Note 22: Renovations

Introducing "This week in Biden".

Since the week before Thanksgiving, our home life has been turned upside down due to some home renovations we’ve started over the winter. This project started after our return from the JoCo Cruise in March revealed that our second-floor shower was leaking through to the kitchen ceiling below, and we elected to go ahead and overhaul that bathroom completely, instead of spending $2,000 to return it to the status quo. (Note that the project is an order of magnitude more than that $2K sum, but we’ll have a lot more to show for it - resale value!)

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In addition to overhauling the second-floor bathroom, we also decided to update the second-floor bar (the “Party Nook”) with an identical aesthetic to our kitchen that we remodeled a few years before. Knowing that we were going to do this, I kept the leftovers from the granite for the kitchen countertop (it’s been living behind a couch for the past couple years), so the mini-bar will be a literal kitchen outpost one floor up.

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Finally, we also decided to redo the master bathroom on the third floor, which needed the most attention. When we bought the place, we discovered some sketchy electrical work (a power strip spliced - not plugged - directly into the wall), an oversized Jacuzzi tub that we never used (and probably requires expensive maintenance), and a shower that’s pretty much falling apart.

We’re currently at the home stretch for the first two projects - we’re just waiting on towel racks from Amazon and the glass door for later this week, and the granite countertop for the bar next week, and then the contractors will demolish the third-floor master bathroom after the second floor’s is finished and we have one functional shower while the other one’s out of commission.

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It’s been a fun project, and I’ve gotten to play interior designer a bit. (I am not the person tiling, painting, etc. all of this I have to remind people.) The original intent was to capture the essence of a guest bathroom in a seaside Newport beach “cottage”. I originally wanted to do striped wallpaper to capture an early 20th century vibe, but was warned off due to the interaction between wall paper glue and shower steam. We evaluated painting the striped pattern instead, but the small space would seem smaller with that, so we settled on solid Cubbies Blue for the walls, a gray “sandy” tile for the floor and shower, and a pebbles for the shower floor itself. To keep the beach vibe, we purchased a wooden vanity from Wayfair for a very reasonable price, and went with brushed nickel fixtures for the faucets and other fixtures. Other than delays introduced by the holidays and COVID, the only major issue we’ve run into was being unable to get the original handheld shower we ordered due manufacturing issues. We may circle back to that one of these days in the name of consistency, but there’s no rush.

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As for the bar, I’ve missed it severely over the holidays. I missed having my sink readily available by the living room and migrating the contents of the bar cluttered the kitchen unnecessarily. Fortunately, the cabinets arrived and were installed last week and a lot of the glassware and “well liquors” have migrated there as well. Once the countertop is installed, I’ll be able to move my “top shelf” back up there and start to get organized once more. As for the master bathroom, that’s Holly’s project and she has a good relationship with Michelle, the main contractor contact. I’ve offered to be available if she wants any assistance picking stuff out, but I’m looking forward to switching to a more observer role as her bathroom is rebuilt over the next month or so.

This week in Biden

One of the more interesting things to watch during the Trump era was the transformation of people I knew from reluctant Trump-is-not-Hillary voters to full conductors on the #MAGA train. Pretty quickly, it seemed that any space to be pro-Trump, but anti-“specific things he does” evaporated pretty quickly, and any disagreement with elements of the Trump program were only evidence that you were a secret Socialist biding one’s time for Bernie to seize the reins of government, the means of production, and everyone’s guns.

Try as I might, I was unsuccessful in getting Trump supporters to admit where he was deviating from them (they would more often than not deviate themselves towards him, e.g. “mulligans”), and I eventually gave up. However, I did promise that as a enthusiastic Biden voter (not so much for what Biden was going to do, but for what he was replacing) I would demonstrate how one can vote for a candidate, generally support them, but still exercise a degree of independent thought. So this new section (which may not appear every week) will be me doing just that.

The good…

(In this first section, I’ll highlight what I think Biden - or his administration - did during the week that was good, productive, or needed doing.)

  • COVID realism: While it wasn’t one of the most cheerful moments, one of the first post-Inauguration videos of Biden that I caught was him speaking about the challenges we face with dealing with COVID and talking about how even if we did everything right at the moment, people who caught the virus today will show symptoms in a week, and it may be a couple of weeks before we see the deaths show up from people catching COVID now. It was a sobering moment, but it’s great to see a President deal with the pandemic as it is, as opposed to what they wish it might be instead.

  • Rejoining the Paris Accords: In the deleted draft of last week’s Note, I remarked that we’re past time of taking the difficult steps of weaning ourselves off fossil fuels and working toward alternative energy sources and materials. While I don’t think going cold turkey is an acceptable alternative to doing nothing (see my comments below on the Keystone XL pipeline), we’re at a point where we should be able to bootstrap ourselves up another rung of the energy ladder with renewables and smart nuclear energy. While the Paris Accords is largely symbolic - it’s a pledge to reduce greenhouse emissions without specifying any specific actions to do so - hitting our pledge should be something that’s a side effect to a larger research and development strategy where America should be leading the planet in energy science and engineering.

