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?

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Talking like everyone else

This week's most gaseous news may be about VP Joe Biden calling a restaurant owner a smartass, which several of our brilliant media have characterised as a "mild obscenity."

Let's begin with the usage lesson for all those editors so ignorant of their own craft that they called this an obscenity, however mild. Stretch the usage if you like, but there are better terms.

Smartass is a vulgarity
Fuckin' smartass would be an obscenity
Goddam smartass is profanity, and
Shithead is scatology

There may be a pop quiz for editors.

Although Americans, and especially Americans with a keyboard, like to pretend otherwise, they are royalists at heart and really don't want their leaders talking like everybody else. This business called to mind a local reporter's comment on George Washington's salty language in the made-for-TV movie The Crossing back in 2000. She was shocked as only a journalist can be, saying, more or less, "the father of my country wouldn't talk like that!"

Well, he would and he did. Contemporaries reported that, in an era in which strong language was common, Washington stood out for language that probably outdid any of his sergeants'. If you polled Americans as to which American generals were saltiest, Patton would certainly lead. Washington wouldn't even make the top ten, but Grant probably would. Oddly enough, his contemporaries commented that Grant never swore, which was highly unusual at the time, and rarely even got angry. Shows what a reputation will do. If Obama had said "smartass," he would get compliments for showing some backbone.

The only group whose hypocrisy in the Biden matter outdoes that of the media is the army of online commenters, but they have an interest at stake. In his introduction to the Caine Mutiny, Herman Wouk explained that he had left most standard Navy saltiness out of the dialogue because it was nothing more than punctuation that meant nothing when put into print. George Carlin observed, as have many others, that offensive language ceases to be offensive when it's used often enough. My parents' generation are offended by hearing words such as ass (or smartass), fricken or frigging, and crap on the air or reading them online. Their parents were offended by gosh and darn.

Although I regret the demise of so many useful expletives, there's one benefit to having political figures, news media, experts and celebrities talk like longshoremen every chance they get. The scribbles of online commenters already lack anything resembling content: all they can do is try for adolescent shock. Daily usage is rubbing down every vulgar, obscene, blasphemous, scatalogical and offensive word in the language. When this has happened, the commentariat will be made speechless.

Rock 'em, Joe.

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One good change (mostly) in hiking

It was not so long ago that one could easily track turistus americanus by the amount of trash s/he left behind. As I've commented before (and may even find the link) the first voices raised against littering as a major American pastime belonged to conservatives. But they were paleo-conservatives: Today's variety seem to think it incumbent upon them to leave trails of trash as a political statement, just as they seem to think irresponsibility and excess in every aspect of resource management is a political statement.

It isn't: it's just trash: the thoughtless signature of selfish and stupid people.

The pleasant surprise both at Mount Monadnock and the Blue Hills was the relatively small amount of trash. The state park at Monadnock is "carry in-carry out," and visitors can't dispose of anything except paper towels in the rest rooms. This has been the case there for a long time, and the ethic seems to be sinking in. I don't recall whether the Blue Hills reservation has the same policy, but it wasn't far behind in neatness, nor was Willowdale.

I know this because I pick up trash that I find in wild places. It doesn't seem to be enough to take out what you bring in. To make a positive contribution, once should take out more than one brings. I'm happy that there isn't as much trash as there once was to carry out in either states' reservations. I wish I could say the same for my town's conservation land.

The worst—and most notorious—is the former railroad right of way known as "the path." For many years, the path was used daily by the town's middle school students to get to and from school, without undue incident. Several years back, the new high school was opened adjacent to the path and ever since, the trash quotient has increased.

In any town, the problem with managing high school students is that they are high school students. In an affluent town such as this, there's the additional problem of multi-generational privilege and sense of entitlement. Clearly, the concept of picking up after themselves has missed these youthful perpetrators. One has to think their parents never assimilated the idea either.

