Debating the asterisk.

I was making a new recipe for chicken curry and threw the seeds and trimmings of a jalapeño pepper down the disposal, then made the mistake of turning it on and not immediately running to the other side of the kitchen. Been coughing ever since. Instant pepper spray! How many times have I learned this lesson? Too many times to count. Sometimes I feel like the world’s stupidest home cook.

The curry was…C+, I guess. Splendid Table recipe, used yogurt. I think I prefer coconut milk, but it was good enough for dinner and it’ll be fine for next-day lunch.

The carnage in Kentucky was awful, as was some of the social-media snark about Rand Paul strutting on the floor of the Senate in 2012, talking about how “other people’s money” was going for relief from Hurricane Sandy. The response to a 180 in a dim-bulb libertarian may well be jeering, but maybe we can point this out another time, eh? The response to a disaster in the United States is to relieve the suffering. Yes, Rand Paul is an hypocrite. Yes, the people of Kentucky elected him (and Mitch McConnell, oy). No, the response is not to tell them “sucks to be you” when tornados kill them and destroy their homes, businesses and towns.

However, we’re in a sucks-to-be-you moment right now. I read a little over the weekend about Lia Thomas, a transgender swimmer for the University of Pennsylvania. Lia swam for the men’s team for two years of her college career. She transitioned during the Covid-cancelled season, and is now swimming as a woman, and winning. “Breaking records,” in fact, but here is one place where I have to part with Sherri, to name one person in our readership, who has said that any advantage to being a biological male in sports disappears after a year of hormone treatment. I simply don’t believe that, at least in this case.

Thomas isn’t just breaking records, she’s obliterating them. Winning by 7 seconds in the 200 free, and 38 in the 1650-meter free, to name but two. These aren’t normal new-record margins. Swimming is a sport where records fall by fractions of seconds, not seven of them. (Unless she is Katie Ledecky. Lia Thomas is not Katie Ledecky.) There is an advantage here that comes from being taller, stronger, more broad-shouldered and from having trained and competed all your life as a man. The photos of her are crazy. She’s a hulk.

As you would expect, the right-wing media has picked up this story and is shaking it like a dog. I had to scroll down in the search results to find a source I thought could be fair — Swimming World magazine, which I am confident knows more about the sport than, say, the New York Post or Fox News.

And this piece is pretty evenhanded, explaining that while Thomas is swimming slower on female hormones than when she was a male, she suddenly catapulted from an Ivy League finalist to an Olympic-level contender, threatening records set by the greatest women in the sport, including Ledecky and Missy Franklin. Swimming World also had the decency to ask for decency, after getting the expected onslaught of reader abuse following their reporting. And they’ve also done sensitive reporting on F-to-M trans swimmers like Schuyler Bailar, so I feel like I can trust their editorial judgement.

But even SW editorialized against allowing Thomas to compete in the NCAA championships in March:

Athletes transitioning from male to female possess the inherent advantage of years of testosterone production and muscle-building. There is also the advantage (in many cases) of larger body frames, hands and feet. All of these traits are beneficial in the sport of swimming. In the case of Thomas, she had nearly 20 years of this testosterone-building advantage, something cisgender women could not attain. Although she took part in the testosterone-suppression process, a look at her performances clearly reflects that she is benefitting from the genetics of her birth sex.

“There’s absolutely no question in my mind that trans women will maintain strength advantages over cis women, even after hormone therapy,” said sports physicist Joanna Harper in an interview with WEBMD Health News. “That’s based on my clinical experience, rather than published data, but I would say there’s zero doubt in my mind.”

…Now, Thomas is stalking Ledecky’s 500 freestyle record, a chase that reveals the unfairness in her racing against cisgender women. A look at the all-time rankings in the 500 free shows that Leah Smith is the second-fastest female performer in the event. Yet, she is almost five seconds back of Ledecky. The fact that Thomas could break the record of such a once-in-a-generation athlete confirms the biological advantages she possesses, and their power.

The stories of Thomas’ meet performances are agonizing: She finishes first by a wide margin, and the crowd sits on their hands. When the cisgender female touches the wall second, they erupt in cheers. This may be a cruel reaction, but it is also honest. These are not fair competitions. The question is, what do we do about them?

