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, April 27, 2011

Write first, add links later

Now I've added the links. Write if you want more.

The rising generation only gets the full impact of Phil Ochs if they happen to find his concert album from 1966 or so. In his spoken intro to "Love Me, I'm a Liberal," he defines his subject as "ten degrees to the left of center in good times...ten degrees to the right when it affects them personally." I have always enjoyed that as much as or more than the song. I've adopted it as a description of some people in my life, whom I speak of as "Phil Ochs liberals."

Alas, I've found that I'm married to one.

One of my spouse's leading hobbies is jurisprudence, especially criminal law. This hobby often tempts her to be rather judgmental toward people who don't rise to her high standard. The objects of her scorn presume suspects' guilt. They have no problem with officialdom throwing over little details like probable cause, or the Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Amendments. These bad habits get my spouse into a rare snit.

Except.... In this case, the exception is the story making the rounds of the Interwebz this week, about an unfortunate man in Buffalo, NY. The man in question was, shall we say, not tech-savvy, but was an otherwise upstanding US citizen. When he bought his wireless router, and failed to set up a password after a few tries, he said "fuck it." Well, more or less, but he gave the matter no further effort or thought.
That is, he didn't until he heard his door smashed down in the middle of the night and found himself pummeled to the floor with the rifle butts of, of all agencies, the I.C.E. After interrogation, which seems chiefly to have consisted of ICE agents calling him "filth," "trash," and "pervert," he figured out that the agents thought he was a child pornographer.

I asked if my law-junkie spouse had a) heard of the story and b) perhaps thought the law enforcement response was over the top. She scowled and snarled that the man was getting what he deserved.

Umm...due process? Probable cause? Presumption of innocence? Or is it "ten degrees to the right when it affects them personally?"

Back to the story. Somewhere along the line it occurred to one of these law enforcement geniuses to examine the arrestee's computer and peripherals. He had no kiddy porn, or any evidence that he had ever had kiddy porn on his computer. What they did find was that wireless router without password protection. Did they at least express regrets? Nooo. They are now evidently mounting a PR blitz to convince the world that when they smashed into the man's house in the middle of the night, smashing not only his door but several clear protections of the Bill Of Rights, it was his fault. Because he couldn't enable password protection on his router. This is known in most circles as PYA. I don't hesitate to call the schmuck a schmuck, because evidently he isn't throwing the lawbook at his tormentors (on the advice of counsel, Atty. Schmuck). That is schmuckdom.

Despite the I.C.E. obsession with blaming the victim of this obscene excess of force, someone in law enforcement had brains enough to wonder who was dealing kiddy porn from that IP address. They managed to bust a neighbour who did have kiddy porn on his machine, before he skipped town laughing at the law. That fool had days to skip, and it's clear the law got him only because he was the dumbest dumbass of all. Left to their own, these latter-day G-men only get their man if someone else ties him up and throws him in their path. Righteousness, like happiness, is a warm gun.

As part of their collective arse-kissing of the Justice Department, the news media has pushed this solely as a cautionary tale, warning you that you should protect your router: which you should. They don't ask what penalties should face geeks who build wireless routers that do not make security enabling so easy your dog could do it. They don't ask why this investigation of a U.S. citizen requires a law enforcement agency that is supposed to chase drug runners, illegal immigrants and terrorists, and why they feel empowered to smash down any citizen's door at night on slim suspicion and without probable cause.*

Why bother with due process when even law geeks like my spouse are ready to presume guilt and applaud the law when the charge is socially reprehensible? Before the applause dies down in such cases, smarter perps than the one in Buffalo will bolt for the border or the Idaho woods, not to be found for another half lifetime. As the Great Gonzo said, "rats don't understand these things."

But then, I'm not ten degrees to the right when it affects me personally.

* This legal excess does strike close to home because, as it happens, there is only one wireless address in this tech-savvy neighbourhood that isn't password protected. One member of the couple in question is bipolar, and I don't like to think what might happen if I.C.E. smashed their doors down in the wee hours.

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Thursday, April 21, 2011

Ambitions for the afterlife

Heh. One of them would be never to stall for ten days without writing anything. My rather odd work schedule (half-day, full day x 2) has led me into a rhythm for writing, and over the past few days that rhythm has been interrupted. No, make that torn down, spat upon and trampled. It does make one reflect that scheduled time to write, no matter how oddly achieved, is fairly important to the craft.

Among the distractions has been redoing the kitchen vinyl tile. Why uncool vinyl, you ask? Why not ceramic? Because
  1. It's an old house with lightly-framed floors and the weight per square foot of the vinyl is less than half that of most ceramic.
  2. Period kitchen floor covering for a vernacular house of this age (c. 1895) is linoleum. I go with tile because one can do the job in sections, which is impossible with linoleum, or I should say sheet vinyl.
I did manage to inflict a variety of damage on my crumbling body even doing as much as I did, and shall likely do that again at intervals until the job is done. This led me to a reflection on mortality.

