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?

Monday, March 28, 2011

R.I.P. Bob Slate's

Saying goodbye to another Cambridge institution wasn't at first on the programme when my wife and I went into Cambridge yesterday. We had decided to go to the Harvard Museum of Natural History, then try to find cheap eats someplace without a national brand on it. The Slate's visit was an add-on, when I mentioned the store and my wife said, "Oh, did you see the Globe column?"
Slate's is going, going, soon to be gone. We visited the Mass. Ave. store in its final flurry. My Rhodia pads were gone, gone in every style: someone had beaten me to it.

Crap: another step in the homogenisation of Harvard Square. I was a very late comer to Slate's, having been in Cambridge rarely most of my life. I was taking refreshment with the Mass Marrier some months ago and mentioned my frustration at being unable to find an old-fashioned long, skinny reporter's pad. He suggested Slate's. I found what I wanted and became a convert. I usually put this curse only on restaurants I like.

This news has its analog in the trouble I have finding the notebook. Slate's was damaged by Staples, then done in by the Internet. The specialised pads I like never had much of a market beyond writers in general and reporters in particular, so the Staples of the world can't be bothered with them. In any case, reporters don't take notes anymore. They record. This certainly makes one techno-savvy and cool, but I still remember what someone told me long ago. People may become more cautious, more guarded, in what they tell you when you record them. In our world that seems more real and more threatening. The pad? It's just a notebook: what harm is there in that? Perhaps that gambit is obsolete too, given how many people self-destruct via Facebook and Twitter. If reporters were still taking the pad and gathering facts, it might be different, but so many are simply making the story up as they go along.

All right: I'll hobble off to my rocker now and play with my skinny little pads. And I won't say where we got lunch: Putting no curses there.

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Jumping the shark

By now, we all know about jumping the shark. Over the last few days, media of nearly every kind (at least those which can broadcast images) has worked itself into a feeding frenzy over "man in kayak approached by 30-foot shark." God, a shark! let's all panic and run away from the beaches, even in Montana. One might say I'm showing my bias by linking to Fox coverage of this terrifying episode, but there's a point to that. The least terrified parties to this episode were the guy in the kayak (who jumped in to the water to get a closer look) and the shark, a basking shark.

After the initial frenzy, if you get your news from one of the few media sources that still has ethics, you might have read that the kayaker's nonchalance was based on knowing that it was a basking shark and that it was not dangerous to anything bigger than krill. (It's such a bitch how facts can get in the way of a good story.)

Our worthy Fox source doesn't give up hysteria without a fight, saying "he [the kayaker] says he wasn't scared because that species of shark usually only eats krill and plankton." Emphasis on the editorial addition, which implies that the shark might vary its diet with people.

It can't. It has no teeth, and is what's called a filter feeder, ambling through the water with its mouth open, as it were grazing on plankton and krill:

At the back of that big, filter-lined mouth is a not-so-big throat. Most species of shark have more to fear from us than we from them, but this is especially true to the basking shark and its larger cousin, the whale shark. Around here, numbers of these harmless creatures, and several porpoises, were wantonly slaughtered back in the 1970s by Darrell Dumbshits acting out Jaws fantasies and attacking anything with a big dorsal fin. A couple of years back, a basking shark was foolish enough to cruise for its supper about 300 metres off our beach, which drove hundreds of panic-stricken bathers onto dry land and brought up more news helicopters than we'd seen since our last high-profile homicide. It ambled away before some jackass stuck a harpoon in it.

We can hope that cable news has jumped the shark.


Wednesday, March 23, 2011

See, I told you

Or at least some of you. Welsh cuisine has moved far past leek soup. For some reason, this is my favourite confection shown by the Welsh National Culinary Team:

That would probably work out to Tim Cenedlaethol Coginiol Cymru if you're interested. (That's short a couple of accent marks I can't find here.) If you follow the link, you'll see that the team is whipping up something or other for wot's-'is-name and wot's-'er-name wot is getting hitched next month.


Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Adventures of two little saps

The Harrumpher recently wrote about an expedition to the Blue Hills Reservation for a maple sugaring event. I commented there, from experience, that this is definitely a "don't do this at home" sort of activity.

