Comments on life, the universe and everything from an aging Sixties survivor.

Location: Massachusetts, United States

Ummm, isn't "about me" part of the point of the blog?

Thursday, December 31, 2009


I'm repeating myself, of course. In the so-called war on terror, fortune is not on the side with the biggest battalions, but the one with the fewest idiots. Once again, we have a stalemale.

I would really like to eavesdrop on what the various agency excuse-makers are hearing from Obama. I just have this feeling it's not as calm and measured as his press statements. Anyone with a slight familiarity with presidents knows they usually don't skin their department heads in public. We can draw some inferences.

Long before the World Trade Centre attack, airport security was supposed to know certain red flags applied. Passengers who paid their fare in cash are suspect. Passengers without baggage for anything longer than a commuter flight are suspect. Passengers to whom both these applied are suspect squared.

So when someone shows up at an airport in an island of stability (cough) like Nigeria, pays $2800 for an intercontinental flight and has no baggage, should this not make someone just a little suspicious? Apparently not.

Now, about watch and no-fly lists. Once upon a time I had a job with a federal agency charged with entry into the US among other things. Even back then there were watch lists. The established bureaucratese held that "watch" meant watch, not ignore. We are told there are 500,000 people on the list. So? There's been this invention called the computer: use it. It also seems that both watch list and no-fly lists would work better if the people on them were actually people who should be watched, and if the various agencies concerned would fix mistakes and apologise rather than stonewalling. Instead, we have lists cluttered up with six-month old infants, 87-year-old great-grandmothers, a pilot for a major airline, a Welsh insurance salesman (Welsh looks a lot like Arabic to an idiot), and a U.S. Senator. I am making none of those up.

Late news. The infant is now eight years old and according to the New York Times, he is still
on the list
. After reading about the "method" behind compiling these lists, I'm glad I have an
obscure name. The risk seems to be less.

Beyond the agencies we have the conditioned whine reflex of public, media, and interest groups. Were it not for that reflex there would far more sophisticated detection mechanisms in place now...although I gather that any bomb-sniffing dog would do as well to detect the primitive explosives recently employed by the thuggery.

Few people raise privacy objections to x-rays. Yet, when x-rays were discovered and first employed, the same--absolutely the same--objections were made to x-ray machines as now appear in connection with full-body scanners.

Let's not neglect the goons on the other side, which has a host of idiotic indications. One is that terrorism is by nature an r-complex behaviour, a violent primal instinct unreachable by either intellect or imagination. This dooms them to almost infinite pattern repetition, and makes them pitifully vulnerable to exploitation by criminals who possess both imagination and acquisitiveness. Another is that it is impossible to find experienced suicide bombers. It is hardly less difficult to find people who are experienced operatives of any kind, chiefly because terrorism has a dauntingly high failure rate. This would occur to anyone not driven by their limbic system.

The horizon suggests some positive signs. One is that we now have an administration that doesn't use fear as a political tool. It seems capable, therefore, of keeping its mouth shut now and then. The other side has trouble coming up with its own ideas, so it has long been vitally important to deprive them of the speculations of politicians and pundits. They have boasted that those speculations have been a useful substitute for their own absent thought.

Let's liven things up with a few federal firings or dismal reassignments to provide both theatre for the public and incentive for our own idiots to do much better.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009


The stupidity that is around today, and has been around over the past couple of days, is so sublime that it really needs no further comment from my humble self. Look where you will and you'll find someone who needs a dope slap.

So I'm waiting for something to step out in front of the pack before I declare it worthy of being the stupid moment of the week.

(I would ask whether anyone else's lip-reading is good enough to confirm what I think I saw Peyton Manning say from the sidelines when the Jets ran that Colts kick back for a touchdown. Even with his helmet on, it sure looked to me like he used a one-syllable word that began with S. But I might be mistaken, because even my late grandmother would have liked Peyton Manning. Of course, she swore like a longshoreman with a short paycheck....)

Thursday, December 24, 2009

I really love evidence

Today the news is full of the latest on hapless Massachusetts State Senator Anthony Galluccio (D-Cambridge). For those who do not follow Massachusetts news, the Galluccio was sentenced to home confinement after pleading guilty to leaving the scene of a crash and DUI. (In this instance, shit-faced would apparently be more accurate.) Part of his sentence included random home breathalyzer tests. He flunked. He blames the sorbitol in his toothpaste.

The claim has caused considerable speculation and hilarity locally. Now I trash electronic news media regularly here, but all praise to WCVB-TV, which sent out reporter Pam Cross to actually try setting off the breathalyzer with Galluccio's favourite brands of toothpaste.

