Maine Stamps

In our family, Kish is the designated “postal person.” She goes to the Stonington post office and drops off and picks up our mail, she addresses and licks all envelopes, and she applies the stamps. (In case you are wondering, this division of labor was established long before Seinfeld exposed the dangers of licking cheap envelope glue.)

That means Kish selects the stamps, too—including our current set of Maine stamps, which are part of the “USA forever” series. The Maine stamp is a nice rendering of a rugged, rocky Maine coastline that easily could have been painted somewhere on Deer Isle. As stamps go, it’s a keeper.

Since I haven’t looked carefully at stamps for years, when I checked out the Maine stamps I was surprised that no money value is indicated on the individual stamps. When did that happen?

The Delta Variant

The Delta Variant. It sounds like the title of a bad Robert Ludlum or Tom Clancy novel, doesn’t it? And according to the news reports it is lurking out there, ready to pounce, and threatening to propel us into a mask-wearing, social distancing, stay-inside-your-house reprise of what we went through in 2020–like the situation found in Australia, where a Wall Street Journal article recently argued that the governmental COVID responses have returned the Land Down Under to its roots as a nation of prisoners.

Already we’re starting to see signs of what might lie ahead. This week the CDC and the Biden Administration reversed course on mask-wearing, saying even fully vaccinated people should wear masks indoors in places with high COVID transmission rates. Only two months ago, the CDC said fully vaccinated people didn’t need to wear masks indoors. The CDC also recommends that everyone in grade schools–kids, teachers, staff, and visitors,–wear masks even if they are fully vaccinated. And the CDC’s abrupt reversal seems to presage additional policy shifts and concerns coming up. The CNBC article darkly warns: “The updated guidance comes ahead of the fall season, when the highly contagious delta variant is expected to cause another surge in new coronavirus cases and many large employers plan to bring workers back to the office.”

What caused the CDC to change its mind, again? The CNBC article linked above quotes CDC Director Rochelle Walensky as saying the change is based on “new science” and data showing that the delta variant behaves “uniquely differently from past strains of the virus,” suggesting that some vaccinated people “may be contagious and spread the virus to others.” But the description of the rationale sounds very contingent and conditional–and, frankly, perhaps the result of some guesswork. There seems to be healthy disagreement in the medical profession about just how dangerous the delta variant really is. And there definitely is disagreement about how to deal with COVID and kids, as a recent New York magazine article demonstrated.

Here’s the issue, as I see it: our health care experts and politicians don’t seem to realize that their credibility isn’t what it once was. They seem weirdly panicky and overly protective, and willing to reverse course and make sweeping decisions that disrupt the lives of millions on the basis of untested models and supposition, rather than hard science. They also don’t seem to take into account the cost and impact of their suggestions, whether it is the mental health impact of isolating people due to shutdowns, the health effect of breathing through masks for hours on end, or the economic effect of restrictions on activities. And their latest change also undercuts the impetus for the crucial public health initiative of encouraging COVID vaccination. Some who haven’t been vaccinated will reason that if even fully vaccinated people need to wear masks to protect the unvaccinated, what’s the point of vaccination in the first place? And if protecting the unvaccinated is the goal, how long will this latest round of mask-wearing rules last?

It’s obviously not ideal that there is growing distrust of the public health authorities and politicians, but it’s important that those people recognize that the distrust and skepticism and resistance to sweeping edicts exists, and won’t be going away. If autumn brings new calls for lockdowns to deal with the delta variant, the general level of skepticism about the need for that kind of draconian action will be heightened–and I expect that the level of acceptance and compliance among the general population will be affected, too.

What Will Get You Back To The Theater?

We haven’t been to a movie in . . . well, I don’t know how long. At least 18 months, and probably a lot longer. Like everyone else, we’ve been homebound, and theaters have been closed, and nothing that’s been shown since theaters have reopened has really sufficiently piqued our interest.

Until I saw this trailer for Ghostbusters: Afterlife. The original Ghostbusters is one of my all-time favorite movies. The sequel was okay, but it didn’t really compare to the original. And the remake didn’t tempt me, either.

But this one? Well, it looks like it might just be channeling the spirit of the initial movie. And come Thanksgiving, I might just find myself in a movie theater seat for the first time in a few years, just to see whether the movie itself lives up to the preview.

I’d say it’s time to get back to the theaters, anyway. Don’t you think?

America’s Tailpipe

Some Mainers say their state is like “America’s tailpipe.” With prevailing winds blowing from the west, the exhaust fumes from daily life in other states head east and often find their way to the skies above Maine before spilling out over the Atlantic.

