact that many of the traditional wait staff duties–providing menus, offering helpful information about what was good, presenting the bill and receiving payment–were being done electronically. We didn’t really interact with our waitress until she brought the food.

I still gave the waitress a good tip, because I appreciate anybody who is working under these circumstances, but not as much of a tip as I would under normal circumstances, when the waitress would offer the full array of services and I wouldn’t have to do 80 percent of the work. Is there a new normal for tipping under these circumstances?

White Paint, Squared

Scientists at Purdue University have created the whitest white paint ever made–a paint so white it has been recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as the whitest paint in history. (Who would have thought there was even such a category?)

This isn’t of interest to only those people who like to go to paint stores to get those little paint squares and then debate whether their ceilings should be painted in eggshell, or pearl, or alabaster. The whole point of the whitest paint invention process was to try to develop a paint that could actually conserve energy, and thereby address climate change, by making a paint that is as reflective of sunlight as possible. As scientists worked on the problem, they discovered that sunlight reflection and dazzling whiteness went hand in hand.

The new paint is much more reflective than commercially available white paint–bouncing back 98.1 percent of solar radiation–and it also emits infrared heat. As a result, a surface coated with the paint, such as a roof, or the walls of a house, becomes cooler than the surrounding temperature. Using the paint therefore could help to cool buildings and reduce the need for air conditioners and their power consumption, which could relieve the pressure on the nation’s already taxed power grid and the environmental effects associated with generation of electric power.

It’s a pretty ingenious, and painless, way of conserving energy. And who knew? It turns out that inventing a brilliant new white paint is a lot more exciting than watching paint dry.

The Job Hoppers

In 1977, Johnny Paycheck released Take This Job And Shove It, a country tune about a factory worker who quit his job after his woman left him. The song struck a chord in those of us who were working at the time and became a kind of popular anthem about worker dissatisfaction and boldly telling off the boss as you walked out on your old job.

Recently, many workers apparently have taken Johnny Paycheck’s lyrics to heart, because Americans are leaving their jobs in record numbers. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in September 2021 the “quit rate” among American workers hit a new high of 3 percent. In the leisure and hospitality sector of the economy, the quit rate in September was 6.4 percent. In all, more than 20 million workers quit their jobs between May and September, 2021.

Experts are trying to determine what’s causing the increase in quitting, and employers are trying to figure out how long it will last–and what they need to do to attract new workers to fill the vacancies. Some experts think that the COVID pandemic is a factor, with workers leaving because of concerns about contracting the virus (or, alternatively, unvaccinated workers quitting in the face of vaccination requirements)–but the quit rate has been steadily increasing for the past decade, since long before the pandemic hit.

It seems pretty clear that a combination of factors are at play, such as better information about available jobs, a financial cushion created by stimulus payments that allows disgruntled workers to quit and look for another job without starving, remote work options that have opened up jobs for faraway employers, and a general perception that there is a strong job market and finding a new, better job is not going to be difficult. The latter point is important: one reason for the decade-long growth in the quit rate is that the rate hit historic lows during the Great Recession, when workers held on to their jobs with both hands. It’s therefore not surprising that the current rate is a lot higher than it was in 2009.

In the American economy, there’s always going to be movement among jobs. Economists speak of “entry-level” jobs for a reason: people enter the workforce, take a low-paying job, and then start looking for a better one. Employees have never been shy about looking for a better position that allows them to move up the ladder, find a fulfilling career, and live a happy life. And people who are chronic “grass is always greener” job-hoppers early in their working lives often settle in to long-term positions when they create families and assume family-related obligations.

The big issue now seems to be whether there is an attitudinal shift among workers, making them more likely to be dissatisfied and quit. And employers wonder whether these elusive workers are focused on benefits, or work conditions, or home-life balance, or concerns about individual well-being, or just the issues involved in having a boss, period. When you’re trying to fill holes in your workforce and build a corps of employees that doesn’t have constant turnover, these are crucial questions–and right now, the answers aren’t clear.

The Dangers Of Debris

On November 11, the International Space Station (“ISS”) had to make an unplanned course correction. A supply ship docked to the station had to fire its rockets for about six minutes to change the station’s speed and raise its orbit slightly so the ISS could avoid striking a large piece of space debris that could have damaged the ISS and imperiled the crew of astronauts and cosmonauts on board.