Answer: nuh-uh. There are a number of reasons it doesn't work, but it doesn't. Mouthwash does, if you are dense enough to use it and immediately blow into the machine or worse, to swallow the stuff. That works because many popular mouthwash brands have 20 percent or more ethanol alcohol (what sets the machine off) as an ingredient. Thus the nasty little machine is going to pick up on that.

Same goes for previous evidence, which defense counsel will surely try to introduce. In a parallel case, an expert witness stated the theoretical possibility that sorbitol could set off a breathalyzer, but dang cross-examination anyway: under cross, the witness admitted he knew of no case where it had actually happened.

Comparing Galluccio's claims about his oral hygiene and my dentist's advice, it sounds like a) he brushes too much and b) that he has some security issues about his mouth.

As well he ought. Instead of using toothpaste, Galluccio should try shutting his mouth more often, especially when alcohol is around. This is all a pity.

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Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Time to Eat the Experts

This appears to be the silly season for English environmentalists. One would think that the naivete and ineptitude of University of East Anglia climate scholars would have been enough to suggest the wisdom of sitting down and shutting up for a time, but no.

The English-born, New Zealand resident architects-cum-writers-cum-lifelong environmentalists-cum-self-promoters, Brenda and Robert Vale, appear to think that the aftermath of this disaster is a great time to revive the promotion of their latest work, Time to Eat the Dog: The Real Guide to Sustainable Living.

This book has been out for a couple of months, but the initial press release got deservedly little play. Our authors have tried again, with identical information. This time, riding the Copenhagen coattails, they have gotten all the attention they could want.

Their assertions even have a gloss of respect, conveniently included in the press release: verification from a body that already agrees with them. (This is one of the hoarier tricks in academia. Verifications of hypotheses by your buddy list aren't worth the pixels they're printed on.)

The Vales' data may be correct and they have all the attention they could want, but does any of this give us any useful information about sustainable living? Of course not. True, the Vales have been promoted (by an obliging right-wing media) from professorial research fellows in architecture at Victoria University of Wellington, NZ, to “doctors” or “scientists.” The most rational criticism on that side of the aisle came (back in October) from the Web site of Investor's Business Daily, which concluded:

When everything from your bacon double cheeseburger to the family dog is said to cause climate change, it's easy to see why folks are skeptical as they tune up their snowblowers

If the Vales meant to persuade, rather than shock, they've failed. Over many years of trying to talk sense (professionally) into environmentalists and scientists, I've seen this sort of failure far more often than success. While they know how to get the cheap bit of attention, these people do not know how to convince the public. They neither know nor care how to influence public opinion favourably. Judging from the Web outcry, the Vales' snarkiness has done just the opposite. Instead, by drastically overstating their case in the most shocking manner possible, they have contributed to hardening attitudes. How much does it add to the carbon footprint when your obnoxiousness creates or confirms a few thousand more climate change deniers? It would have been far more productive to lead with their rational suggestions.

Time to Eat the Dog is the Vale's eighth book. The average hard-cover book, in an average first printing of 5000 copies, has a carbon footprint of around 12 metric tons (an SUV's annual footprint is around 9). Adding another 6-8 tonnes for each paperback edition and multiplying by 8, that's a carbon footprint of, say 133 metric tons for the Vales' oeuvre.

How many dogs is that?

Monday, December 21, 2009

Intelligence tests for legislators

As in, why don't we have them?

Great state of Maine nerved itself up last summer to pass a distracted driving law. Bravo, save that it doesn't bother to define distracted driving. After all, in a state where several thousand telephone users must still twirl a crank to reach an operator, and in which the usual sorry proportion of auto accidents involve someone trying to drive and text the Congressional Record to a friend, we wouldn't want to make a declarative statement, would we?

Texting whilst driving is an excellent example of a valid cause and effect relationship. If you are distracted to the extent required by typing messages on a tiny keyboard, and you do it a lot, you are statistically more likely to have at least a grave near miss, at least. Actuaries, not conspirators, figured that out. Here, the logical fallacy is to assume that because you aren't dead yet, you're OK doing it.

Instead of suggesting that the Maine legislature go the rest of the way and pinpoint texting as the single most dangerous act you can do whilst driving (aside from swilling that open bottle of Jim Beam), state representative Andrea Boland of Sanford has gone off on another tangent. She is proposing a law requiring warning stickers on cell phones,* presenting the hypothetical risk of brain cancer from cell phone use as a known or at least plausible hazard.

Now, a couple of points. First, hypothetical is the kindest term I could devise for the purported hazard. It is, rather, an example of the cum hoc, ergo propter hoc thinking that too often passes for reason in the early 21st century. I browsed up the subject in my favourite rational resource for such topics (The Skeptic's Dictionary) and came away with this apt quotation:

Unless one is willing to discard the concept of photons, Planck's law, and the interaction between photons and atoms—and thus the entire body of quantum physics—it is simply not possible for the photons associated with either a power line or a cell phone to cause cancer.