We had evidence of the “tailpipe” experience last night, when photo above was taken. We suspect that some of the smoke billowing from the enormous Bootleg wildfires in California, Oregon, and Washington has been blown to our neck of the woods in coastal Maine, creating a dense layer of haze that shrouded the sun. The sun was like an orange pumpkin in the sky; you could look directly at it, and it cast an orange shimmer on the ocean waters below. The haze was so thick that at the horizon, where the filter of haze was the greatest, the sunset was entirely blocked from view.

“America’s tailpipe” is subject to an air advisory today, with an AQI of 101, which means the air is unsafe for specific sensitive groups. Our experience with haze shows how we are all connected by virtue of the environment, and why wildfire problems out west should concern us all.

Clam Hoes And Shedders

When you spend times in a different part of the country, often you learn new things.

Consider, for example, the evil-looking items being sold by an antique store in town. With long, sharp tines and short handles, they don’t look at all like innocent gardening tools. To the contrary, they look like the sort of implements Freddie Krueger or Jason would happily use to send witless teenagers to their painful, impaled demise.

So, what are they, exactly? As the hand-lettered sign explains, they are clam hoes—ideal for digging deep into the soft muck in the mudflats when the tide goes out and raking clams to the surface.

“Shedders” are another story—literally. The local newspaper ran a front page article, with photo, announcing that “shedders are in!” That’s big news in Stonington, because many locals contend that “shedders”—lobsters that have just molted their old, hard shell and are growing a new, softer-for-the-time-being shell—have sweeter meat and are the best eating lobsters of all.

We’re going to a lobster boil tonight, and if I draw a shedder—which you can identify because the shell can be easily cracked by hand—I’ll see if I can taste the difference. I am learning about local tools and terms, but my lobster palate may remain uneducated.

Our New Downtown Bench

When civic improvements come to Stonington, sometimes they are on the smaller side. So it is with this new bench, which has been placed below one of the granite outcroppings next to the Dry Dock shop, on the western side of downtown. The new bench is a sturdy one that features some quality craftsmanship and a seat that can handle posteriors of all shapes and sizes.

A new bench might be a small improvement, but it is by no means an insignificant one. In any town that welcomes tourists, having plenty of benches where visitors can have a seat and enjoy the sights is a “must.” And having a bench near some of the shops is smart placement that helps the local merchants. Couples that don’t have equally zealous interests in shopping can split up, and the shopper can take her time and do a thorough canvas of the stores, secure in the knowledge that the non-shopper has a comfortable place to sit, check their messages, and look out at the activity in the harbor. And if two couples are visiting town together, the bench is spacious enough to accommodate two non-shoppers who’d rather sit and talk.

The bench fills a decided need in the western part of town, which had been bench-deprived until now. Previously, all of the seating was at the eastern edge and center of downtown, to accommodate the groups of ice cream eaters and 44 North coffee drinkers, and the folks waiting on a table at the Harbor Cafe. Now the western side has a place where visitors can take a load off, too.

Million-Dollar Students

I guess I realized that the Supreme Court case upholding a lower court’s invalidation of certain NCAA rules, and the decision by the NCAA to changes its rules to allow student athletes to earn income from their name, image and likeness, would change the world of college sports forever. I just didn’t realize how fast it would happen,

The magnitude of the change was crystallized for me when Alabama’s head football coach, Nick Saban, announced recently that the team’s new quarterback, Bryce Young, is nearing a million dollars in payments on various NIL deals. Young is a sophomore who has never started a game—but he’s going to play quarterback for the defending national champions, and now he’s going to be rich. Young signed with an agency when the NCAA loosened its rules to allow athletes to receive NIL compensation so long as they comply with applicable state law, and Young happens to play in a state, Alabama, where the law allows him to receive such compensation. More than half of the states have enacted similar laws, and Ohio is one of them. (It’s amazing how quickly legislatures can act when something important like college football is involved, isn’t it?)

The ramifications of some college athletes making huge sums in endorsements are mind-boggling. Of course, only the big revenue sports, like football and basketball, are likely to be significantly affected. If you’re a college football coach, I think it has made your job a lot harder. Now you’re not only going to be recruiting the star athletes on the basis of your school’s tradition, and facilities, and educational quality, and ability to prepare the athlete for life and a potential professional career–you’re also going to be noting how well some of your current and former athletes have done in the money game. And as a coach you might well also be recruiting local car dealers, insurance agencies, and other boosters to reach out to the sports agencies representing your athletes to sign up for endorsements, so your stars have marketing deals that are competitive with other athletes on other teams at other schools.