So yes, there are people picking up after you: regular users like me and conservation land volunteers. There's a big difference between us and the hired help you seem to expect to follow you with a broom: we're not paid to do it and we don't much like it. Given our druthers, cleaning up the path would be the default detention activity for all of you. If not that, then delicacy forbids that I should say where I'd like to put your trash, but the sun don't shine there.

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Monday, June 28, 2010

Today's fish story

Over the weekend, a tuna boat from Gloucester caught and released a six to seven foot shark on Stellwagen Bank. Stellwagen is an area of shallow water in outer Massachusetts Bay roughly the size of the land mass of Rhode Island. Six to seven foot sharks are about as common there as jaywalkers on Tremont Street in Boston.

Except that this was a Great White Shark.

OMG!! Reach for the panic button! Abandon the beaches! Head for the hills! In Massachusetts, this pre-adolescent shark and the barely post-adolescent fishermen who caught it, were today's lead for much of the questionably adult local media. What else was happening? Let's see: opening of Elena Kagan's Supreme Court confirmation hearings, a high-speed police chase from downtown Boston onto the Mass Turnpike, breakup of a Russian spy ring including two local people... all below the fold, as us dinosaurs used to say in the days of print. Nope, nothing happened today that could possibly be as interesting as a teenage shark caught over 20 miles from the nearest beach.

This is the sort of coverage that makes one abandon all hope that reason and good judgment may one day prevail, and snatch journalism back from the jaws of the tabloid media. Holy crap, it's a shark too small to eat its primary food, seals! There were sharks off this coast before Jaws was filmed, and they may be there after it's forgotten, if humans stop slaughtering them for Asian delicacies and out of reckless panic. It's been 70 years since the state's last shark attack. The fact that the broadcasters all covered this information did nothing to slow down the flow of breathless, panicked leads. Oh, and outside of Hollywood, your chances of being attacked by a Great White are about the same as being struck by lightning as you're being run over by a 1929 Duesenberg immediately after learning that you've won both Mega Millions and Power Ball.

I was going to give props to the Boston Herald for it's factual, emotionless headline earlier today, but I just checked out their Web site to find that they too have bought into the panic party. I'm grateful for the Russian spy arrest, though: it should push little Brucie out of the headlines by the morning.

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Sunday, June 27, 2010

Trail marked, Mark Trail

Yesterday's event was a test drive for this pair of putative Yosemite hikers at Mount Monadnock. To appreciate this fully, you must understand that my spouse grew up within sight of America's Mount Fuji, where residents' interest in the mountain borders on worship. She has been up and down the mountain more times than she can count. My view of the mountain has always been more reserved, but it is the best thing to climb in an hour and a half driving radius.

Things change, and lesson 1 in such change came with our trail selection. We took our old favourite pre-kid route, the Cascade Link to the Pumpelly Trail. This is seven miles or so, nearly double the length of the two most touristy trails.

If you follow the links above, you'll read what a "gentle climb" this is. On the average, it is: just as the person with one foot in a bucket of boiling water and the other in a bucket of ice is, on the average, comfortable. When we first began using that trail, 30-odd years ago, we agreed with that review.

During the years since our last trip, someone added a large number of not-so-gentle sections that escaped our notice when we were under 30.
And apart from the aging of the hikers in question, there's a question of maintenance. Very few hikers do the Link for its full length. They bear off on one of the other trails that head to the summit. After the last of those turnoffs trail maintenance, especially of trail markers, has slipped quite a bit.

It was a relief to reach the altitudes where cairns took over from yellow markers. Until then, our progress was slowed by having to spread out now and then and find the trail.

Slowed, that is, until I observed the distinctive spoor of the contemporary hiker: the scratches left on rock by today's hiking staffs. (Take this detour to one example.) Part of this trip's purpose was to experiment with these gadgets, which are definitely useful.