All winter I've been watching the back yard symbiosis between the feeder birds and the crows. The former don't come out of the bushes to nibble and bathe until the latter give the all-clear. This is necessary because one neighbour's cat lives mostly outdoors, and shows an excessive interest in the birds. We also have picked up a sharp-shinned hawk. The hawk is of a genus (buteos) that by nature doesn't chase a lot of small live birds. But, absent the accipiter hawks that do, buteo (or buzzard) hawks are opportunists.

The feeder birds, especially the sparrows, are what the poet had in mind when coining the expression "bird-brain." Left to their own devices, they go merrily into harm's way, even if the cat is watching from below and the hawk from above. Not so with crows. I've watched them from boyhood on, and have developed a deep respect for their collective intelligence and survival skill.

Watch a murder (that's what it is) of crows to see this in action. There will not be a single bird in sight. Turn away, then turn back. A scout crow will appear if there is any food to be had. In our neighbourhood, the scout perches at the topmost end of the highest branch of a large oak at the end of the street, swaying nearly 100 feet up. When the scout is satisfied that serious predators (read cats and hawks) don't pose a problem, it will caw.

Then one or two crows fly into the target area, swoop over it, and perch in medium-height branches of nearby trees. They're the close support. Not only can they warn against predators, but they can attack them. Hawks, with their binocular vision, are vulnerable from behind. They can be chased off by birds much smaller than crows. Cats--at least this one--seem nonplussed at being buzzed by birds nearly as large as they are, and most retreat when crows show up.

Once the crows have established their perimeter, the rest of the family arrives, and everyone (or nearly everyone) gets a turn at the goodies, be they a bird feeder or a pizza carton in someone's trash. There is always a scout, and there are always close support guards, and they seem to take this by turns.

In the case of our feeder, when the crows arrive, the feeder birds pitch in, secure amongst the bigger, more alert cousins, who don't seem to mind the little birds. The crows do object to sharing with squirrels, who generally wait for their chance under cover. Then, at some crowish signal, the whole circus melts away, to repeat the same act elsewhere.

Should there be anything in reincarnation, one could make a good case for coming back as a crow. There's something to be learned about cooperation and learning. Like cockroaches, their ancestors were around long before ours--and probably ate some of our ancestors after their incessant conflicts. The descendants of both will probably outlive our self-destructive species by many millennia. The cockroach may be more durable, but the crows are smarter.

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Monday, April 11, 2011


In yesterday's Sunday Globe, Jan Freeman was commenting on the numbers of people made irate by the Oxford English Dictionary recognising LOL as an expression, at least. Freeman pointed out that the OED's* task is to keep a finger on the pulse of the language, not waggle a finger in the air when it sees something meriting disapproval.

Once again I was a bit disappointed to see no recognition that many of the abbreviations that people associate with the Internet are much older than that. From my own education, I can attest that they have existed as long as wireless radio. They're usually three letters or less because it's very quick to send three letters in Morse code: think SOS. I haven't researched it, but I suspect that many go back to landline telegraph.

I don't recall LOL being in the Navy's CW** vocabulary, but WTF sure was. Because there is no code for question marks, one would key either:


"What the fuck... over", with the question implied.

If one wanted to make the question absolutely clear, one would send


"What the fuck? Over."

But not very often. Obscenities on air were frowned upon, even if you weren't George Carlin and weren't actually saying the seven dirty words.

That is a very digressive beginning to my WTF of the week. By now, we all know that responsible dog owners bring along plastic bags into which they scoop the poop of their beloved pet/companion. Now, I bet you figured that the logical outcome of these socially responsible acts was that the dog's human would carry the bag of dog shit either home or to a socially responsible receptacle for disposal. As Mr. Spock would observe, that is logical.

Not necessarily.

Since the warm weather began, I've been walking several times a week along "the Path," the local reclaimed railroad right of way. Somewhere in the past here I commented on the slovenly habits of the entitled youth of this entitled town along this route. What we now have is a steadily increasing number of dog walkers who drop their bags of dog shit along the Path.

Let's be fair: are these accidents? I think not. Each of these lovely parcels is nestled carefully in the grass or brush along the way, discreetly set up to look like ordinary litter. As one of the people who makes an effort to take out not just what they bring in, but a little more besides, I can't help thinking the entitled dog walkers would like me to include Fido's faeces in my ministrations.

Dream on: other peoples' dog shit, packaged or otherwise, and used tissue are over the line for me.

I might have thought this sort of arrogance was unique to my town, where arrogance is practically an industry. But last Saturday, my spouse and I opened this year's hiking season with a five-some mile warmup in the Blue Hills. And there they were: neatly tied plastic bags of dog shit, coyly hidden here and there beside the trails.

OK, maybe there's some excuse for the arrogance along our path, which nips behind various Mcmansion back fences, if not for the stupidity. Would these people really wrap up their own puppy's stools in plastic in their back yards? No, forget I asked, because they might. But the Blue Hills? One of the best pieces of urban preservation anywhere? Christ wept.