We were relative newcomers to the still-rural village where I grew up. We had not been there long before we noticed, and took part in, sugaring on a couple of nearby farms. It was a logical step, in ten-year-old logic, from that to pestering our parents to let us tap our good-sized stand of maples. It took a year or two, but we wore down the parental units. I think my father caved in to teach us a lesson. My mother, who already did a fair amount of canning, seemed to think it an interesting challenge.

We didn't have the outbuildings my friends' farms had, but we plunged ahead anyway. There were no elaborate arrangements of plastic tubing connecting trees to a common collecting point, for us or anyone. One went out in the woods with buckets, a manual bit and brace, a hammer, nails, and a quantity of galvanised steel spigots ("spickets" in my neck of the woods). Buckets in that town were usually improvised from coffee cans or any other large metal food can, so we had to spend several weeks in advance of the first season collecting cans, punching holes in them, and twisting stranded wire through the holes to make bails. It was probably the only season in which our elementary school cook was popular, because everyone who sugared would kiss up to her to get a few institutional food cans.

Thus prepared, we chose trees large enough for the operation and at the time indicated by the local sap gurus, went into the woods: calf-to-knee-deep in snow, for starters. We drilled our holes, angling slightly upward as we drilled into the tree. Then we drove in the spickets and added a nail if necessary to hold the wire bail. (We didn't put out the buckets until the cry of "sap's runnin'" was heard in the land.) Then we did it again, and again, and again. Our little sugarbush had 30 to 40 trees, no big deal. Moreover, they were swamp maples. Their roots in soft, wet soil guaranteed a low sugar content. One of the nearby farms also tapped swamp maples and took the results philosophically. If my father was trying to teach us a lesson about hard work, he was succeeding.

It got more successful. That little sugarbush produced an amazing volume of sap at peak. We had to get up before school and collect sap, then we rushed home from school to collect it in the afternoon before the buckets overflowed.* Since the trees were in a swamp, the transition from knee-deep snow to knee-deep mud was surprisingly fast.

When we had a reasonable quantity, we began to boil: in the kitchen.

And boil, and boil, and boil, and boil. When one is boiling in a relatively confined and civilised space like a kitchen, as the product becomes more concentrated, the sugar content of the steam increases. This means that the condensate, on every exposed kitchen surface, leaves a scum somewhat like spillage from a soft drink. We urchins tried valiantly to get out of our share in the removal of this sugar slime, and failed. We didn't do a great job, though, which meant that the kitchen was bedeviled with ants as soon as the weather turned warm. They did a very good job of removing any scum we'd missed, at the price of sometimes having ants fall into the baked beans.

We did get usable maple syrup. I don't recall that we ever tried for maple sugar, which essentially doubles the labour in the kitchen and can smell reaally nasty if it burns. This effort lasted three years, as I recall, when our minds turned to other things.

Despite the work and the mess, we did learn a little about the work involved and the sort of quality control needed to produce a worthwhile product. The lessons stayed with my forester brother more than they did with me. When he moved a good deal further into the woods after marriage and the Marines, he set out in earnest to build up a professional-grade sugarbush and a modern sugar house. He joined a cooperative, and so exchanged better prices on necessary equipment for maintaining strict quality control. His operation covers many acres now and provides (most years) a cash crop.

I'll either go to the store, thanks, or pester him for a quart or so.


*One local kids' dare was drinking sap. Apart from the sanitation issues, unless you've grown up to this sort of thing, you probably don't know that maple sap is a potent diuretic. This activity gave new meaning to "yellow snow."


Monday, March 21, 2011

I wasn't going to comment, but...

I've just crossed the line about that viral video of the Australian bullying victim smacking his tormentor down. As someone who experienced bullying on this scale and above, I'm all for the kid that did the smackdown. If I'd ever been able to catch the bully-in-chief alone, I would have done the same. But they traveled in a pack, and the only time I was able to swing back, I was the one who got in trouble.

What drives me to comment was Monday morning's interview, on The Early Show, with another in the endless line of fatuous "experts" on bullying. Her take was that the victim should have walked--or run--away and gone to the principal.


Has she ever tried either tactic? I doubt it. For one thing, if you walk or run away, the bully will likely chase you down. Second, if you walk or run away, the bully wins the round on psychological points. Third, and most important, the "expert" had a naive faith in the willingness of school administrators to intervene.