  • Push to rejoin and reinforce nuclear weapons treaties: I’m a fan of fewer people having the means to inflict the amount of damage that nuclear weapons do, and for America serving as an example to the rest of the world on how to make do with fewer. That was hard to do when we were bowing out of various arms control treaties. This is a good move in the right direction. (Now let’s get the Open Skies treaty back in action.)

  • “Buy American” executive order: I have no problem with the federal gov’t using its purchasing power to buoy American businesses and employ its acquisition process to achieve policy goals. The only change I would make to this is to favor businesses focused on becoming better at their trade in terms of process improvements and product improvements so that Uncle Sam is encouraging companies to innovate from within, so that they are not only more competitive for US gov’t bids, but also become more competitive on the global stage, absent a thumb on the scale from Washington.

… the bad…

(In this second section, I’ll discuss what Biden did that I thought was counter-productive, bad policy, or just wrong-headed.)

  • Pushing too hard and too early on immigration reform: While I have liked seeing Biden undo some of the injustices of the Trump era - especially with respect to DACA - I’d rather Biden have waited until he got a few more political wins under his belt - dealing with COVID, post-COVID economic recovery, Infrastructure Week - before jumping on wholesale immigration reform. I’m skeptical about the upsides and probability of success this early on, and I worry that it will only empower and embolden the Trumpist wing of the GOP instead of starving it of oxygen and letting it whither away in time for some decent GOP candidates to be able win primaries for the 2022 races. I’d rather see Biden tackle this piecemeal with individual pieces of legislation that more legislators will get behind (mandatory E-Verify, enshrining DACA into law, etc.) instead of trying to push everything as through the Obamacare of Immigration at the risk of achieving none of it. As a fan of Laws over Executive Orders, I don’t relish him losing his ability to get legislation through Congress because his immigration push empowered a bunch of Marjorie Taylor Greene wannabes at the expense of reasonable Republican and Democratic candidates.

  • Rushing to cancel the Keystone XL pipeline: While I was initially pleased to see Biden cancel the Keystone XL pipeline, I’ve flipped my position on this in the past week. In addition to killing a number of good jobs, it seems like it’s a symbolic victory at the expense of reinforcing the status quo, which are tanker trains traversing the same parts of the country to deliver the same product. From what I’ve read, the pipeline was a win in terms of energy efficiency and safety (both health and environmental), unless ultimate the goal is to prevent Canadians from using US rail infrastructure to transport crude oil. I don’t see that happening anytime soon, and I’d rather have crude oil transported via pipelines than trains.

… and the ugly.

(And in this last section, I’ll focus on the stupid stuff that comes out of the administration: Own Goals.)

  • Prolonged silence on the Portland and Seattle riots: On the night of Biden’s inauguration the rioters in Portland and Seattle started terrorizing their local communities again because Biden wasn’t progressive enough. I hadn’t seen any news or announcements of Biden’s team doing anything about this for the first few days, and given his administration’s (justified) push to investigate and eradicate domestic terrorism, there’s everything to gain, with little to lose, in setting loose the same FBI, DoJ, and other groups investigating the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys on the Leftists in Portland and Seattle. The Biden team finally denounced the rioters days later, but this should have been a quick and easy layup for Biden coming into the office.

  • Failing to adhere to own mask protocols: This may be on the sillier side, but the Biden family needs to be better at observing their new masking rules on federal property. I’m sure that a good amount of what I’m seeing here is right-wing agitators snapping “gotcha” photos, but the Bidens need to not give them the opportunity. Biden was elected to move America away from nepotism of the Trump era, where the rules didn’t apply if you were related to the President. Joe need to be better on this front and put his foot down on his family’s own masking if he’s to have any credibility on this. Caesar's wife must be above suspicion.

If there’s something you think I skipped over and you’d like to hold me accountable, post a comment with what I’m overlooking, and it may appear in a future Note.

Book reports

Skunk Works: A Personal Memoir of My Years of Lockheed by Ben R. Rich & Leo Janos (★★★★★ ): Originally published in 1994, this book recounts forty years of history at Lockheed’s famous Skunk Works design and production facility, from the original design of the U-2 spy plane to the SR-71 Blackbird to the F-117 Nighthawk stealth “fighter” through the eyes of Ben Rich, the handpicked successor of Clarence “Kelly” Johnson, who made a name for himself creating some of the most innovative planes of World War II through Vietnam.

The highest praise that I can give a history like this is that it makes me look at my own life and ask me what the hell I’m spending it on. This extraordinary account describes how the engineers and designers at Skunk Works were instrumental during the Cold War in creating and achieving American air and intelligence superiority through unconventional machines that flew higher, faster, and more boldly than new aircraft being produced today. Those folks were certainly pivots for 20th century history, and my main question now is whether worthy successors are toiling away in obscurity at the next half-century of aeronautic innovations.