(Since we were speaking of idiots, I came downstairs this morning to hear Good Morning America announce that Sarah Palin is backing Donald Trump's run for President. How nice: this is a good start to getting all the clowns into one tent. Mitt? Paging Mr. Romney!)


* Nobody seems to object to OED. LOL.

**CW (continuous wave) is what you call broadcast Morse code if you have ever done it. Real manly-type CW operators pretend they don't even know what Morse Code means: talk about arrogance!

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Friday, April 08, 2011

The lost art of headline writing, part 312

"Stocks fall slightly after quake."

Truly, words fail me.

Slightly related (in the sense that both involve proto-literates pretending to do news) is word the Glenn Beck is (sorta-kinda) leaving Fox. This leaves some pundits stretching for explanations. I think it's obvious. Someone had sold Beck first-class seats on the Rapture and he didn't want to miss his flight over a deadline.

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Sunday, April 03, 2011

Around this time

My memory is littered with impressions of rural New England from a time long before my own. A prolonged rural stasis, followed by the Great Depression, had preserved many of these features in New Hampshire long after their natural lifespan. But there was only one in which I was a participant.

Perhaps the strangest habit, or ritual, in my village surrounded the annual sucker run. No, this has nothing to do with tourists: they came later and mostly blew by us to the lakes and mountains. I refer to the fish. After checking up on this, I'm pretty sure it was white suckers that filled Mill Brook every April. And every April the young manhood of the village sharpened their fish spears and joined the hunt.

Yes, spears: usually the five-pronged variety like this. For, in spite of what much current information says, these were usually big fish for fresh water, 15 to 20 inches as a rule.

It was also a carnival of wanton waste. The Merrimack, whence they came, was in those days too polluted for it to be safe for humans to eat the fish. However the local cats, crows, and dogs were in heaven, gorging themselves silly on our catch. For reasons best known only to them, the dogs took the orgy one step further, happily rolling in the piles of dead fish lining the stream banks. There might have been abuttor objections, but the fishing portion of the brook ran through a group of houses we'd call "low income" today. It seems likely that some of the abuttors slipped out at dusk and scored the more edible part of that day's catch.

There were of course no adult referees in this strange activity: the protocols and the good places were passed down kid to kid. It was generally understood that one had to be nine, or eight at the very least, to take part. Mechanics played a part in that, since one had to be tall enough to handle a fish spear five or six feet long, and strong enough to actually be able to spear a fish with one. It's much harder than it sounds. Also the brook was in full spring spate, fast-running and bitterly cold with fresh snow melt. Boys needed to be old enough to understand the risk and to stand a chance of rescue if they did fall in.

Inevitably, the rule was bent, then broken. Someone's five-year-old brother tagged along and, unnoticed in the frenzy, fell in and drowned. In the time before 24/7 news, helicopter reporters and helicopter parents, the adult world quietly compassed the end of the sucker ritual without a single TV story or irate mass meeting.

Despite the slaughter, it seems we didn't make much of a dent in the population: the white sucker is among New Hampshire's most abundant fish species. There were at most perhaps 75 boys spearing suckers in that village in any one year. While a few of the big kids ran up impressive scores, most of us felt lucky to spear a dozen in the fortnight's run. The suckers, on the other hand, numbered in the thousands, and were bothered only in the quarter-mile or so below the old grist mill dam, and only during the few hours a day that boys were turned loose on them.

Now the river is clean, the village is gentrified, and I suppose only those few of that generation still living there remember the ritual. That's a pity in several ways. My recent reading tells me that spring-run white suckers make excellent fried fish and chowder fish, a fact probably unknown to everyone in the village.

Also, whilst I speared few suckers, I grew up to get history degrees. When I came to study my state's early history, I began to recall the sucker run and wonder how it started. Here's my hypothesis:

Until the second half of the 19th century, most farming in New Hampshire was subsistence farming. The chief winter occupation, besides logging, was hunkering down and trying to starve to death as slowly as possible. The village was settled in 1728; the brook was dammed for the grist mill the next year. I know enough of other upland towns' economies in the hard months of the year to be sure the first settlers observed those suckers. But when they lined the banks to spear them, it was no ritual: it was a deadly earnest effort to bring home fresh food. Most of the township was either land-poor farmers, hardscrabble farmers, or labourers until a generation or so before my own.

If anyone had probed the business, they would probably have found that sucker-spearing was a food source for a portion of the village until river pollution put an end to it in the 1920s or 1930s. If we as kids had asked around, we would surely have found numbers of people for whom the sucker run as food source was a living memory. In April, the only alternative was trout, which are much smaller and harder to catch. That memory may also account for the adult tolerance that accompanied the ritual until little Bobby drowned.

Days like today--breezy and in the fifties--generally brought the fish upstream to spawn, hence my recollection. I wonder what would happen if I showed up in the village now with waders and a fish spear. The actual, and ritualised, links to the rural past are mostly erased, but the suckers are still there.