They won't; they're gutless. They were gutless 50 years ago, when this happened to me. From all I've seen, the majority today are still gutless.

If we mean to be serious about smacking down the culture of bullying, let's start by fact-checking experts and pundits who don't know what they're talking about. Oh wait: fact-checking isn't in the vocabulary of contemporary journalism, especially the broadcast variety.

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The payoff for safety

Although the people advocating changes in child safety seat use have science and kids' health on their side, I'm glad this wasn't happening when Em was at that age: for several reasons.

Consulting the growth chart which is still on one of our door jambs, I notice that she was 11 before she hit the magic 4 feet 9 inches, when the safety experts say the child should stop using a booster seat. My heart goes out to those families who decide they are going to pioneer that effort, because there is little doubt that booster seats for kids past the age of seven or so will put a considerable strain on the parent-child relationship.

The other part of this has been on my mind ever since the safety experts, again with good intentions, banished all children to the back seat. When Em was an infant, we didn't have a back seat: we had a pickup truck. She rode backwards, according to the rules of that day, until age two. When we finally got a car (a 1969 Fury!) she was in the back when we went somewhere en famille. Often, it was just a parent and a child, and the seat was in front.

At an early age, the conversations started. First, they were the sort of stream-of-consciousness discussions that toddlers are capable of. As Em grew older and moved first to a booster seat, then to the seat itself, the talk became more articulate and wide-ranging. When my mother was still living, Em and I would often go to New Hampshire when my wife had her working weekend. We'd have some seasonally appropriate father-daughter recreation, visit my mother, and talk coming and going.

When adolescence came, Em put up the usual barriers between herself and the parental units, but the barriers came down when we were driving somewhere. Em was in USA Swimming by then, and those trips were often just the two of us. (From toddler-hood on, the requirements of a two-income household had meant that she often was with one or the other of us when we were working evenings or weekends. A colleague once remarked how I never talked down to her, but treated her as an equal partner in any discussion.) In the car, with no other audience, Em got to expand on that equality. Her insight and the breadth of her interests grew and grew, and never ceased to astound me. She grew up unimpeded by the shyness that has crippled both her parents.

I know what part our automotive symposia played in that, because she wrote about it. (I used to edit Em's papers from middle school on, under one standing rule. I told her I wasn't going to write them. I was going to do what a good editor does, to bring out her ideas and help her present them in the best way with suggestions and observations.) As a high school senior, she had to write an essay on one thing growing up that had been a formative influence. She wrote about our discussions and debates in the car.

How much development of the whole person are we sacrificing in a search for safety? That search is ultimately an illusion, for we live on an unsafe planet. A century ago it was chiefly the well-off who were able to isolate and insulate their children. Now, with SUVs with two rows of TV-equipped seats , several feet behind the parents and beyond any reasonable expectation of interaction, children living in McMansions and already isolated from their parents will be isolated even more. They will perhaps be safer in the car than they once were, but what kind of adults will they become?


Friday, March 18, 2011

The dying art of headline writing

To be sure, the headline caught my eye, and drew me in to read a fairly serious story. But once upon a time, we learned that it was better to leave no room for the double entendre along the way.

"Decades-old toxic gas threat lifts from West Virginia town" carries a sombre message in the story, but it could just as well have been a spoof announcing the closing of "Freddie's Franks and Beans Cafe." If such a threat was ever there, it may well survive.


Thursday, March 17, 2011

Two nations...

There have been a fair number of Japanese in my professional life over the years. Neither comparative calm of those most affected by the present disasters, nor the departure from that calm by individuals overwhelmed by loss, surprise me greatly.

It is instructive, though, that the calmest people in Japan are those most directly affected. The inclination to panic increases in proportion to the distance from the crisis. Shift the scene several thousand miles across the Pacific, and you find Americans ready to drool with fear at the thought that their radiation exposure might go up by a milliroentgen, and find the usual American panic-mongering industry ready to play into their fears.