The floor is open. I’m honestly interested in what some of you have to say.

Posted at 11:09 am in Current events |

49 responses to “Debating the asterisk.”

  1. Jeff Borden said on December 13, 2021 at 12:19 pm

    I have taught only two transgender undergraduates at Loyola –both men transitioning to women– so I’m hardly in a position to pontificate about the subject. But a large part of me –the naive part– would like to think those who make this journey might refrain from competing at a high level of athletics simply because they recognize an inherent advantage and do not wish to exploit it for personal gain and glory. I’m happy Lia Thomas is living her life as the person she wants to be. I’m not happy she’s shattering records. Maybe this makes me a bad person, but to me, it’s just not a good look.

    Meawhile, the Crumbley Clan is proving itself to be a hideous caricature of a family.

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  2. nancy said on December 13, 2021 at 12:27 pm

    That’s exactly how I feel, JB. Live your life, swim all you want, but maybe stay off the swim team.

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  3. Sherri said on December 13, 2021 at 12:38 pm

    Two points.

    How many transgender swimmers are out there *not* winning, *not* obliterating records? What does it mean to be “unfair” when a single transgender swimmer is? Swimming is already drawing from a limited talent pool, as is obvious from seeing who competes in the US: white people with access to a pool. It seems to me to be making arguments about who can compete based on genetic advantages is very problematic in sports like swimming, with a cultural history of denying access to Blacks.

    Second point, I recall only celebration when Katie Ledecky was obliterating records. I don’t follow swimming closely, but I don’t remember any questions about PEDs for example when this white teenage girl was suddenly outperforming everyone in the world by huge margins. Can you imagine what the reaction would have been had she not been white? Hell, even American born talents like basketball player Britiny Griner have had their gender questioned in ways that seem unlikely had she been white.

    “Fair” is never defined outside a cultural context. Anybody who is competitive for any Olympic sport has a genetic advantage over me. How we define which of those genetic advantages are fair is very much determined by what the dominant cultural is comfortable with, and I push against that.

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  4. alex said on December 13, 2021 at 12:50 pm

    Maybe there are just some sports where trans athletes shouldn’t compete and women’s swimming is one of them. I’m probably safe in the assumption that Lia Thomas has a longer arm span and bigger hands than any of her competitors and that no woman, no matter how phenomenal a swimmer she is, can compete against those advantages.

    Perhaps the only fair solution is to create a separate division for trans athletes.

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  5. Suzanne said on December 13, 2021 at 1:23 pm

    I remember reading that part of Michael Phelps’ success could be attributed to his rather unusual body shape; large hands, extra long arms and torso, large feet.

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  6. nancy said on December 13, 2021 at 1:29 pm

    Ian Thorpe, the Australian version of Phelps, had feet so large they said it was as though he was wearing a set of fins. So yes, there are genetic advantages to certain body types in swimming, as in almost every sport.

    However, Sherri, I think you’re throwing sand in the gears here. Why should swimming be special when there are so few black swimmers? Why isn’t Katie Ledecky being questioned about PEDs? These are interesting questions, but they have nothing to do with the one on the table, which is: Why should an excellent-but-not-world-class swimmer who is suddenly world-class in the course of a single year, because of a single thing she’s done (transitioning) be accepted by other competitors? Why isn’t hormone therapy considered a PED when it works in this case?

    I think the separate transgender division might be what we need here.

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  7. Julie Robinson said on December 13, 2021 at 1:46 pm

    I wonder what competing is like for Lia Thomas. No applause when she wins? Yee-ouch, that sounds painful. In a way, no competition is ever going to be fair. Physical and genetic advantages like the swimmers mentioned above, long twitch vs. short twitch muscles in runners, native IQ/good schools/involved parents in academics, being attractive with an outgoing personality in sales, the list could go on and on.

    All of which is to say I see all the sides and I’m just not sure. Why don’t we ever hear about trans men in sports? I would guess they aren’t competitive.

    So, another week, more craziness from Rand Paul and from fellow Kentuckian Thomas Massie, urging emergency aid for his district despite voting against it for everyone else during his Congressional tenure. You really can’t make this up.

    And Elon Musk as Time person of the year? Ptui.