The second point, for those not acquainted with Maine and its politics, is that Sanford is in York County. Politically, York County is to Maine as Cambridge, MA is to the rest of New England. In other parts of Maine, people are vulnerable to the logical disorders of the right. York County has the opposite affliction.

If one is of a certain age, one can remember a similar brouhaha about the risks of wearing wristwatches with radium illuminated dials. In that case cum hoc was the discovery that the people who painted the dials (yes, humans once did this work) were found to have coated their lips and teeth liberally and repeatedly with the radium compound whilst painting the dials and watch hands, and were suffering cancer rates far above the norm. Ergo propter hoc was the conclusion that if one wore such a watch, one ran the same risk, even if one did not open the bezel and lick the dial ten times a day.

The immediate solution to the problem of high cancer rates amongst dial painters was to get them to stop licking the damn stuff. The fallacy that radium watch dials could cause cancer has persisted long after many people have ever seen a radium watch dial, especially one painted by an unprotected human. The connection between cell phone radiation and brain cancer is infinitely more remote. So remote that it is difficult to point to a single hoc on which to base the fallacy.

So Rep. Boland will get to file her bill, without doubt. The legislature will tie time and taxpayer money to a logical fallacy. Supporters of the measure, lacking evidence, will fall back on shouts about conspiracy theories, or on misguided findings based on the Texas sharpshooter fallacy, to prevent anyone from laughing the bill out of committee. No one on the committee will be sufficiently educated or have enough gumption to lead the laughing. It might even pass.

Next, presumably, someone who is texting whilst driving will be doubly distracted trying to read the fine print on the warning label and cause a fatal crash. Perhaps then the legislature will get around to defining driver distraction. They could include reading a warning label about a nonexistent hazard along with texting.

* At the moment I read this story in the Bangor (ME) Daily News, 73% of those responding to its poll said they would not be dissuaded from cell phone use by such a warning sticker. Possibly Maine voters are smarter than Maine legislators. If so, why?

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Sunday, December 20, 2009

A new riff on old grief

Over at Ms M-A's, there's some discussion of how people grieve and how people misunderstand the process. The conversation put me in the WABAC machine, back to the year I was writing my graduate thesis.

It was a micro-historic look at a small New Hampshire town in the first half of the 19th century, supported by computer analysis and with all the bells and whistles that went with this type of study, then newly fashionable. The work involved getting very deeply involved with the lives of a number of families indicated as representative by the data analysis.*

I learnt a good deal about the socio-economic life cycle of rural communities, but I discovered something else. Most laypeople and even most scholars look back at mortality in the era before the major discoveries in medicine with something like shock. They—we, for until this I did the same—insulate themselves with the assumption that the people who endured these mortality rates were used to it and that they didn't mind the way we would.

What comes out of the primary sources is first, that rural Americans at least weren't necessarily used to high premature mortality rates and that a great many of them minded very much. The diseases that could sweep away five of seven children in a week (like diphtheria) or could kill young adults in their prime (like tuberculosis) were diseases associated with poor sanitation and crowding, in short with 19th century civilisation. (I could go on with that, but you'd have another thesis on your hands if I did.)

The impact on those who survived was as variable as the individuals themselves. They responded with everything from gradually attaining acceptance, to abandonment, to what we would now call psychosis, to alcoholism or perhaps drug dependency, and suicide. Those who found their way to acceptance frequently had to confront repeated setbacks and failures. Agriculture is a merciless business, and it seems to lean heavily on those distracted by their grief.

It was sometimes hard to read this material and keep one's objectivity. Coming up close to these people and their emotions at more than a century's remove was probably a greater learning experience for me than the objectives I was supposed to be pursuing.

If we rightly try to give some space to our peers to allow them to work through grief in their own way and time, let's not forget the grief of countless past generations, or dismiss it, or rationalise it.


*It's said that the average academic monograph has 1.4 readers. I must have hit some of the right keys because I found three citations when I Googled this item a few months ago. Not much of an audience for a year's work, eh?

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Sorry, y'all

1) Once upon a time, when E was small enough to fly in a parental lap, we had Thanksgiving with relatives then living near Washington, DC. It snowed...well, it flurried by New England standards, the coating-to-an-inch category. Even today, that hardly raises a New England weathercaster's eyebrow.

But this was the District and environs, and although it was a major holiday, traffic was tied up in knots, air traffic was delayed well into the next day, people besieged closed hardware stores looking for snow shovels.

I'm waiting for the evening news to see the hilarity that comes with with a decent snowfall of 10-15 inches or so. This may choke up the gummint worse than the health care bill.