Much of this has to do with choice. In my day job, I see the example of people who find it essential to have every radiological examination known to medicine. They usually get their way by whining and pouting and threatening lawsuits.... Oh wait, that's by "threatening lawsuits, whining and pouting." American medicine, in a display somewhere between pure mendacity and passive-aggressive hostility, is likely to expose these anxious souls to a normal lifetime's worth of radiation in a week simply to avoid having them put their lawyer on speed-dial. (These noble sufferers are doubtless out there writing Congress to repeal health care reform and to keep the gummint outta Medicare.) Those who get used to doing this grow addicted to it. After a few such encounters, they must save a fortune on electric bills, because they have to glow in the dark. However, they choose this response to panic, so it's OK by them and they are insensitive to the risk. They don't choose the risk of getting as much radiation from Japan as they get from that old radium dial analog alarm clock by the bed. That risk, remote as it is, becomes an anxiety for fear dealers to whip into pink froth.

What gets lost in the panicked stampede is perspective. Quite possibly, perspective is what keeps the Japanese caught up in this disaster on a more even keel than an American cable news junkie.

Is the American panic a Cold War holdover, or something proving how many of us were born after the Arms Race? I think it's the latter. Those of us who were junior Cold War warriors already know how to handle excess nuclear radiation. We simply crawl under our desks and wait for the All Clear signal.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Why just beat the press?

OK, it's mostly press, but what the hell.

For a while, I was taking names about this observation, but it's bloomed so quickly that it seems unfair to single out just one broadcast "journalist."

Ladies and gentlemen of the broadcast news media, the adjective that applies to the energy catastrophe in Japan is pronounced NOO-klee-er. Evidently you were living under a rock during the recent shrub presidency, when our tang-tungled leader made NOO-kyuh-ler infamous and hilarious. tells me that NOO-kyuh-ler is an example of metathesis. The lexicographers' definition, of mere transposition, is very polite. (So are most lexicographers, until you get a few drinks into them.) I like the candour of the chemical definition of metathesis: double decomposition. I don't see why we shouldn't apply that to NOO-kyuh-ler as well. Incidentally, tang-tungled is also metathesis, but I suggest that transposition for the sake of humourous effect differs from transposition in a serious news item or speech.

Speaking of metathesis, pity the poor morning news reporters. The get up about 3 a.m., drive in theta state to the studio, grab a handful of copy and read it. (Can you tell I've been there?) However, Rule 1 for broadcast news is to pre-read your copy. That is, you get wherever you're supposed to be talking, and read it to yourself at about the same speed you'll read it into the mic. Rule 2 is to concentrate entirely on the task. These rules used to be subtly reinforced by colleagues who punked announcers in various ways. One might have pornographic selections slipped into one's copy, all the copy might be replaced with stories very much like the leaders from The Onion, or a person of the opposite sex might begin to strip in one's field of vision but off-mic and off-camera.

Alas, a radio announcer this morning failed to observe this rule. Thus his listeners learned that the con man Christian Gerhartsreiter has been charged with murder in the 1994 disappearance of John and Linda Sohus, and that John Sohus' remains had been discovered in 1985. I assume that Gerhartsreiter will be charged not only with murder, but with unauthorised time travel.

I also assume that the announcer was so wound up about correctly pronouncing Gerhartsreiter that he muffed the dates (he muffed the name too). I challenge anyone but a native German speaker to pronounce "Gerhartsreiter" correctly at 7:30 a.m. My sympathies.

Finally, a confession. I am personally responsible for the stock market tanking, as I have been for every dive it's taken in the last two-plus years. It happens every time I begin to take steps to move the remnants of my once-respectable portfolio out of cash funds (our era's equivalent of stuffing money in a mattress) and back into investments. There are many excuses, but I'll take the responsibility.

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Sunday, March 13, 2011

Live from Lexington NH

Funny: just the other day I was wondering whether the teabag bigmouths are stupid enough to believe what they say, or if they're just feeding various lines of crap to their undoubtedly stupid followers.

Thank you, Michelle Bachmann. Now I understand that you, at least, are really stupid enough to believe what you say. The "apology" was a dollar short, being on the lines of "Feh! No big deal."

Not around here. It's no surprise to residents on either side of the MA-NH border that there is a certain degree of friction between the two states. Conflating the two, then disregarding the pride of the respective states, is right up there in the list of dumb things one can do in a primary campaign. New Hampshire may not make candidates, but it can sure as hell break them. Step right up! Who'll be next to prove their idiocy?