Unfortunately, the space around the Earth is getting increasingly crowded. In fact, it has become a kind of junkyard up there. In the November 11 incident, the ISS dodged a part of a Chinese weather satellite that was destroyed in 2007 by a Chinese anti-satellite missile test.  It doesn’t help that governments are blasting their own satellites into smithereens, adding to the existing debris fields. The article linked above notes that the 2007 missile test smashed the Chinese weather satellite “into more than 3,500 pieces of debris, most of which are still orbiting” and many of which “have now fallen into the ISS’s orbital region.”

And governments are continuing to use their satellites for target practice, notwithstanding the risks. Just this week, the Russian government conducted a missile tests on one of its old satellites that created more than 1,500 pieces of trackable orbital debris that required the crew of the ISS to take shelter in their return ships. When the United States protested what it called a “dangerous and irresponsible” missile test, the Russians blithely replied that they were tracking the debris it created and claimed that the safety of the ISS crew was their “main priority.” Of course, in this case actions speak a lot louder than words.

Incidentally, the target for the Russian missile strike was an intelligence satellite that the now-defunct Soviet Union launched in 1982 that has been inoperative for decades. When you consider all of the old satellites that are in orbit around Earth, you realize it’s a target-rich environment for trigger-happy governments. And the overcrowding and debris problem gets worse with every new launch of a communications satellite to support cellphone and internet services.

We’ve got to figure out a way to address the space debris problem so the ISS, and the space stations to come, aren’t unnecessarily put in danger. Step one would be to get governments to address to stop blasting their own old satellites and littering the orbital pathways with dangerous junk. Step two would be to reach agreement on an approach to retrieving the junk and defunct satellites and safely returning them to Earth. With all of the space-related activity that has been occurring recently, you’d think that governments could put their missiles aside for a while and reach agreement on a way to clear the near-Earth space and allow everyone to use it.

The Patriarch Rolls On

A very happy birthday to Uncle Mack today. He’s the patriarch–defined as the “male head of a family or tribe”–of our branch of the Webner family, and he celebrates a special birthday today. Of course, when you reach such an advanced age, pretty much every birthday is a special one.

Patriarchs have two crucial functions. The first is to live as long as possible, and thereby relieve younger people from the burdens of patriarch designation. Uncle Mack has fulfilled that function admirably: he’s been the family patriarch for nearly 25 years and seems pretty darned comfortable in that role. In the Webner clan where, historically, the men unfortunately have not lived to a ripe old age, Uncle Mack’s longevity is especially noteworthy. It opens new vistas of retirement opportunity for the rest of us guys.

The second patriarchal function is to pass your wisdom down to younger generations. Uncle Mack has done a good job in that category as well. He’s not only shared the lessons learned from a lifetime of experience–as well as his candid opinions on just about anything–he’s also been an invaluable source of family lore. And his willingness to always try new things, whether it’s acting, playing in a jazz combo, or taking on a legal writing job well into his 70s, is itself a valuable bit of teaching.

Happy birthday to the Patriarch! May you have many, many more.

Waiting On The Winds

Some things seem to take forever . . . but nothing seems to take as long as the release of the next book in the A Song Of Ice And Fire series, on which the Game of Thrones TV show was based. Called The Winds Of Winter, its release date has been repeatedly delayed.

Multiple presidential elections have come and gone. The HBO series hit the pinnacle of popularity and ended. Pandemics have swept the face of the globe. And still A Song Of Ice And Fire readers wait, and wait, and wait — like the poor unfortunates who are trying to get out of Africa that the narrator describes at the beginning of Casablanca.

Author George R.R. Martin has taken progressively longer to release the next volume in the series. The first book was published in 1996 (that’s 25 years ago, but who’s counting?), the second in 1998, the third in 2000, the fourth in 2005, and the fifth in 2011. In short, fans of the series have been waiting for a full decade for the next book. We’ve been waiting so long, in fact, that I’ve written before–six years ago–about the delayed publication date, and we don’t seem to be any closer to an actual release of the book. And The Winds Of Winter isn’t even the last book in the series!