2) Concerning snow shovels. Time and usage makes rational people tolerate panic shopping in New England when there's snow in the forecast: I suppose the panicked may need ten bags of chips and two cases of two-litre soft drinks to get through the next 24 hours. One can even manage one's anger at "nor'easter." But what is it with these people who seem to need a new snow shovel every year, or even every snowstorm?

I imagine the shovel-wielder finishing the job and saying, "well, no need to clutter the place up with this anymore," and sticking the shovel in a snow pile or the trash. The half-witted ones will wait until spring; the complete fools probably repeat this exercise with each snowfall. This vision causes my up-country reared soul to shudder.

I broke down and bought two new shovels about seven years ago, when it became clear that the two they replaced, respectively 25 and 30-plus years old (one inherited), were nearing the end of their useful lives. I still have a scraper that dates to our first winter in this house, more than 30 years ago. It's likely the current shovels will outlast me, and they'd damn well better.
The people south of the Mason-Dixon line and east of the fall line have some excuse for lacking snow shovels, but here? Crikey, this is New England! Hysterical forecasters to the contrary, it does snow here, and frequently. Get a shovel per person, something to sprinkle on the ice, take more precautions for the vehicles, and enjoy the whole spectacle.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Three Stooges Redux

This week it's a little hard to decide which clown circus is worse: the US Congress or the attendees at the Copenhagen climate conference. However, it is Congress—specifically, the US Senate—that yields up our three stooges.

We have, of course, the stooge's stooge, Joe Lieberman. A lot of sources have been speculating on Lieberman's narcissism, which may be a valid point. What they don't dwell on is the prominent role the insurance industry plays in the economy of his state, Connecticut.

Next we have Nebraska's finest, Ben Nelson. His agenda is not hidden, exactly: he's a Johnny one-note on the subject of abortion, and is currently prepared to scupper health care reform for a generation if it so much as breathes a word about abortion reimbursement. Not your call, mon: especially if the bill continues the way it has, as a Romney-like indemnification programme for insurance companies (who still oppose it).

Late news. They say everyone has his price, and apparently they've found Nelson's. Whether there is any reform left in the reform after getting the 60th vote is another matter. I console myself with Ben Franklin's remarks in the play 1776 about avoiding slavery in the Declaration of Independence:

First things first, John. Independence; America. If we don't secure that, what difference will the rest make?

I hope we don't have to pay as drastic a price for this compromise as for that one.

The preceding two are merely DINOs (we skip lightly over Lieberman's supposed independent status). For our third stooge, we come to a genuine dinosaur, Oklahoma's Republican Senator James Inhofe. For his 15 minutes of fame, he's planning to scupper any climate change treaty that comes before the Senate. He goes beyond disagreeing with the evidence to call the entire thing a hoax. This pronouncement is a little premature, since the likelihood of a climate accord coming out of Copenhagen is something between nil and none. It's too bad we can't use urine as fuel, because the Copenhagen pissing contests are supplying the world with plenty. Oh, and in case you forgot, the oil industry plays as large a role in Oklahoma as insurance does in Connecticut. No, larger. It is nice to consider that Oklahoma will be among the first states to dry up and blow away when the diehards realise this is not politics, but for real.

More late news: Copenhagen has given us noise but no treaty. Sorry, Sen. Inhofe: you'll have to put off your moment in the footlights.

So here we are, just like the turn of the last century, with public policy being dictated by Senators bought and paid for by special interests of one sort or another. Isn't progress wonderful?

Monday, December 14, 2009

A little misunderstanding

The annual Army-Navy game is supposed to be a moment of good-natured mockery between members, and veterans, of the respective services. This does include Marines, who are well-represented on the Navy team. It does not include the Air Force, which we mock all the time anyway.

One exchange I had was veering off of "good natured" until I gently applied the brakes. It hit on an old theme: that the Army and Marines do the fighting and the Navy, well out of danger, supplies the transportation.

I won't go into who provides the Marines with health care (the Navy), supplies (the Navy), and often shelter (the Navy). This friction was with an Army veteran, so that's irrelevant. The other friction point involved a female friend who is a Cold War Navy veteran. Even though I have the "Vietnam Era veteran" label, that's an accident of chronology. As I said elsewhere, the Navy in its wisdom sent me to the Cold War theatre. She, and I, both got a bit restive about the do-nothing Navy thing.