Speaking of idiots: The Japan tsunami arrived on the left coast as a series of four-foot high swells. Having been out there, I know that most people with boats don't moor them, but float in marinas. Fine. 'Tis a big ocean, the Pacific, and it seems reasonable to suppose that four-foot swells would be routine. They certainly are on the ocean down my street. Nevertheless, many marina docks don't seem to have enough slack to compensate for swells, and it doesn't seem to have occurred to boat owners to tie up loosely enough. These oversights apparently caused $55 million in damage. I move we send marine surveyors from the East Coast to assess the damage, and have them tell the boat owners and marina owners that the $55 mil can come out of their pockets. I'm not minded to pay for Californian stu---err, oversights.

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Thursday, March 10, 2011

Barking up the wrong tree

I'm breaking my rule about not discussing job stuff, but this observation has been shoved in my face once too often.

There are many reasons that my choice of late-life career is a mistake—and this is no surprise to some of my friends. The chief one relates to my librarian spouse's observation early in her career.

In that field, some two-thirds of the professionals are women. However, two-thirds of the directors and librarians in senior or more technical fields are men. Not too surprisingly, the women notice this and resent it. There is less of that today, but the memory remains.

The same is true of my new occupation. The overwhelming majority of coders are women, but a majority of health information managers are men. This has not changed as much as in library science. The result is that men, and especially men with degrees outside of coding, must overcome the suspicion that they are only blowing through the coding office on their way to a management job. Notwithstanding all those "earn big money--become a coder" TV ads, gender is one of the major hurdles prospective coders must leap. If you have a penis, it will absolutely get hung up in the hurdle.

Men with coding education can sometimes--eventually--get sorta-kinda coding jobs, such as what I now do. These are jobs that require coding knowledge, but to the Elect, they don't make you a "real" coder. You could do these jobs for 30 years and in their eyes you would still not be a "real" coder. This strikes me as self-fulfilling prophecy. The Elect close ranks and don't admit men to the sorority, so the men take their knowledge and previous education, bypass coding altogether, and wind up in the management ranks. It's a lot like a phenomenon known to all Navy veterans. No matter where you are, you'll hear that "this isn't the real Navy. When you get to ABC, then you'll be in the real Navy."

But you never get to the real Navy. Likewise, I wonder if men ever get to be real coders.

There are other hurdles which cut across gender lines. One is that the Elect have a settled prejudice against hiring graduates of any coding programme. They want their coders to come up the good old-fashioned way, starting as file clerks and working their way into a coding desk. Trouble is, there are fewer and fewer openings for file clerks because there are fewer and fewer paper files. There are also fewer and fewer high school graduates interested in coming up that old-fashioned way: they want into the express lane.

All this is going on against the backdrop of forthcoming huge technical changes in medical records, which will make much to the Elect's hoarded knowledge obsolete. Those changes will increase the demand for new medical records people fourfold. The response of the Elect so far is to circle the waggons and cloak themselves in denial. So in two or three years, when you the consumer can't get even a semblance of a straight answer about your bill, remember the Elect and their stranglehold on medical information.

I think I should turn back to my original objective: to obtain medical knowledge and wed it to my technical communications background. Then I can contribute to the one logical outcome of this impasse: computer applications that make the closed circle of coders entirely obsolete. It's good to have a goal.

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Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Signs of Geek-dom

Now of course, the merits of the signs it depend on what kind of geek you are. I am certainly an unrepentant LOTR geek, so it shouldn't surprise anyone that I spent Sunday afternoon, evening and well into the night a consecutive showing of the three films. This takes 10 to 10 1/2 hours, if you're counting, and we had a couple of intermissions as well. In this case you're a geek if:
  • You think Peter Jackson skipped the entire Tom Bombadil episode (three chapters of The Fellowship of the Ring) because he wasn't up to the creative challenge.
  • You think that while the film of The Two Towers succeeded visually with the Ents, it came rather close to slandering their commitment to the war. You also find it inexplicable that he didn't take on the Huorns.