More and more of these poles have rubber tips rather than metal points. As I understand it, the change is happening out of concern for the environmental damage the points may cause. On these two little-used trails, there wasn't much evidence that hiking poles had done any more damage than feet to soil and roots. But the marks were all over the rocks, as if some very well equipped family of paleolithic bears had been making daily trips up and down the mountain for centuries. This doesn't seem like much, in the balance of things. Do we care about scratching rocks? Well, my wife noticed that where the scratches were the lichens were often dead or dying.

The rubber tips on my poles were worn through before we had barely started. I replaced them this morning. I had "leave only footprints" borne in on me from an early age, and I try to take more human traces out of the woods than I bring in (more on that presently). Although the marks on the rocks helped us to pick out the trail several times, they struck me as the sort of lasting change on the environment that it's better to avoid.

It was balm to stiff muscles and various bruises to check the literature this morning and discover that we'd done the trip in six hours (minus lunch and summit worship), which is an average trip over this route for hikers of any age and condition. It was also a comfort to check the respective topo maps and find that the nasty bits of yesterday's trek are steeper than anything we plan to do at Yosemite. That lesson is "stick to the plan:" we will not be gulled into doing Half Dome, hanging by our eyebrows off El Capitan, or anything else that could involve the word "precipice."

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Friday, June 25, 2010


Fredric:"You Must be Igor."
Igor:"No. It's pronounced Eye-gor."
Fredric:"They told me Igor."
Igor:"They were wrong then,weren't they?"

(Young Frankenstein)

Back we go to Mr. Chanda and his assertions regarding body surface area and its effect on cooling.

Mr. C stands exonerated on one point, the main one, but culpable on a second point, lack of clarity. He mentioned that this point refers to the ratio of body surface area to body volume (SA:V) but didn't stay around the point long enough to explain how the ratio works.

The zoological premise in play here is Allen's Rule , which maintains among other things that endotherms (including humans) of the same volume may have differing surface areas, which will aid or impede their temperature regulation. (There's actually a better explanation in Wikipedia, but I generally avoid linking there.)

In general:
  • Low surface area to volume ratio tends to conserve heat
  • High surface area to volume ratio tends to dissipate heat
Chanda's rain forest dweller has a high SA:V ratio by virtue of having a small body, which incidentally generates less heat to start with. African plains dwellers also have a high SA:V ratio through having a very elongated body. This is an illustration of evolutionary biology's irritating habit of having more than one solution for the same problem. Chanda mentions the proportionately small heads and shoulders, but skips the more important fact, the length of the limbs in proportion to the trunk. Since there is proportionately less variation in trunk length than limb length amongst adult humans, the best way for the organism to increase surface area and remain physically active is to have longer limbs. There is, of course, the Jabba the Hutt model, but that suffers from lack of mobility. It's also debatable whether Jabba was an endotherm.

There are other selection factors at work, so one can't go to the wall with Allen's Rule. Those other factors are one reason we can have different heat dissipation solutions. For example, a very tall plains hunter or herder has several advantages over a short one: being able to see farther is just one. A very short rainforest dweller has advantages in that environment over a tall person: being able to move more quietly and hide more easily are among them.

A better illustration than Chanda's, and one consistent with Allen's Rule, is between the African plains dwellers such as the Fur, the Dinka, and the Masai, and the Inuit of Arctic North America. The Africans have a very high surface area to volume ratio achieved in part with very long limbs. The Inuit have a low surface area to volume ratio achieved in part by having relatively short limbs. The Inuit also have relatively heavy layers of fatty tissue, which increases body volume.

In discussing the rain forest people, Chanda veers toward the more controversial Bergmann's Rule, which maintains that within the same species, larger individuals appear in higher latitudes and smaller ones in equatorial latitudes. The latter have a high surface area to volume ratio more or less because they are small, and thus are better adapted to a tropical climate. Bergmann's hypothesis is subject to many exceptions, elephants being the most obvious. Neither rule is considered absolute these days, because both open the field to so many alternate explanations.

So Chanda's statement is correct. The two populations have reached two different solutions to the same problem--heat dissipation.