Those of us who spent our Navy time involved in the elaborate game of nuclear chess with the Soviet navy were properly grateful that we were not on the Mekong in very small boats getting shot at. You didn't choose your job in the Vietnam era; you got an approximation of your wishes upon enlistment and upon graduation from boot camp, service school, and on reassignment. Sometimes it was very approximate. In my time in the Navy, whilst you could be assigned to Vietnam, you couldn't request that duty. So I played chess with Soviet submarines, aircraft, and surface ships. In every respect except the actual shooting (mostly) it was war. As a character in The Hunt for Red October said, things will get out of control. Accidents happened, especially when one side or the other got aggressive. People died or were badly hurt. My female veteran friend served later, when tensions had eased somewhat, but even then the potential for incidents was there.

The thing about the Navy that the Army (and civilians) forget is that it mostly operates on, under, or over the ocean. Oceans are very dangerous at any time. Those of us in Navy air lived our lives, afloat or ashore, in close proximity with high explosives and volatile fuel. Ashore, we could run from disaster, just like the land forces. At sea, there is no place to run. In addition to the explosives and volatile fuel, ours ships had to contend with gales, icebergs, other ships, and sometimes waves higher than people ashore can even imagine. Could you envision a winter gale with waves high enough to overtop an aircraft carrier? It happened in my task force. At sea, you either deal with these disasters or you die, often in a very unpleasant fashion.

The Army and Marines looked offshore from Vietnam at Navy ships apparently doing nothing and got angry. But had we not played nuclear chess at sea with the Soviets, thousands of miles away, they might have been looking at ships flying the hammer and sickle. A little respect, please.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

There's many a slip.

Earlier in the week, I ran across a Prevention article, 7 Foods that Should Never Cross Your Lips. I do find Prevention interesting, intriguing and sometimes right. Not this time.

To start with, what we really have here is "seven single-source opinions about what you should not eat." Single-sourcing, for the uninitiated, is getting an opinion from one individual on one subject. Press statements from interest groups don't count, except if no other source is available and if the reporter has specifically asked for a statement for this story. I have plenty of scar tissue, old and new, inflicted by editors and teachers hammering home this point. It would have been far more useful to put together three or four sources and ask all of them to name their top seven forbidden foods. The intersections would have made interesting reading.

Single-sourcing leaves a publication open to little "Oops" moments which is what seems to have happened here about at least four of the seven forbidden foods. First, there's the canned tomato business. Here, the source states that tomato cans are lined with bisphenol-A (BPA), which is becoming disreputable. It would appear that all cans have epoxy resin linings containing some quantity of BPA. Does a relatively stable polymer like epoxy resin actually leach hazardous quantities of BPA over the normal shelf life of a can? We don't know; at least we don't know from this article.

I have no particular objection to taking a pass on beef of any description (item 2), microwave popcorn (item 3), or even taking it easy on milk (item 6). I eat very little red meat, and while I understand that microwave popcorn is a dietary staple for some people, it isn't for me. However some people make a staple of cheap microwave popcorn because they must. There is still a substantial disconnect among those advocating for safe food, who forget to advocate for safe and affordable food. That gets no attention in this article.

Item 4 is "nonorganic potatoes," which of course opens up that charming debate about what "organic" means in this context. (It's all very confusing, because the term "organic" is itself a chemical standard: it's all chemicals, and most of what we eat is organic, that is, carbon-based.)
Here, we are told, "Try this experiment: Buy a conventional potato in a store, and try to get it to sprout. It won't."

My local farmer's market closed in late October, so we've worked our way through our local-bought root crops and into the second bag of New England spuds from the local grocery. After reading the article, I went down into the bulkhead where I keep the roots. Ayuh, the potatoes were sprouting, and I paid normal, nonorganic prices. Must depend where you live.

I have a similar objection to the stricture against conventional [sic] apples (item 7). I assume this to mean the ones in the big supermarkets that come coated with car wax, which I wouldn't eat anyway. I suppose my scepticism on forbidden pommes et pommes de terre has to do with living in a part of the world that still grows both. I don't mind a blemish or two on my fruit. It proves the stuff once grew somewhere, while the car wax makes me wonder.

Visiting my daughter in California's Central Valley has been both an education and a counter-irritant to some culinary advocacy thinking. If I recall the statistic correctly, two out of every three pounds of American produce come from that area. That produce is hauled up and down Interstate 5 (aka "the Five") in open tandem trailer rigs about the size of a small circus. I have seen this for myself, and I can't think that any of that inventory is improved by exposure to a couple of hundred miles of carbon monoxide, whether it was "organically grown" or not. That is why I'm more inclined to be moved by "local" as a priority than by "organic." If I had nothing better to do with my time (which may be the case soon enough), I'd "put up" all my own produce. But that has its dangers too, just as eating only seasonal food does. Humans can't escape every danger from what they eat.