    But TFG didn’t sell out the Amway center in his History Tour with Bill O’Reilly; ticket prices were reduced and those in the upper deck were allowed to move down to the pricier seats, the better to fill space for the TV cameras, no doubt.

    And also on a happier note, we went to a sublime Christmas concert this weekend and I’m still singing along to the music in my mind, AND I’ve been able to swim again. Our passive solar heat wasn’t set up right but when they finally tweaked the system, the water warmed up and it’s bliss. Pool time equals happy time.

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  8. Velvet Goldmine said on December 13, 2021 at 1:54 pm

    My thought about sports and competition has long been that they should be essentially co-ed, but with divisions. Of course, in many sports these divisions would be made up primarily of men, but trans and cis women who excel to the same level would be able to be in that division.

    Now, would that mean that the lower-tier divisions would be treated like some kind of JV and not get attention? Hopefully not. It could even open opportunities for trans men, along with cis men who are talented but never had the height or body structure to get to the top ranks. (Obviously, physical advantages vary by sport.)

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  9. Sherri said on December 13, 2021 at 2:37 pm

    I’m not trying to throw sand in the gears, I’m trying to ask what is fair. The people who set records are outliers. Do we define what a fair competition is by excluding some outliers, and not others? How do we determine which outliers are to be excluded?

    I’m asking systemic questions. Before I’m ready to say that a particular swimmer should be excluded, or that a separated division should be created, I want to address these questions. And yes, let’s talk about whether hormone therapy is a PED, and why some PEDs are allowed and others aren’t.

    Perhaps you can understand why creating a separate division might be less than acceptable to transgender athletes. What problem are we trying to solve with the creation of separate divisions? Is it to keep fair competition? Then we need to define what fair competition is, and recognize the context of the definition. Is it to keep women’s sports from being overwhelmed by M-to-F transgender athletes? Is there evidence that this is a problem? Is it to prevent transgender athletes from winning competitions?

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  10. tajalli said on December 13, 2021 at 2:48 pm

    Having considered what I would propose as a solution without being mean-spirited, I’d concluded what Alex did – that a separate transgender division be created. Maybe let Male to Female and Female to Male trans-persons compete in the same division and let them figure out for themselves rather than have the cis-culture define the parameters for “fairness.” And since doping is considered cause for expulsion from competition, this would be a good work-around.

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  11. Joe Kobiela said on December 13, 2021 at 3:06 pm

    Perhaps we should ask the former East German athletes, they seemed to have a handle on it 30 yrs ago.
    Pilot Joe

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  12. David C said on December 13, 2021 at 3:21 pm

    UW Oshkosh has a female to male transgender athlete on their swimming team. I see both sides. I don’t know how Solomon would split this baby and I’m glad I don’t have to.

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  13. Sherri said on December 13, 2021 at 3:40 pm

    The IOC recently updated their guidance on transgender athletes:

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  14. Charlie said on December 13, 2021 at 3:42 pm

    I was just about to post the link to the IOC guidelines but refreshed first 🙂

    Direct link is here:

    Their position is that they need to see real systemic evidence – *in the specific sport* – that people have a genuine advantage before they are going to exclude anyone. So time differences from a *bunch* of swimmers who transition, not just one excellent one.

    (When you see an article like this, ask that question! What about other trans swimmers? Surely there are some? How are they doing?)

    Honestly the pattern has so far been that whenever *one* random talented transfeminine athlete starts winning, anywhere in the world, everyone freaks out. That isn’t a very good look.

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  15. nancy said on December 13, 2021 at 4:22 pm

    Do we define what a fair competition is by excluding some outliers, and not others? How do we determine which outliers are to be excluded?

    I would start by determining that a person who was an adult male until one year ago, an elite athlete, who has trained for most of his life and developed bulk and muscle, etc. according with his chosen sport, and who has in that year jumped from great-for-his-peer-group to world-level excellence solely by changing genders, should probably be excluded.

    As for the look-at-the-totality argument, at this point we probably don’t have the numbers for a decent sample. But I see Thomas’ case as very similar to the Olympic competition a few years ago, where an Irish woman, racing from the outside lane (where the slowest qualifiers are placed), swam as if blasted from a cannon and beat women she couldn’t stand in the same room with only a year previous. Of course she was juicing. This is like reverse-juicing, where years of natural testosterone-fueled development is suddenly suppressed with other hormones, female ones. Some of the advantage goes away — which is why she is swimming slower than when she was a man — but not all of it.