Back to business. The weakness of tall=well nourished as an absolute principle has always been that it is one-dimensional and contains a very heavy dose of projection. The argument exists in part to support a mythical faith in human progress. For example, we are assured that people have uniformly grown taller since the Middle Ages, as a marker of progress. The Dutch evidence sharply contradicts this. My own studies with British military records, done some 35 years ago, likewise contradict the conventional wishful thinking. Contemporary observations from the 15th century onward contradict a faith in progress that begins to seem naive. Nutrition is a factor in human growth, but just one factor in a matrix of environmental, statistical, genetic and epidemiological factors. You have to look at all of them together to come close to the picture.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

The unbearable lightness of feeding

Believe it or not, once upon a time we had no nutrition labels. We had no sell-by dates either. We may not have been (collectively) as obese, but we did have a mortality rate to match. But I digress.

Lately, I've been noticing calorie creep in the reduced-fat category. I've noticed it chiefly in potato chips and prepared salad dressings. In our house, potato chips aren't a snack, but an ingredient in a supreme comfort food, my mother's tuna casserole. Over the years I've successfully trimmed a lot of calories and excess salt from this recipe, by using fat-free Greek yogurt in place of white sauce, using low-sodium soup for the soup part of the dish, and by using reduced calorie potato chips in the crust. (Don't go reminding me that I could do this dish with pasta. Of course I could, but the chips add the comfort.) As a result, I've been watching the per-serving fat content of "reduced calorie" chips creep up to 7 g a serving.

Now, Pilgrims, not so many years ago an ordinary bag of potato chips had 7g of fat per serving. Doing a little comparison shopping, I saw that the best you can do in that line today is 9 g per serving. Some products are in double digits. The reduced-fat category is relative, not absolute. note too that when reduced-fat chips shaved 2 g of fat off 7 g , the fat content dropped about 28 percent. Shaving the same 2g of fat off 9 g, fat content drops about 22 percent. Clearly, there's a vanishing point somewhere in the future when the act isn't worth the trouble.

Much the same holds with reduced-fat salad dressings, which are a boon to those of us who have to swallow statins every day. Within the past couple of years, these products have undergone a similar, or greater, calorie creep. Worse, the variety of products seems to be shrinking, which is a blow to my salad-making at this season.

No wonder we're all getting fat.

Now that my curiosity is aroused, I'm going to take some names, or rather numbers, and track this trend. Results as they happen.

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Friday, June 18, 2010

In case of doubt, check this

If any of my peers were wondering whether "age bias" is only an excuse, I suggest a bit of light reading courtesy of myboomer2boomer. A charming thread on Yahoo Answers called "Should we blame the Baby Boomers for everything? " No I won't give you the link: you can Google this yourself if your digestion is up to it. The Asker's opinion is "yes, we should blame the Boomers for everything." Evidently that includes original sin, the fall of Rome, the rise of 19th century imperialism, Karl Marx and smelly cat urine.

The thread proves that no one generation has a monopoly on bigotry, selfishness and whining. Commenters include a couple who are of my generation and attempt to show that they too hate my generation. It's a feat of intellectual gymnastics that is frankly beyond them.

In fairness, the thread demonstrates that even in a confederacy of dunces, there will be one or two people of reason and principle who try to make their point over the noise. Unfortunately, the noise usually wins.

I can afford to smirk for a couple of reasons.

First, the oldest members of the so-called "Generation X" turn 45 this year. This means, by their own standards, they are now too old to make a meaningful contribution to society.

Second, I can seldom overlook the slavering and uncritical praise most of the American public heaps on the servicefolk and veterans of our present imperial conflicts. In common with other, more thoughtful veterans of the late and overlooked unpleasantness in Southeast Asia, I know perfectly well that this slobbering is a compensation for the disagreeable way my generation of veterans were treated once, and are treated still. They might consider including us in their encomiums, but that seldom occurs to anyone.