Uncanny X-Force: The Dark Angel Saga by Rick Remender, Esad Ribic, Jerome Opeña, and others (★★★★☆): Before bed over the past week, I’ve been revisiting X-Men issues from the ‘10s, and most of my time has been spent rereading Rick Remender’s Uncanny X-Force run that orbited around the central story in that series, The Dark Angel Saga.

In Remender’s run, Wolverine, Psylocke, and Angel reconstitute the X-Force mutant strike squad with a number of questionable characters, including Deadpool and Fantomex. The initial arc covers this new X-Force discovering a hidden cult of Apocalypse, and their slide down the slippery slope as they try to deal with threats to mutant-kind's tenuous existence (this was roughly five years after House of M - suddenly relevant with Disney+’s WandaVision - and Decimation). The series hits its crescendo as Warren Worthington’s Archangel persona takes over the mantle of Apocalypse, and X-Force is forced to go after one of their founding members in order to save the world.

When Remender was announced to be the writer for this new volume of X-Force, at the time I was pretty skeptical he would be up to the task after Kyle & Yost’s prior iteration of the team. I was proven wrong, and what made Remender’s storytelling so compelling was that he pulled threads from the tapestry of X-Men continuity to construct a bold original story. It begins by revisiting the Angel/Psylocke relationship of the early ‘90s, builds on that by introducing new Apocalypse lore (the original Horsemen!), and puts a bow on it by audaciously revisiting The Age of Apocalypse and showing that the original dystopian ending was darker and worse than we were shown in the pages of X-Men: Omega. For a long-time X-Men nerd, this hit me in all the right spots, and this tale will likely go down as being the definitive X-Men story of the 2010s.

One Vote Away: How a Single Supreme Court Seat Can Change History by Ted Cruz (★★★☆☆): Given Senator Ted Cruz (Princeton class of 1992, ten years ahead of me) and his recent shenanigans around the January 6th Capitol insurrection, I came to this book expecting a nakedly political tome that would be right at home with the rest of the garbage books that politicians write around election years.

I was originally turned onto this book during a lengthy conversation with my father in the fall of 2020 (several weeks before the election), where he was claiming that we almost “lost our freedom of speech”. I inquired more - given that’s a pretty extraordinary claim - and he referred me to Cruz’s book. So, I felt duty-bound to read it to evaluate the claim myself and see what I - a fair weather SCOTUS nerd - might have missed during my stint supporting the Oyez Project for the better part of a decade (including my first Washington Post appearance), or what significant cases I might have missed since then.

It turns out that Cruz’s chapter on how we were “only one vote away” from losing our freedom of speech was the campaign finance case Citizens United v. the Federal Election Commission, which overturned campaign donation limits on corporations and other organizations to political action committees (PACs). The outcome of this case and the facts argued had little to no bearing on my father’s own ability to speak freely, so I came away from this book pretty skeptical that Cruz’s framing device (we’re “only one vote away” from something terrible happening) was as clever or as effective as he thought it may be.

Furthermore, it’s not a book that’s aged well since it came out in late September 2020, given that the entire introduction is about the courage conservatives showed opposing the Merrick Garland nomination. Literally weeks later, Cruz would encourage the Amy Coney Barrett rush through an even smaller time window than Garland had, completely refuting whatever his argument that The People should decide when a SCOTUS opening comes up in an election year.

So, what makes this a Three-Star Book as opposed to a One-Star Book? First of all, love him or hate him, Ted Cruz (and/or his ghostwriter) put together a very accessible book that not only describes his perspectives on a variety of cases during his time as a Senator, Texas Solicitor General, and Bush campaign staffer, but does a decent, if basic job, describing some of the basic facts of the Supreme Court cases. He picks a theme for each chapter, and weaves an interesting standalone narrative around the topic. Note that these are not neutral narratives - Cruz is definitely pushing his agenda here - but there are some stronger arguments than you’d find in the typical politician’s vanity book. I expected this to be a slog to read, but I ended up devouring it in less than 48 hours from start to finish. It’s not a book that I would recommend to someone just starting to read about the Court (and I’m looking forward to having an interesting conversation with my father on the whole freedom of speech threat) but it would be interesting reading for fellow SCOTUS nerds, including my political science classmates who tolerated a budding computer scientist taking Constitutional Interpretation alongside them.

At this point, I’m 3 books ahead of schedule (9 of 100).

Interesting reads

WandaVision confronts the headache of Vision and Scarlet Witch’s messy comics marriage (Polygon)

SpaceX acquires former oil rigs to serve as floating Starship spaceports (NASA

A word to the president: You don’t get to good governance by executive order (Deseret News)

The Return Of The King was the last time a blockbuster could be weird, personal, and Best Picture (AV Club)

How About We Ditch Whataboutism? (Jonah Goldberg)

How Space Became the Next ‘Great Power’ Contest Between the U.S. and China (New York Times)

In Rural Montana, a Hope That Biden Will Reopen the Rails (New York Times)

Enigmatic Star System Has 5 Planets Locked in Perfect Harmony (Gizmodo)

Have a good week, CMDRs!