Why do fans care about this? After all, some would point out, the HBO series told us how the story ends. But the books are much richer in detail in their description of Westeros and its inhabitants and their culture, with important characters who never even made it on the TV show screen. And while I’m not as negative as some are about the ending of the HBO series, I’d like to see how the creator of this compelling world wraps up the story. Of course, I’ll have to go back and reread the prior books when The Winds Of Winter comes out, just to make sure that I am fully recalling all of the different plot threads.

So, when is the next book coming out? No one but Martin really knows, but the speculation is that it will hit the bookstores in November 2023–a mere two years away. Having waited for a decade, I guess I can endure another two years.

Or three, or four . . . .

When Browns Colors Prevail

It’s a pretty time of year, in central Ohio, with the trees turning into a blaze of colors and lots of dry rustling leaves to shuffle through on the sidewalks. But it’s an especially grand time of year for Cleveland Browns fans like me, because we see a lot of orange and brown wherever we look. It’s as if the trees in Schiller Park are representing for Cleveland and coming out loud and proud as Browns Backers.

Speaking of the Browns, they’ve got a huge game today against the New England Patriots, with lots of playoff implications. Because nothing ever seems to go the Browns’ way, they’ll be playing without their star running back Nick Chubb, who has been ruled out of the game due to COVID protocols.

Once again, the Browns will have to overcome all kinds of obstacles. That’s why I’m glad to see the trees rooting for Cleveland right now. The Browns need all the help they can get!

Despoiling The Spoilermakers

Yesterday’s game against the Purdue Boilermakers promised to be a challenging match-up. In recent years, Purdue has played Ohio State very tough–beating the Buckeyes on several occasions that still stick in the craw of Buckeye Nation–and the Boilermakers had already beaten two top three-rated teams this year when they knocked off Iowa and Michigan State. That’s why Purdue is now recognized as the “Spoilermakers.”

But Ohio State fans needn’t have worried. The Buckeye offense roared back to life and quickly put Purdue into a deep hole, thanks to big plays and some mistakes by Purdue that gave the Buckeyes short fields. The halftime score had Ohio State up 45-17–after the game, Ohio State Coach Ryan Day called that, with admirable understatement, “a heck of a score”–and the Buckeyes went on to win 59-31.

Ohio State’s offensive numbers were ridiculously gaudy across the board. C.J. Stroud was 31 of 38 for 361 yards and five touchdowns. Ohio State ran the ball 31 times for 263 yards, averaging an absurd 8.5 yards a carry. Garrett Wilson had a 51-yard touchdown run and caught three touchdown passes. With numbers like that against a solid team, you’re going to win most games, even if your defense gives up 390 yards through the air, as the Buckeyes did yesterday.

As Russell and I watched the game, it came home to me again and again how Ohio State now plays a kind of football that past generations of scarlet and gray-clad fans wouldn’t recognize. Those of us who became members of Buckeye Nation during the Woody Hayes “old buttoned shoe” era of full-house backfields and run-dominated offenses can still hear his inner voice counseling in favor of constant runs when you’ve got the lead, but the college game has changed. You’re not going to score 45 points in a half with grind-it-out football, and you’re not going to attract the highly rated “skill position” recruits with that scheme, either. The reality is that Ohio State has morphed into a quarterback and wide receiver oriented offense that has great running backs, too, and when everything is clicking, as it was yesterday, their offense is both fun to watch and hard to stop.

But even if Coach Hayes might shake his head at what Ohio State’s offense has become, he would understand the schedule. Ohio State has two of the toughest games of the season yet to go, against Michigan State and its powerhouse running game, and then up in Ann Arbor against That Team Up North. Both of the Michigan squads are 9-1 on the season and harbor hopes of knocking off the Buckeyes and going to the Big Ten championship game and perhaps, the College Football Playoff.

Woody would tell you that, whatever happens with the Ohio State offense, the defense will need to play better to bring home victories in those two games–and he would be right.

Caught On Morton’s Fork

We’ve all had to make decisions in circumstances where we’ve got no good options. We’re confronted by a true dilemma, weighing the frying pan versus the fire, and stuck between the proverbial rock and a hard place, with no good way out. Philosophers might describe the situation as Morton’s Fork: a choice between two equally unpleasant alternatives.