    I look at this as a feminist, because it’s female athletes, not males, who are going to take the bulk of this on the chin. I don’t think this makes me a TERF.

    In my reading over the last few days, I saw one story that suggested the driving force behind this is Thomas’ coach, who only sees numbers and records, and why am I not surprised?

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  16. Deborah said on December 13, 2021 at 4:48 pm

    It seems unfair to me too, but as David C said, I’m glad I don’t have to split that baby.

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  17. tajalli said on December 13, 2021 at 4:56 pm

    A digression from today’s topic – but still within the realm of how to treat statistical outliers – with a followup to the Bros “restaurant” viral blog post. The “chef” has written a rebuttal, including a thank you for inadvertently advertising that lips thingy: they’ve sold out! PT Barnum is having a good laugh.

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  18. Jim said on December 13, 2021 at 5:27 pm

    This article is IMHO really well done, and on point. She is the athlete who was setting middle distance records, but the IOC then banned unless she took drugs to lower her testosterone level.

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  19. Charlie said on December 13, 2021 at 6:09 pm

    Well, watch out for the other side of the risk. If we say “ok no trans swimmers” then a decade or so from now we realize Thomas really was just very talented, how many trans girls are going to lose their chance at a career in the meantime? Or make the wrenching decision not to transition in order to stay on the team, or keep their scholarship?

    There’s obviously very nasty downsides either way; I can’t fault the IOC or NCAA for erring on the side of inclusion.

    p.s. an athlete showing big gains between sophomore and senior year is far from unheard of.

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  20. Sherri said on December 13, 2021 at 6:25 pm

    I don’t know which Irish swimmer you’re referring to, but did the swimmer get excluded because of her performance, or because she failed a drug test? “Obvious juicing” has not been a standard for excluding athletes from competition, nor should it be.

    I am a competitor, and a feminist, and I don’t believe that I need to be protected from transgender athletes. The federation I lift in has created a separate division, and I disagree with that decision. It was a decision made without the input of transgender athletes, to try and fight off a lawsuit, unsuccessfully.

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  21. basset said on December 13, 2021 at 7:33 pm

    Too bad the curry was just a C-plus. We had an A-level squash soup last night from one of Nancy’s recipes I saw in “this day in…” yesterday.
    More of a loose set of directions, actually: roast squash, sweet potatoes, apples, and carrots, peel, mash, thin with veg broth and almond milk, add spices, heat, enjoy. Very rarely does everyone in this house agree on the same dish, sure did this time though.

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  22. Julie Robinson said on December 13, 2021 at 9:32 pm

    No spoilers, but the changes in the new West Side Story movie worked exceptionally well for me, the purist who usually hates movie musicals. In every way that the 1961 movie gets it wrong, this gets it right.

    On the way out our lad called to say he’d been exposed to someone who tested positive for Covid, so we had to work out a quarantine and testing protocol, as per norm for so many these days. He’s barely been home since the exposure, so fingers crossed. He had an appointment on Wednesday for his booster too, which will have to be delayed.

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  23. Sherri said on December 13, 2021 at 10:26 pm

    On a different debate about what’s fair, what do my fellow F1 fans think about how the F1 championship was handled, with the partial unlapping to ensure one final racing lap in contravention of previous precedent?

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  24. basset said on December 13, 2021 at 11:29 pm

    Well, at least an American, or American-owned, car had some bearing on the outcome of the race for a change, even if both Haas entries finished their usual way back.

    If I understand the situation correctly, though, the “stewards” called a yellow, bunched the field up behind the pace car, and let the 1st and 2nd place cars get out in front of it? That does seem strange.

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  25. Sherri said on December 14, 2021 at 2:01 am

    The yellow and the safety car were both necessary, because of the crash. As I understand it, normally all the cars that had been lapped would have been allowed to unlap themselves before the safety car left and racing was resumed, but since most of the field had been lapped, there was no way to do that and actually resume racing, because there weren’t enough laps left. So first, the race director announced that no cars would be allowed to unlap, then right before the safety car was about to exit and racing was to resume, the race director announced that only the cars between the first two cars, Hamilton and Verstappen, would be allowed to unlap, thus clearing the way for those two drivers to race one final lap for the world championship.