  • You can distinguish between original dialogue and film dialogue without having the books in your lap. I confess to having read LOTR 43 times including back matter.
Speaking of back matter, there's another, new test of literary geekishness. The first volume of The Autobiography of Mark Twain appeared last year in hard cover. This is a tome of over 700 pages plus index, of which about 250 pages are actual autobiography. The rest is a lengthy introduction and a body of notes quite as long as the autobiography. I approach introductions and footnotes with the bias of one who began life as an academic. I love this stuff, but I maintain that these notes make the autobiography more complete. They include more of Clemens own writing, but also contemporary views of the man. From the whole one sees why Clemens insisted on having this published 100 years after his death.

When I finish the notes, I'll read the autobiography again... and probably go back for LOTR 44.

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Saturday, March 05, 2011

Two of the oldest shell games

This business of victimising public employee unions reminds me of two of the oldest cons perpetrated upon the working class by the ruling class.

The first is the little trick of setting one working class minority against another. My spouse, with roots in western Mass. industrial cities, and a fondness for rose-coloured glasses, scoffs at this. She maintains that the various groups in those cities were all one big happy family, who showed their mutual love by strolling to one anothers' churches on Easter. She is of course a generation or two removed from the reality of the thing.

My grandmother had another opinion. She spent several of her formative years in Lowell early in the 20th century, and maintained that one ethnic group would visit the churches of another only if they were carrying brickbats and torches. More intellectual sources have told me that the Lowell mill owners deliberately fomented ethnic conflict to prevent the proletariat from organising.

This game has been going on at least since the Romans.

The unions have, perhaps too late, grasped the theme of "war on the middle class." That is a riff that only dates to the emergence of the urban middle classes in medieval times. Then, the ruling classes convinced the rural peasantry that they had a common cause, hostility toward the nascent middle class, and probably delayed the decay of the medieval aristocracy by several centuries. The ruling classes' war on the middle class is a very real phenomenon. Marxist rhetoric notwithstanding, few things have so much delayed the advancement of humanity so much as the unnatural alliance of aristocracies, born or made, with a reactionary rural peasantry.

Once again, we should hardly be surprised that in reactionary eyes, there really is nothing new under the sun.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Agreeing with Alito, and so on

I hate it when I agree with conservatives: in this instance Justice Alito dissenting in Snyder v. Phelps. The nature of the Supreme Court is that it can't say "we're sorry," for example, for a succession of blatantly pro-business and pro-reactionary decisions over the past year or two. Some observers have seen, in the Court's recent decisions, a reaction to justified criticism that the court had moved too far to the right. Now, they are inhaling helium, apparently.

OK, we get it, you're sorry, and you don't have a case involving corporate campaign finance or the Second Amendment that would let you overturn the previous decisions and stay on topic.
But Alito is right: the speech of the Westboro scum isn't free speech or protected speech. It is "fighting words" under the laws of many states, Massachusetts among them. That is, it's a verbal provocation so strong that when someone swings on the provoker, the provoker and not the provokee is liable to be charged with assault.

I can testify that Westboro deals in fighting words, and screams, and flying spittle, because I have been close enough to them to experience all of that. I had to leave the final Beacon Hill gay rights demonstration in 2004 because of it. Because I had crossed the line into blind, red rage, which really is nearly blind and very red. Had I had to listen to it for one additional minute I would have done my damnedest to kill the nearest one to me. I wish this was an exaggeration.

This group has stated that they are emboldened by the decision. I don't think it will be long before the Court gets the chance to regret this overreaction, because it will not be long before the fighting words have their intended result. If so, may it be in a "fighting words" state. The stock Westboro defence has been to threaten to sue any community if they are subjected to violence in it. But if they are found culpable of uttering fighting words, they may be the ones out of luck. I'm taking bets.

Have you seen the details of the hilarious Texas immigration bill? Hypocrisy is the common currency of reactionaries everywhere, but it seems like the pee--er, tea-- party is out to monopolise the commodity. Texas state Rep. Aaron Pena, a Republican, said of the bill's gaping exception, ignoring those who hire unauthorized immigrants for the purpose of obtaining labor or other work performed exclusively or primarily at a single-family residence, ''With things as they are today, [Republican state Rep. Debbie Riddle's] bill will see a large segment of the Texas population in prison."

And the problem with that would be?

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