As the article linked above explains, that name “comes from the tax-collecting practices of John Morton, Archbishop of Canterbury and Lord Chancellor under Henry VII. He reasoned that anyone who was living extravagantly was rich, and so could afford high taxes, whereas anyone who was living frugally had saved a lot, and so could afford high taxes.”  In other words, you’ve got to pay the tax man, no matter how you decide to live your life. (Morton’s stated philosophy suggests that the views of tax collectors haven’t changed much since the days of Henry VII, incidentally.)

A man in Brazil was faced with Morton’s Fork and put in a no-win situation recently while fishing on a lake with friends. The fishermen were attacked by a swarm of bees in their boat. And while normally the option of jumping into the lake to avoid being repeatedly stung by bees would be a good one, unfortunately this particular lake was home to piranha–those flesh-eating fish whose frenzied feeding can quickly strip a cow or a human to the bone.

So what did the guy do? He jumped in the lake to avoid the bees and was eaten by piranha. It’s not clear whether the eating occurred before or after he drowned–which would have been another unpleasant tine on Morton’s fork.

Sometimes life comes at you fast.

The Upward Downward Spiral

The Labor Department reported earlier this week that the Consumer Price Index–which attempts to quantify prices of a broad swaths of goods and services in the American economy–increased 0.9 percent in October, resulting a 6.2 percent increase in the CPI since last year. That’s the highest annual increase in the CPI in more than 30 years, since December 1990. And the CPI increase measured in some metropolitan areas was even worse: the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported, for example, that the CPI increase in that area was 7.9 percent, the highest increase in any city in the country.

It’s pretty clear that inflation is back as an area of significant economic concern. Just hearing that word sends a shudder of dread through those of us who lived through the high inflation period of the ’70s and early ’80s and the belt-tightening days when the Federal Reserve took draconian steps to halt the inflationary spiral and wring the constant price increases out of the economy.

The big question right now is just how persistent the inflationary spiral will be. The Federal Reserve says we’re in the midst of “transitory” price increases, but the most recent CPI data has increased market skepticism of that rosy outlook. The data showed price increases pretty much across the board, and not limited to more volatile areas that can react to temporary shortages, like fuel and food. Even if food and fuel prices are stripped out of the analysis, leaving only “core CPI” to be considered, prices are rising at a 4.6 percent annual clip, which is the highest “core CPI” rate since August 1991.

Even worse, the Labor Department reported that the CPI surge meant that real wages, after inflation, fell 0.5 percent from September to October. That’s a familiar scenario for those of us who lived through the country’s last big inflationary period, in which wage hikes and salary increases never quite seemed to catch up with the CPI. In those days, the upward spiral in prices put many people into a downward spiral in terms of their personal finances and debt situation and really hurt seniors and others living on fixed incomes.

Perhaps the Fed and Treasury officials who reassuringly contend that the inflation spike is temporary will turn out to be right–but what we’ve been reading about “supply chain” seems calculated to feed into more price increases, not less, and shortages that the law of supply and demand dictates will produce higher price tags as we head into the holidays. We need to do something about inflationary pressures and fix the supply chain problems before we find ourselves trapped in another upward-downward spiral.

On The Eleventh Minute Of the Eleventh Hour Of The Eleventh Day Of The Eleventh Month

On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918, the armistice between the Allies and Germany took effect, and World War I thereby ended. Ever since, the Allied nations have remembered that day–known as Remembrance Day in France, Belgium, and the British Commonwealth nations, and first as Armistice Day, and later as Veterans Day, in the United States. By tradition, those countries observe a moment of silence on the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month to commemorate the fallen and the wounded.

Why all the elevens? It’s pretty clear that the armistice wasn’t delayed in order to achieve a symmetry of numbers; both the Allies and their opponents were exhausted and depleted by years of bloody fighting and were more than ready for it to stop as soon as possible. In fact, many of the opposing powers–including the Ottoman Empire, the Austro-Hungarian empire, and Bulgaria–had reached armistices with the Allies before November 11; only Germany was a holdout. The armistice with the German Empire was finally reached at 5:10 a.m. on November 11 and was to take effect at 11 a.m., to allow the news and cease fire orders to be transmitted to the troops on the front line.