Both instances lead me to caution younger people to be careful what they say, especially on the Internet. It will stay there forever, and it may come back to grab their throats at an awkward moment.

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A new take on an old topic

Part of my current reading list is Nayan Chanda's Bound Together. This is an examination of how old globalisation really is; how it's inseparable from being human. Chanda explored the following topic, and I'll get to his comments directly.

Some while back these pages pursued a little kerfluffle caused by a combination of self-interested anthropologists and simple-minded American reporters, discussing the story that the Netherlands had surpassed the US as home to the world's tallest people. This had been an academic topic of mine some years ago and I felt qualified to take exception.

When we left this story, we were closing in on the observation that "tallest in the world" was somewhat racist hyperbole, since that distinction has swapped back and forth amongst several pastoral tribes in East Africa, not between the US and various European contenders.

The story had us believe that the Dutch had gone from being the shortest people in Europe to the tallest in less than two generations. This too was entirely false, and the author of the monograph that served as the main source of the story made no such claim. One did not have to dig far to discover that the people native to what we now call the Netherlands had been considered unusually tall since the days of classical Rome. The academic question—still in play—is why they lost much of this distinction for 200-250 years, between about 1600 and 1850. Why, in fact, did the men more than the women appear to lose the distinction? Since about 1850, the mean height of the native Netherlands population has rebounded and (possibly) exceeded its historical precedents.

There is much simple-mindedness in journalism, especially in American journalism, and especially on this subject. The topic is bound up with the American mythology of growth and success, and has been so since Benjamin Franklin first asserted, in the 18th century, that the average American was taller than the average European. Data I examined 35 years ago suggested a difference more metaphorical than real, with a point spread of well under an inch.

Both the American public and the post WWII generation of physical anthropologists saw in greater stature a visible sign of superior diet and nutrition. During the time I was studying this, this doctrine was coming under attack, from geneticists and epidemiologists among others. One of the seeds planted in those years was the understanding that growing tall is not always a good thing, nor was it an absolute consequence of a good diet.

For example, Southeast Asians live in a traditional food surplus region, with rice as a staple starch and a good selection of fruits, vegetables and proteins readily to hand. The nutritional determinists argued that it showed that wheat was more nutritious than rice, because people from wheat-eating regions tended to be taller than people from rice-eating regions. In recent times, it was noticed that if you put a rice-eating child on a wheat diet, and a wheat-eating child on a rice diet, on average the former still ended up shorter than the latter. Something else was at work here, surely.

Another study examined the diet of Philadelphia's 18th century charitable institutions. The study disclosed that these poorest of white Colonial Americans ate a more nutritionally balanced diet than most Americans of the late 20th century.

Here is some of Nayan Chandra's elegant synopsis of the other factors at work:

"Body shapes also adjusted to the environment. Keeping the body cool through sweating in a hot climate and preserving heat in a cold climate became two key functions that determined body shape. In hot and humid climates like tropical forests, shorter people fared better because their bodies had a greater surface area for the evaporation of sweat compared to their bodies' volume and because they carried less body weight and produced less heat while hunting....The tall and slender shape of the East African...served the same purpose, since their maximum surface-area-to-volume ratio better enabled them to cool off....Their relatively small head and and slim shoulders also caught less of the sun's noon--the best time to hunt for animals that were resting in the shade....Of course...other factors, such as particular tastes of individuals in 'sex selection' could have been at play."

There it is. To be tall does not indicate that one is nobler or better fed, merely adapted in some way to one's environment. Well then, what about those Dutch? Without getting a grant and going for a PhD, I can only pose some hypotheses. They include:

1) Beginning about 1600, the Netherlands' status as a haven of religious liberty made it a more heterogeneous place than it had been before (or has been since 1850). It became home to large numbers of Sephardic Jews and Ashkenazim, French Huguenots, dissenting Italians, Spanish, Portuguese, and Britons. All these groups historically were shorter than the native population. Even without mixed marriages, data that drew no distinction based on national origins would throw these other groups into the database. It was precisely such data that formed the historical record.