Just one gets a huge "hey wait a minute" from me, and that's the commandment against eating farmed salmon. Why just salmon, for one thing? There are other farmed fish. But more to the point, the proposed alternative is eating "wild catch" salmon. "Wild catch" is a euphemism for fish caught as humans have caught them for thousands of years. I guess it is supposed to conjure up images of happy native peoples setting up their nets and weirs on pristine shores. Having spent a little time in the business, it conjures up for me images of factory fishing or other methods that scour the seas of a fundamental natural resource. "Wild catch" is a cute expression that lets the affluent get their omega-3 from overfished resources with a clear conscience. If farming fish contaminates, prove it and improve it, but keep at it. Whatever happened to sustainability? We are left to wonder.

Only the potato section gives the reader an explicit disclaimer regarding potential conflict of interest. However, the alert reader will observe that all seven sources have one or more biases or conflicts of interest. When one makes allowance for that, it ought to send one scampering out for additional data. I suppose it's too much to expect Prevention to have already done that: that would be the old journalism.


Friday, December 11, 2009

It's an attitude, not a number

I won't be reading's

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Thursday, December 10, 2009

Another one of those people...

...whose pain I do not share is Terrance Watanabe. For literary comedy, you need to read The New York Daily News' account of how he lost $127 million in Vegas. However, for self-pitying bathos, the ABC version is much, much, better.

In a world whose hypocritical piety sometimes exceeds anything the first Puritans could ever have dreamt up, I suppose I should say that I have never in my life been drunk. Heh: in the sixties and seventies I don't think we kept up with the consumption of earlier generations, but we were known to take a drink. We still are.

I can say that I have never in my life been that drunk; which is to say drunk enough to lose track of the equivalent of the gross national product of any of several Third World countries.
And I've never been in a position, or been inclined, to gamble more than about two bucks a week.

The amount of liquor Mr. Watanabe claims was forced upon him (together with mysterious painkillers) was not, let me say, excessive: it was toxic; it was fatal. And yet here he is, arisen from the dead evidently, reanimated by colossal self-pity and a stupefying inability to take responsibility for his own actions.

One can see the lawyers sharpening their long knives over this farce. Whatever Mr. Watanabe had left after he dumped nine figures at the tables will indemnify a whole rising generation of tort attorneys. Remind me not to drop a quarter in his tin cup when they're done.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Dinner and a show

There are odd comments here and there in this blog in praise of the original Kelly's Roast Beef on Revere Beach. One usually associates the place with warm summer days, since you eat outdoors, usually across the street on the seawall or under the pavilion.

Today, as I drove along the beach, I was thinking that maybe that's for weenies. When I say "along the beach" I mean just that. Driving along Revere Beach Boulevard today, I noticed that a sizable part of the beach was on the road. I suppose even more will be there after the early evening high tide on this stormy day.

Storm watching is something of a local pastime. Usually, I walk to do my storm watching, but why not vary the routine, go to Revere Beach and Kelly's? Prudence suggests scheduling this for low tide, since it wouldn't do to bathe the car in salt water. And I expect one would eat in the car, because if one ate on the seawall, the onion rings and cheese fries would get kind of soggy. Would Kelly's be open? I say yes, as long as the power's on and the workers are no more than ankle deep in the ocean. They're kind of tough there.

This may be a plan: now if I can sell the idea at home.

Can I have some, please?

What I want is whatever the jobistas and the reporters who cover them are smoking or sniffing when they look at today's hiring report and see bouncy good news:

  • The 13 percent of firms polled plan to hire in the next quarter; this—and an unknown controlled substance—are the source of the euphoria. However,
  • 13 percent plan layoffs, and
  • 73 percent are still going to stand pat with the workforce they have.
If I tried to sell you on something that showed a success rate of about one in seven, then told you it was the best news since sunshine, you'd probably lock me up.

[Late news, Wednesday: I went to my primary networking group today. Even the moderator, who is usually one of those uber-optimist types, expressed extreme scepticism about the last couple of rounds of jobs data.]
[Still later news: new claims jumped to 474,000. Note that the "continuing claims" data includes no one on extended benefits, like me.]

There is one thing I'm quietly betting on. It is that those grand and spectacular reductions in job losses just announced, on the order of a 90 percent reduction, are somebody's clerical error. We won't get that confirmed until six months or so from now, and by then we'll all have something else to worry about.


Sunday, December 06, 2009

A couple of thoughts

1) The first snow of the winter makes me a bit wistful now. I used to await that first snow with barely-contained enthusiasm. When E was small, and I was (unsuccessfully) indoctrinating her into Nordic skiing, we'd both throw our skis on and hop around the backyard as soon as we had something more than a heavy frost. Now E is a snowboarder who spent Thanksgiving weekend several thousand feet up in the Sierras. Now I can't go out the door in winter without looking over my shoulder to see if the Beast is following behind. It ain't what it used to be.