Part of the motivation for Savvy Old Coach Nick to mention Bryce Young’s million-dollar deals is no doubt to communicate that other stud players who are choosing between Alabama and other schools should come to the Crimson Tide to maximize their NIL value and enjoy a lucrative college education. This kind of news is bound to have an impact on competitiveness, because not all schools can offer the alumni and booster and endorsement base that is found at Alabama, or Ohio State, or the other perennial college football powers.

And finally, what does having a million-dollar quarterback who hasn’t even started a game do for internal team dynamics? How are the offensive linemen who aren’t likely to rack up endorsement deals, but are getting battered on every play, going to feel about the money discrepancy? Will savvy quarterbacks make sure that their endorsement deals include the big guys who are blocking for them? Will players try to establish their individual brands in on-field play to attract more attention and increase their NIL value? And how will players feel about having limited roles that might not be as noticeable to the endorsers, but crucial to the team’s potential success?

I don’t envy the college coaches who are dealing with these issues, and I wonder if the college sports world is going to look a lot different in the future. Who knows? The 2020 COVID season, with its weirdness and uncertainty and cancellations, might end up being the last “normal” college football season.

The Super-Rich In Space

This month we’ve seen a lot of seriously rich people leave the surface of the planet and journey to the edge of space. Earlier this month billionaire Richard Branson took a flight launched by Virgin Galactic–Branson’s company–to a height 50 miles above the Earth’s surface, and yesterday Jeff Bezos, who is even richer than Richard, rode a rocket launched by his space company, Blue Origin, to an even higher destination, 62 miles up. And let’s not forget fellow billionaire Elon Musk, who hasn’t traveled above the stratosphere, yet, but whose SpaceX venture has launched far more rockets and capsules, traveled farther, and advanced space technology more than Bezos’ or Branson’s companies put together.

Bezos’ flight is interesting, and not just because one of the world’s very richest men wore a space uniform and took the risk of a potentially fatal mishap. The Blue Origin flight also was piloted by the oldest person yet to fly into space–82-year-old Wally Funk, who was part of a NASA Women in Space program back in the ’60s–as well as the youngest person, who also was first Blue Origin’s paying customer. The paying customer was 18-year-old Oliver Daemen, whose Dad, a wealthy businessman, bought a seat for him. Oliver filled in for an anonymous person who had paid $28 million for a seat on the flight, then backed out due to “scheduling conflicts.” (Really? Somebody paid $28 million to take a trip into space, and then let “scheduling conflicts” delay their departure? Those must have been some pretty serious “scheduling conflicts”!)

Blue Origin hopes to help fund future flights, in part, through space tourism sales. It has announced that it is now officially selling tickets to future flights, and that it has made $100 million in sales so far. It’s not clear how much such tickets might cost, but it’s obvious that there is a market for a ride into space among some segments of the megarich, and their kids and other family members. And while it wasn’t a particularly long ride yesterday–the CNN article linked in the first paragraph above described the trip as allowing the passengers to experience “about three minutes of weightlessness, unstrapping from their seats and floating about the cabin while taking in panoramic views” before coming back down to a landing–it’s obviously an experience you can’t find anywhere else right now.

We often bemoan the lifestyles and luxuries enjoyed by the super-rich, but in this case I’ll gladly tip my cap to Musk, and Bezos, and Branson, and Oliver Daemen’s Dad, and the anonymous person with the “scheduling conflicts.” If the hyper-wealthy are willing to help fund private ventures in space, and are doing it, in part, so they can enjoy a joy ride to the edge of outer space, I’m all for that. I’d rather see the affluent putting their money down to help pay for new technology that will help us, collectively, move forward into space than frittering it away outbidding each other for Picassos. And, if space tourism is going to become a real thing, obviously the first passengers are going to pay a lot–but by doing so, we can hope that they will help to usher in an era when spaceflights become routine, costs decrease, and tickets are reasonably affordable for the rest of us.

Some Observations From The Road

We were on the great American highway a bit this weekend, traveling to and from a wedding in Pennsylvania. Here are some observations from the first big road trip we’ve taken this year.