2) During the last half of the 16th century, malaria made its first appearance in the northern latitudes of Europe. From that time until the mid-19th century, it became endemic in the marshy districts that made up much of the coastal Netherlands. The increasing drainage of the marshlands in the mid-19th century, followed soon after by the isolation of quinine as a treatment, made steady inroads into Dutch malaria. Why is this important? Because while many diseases, and short-term malnutrition, can temporarily prevent a child from attaining its height potential, or delay the achievement of height potential, childhood malaria characteristically permanently prevents the child from attaining its genetically predicted height.

3) Today's data are almost certainly biased in favour of the ethnic Dutch population. Although the Dutch national health system is excellent, their own data show that today's (shorter) ethnic minorities are severely underrepresented in the programme. As the Dutch work to resolve this problem, it will be interesting to see whether those spectacular numbers level off as shorter minority populations become more represented in the data stream.

4) If, today, we are chiefly measuring ethnic Dutch in the Netherlands, we can't overlook sex selection. Whilst tall men may at times choose short women as partners, there is a strong social bias (in the Euro-American world) against the opposite. A few generations of tall people marrying each other in an homogeneous population is very likely to produce successively taller offspring.

5) Finally, stature distribution is subject to completely random swings, a caution against over-relying on a single demographic parameter. If one approaches "average height" with preconceived notions, one is likely to load the measurement with a burden of proof it cannot sustain.

Chanda also includes a critical observation from his sources, that all of this is simply a set of external responses to environment and cultural preferences. On the inside, the Southeast Asian five foot tall is the same as a Dutchman of six foot six. (We might exempt the possibility that the Southeast Asian's heart doesn't need to work as hard.) I can't wait to see what other cords Chanda pulls.

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Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The French and the barbarians

The world news (that is, the world outside the American media circus) is agog over the proposal to raise the retirement age in France from 60 to 62—over the next eight years.

Let's pause and contrast this with the United States. Here, the official retirement age (that is, the age at which once can claim full retirement benefits) has risen to 66 for those people not already above 65. This happened some years ago, and the change seems to have got past nearly everyone under age 55. Most of them still think it's 65.

The next step was supposed to be raising the retirement age to 67 and performing the minor tweaks that would fix the Social Security deficit that would otherwise become a concern around, oh, my 95th birthday, if I'm unlucky enough to have one. The Republicans and the teabags, having fallen intro the trap of believing their own rhetoric, are instead saying, "oh hell, why don't we just shut down Social Security now, totally, and Medicare while we're at it. And screw the unemployed into the bargain." It's troubling to observe that our supposedly socialist administration seems to think all this is a good idea.

Oh, and if you're of a mind to grunt and say "fine, let them work," remember that they (we) can't. That is, many of us can't. Because while all of this is going down, the de facto retirement age* in the US has slipped under 50. So, as of this writing, when you lose your job at 45 or 50 you won't get either the unemployment benefits or Social Security that you worked for, or Medicare, or another job. Best bet is to hang onto whatever cardboard, blankets and and camping gear you may have, and steal a shopping cart to tote it in. If you then learn the fine art of dumpster diving and travel in packs, you may be able to last a few months after you blow through whatever money you had left after Wall Street pissed away the rest.

Although France may raise the retirement age by two years over the next eight, they still plan to see that their older citizens have some means of support. This is considerably more compassionate than the emerging American "plan," which seems to be no plan at all.

Mary Renault wrote that in Doric Greece, residents who, through bad planning or bad luck, lived to the age of 60 were expected to go up in the hills and do away with themselves. We used to consider this barbarism. Now we call it deficit reduction.

*The de facto retirement age comes when employers have at least ten excuses for not hiring you for every year of experience you can offer.

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Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Everybody's a critic

Pity: during my one cross-country trip I missed I-75 and therefore "touchdown Jesus," who really belonged at Notre Dame. And here we have an affront to the power of faith over the laws of nature: Touchdown Jesus has been torched by a lightning strike.