2) WBZ radio is showing the age of its demographic with a daily question asking whether the nation should do more to observe Pearl Harbour Day: it has a return of 74% "yes." I am old enough to easily remember people about 40 who were caught in that opening disaster of World War Two. I remember that all of my parents' generation knew exactly where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news, just as my generation recalls the same about John F. Kennedy's assassination.

I'm also a trained historian who knows that in such matters, the U.S. pays the price of its neglect of public history. I also appreciate a concept called "remoteness in time." For example, when the people who built the surviving 17th century houses of the East Coast looked back the 350 years that we look back to them, they looked into the heart of the Middle Ages. Their context was drastically different from ours.

A substantial percentage of the country's population is under 25. Demographically they outnumber people who have a living memory of Pearl Harbour. Let's apply "remoteness in time" to them, to, say, a 17-year-old high school senior. Pearl Harbour happened 68 years ago, in a society which measures time in 24-hour news cycles. When I was a high school senior, the sinking of the U.S.S. Maine, the cause de guerre of the Spanish-American War, had happened 66 years before. We did not have a national shopping day (excuse me, holiday) for that. Except for those of us who enjoyed history, hardly any of my contemporaries remembered that it had ever happened, and hardly any knew that the Spanish-American war happened. (None knew the Maine incident was as bogus as the Tonkin Gulf "incident," which signaled the real start of our war.)

I don't think you'd get any better results with a random selection of high school seniors today about the Pearl Harbour attack. Worse, those who do know may have been stuffed full of half-baked revisionism and conspiracy theories drawn from the Internet. That sort of discussion is what makes graduate studies in history lively, but it's worthless unless subjected to rigourous academic cross-examination.

If anyone seriously wanted a national shopping day to observe December 7, 1941, it would have been wise to start on it in 1942. By today, we'd have the holiday by inertia, much as we have a Memorial Day (Civil War), Veterans' Day (World War One), and a Confederate Memorial Day in some states. And, like those, it would be honoured as much in the breach as the observance. It is just too late, pilgrims: the context has changed. Those who still can, should remember what happened, and perhaps they should push a little harder for decent history education in American schools. But no, that would mean they would need to study American history too.

3) And finally, I like to think that Marco Scutaro's name is a good omen. Its Latin root is scuto, shield.

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Saturday, December 05, 2009

This is still around, so...

For atheists, the paradoilia* of the numbskulled and religious is an unending source of hilarity. Witness the still-current story of the Methuen, MA woman who saw Jesus on the bottom of her iron.

There is a charming disingenuousness to the narrative, if you follow the link. However, the story opens some insight into instances of paradoilia. Our heroine was under some little emotional stress and had been so for some time. Stress opens the mind to receive coincidental information that isn't there. Absent religion, we identify this correctly as a minor mental dysfunction that is a symptom of stress. In the case of the religiously indoctrinated, the mind has been pre-programmed to seek a deeper meaning.

Thus, the minds of those indoctrinated into Christianity, and rendered vulnerable by stress, may see the face of Jesus staring at them from the bottom of their iron. The mind of the skeptic, on the other hand, may see an immediate reason to grab a Brillo (r) pad.

*Those of you fond of Greek linguistic roots may prefer pareidoilia.


Friday, December 04, 2009

Now for some common sense

Trust the British Ministry of Defence to take a practical step to end the week: the decision to shut down its UFO hotline.

In a nation that has long placed a high value upon eccentricity, this of course is going down hard. No doubt the self-appointed ufologists will redouble their efforts to defend the UK from space aliens, although government has pointed out that no report in the umpteen years of hotlining has produced a shred of credible evidence of alien presence. "There is no defense value in investigating UFO reports," says a Ministry spokesperson.

The whole idea of placing UFO investigation, such as it is, under the heading of defence again illustrates where this obsession started. A good many scholars have noted that with nuclear weapons and the start of the Cold War, the number of religious visitations fell off to nothing, whilst the number of UFO sightings and contacts increased exponentially. Those sightings and contacts appear to have been overwhelmingly hostile: no healing visions of saints or whatever here.

If someone is watching, they've probably long since posted warning signs someplace on the far side of Mars. The UFO phenomenon shows that our first response to another intelligent life form is not going to be friendly: it's going to be all-out war, war that our species will probably start.

And I bet you wondered what happened to the Neanderthal.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

We ain't all CEOs

Previously I commented here about the long shadow cast on job-seeking techniques by the legacy of Bernard Haldane and the executive culture of the 1950s. Since then I've had two further reasons to question the conventional wisdom.

A discussion on the LinkedIn group Career Change Central goes on at some length about personal branding, which has become the buzz-phrase of the moment. This one increases its buzziness by an order of magnitude because it discusses personal branding in the context of using social networking for job searches. That has become an even more prevalent buzz-phrase.