    This decision handed the championship to Verstappen, who had fresher tires but would not have been able to get past the five lapped cars and Hamilton, who was in the lead. Had all the cars unlapped, the race would have ended under yellow, and Hamilton would have won, since he was in the lead.

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  26. David C said on December 14, 2021 at 6:13 am

    The FIA is as much a cesspool as the International Olympic Committee but I understand their logic here. They wanted the race to end as a race.

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  27. Mark P said on December 14, 2021 at 8:58 am

    I used to be as big a fan of everything automotive as any 16–year-old. I read the magazines, C&D, R&T, even the race coverage. I read all the reviews. Then suddenly I didn’t. I watch Motor Week on TV, but I fast-forward through tests of exotic cars. What about the latest Subaru? I recently traded my pickup for a minivan, and we don’t have kids. (It’s a hybrid Toyota Sienna; I really like it, and it got 37 mpg last fill-up.) So, uproar in F1? I care about that as much as I do about the weather in Monaco, which is to say, zero.

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  28. Deborah said on December 14, 2021 at 9:20 am

    Wow, Elon Musk is even more of a jerk than I thought

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  29. Mark P said on December 14, 2021 at 10:52 am

    Elon Musk and Tesla are one of the main reasons that the legacy car makers are taking battery electric vehicle seriously, and Elon Musk is one of the main reasons I would never buy a Tesla.

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  30. Robert said on December 14, 2021 at 10:56 am

    Laughed at the kitchen sink pepper spray…
    Some thoughtful comments on trans athletes.
    re: F1 finale – Max is a great driver and is worthy of being World Champion, but the stewards and FIA did Lewis dirty. (postscript – it strikes me that the least talented drivers on the grid play an inordinate role in race outcomes due to their poor driving)

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  31. basset said on December 14, 2021 at 12:41 pm

    Why do the slower cars get to unlap themselves under yellow anyway?

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  32. Julie Robinson said on December 14, 2021 at 1:18 pm

    Deborah, it gets worse since that Elon Musk story was written in 2010. He married and divorced the same woman twice and has had another baby with yet another (younger) woman and may or not still be with her. Again, ptui.

    And since I raved about West Side Story I’ve learned there are multiple sexual allegations about its star. The worst concerns a 14 yo, when he was 17 so apparently it was legal, but still awful.

    Covid boy came home with a negative test but is quarantining anyway.

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  33. Sherri said on December 14, 2021 at 2:21 pm

    Elon Musk is no longer with his latest baby mamma.

    I’m always amused by my friends who refuse to use Amazon because Jeff Bezos is evil but who love their Teslas.

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  34. LAMary said on December 14, 2021 at 3:23 pm

    Mark P. Ditto on Elon Musk. He’s an asshole.

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  35. Deborah said on December 14, 2021 at 4:10 pm

    The one thing I will say about Elon Musk is that he freely admits that he’s on the spectrum. Which gives a lot of kids with autism hope for their futures.

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  36. Bellagp said on December 14, 2021 at 6:30 pm

    I was just discussing Lia Thomas this evening with my husband. Since the NCAA allows MTF athletes to compete as long as athletes take 1 year of testosterone suppression, she should be able to compete. If I were her, I would just hang up my swimming suit for the rest of college and then swim masters. I get that she seems to have an unfair advantage but I hate to see NCAA backdown to the crazy right. What’s next….not allowing gay athletes to compete? I certainly know a lot of gay woman playing college sports.

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  37. Deborah said on December 15, 2021 at 9:50 am

    Quite a morning in Abiquiu with 38 mph winds and snow, gusts at 55 mph. My phone alert blared twice, first at 5:30am and then again at 6. Our cabin was moving around a lot. It was scary. It seems calm now although the wind icon shows on my weather app until 2pm.

    The wind seems to be out of control nowadays with climate change upon us.

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  38. Suzanne said on December 15, 2021 at 12:11 pm

    It’s supposed to be very windy in Indiana today, too.
    After what happened in KY, I am not looking forward to it.