Centuries before "the American religion" tried to corner the market on religiosity, observing Christians were troubled by the frequency with which lightning singled out church steeples and roasted houses of worship, with or without worshippers. Had to be a punishment from god, of course. Even after Franklin's experiments with electricity, and his promotion of lightning rods, the faithful who stuck to faith instead of physics saw that it was their steeples that got fried. The churches of their impious, but more practical, neighbours who installed lightning rods remained standing.

And yet touchdown Jesus apparently had no lightning rod, nor was the steel frame apparently grounded in any other way. Apart from blind faith, the name of the church—the Solid Rock Church—offers a hint. They were solid rock from the neck up.

Of course, maybe it wasn't the christian god who took exception to the statue. Maybe it was Thor.

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Monday, June 14, 2010

Just when I thought I was done with South Carolina

We have not only got Alvin Greene, but a challenge to his "irregular" Democratic primary win.

Is it true that the South Carolina legislature is going to make Send in the Clowns the state anthem? Probably not: we couldn't displace one of them good ol' southern anthems for something from, lord help us, Broadway!

One would hardly be surprised by irregularities in a state whose entire electoral process needs a dose of salts. However, what you get when you let "agin the gummint" get totally out of control is Alvin Greenes, people who get votes precisely because no one ever heard of them and because they aren't in office now. Vic Rawl may manage to overturn Greene, or not, but there will be more Alvins by November. There will be scores in the primaries, and while the fringe candidates may hand victory to the other side much of the time, some of them will get elected.

That should be educational. It doesn't really improve the public business to have corrupt, cynical and venal politicians replaced by people for whom utter cluelessness is an ideology. Nor will it improve things if we make the doors to Congress revolving, changing from one fool to the next every two years or, regrettably in the Senate, six.

Mitch McConnell seems suddenly to have realised that things have got quite messy, and partly on his watch. As he stares around for a solution, the obvious one seems to elude him: Run the damn government.

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Sunday, June 13, 2010

Cooks who spoil the broth

This topic came up a couple of days ago in a networking group I visit regularly. (OK, I brought it up.) A thread in a certain social networking group highlighted one of the problems that has surfaced when one blends 50-year-old job-hunting practices with a culture of privilege and entitlement.

The first "networking" was more or less learning to use and love the old-boy (or good-ol-boy) network. It seems to have worked very well in those days gone by when most people looking for a job already had one. It has steadily eroded over the past 40 years as the so-called social compact between the employers and employed has eroded. Now, most people looking for a job don't have one. Many haven't had one for some time. Although the era of the social compact and lifetime employment was dying or was dead before many of these people entered the work force, most of them still believe they have a right to—not just a job, but to all the money and perquisites they had enjoyed before the HR person with the empty box arrived at their cubicle.

When earnest employment pundits trot out their Haldane-era advice, especially about networking, that advice gets as garbled as the kids' game of gossip. What comes out is not the idea that you will actually try to meet a friend of a friend, in a place or field of interest, and make them your friend. Oh no: the output is too often that you will get the name of that someone, whether you have mutual connections or not, and demand that they give you an interview (i.e., give you a job). When that someone, very understandably, either ignores you or tells you to sod off, you then throw a tantrum. This has happened more and more often over the last 15 years or so, to the point where the artificial networking structure built on the old-boy example is pretty much dead.

And yet, the job search experts still bang on this drum all day.

Entitlement shows itself in unusual ways, even amongst the formerly entitled. The 1950s were a wonderful, gilded age in the USA: if you happened to be a white Protestant male. It was solid gold if you were a rich, white, Protestant male.It seems that a great deal of the loud social angst of the present is coming from people who resent the social changes of the last 40 years or so, which amount to a message to please share. They did not want to and they do not want to: a characteristic reaction of the terminally spoilt.