• Lots of Americans are on the road this summer. Traffic was heavy on Friday, when we drove to the wedding, and Sunday, when we returned. It was even bumper-to-bumper in Maine. And the traffic wasn’t all semis or FedEx or Amazon delivery trucks, either: we saw lots of passenger vehicles, including many campers and RVs. (You tend to notice those big boys slowing down traffic on the hills.) That meant some long lines and frustrating stop-and-go traffic when we hit road work areas on Friday, so on Sunday we left early enough to breeze through those areas in light traffic. If you’re taking a road trip this weekend, see if you can identify highway work areas and time your travel accordingly.

Gas prices are definitely up, but there is a lot of variance in prices. In case you hadn’t noticed, the price of gas has increased. In some places, the price of a gallon of regular unleaded was more than twice as much as it was last fall when we drove from Maine to Columbus. But there’s a big range in prices as you roll from one area to another, whether due to supply problems in some areas, local taxes, or price wars. If you pay attention and are willing to stop before your fuel indicator hits “E,” you can save a few bucks.

Toll booths are an endangered species. Highways in the eastern U.S. used to be riddled with toll booths, and the long lines they caused. Now the toll booths are going the way of the dodo, and many of the toll booths we passed are in the process of being decommissioned and torn down. It’s not because states and highway administrations have given up on tolls, however: they’re just charging through EZ Pass and license plate photos followed by a mailed bills. Privacy advocates must hate this development, because it means detailed photographic records of American travel are being compiled and stored, somewhere. I’m not quite sure how the photo-and-bill approach makes economic sense, given the cost of postage, but I’m sure the tolls have been adjusted to reflect that. And in the meantime, states have cut toll collector salaries and related costs from their payrolls.

•. Gas station coffee quality continues to improve. If, like us, you like to hit the road early, here’s some good news: the coffee quality at the random gas stations you find along the highway is vastly improved. In the past, gas station coffee was either swill that tasted like it was dredged from the local muddy river or a thick, black, metallic-tasting sludge that had boiled down at the bottom of a pot that was kept on the burner too long. Now you can actually get a quality cup of coffee pretty much wherever you go, and all kinds of food and snacks, besides. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I saw a service station with actual service bays—they’ve all been glassed in and converted to roadside convenience stores. You won’t be able to get your tire fixed or your radiator checked by a guy named Hank wearing a grease-stained shirt, but you can enjoy multiple coffee options and hazelnut- or french vanilla-flavored creamer.

In Corn Country

Lewisburg is in the middle of the farm belt of Pennsylvania. As soon as you leave the town, heading in any direction, you’re likely to run into a well-tended farm and an interesting old barn. And the crop of choice is corn, which rustles in the breeze and looks quite scenic as the backdrop for a white fence.

It looks like this year’s crop is coming in pretty well.

Over The Susquehanna

We’re in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania for a wedding. Lewisburg is the home to Bucknell and is located along the west branch of the Susquehanna River. The Susquehanna is the longest river in the eastern United States and runs from a lake in New York through Pennsylvania and down to the Chesapeake Bay.

It was a moist, misty morning, and my view of the river as shown above reminded me of the Hudson River school of landscape painting. As it passes Lewisburg, the Sus is very wide and calm. It was quite a drop from the bridge to the surface of the water, though so I steered toward the inside lane as I walked across.

The Inflation Watch

The U.S. got some economic news yesterday that is designed to unsettle those of us with more than a few years under our belts. The Consumer Price Index rose 5.4 percent in June, year over year, which was higher than analyst expectations. It’s the highest year over year increase since 2008. And while economists expected some inflation—it’s hard to avoid when stimulus checks are being sent to millions and government spending has exploded—the magnitude of the increase shown by the June data was greater than the forecasts.

Inflation data can be broken down in many ways, because of course prices for all goods and services don’t rise at uniform rates. Some observers noted that the “core” inflation rate, which strips out more volatile food and energy costs, was 4.5 percent—the highest increase since November 1991. Others argue that the rates are being driven by increases in some sectors, like in the cost of used cars, that seem to be reflecting a short-term imbalance of supply and demand that will work itself out. And still others note that the energy sector, and the skyrocketing cost of fuel, will have a ripple effect that can be expected to drive further increases in other areas, like food and many consumer goods, where transportation costs are factored in to prices. Nobody quite knows what might be coming next month, or later this year.

If, like me, you lived through the ‘70s, news about growing inflation is like fingernails on a chalkboard. An inflationary cycle means your paychecks buy less, because pay increases never quite catch up to prices, and it means the money that you’ve carefully saved and invested is worth less—a result that punishes prudent and responsible behavior. Retirees and people on fixed incomes get crushed and find that their nest egg has become a lot smaller than they thought.