It isn't that these ideas don't have merit. It is that examples which speak to the networks and culture of the executive suite don't address the needs of ordinary worker. A friend of mine has stretched his benefits with occasional day labour on construction sites. Sometimes, he says, you have to stand out on the corner with the undocumented aliens. But the job search gurus don't seem to get it.

Along these lines, one reason many people of my generation are anxious or pessimistic about retirement is that they have accepted the generalisations of the financial planning gurus without considering their own situation. Those generalisations recommend financial resources that are perhaps half again what the most diligent working stiff is able to acquire in a lifetime of none-too-stable employment. As a result, they are alarming, depressing, and actually offer more discouragement than encouragement.

I was in a meeting the other day with a non-profit finance person, who pointed out the core fallacy. These generalisations may be valid if you have large and relatively unavoidable expenses, such as a $3000 a month mortgage or children still in college. However, if your children are grown and if you are accustomed to living modestly, she maintained that one can retire on considerably less than conventional wisdom dictates. We had run our own figures recently and come to much the same conclusion.

The lesson for people who feel economically unready for retirement is to do their own math and consider their own situation. The takeaway for financial planners is that we don't all need a new BMW every other year or travel four times a year. Now that the top 20% has to live like the rest of us, the planners would do well to lower their targets in tune with lowered (i.e., reasonable) expectations.

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A recovering journalist's rant

Oh boo hoo! Poor Dan Wetzel! His widdle feewings are hurted because Tiger Woods made the stock remorse speech but objected to tabloid journalism. How dare the man??

Woods has no business calling the "respectable" media tabloid journalists, does he? After all, he only brings home a fat paycheck because of the news media, not because he can hit a golf ball. Why, the respectable media weren't the ones who paid six-figure sums for this story or that! All they did was pick up and repeat the stories once they were published by the people who did write the cheques, so they are without stain of sin. It's those other people who are tabloid journalists.

Woods' comment, however true, does reflect a certain naivete about the sensibilities of journalists and people who play them online and on TV. There is no remark more guaranteed to get a rise than "tabloid journalist." Journalists like to think they're like the people at Hebrew National, who answer to a higher authority. For a while, there was some truth in that. But during the last 20 years (not always, Danny Boy), when entertainment elbowed the news out of news, it has stopped being true. One has to go back to the late 19th century, when reporters stopped at little short of homicide to get their beat, and publishers started actual wars to boost circulation, to find an equal level of mendacity.

But let anyone—especially a celebrity—suggest something is wrong with such a retrograde picture and you'll need a beach towel for the tears. No one is more capable of self-deceiving hypocrisy than a reporter with a national byline. I exempt reporters with smaller audiences for the moment, but that isn't a matter of character; just lack of opportunity. As for the argument that sports media made Tiger, or Tom, Dick or Harry: sports reporters have never suffered from atrophy of the ego. They function best when they step back from the glare of reflected glory—or ignominy.

I confess I was primed to go over the top on this one by an afternoon WBZ radio news broadcast. The lead was that Mayor Menino will be coming back to the office shortly, after his surgery. Fair enough: that's a local lead story. On the day after Pres. Obama's Afghanistan speech, one might have thought that it, or better still a local angle on the speech, would have followed. But no: the news went straight from Menino to Tiger. We should be grateful, I guess, that there was a shooting in Brockton two hours later, or we would still be eyeball-deep in Tiger's tell-all trauma even on local news.

When logging on to Yahoo Sports, foolishly expecting to get relief with some sports news instead of 24/7 sleaze, I found Wetzel's tantrum. I have a hard enough time accepting golf as a sport, Dan: don't make my disbelief any deeper.


Tuesday, December 01, 2009

More lessons from my childhood

The following observations may suggest that as a child I committed wrongdoing. That's correct. Having grown up in a dysfunctional family, I know that wrongdoing has unpleasant consequences.

First one, for the Salahis. When you do something wrong, have your story lined up in advance and stick to it! Don't float one story after another, changing according to the public reaction.
[Late news: maybe Tiger Woods should assimilate this one too.]

Second one, for Tiger Woods. Mark Twain was right. Golf is "a good walk spoiled." Consider a career change. To preserve your privacy you might try becoming an actuary: paparazzi don't bother actuaries. I discovered the golf lesson in my teens, when I had the illusion that I could play.

Third, also for Tiger Woods. When you break something, don't clam up: that just makes it worse. man up and blame somebody else! Siblings are very useful for this, but don't neglect neighbours.

Last, hockey player Keith Ballard should consider a career change too, or at least anger management classes. If the man cannot hit the goal in anger and instead nearly takes off the head off his own goalie, it suggests that he also can't hit the puck. Time for a change, Dude.