As I've been poking around the topic of age bigotry, I've had the unsettling experience of discovering just how many of these spoilt brats still remain in the corporate world and in the ranks of the unemployed. Many—but not all—of them are over 50. Many are obstinate in their refusal to start their job search with a look in the psychological mirror*. To them, their loss of privilege must always be someone else's fault. People who actually have done nothing more to employers than have the gall to get older may very well be collateral damage in a conflict between the fools who did the sacking and the fools who got sacked. Possibly bigotry enters into the business only because bigotry of any sort is a symptom of stupidity.

*A look in an actual mirror is irrelevant. Any job search pundit who advocates a physical makeover as a solution to unemployment has never taken a look at online background checks, in which age is the first data point. Perhaps dispensing online job search advice is the one field available today in which stupidity is a positive virtue.

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Friday, June 04, 2010

Petigru was wrong

South Carolina politics have been a raree show for more than 180 years. During their first temper tantrum from 1828-1832, then-President Andrew Jackson cooled some jets by offering to lead Federal troops there in person and hang anyone who so much thought of secession. Of course, Jackson was North Carolinian by birth and so had a short fuse where South Carolina was concerned.

The next fit led to a civil war which left 600,000 people dead and the South's economy ruined for 75 years. Instead of a president leading troops, South Carolina got Sherman and the precursor to blitzkrieg.

None of this seems to have sunk in. In the space of one year we have had South Carolina governor Mark Sanford giving "a walk in the woods" a new meaning; Joe Wilson, a South Carolina congressman, offending even Republican decorum during a presidential address to Congress, and now this.

If the GOP were running against any party but the Democrats, they could lie over and die right now. Bizarre as this spite, in a primary contest, may be, this time South Carolina doesn't have a monopoly on strangeness. In normal times this level of intermural spite would assure the other party of a big win. However, the times aren't normal, and the Democrats are as good as the Boston Bruins at snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

In 1860, attempting to prove that there were reasonable people in South Carolina, James L. Petigru said "South Carolina is too small for a republic, and too large for a lunatic asylum." Events have proven him right on the first point, again and again. Current events seem to be proving him wrong on the second.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Not exactly the Hub

My friends include a couple of people who once lived in New York City. One of them is even a Manhattan native (heads turn) and a diehard Yankees fan (gasp)! Both of them have been known, now and then, to suggest that Boston is a few bricks short of a load when it comes to modern civilisation. Since I'm a Northern New Englander, we have a few points of agreement on this subject, and lately I've been up against one of the most obnoxious.

In grown-up, "world-class", civilised cities, public transport runs round the clock. It does not in Boston. Here, one guesses, the morals police of days gone by decided that no decent person needed to ride public transportation between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m. So the system clings to this mid-20th century schedule while the world expands around it.

In an unlucky moment, I drew ground transport (and pet-sitting) arrangements at this end in preparation for our CA trip this summer. Our outbound flight leaves at 6 a.m. That means arriving in the terminal before 5 a.m. in these tense times: well before.

We live less than 15 miles from Logan. Having driven the route for three years at a very early hour, I can guarantee it's a 20 minute trip at that godawful time. Best of the several options is an airport shuttle which, with tip, works out to $3.25 a minute or $4.65 a mile.

Meanwhile, decent people who don't have to check in at Logan until, say, 6 a.m, can drive to Wonderland Station, park for $4 or $5 a day, get on the Blue Line and change to the airport shuttle. If they are even more decent and don't need to be there until 7, on weekdays they can catch an express bus that drops them on the departure level. In a civilised metropolis, these amenities are there when one needs them. In Boston they are only available during decent, God-fearing hours. One might add that even in some uncivilised cities, such as Washington, DC, transport to and from the airports is at a reasonable fixed rate, despite which cabbies and shuttle operators seem to make a good living.

Naturally, my wife has already completed the rail arrangements connecting us from San Francisco International to Yosemite and back, at a better cost per mile.

It's irresistible to suggest that Boston has missed the bus.

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