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  39. Julie Robinson said on December 15, 2021 at 1:10 pm

    A bit breezy in Orlando but still 78°, so no complaining from me. I just spent 20 minutes watching an egret stalk its way through our front yard garden, neck was swaying in the breeze, undulating like a snake that had been charmed. Swallowing looks like such an ordeal for these weird creatures; whatever it found took about 10 tries to choke down. Never did I dream this would be everyday life.

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  40. Jeff Borden said on December 15, 2021 at 1:10 pm

    There are high wind warnings for the Chicago area starting at 6 tonight with gusts ranging to 60 mph. Meanwhile, it’s in the low 60s. In December. Thank goodness that global climate change is a hoax.

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  41. Deborah said on December 15, 2021 at 2:13 pm

    It’s still very windy in Abiquiu, the temp isn’t bad but the windchill makes it feel like 27. We haven’t yet done our outside chores, waiting until after 2pm MST when this wind is supposed to be over.

    Wow, I’d like to see the waves crashing on the Lake shore with 60 mph gusts. But glad I’m not there right now.

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  42. Icarus said on December 15, 2021 at 4:25 pm

    Jeff Borden @40: Call it laziness or denial, but I still haven’t reconfigured all my Alexa devices to reflect that I’m no longer in Chicago. So I get all the severe weather alerts. Still wish I had a home there in addition to here but I wasn’t born with money nor earned enough to make that happen in this lifetime.

    Whoever recommended “How We Survive” podcast, thank you. It sounds like lithium mining is the 21st century equivalent of oil drilling when car production outproduced gasoline output. I’m gonna invest a little in lithium and see where it takes us.

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  43. Sherri said on December 15, 2021 at 4:27 pm

    Gusty winds last Saturday took out our power about twenty minutes before I needed to run a three hour meeting over Zoom, so that was fun. I managed with battery packs and phone tethers, but not ideal. Fortunately, winds are light today, so the meeting I have to run tonight will probably be with power.

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  44. Suzanne said on December 16, 2021 at 11:03 am

    This is horrifying, especially in an area where, when I visit the grocery, there are maybe, on a good day, 5% of the people wearing masks and vaccine rates are barely over 50%.

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  45. Deborah said on December 16, 2021 at 11:10 am

    It was 12 degrees at 8am in Abiquiu. Brrrrrr.

    Icarus, I’ve been reading about Lithium extraction lately. Just as in nearly every mining activity it’s environmentally dubious. On the one hand it will help lower the danger of climate change that fossil fuel drilling and gas run vehicle exhaust causes but on the other hand lithium mining uses lots of water and creates major environmental degradation at the mining sites etc. the good news according to what I’ve read is Lithium is prevalent. Right now China extracts 80% of it in use in the world. Obviously switching to EVs helps but we also need to reduce the number of cars in use and encourage mass transit in cities especially. It may be a good stop gap solution but over the long term it’s questionable.

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  46. Deborah said on December 16, 2021 at 12:07 pm

    Suzanne, that is terrifying and depressing. I personally would go back to 2020 protocols of double mask wearing, hand washing and carrying around sanitizers and for sure I’d get my groceries ordered and delivered rather than going to the stores with the unmasked and unvaccinated. It’s better in Santa Fe, more people vaccinated and almost everyone wears masks indoors. I still won’t go to a theater to watch a movie and I’m questioning restaurants again. We’re all boosted and if we do get it hopefully it won’t mean full blown hospitalization. At this point given how contagious omicron is I figure we’re going to all get it eventually.

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  47. Deborah said on December 16, 2021 at 12:32 pm

    This obit is a stitch

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  48. Scout said on December 16, 2021 at 1:44 pm

    That obit was the best, Deborah. I’ve already shared it.

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  49. Mark P said on December 16, 2021 at 8:22 pm

    About 60 percent of Georgians have had at least one shot, but only about half are fully vaccinated. Almost no one wears a mask, and even of those whose work places require it, many have bare naked noses. I don’t want to be the only pessimist in the entire world, but I fear there is a non-zero probability that Covid is going to make a grand comeback and kick some ass around the world, with some special appearances in red states.

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