And we veterans of the ‘70s and early ‘80s also remember that the cure for inflation—high interest rates and tight monetary policy that consciously stifles economic growth and produces high unemployment rates—is no treat, either.

Economists will be watching to see if this price spike is transitory, or is the first sign that we are on the road to a bad long-term inflationary period. I’ll be watching, too, and hoping that our economy isn’t cycling back to the ‘70s mode.

Faceboss

I don’t really spend much time on Facebook. I post blog entries to my Facebook page, take a look at what’s on my page when I’m doing that, and try to pay attention to birthdays. But that’s about it.

But boy—do I ever get a lot of notices on Facebook. And a lot of those notices seem, well . . . pretty darned bossy. Facebook will tell me that it’s been x number of days since I’ve been to the page for a Facebook group I belong to. Facebook will call up old photos from years ago to say it was the most popular post of 2015, and ask if I want to post it again. Facebook will try to prod me to do x, y, or z using various Facebook tools. And sometimes, when one of my Facebook friends adds to their Facebook “story,” Facebook will notify me of that and explain that I can either respond or react to the new “story” post. No duh! It’s as if Facebook thinks I’ve got the mental abilities and savvy of a four-year-old and constantly need reminders and explanations to navigate through the Facebook World.

Of course, Facebook wants to encourage people to be on Facebook as much as possible—that’s how it makes money. And Facebook is also trying to monitor and curate the contents of its pages. But in our overly politicized world, where social media is a kind of public forum like the town square of days gone by, we need to be mindful of Facebook’s paternalism and somewhat overbearing attitude. As we move closer to the next set of elections, we’ll have to pay attention to how Facebook, and other social media sites, regulate their content, react to the simple expression of political views at all points on the vast American political spectrum, and instruct us about what they’ve done, and why.

I may need to be reminded to visit a group page I’ve neglected, but I don’t need to be told how, or what, to think. I’d like to believe I’m perfectly capable of sifting through the simple, unadorned political views expressed on social media and deciding for myself.

A Tale Of Three Boats

We visited Bar Harbor yesterday. Unlike Stonington, where virtually every boat in the harbor is a working lobster boat, there are a variety of different types of pleasure crafts docked in Bar Harbor.

I was struck by this scene of three boats docked side by side near the Bar Harbor Inn. The guy in the middle must have been feeling pretty good about himself when he eased his big, bright, gleaming boat into the harbor—until the huge yacht parked itself right next door. And some day, of course, the big yacht will be outdone when an even bigger super yacht shows up, because there’s always someone with a bigger boat, somewhere.

And what about the guy whose Boston Whaler looks like a shrimp in comparison to these two monsters? I bet he’s happy he’s not paying for their upkeep, storage, outfitting, maintenance, and crew. And I’d guess that he has more fun zipping around in his little boat than the other two boats combined.

Failing The Pie Test

The Washington Post recently ran a thought-provoking piece on its opinion pages about pie. That’s right, pie — the warm, flaky, delectable dessert concoction. The writer’s point is that America, which apparently invented pie, is letting its salutary contribution to the dessert realm wither away, because Americans are forgetting how to make a good pie crust.

The piece, while alarmist in tone, has a point. The crust of a pie is as important to the whole pie experience as a crisp, delicately flavored, non-doughy crust is to a fine pizza–which makes sense because it is a pizza pie, after all. As the writer notes, more and more Americans are buying store-bought crusts that aren’t up to snuff, and in her experience even professional artisanal bakeries aren’t producing the light and flaky pie crusts that her mother and grandmother routinely pulled from the oven during her childhood.

The notion that America may be losing its collective pie crust know-how is a very disturbing thought and, for those of us who have personally experienced piece crust artistry, cruel news, indeed. My grandmother made an excellent pie crust, and the Harbor Cafe here in Stonington produces some excellent graham cracker crusts to go with its famous banana cream pie. But there is no doubt that the knack of making a great crust is the kind of thing that could be lost forever if not carefully handed down from generation to generation or, alternatively, reinvigorated by a new generation focused on preserving this important American institution.

I like baking, but I’ve always limited myself to cookies. I have considered baking a good pie crust to be akin to climbing Mount Everest. I’m taking the Post piece as a kind of challenge, however. I like pie–apple pie, like the kind shown in the photo above, is my favorite–and I’m not willing to stand idly by and watch pie die. When the winter rolls around, and it’s prime baking season, I’m going to take a crack at some pie baking, and hope that some of that pie artistry was passed down in the family genes.