By then, choosing the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month as the time for the fighting to stop must have had a poetic quality that was impossible to resist. The concept of the “eleventh hour” as the very last point at which something can be done has long been a part of western civilization. It finds its roots in the parable of the workers in the vineyard, recounted in Matthew 20:1-16. Those hired early in the day agreed to work for a denarius a day and, after working for a full day, were upset when those hired later in the day–including at the eleventh hour–were paid the same amount. (For those unfamiliar with the parable, the vineyard owner holds the early workers to their agreement and says he gets to decide what to do with his money and concludes with the phrase: “For many are called, but few are chosen,” which also became a well-known phrase.)

By the time November 11, 1918 arrived, the participants in World War I probably felt that they had reached the last point at which something could be salvaged. By then, millions of soldiers and civilians had died in what was easily the bloodiest war ever fought to that point, and many of those who survived were left horribly wounded by gas attacks, lost body parts, and the traumas of trench warfare and shell shock. Dynasties were toppled, and the old ways of fighting gave way to the new, with World War I ushering in the era of tanks, and aerial warfare, and poison gas. By the time the war ended entire generations had been brutally decimated, and the desperate participants no doubt wondered why they had decided to fight the pointless war in the first place.

In short, they had reached their “eleventh hour.” It seems fitting that that is when the war effectively ended.

Trying To Quantify The Impact Of Bad Calls

Every fan of a football team, college or pro, has complained about officiating and bad calls against their team at some point. Fans of the Cleveland Browns are no different. Many Browns Backers are absolutely convinced that the refs simply don’t call the game fair and square and that the bad calls–or the no-calls, in the case of the stubborn refusal of game officials to call the obvious holds on Myles Garrett–always seem to go against the Browns.

Now a frustrated Browns fan has performed a data-oriented analysis of penalties and, not surprisingly, he has concluded that the Browns have been hurt more than any other team in the NFL by flags. He’s used the information about the number and circumstances of penalties to calculate the impact in terms of EPA, for expected points added, with respect to each penalty assessed against a team. His analysis indicates that the Browns–who have been whistled for 64 penalties, compared to only 45 against the Browns’ opponents–have lost a net of 3.5 EPA per game due to the yellow flags. To make matters worse, the analysis indicates that the team that has benefited the most from penalties is the Pittsburgh Steelers, who have a positive EPA impact of almost 3.

Does this prove that the striped shirts have it in for the Browns? Not so fast! Some of the penalties against the Browns–like the three lining up offside penalties against the defense in the game against the Bengals–are clearly correct calls, and no one should be heard to complain about those. It’s also possible that the Browns are just undisciplined, and fans can definitely think of times when players lost their cool and made stupid plays. The issue is whether the refs are making more bad calls against the Browns than they do against other NFL teams, and that is really hard to quantify objectively.

The EPA analysis is interesting, but I don’t think it proves that the refs are biased against the Browns–although some Browns fans clearly will argue that it does. In my view what it does show is that the Browns need to specifically focus on avoiding the dumb penalties and the undisciplined penalties, because the number of penalties they are racking up are really hurting them. If they can do that, I’ll take my chances on a bad call now and then.

Confirming The Obvious

Sometimes you have to wonder why certain medical studies get done in the first place. They don’t seem to do anything but confirm what should be obvious truths about personal health and well-being.

For example, you’ve known since you were a kid that going outside and getting some exercise is good for you. You probably first learned that when your Mom walked past the family room, saw you and your brother sitting cross-legged on the floor watching cartoons, and marched in, turned off the TV, and told the two of you in no uncertain terms to go outside, “get some fresh air,” and play with your neighborhood friends for a while. And in this, as in all things, motherly wisdom was unerring: cartoons were great, but messing around outside with your friends and playing football or riding bikes or exploring the neighborhood was even more fun.

And. not surprisingly, Mom was right about the benefits of getting that “fresh air” and exercise, too–as a new medical study confirms. The study looked at the impact of the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, when stay at home orders first took effect. It found that people who spent more time sitting during that time period–because they weren’t walking to their workplaces, or their cars, or conference rooms for in-person meetings, or to lunch with their officemates–were more likely to have higher symptoms of depression. And, of course, the depressive effect is in addition to (although possibly correlated with) the rise in obesity during the more sedentary work from home days of the pandemic.

The researchers of this latest “confirming the obvious” health study recommend that people working from home focus on getting off their duffs and finding ways to build some walking and outdoor time into their days, such as by taking walks before their workday starts, at a designated lunch hour, and after the workday has ended. It’s exactly the kind of instruction your Mom would have given.