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, April 25, 2013

Good idiots, bad idiots

The other day, I was observing how simple it is to obtain gunpowder cheaply. Evidently, I overestimated the intelligence of our alleged perps. We are informed that they spent nearly $200 (or $400...whatever) to buy two mortar-type fireworks in order to obtain an inadequate (or barely adequate...whatever) supply of gunpowder at a premium price. Supposing this to be in fact their only source of the stuff (a point being contested as I write) I suppose we are lucky that they weren't smart enough to buy bulk black powder online or in person at under $20 a pound, considering the damage they were able to achieve with whatever they had.

Fortunately the backbone of terrorism seems to be disaffected young men who are also dumb as rocks, at least when it comes to practical explosives. All of this probably makes them good idiots.

The backbone of their diametrical opposites is also comprised of the disaffected, mostly but not exclusively male and not necessarily young, Americans. The chief points they have in common, besides the default level of stupidity, are  a sense of victimhood that makes self-pity look courageous and a level of gullibility that would gladden the heart of a carnival barker. Most of the Americans of this stamp fortunately carry out their jihads in the empty space between their ears.

I was also reflecting on how inappropriate the words "theory" and "theorist" are when paired with "conspiracy." At last, I have a better combination. Let's call them "conspiracy toddlers." Their behaviour is right out of the terrible twos. Regardless of the circumstances, regardless of the evidence, their response is an emphatic "NO!" Like toddlers, they feel no obligation to support their position with reason. What's more, they have the same motivation: attention-getting. Right now, anyone so inclined can have their pick of Marathon bombing conspiracy baby-talk. It's all plausible if Oz's Scarecrow has more brains than the audience, especially because it floats free of the need to provide evidence.

My freshman political science professor taught us to eschew the notion of a political spectrum. He said the term conjures up a false notion of a linear progression, with Hitler on one end and Mao Zedong on the other. He favoured the idea of a circular progression. He showed us how, in this model, the extremes of either camp overlapped and mingled, giving us Adolph Zedong and Mao Hitler, as it were. Now we have Jihadis and right-wing conspiracy toddlers, and after a short time, they all sound the same.

Monday, April 22, 2013

What I'm doing today

By a fortunate coincidence, this is my platelet donation day. It's as important to donate  a few days after a disaster as it is at the time, because things like the Marathon bombing draw down blood supplies dramatically. That's especially true of platelets, which have a shelf life of just five days. One unit of platelets can do the work of six units of whole blood, which makes them useful little buggers.

About 11 percent of the American population is eligible to donate blood, but only three percent do so, and many of them don't do so regularly. That's why blood supply runs short of demand even in good times.

If you are eligible to give blood, and don't, you'll find most regular donors tolerant of the reasons you don't. I'm not one of them. That's due half to my native impatience, and half to experience. If you'd ever seen a Navy Corpsman lying down to give two units of whole blood at once, a desperate measure in desperate need, you'd get the experience part.

Fear of needles is a learnt response that one can unlearn.  So is getting creeped out by the sight of blood. As nurses say, it's just a liquid.  I wouldn't suggest that most people start by doing platelets. A whole blood donation takes very little time; the red tape takes longer than giving the red stuff. Platelet donations take (red tape included) a couple of hours and usually involve both arms. But where else does one get to lie on a heated couch in the middle of the day, under heated blankets, and do nothing but squeeze a rubber ball and watch a DVD?

The Internet has been afloat with people offering prayers for Boston this past week, and West, TX as well. Prayers be damned. If you can give blood, you should.


Sunday, April 21, 2013

long shadows and such

The FBI wouldn't tail *this* guy on a Russian tip.
Now that the alleged perp has been captured we can start our favourite sport, the blame game. It seems that the FBI will be the primary finger-ee for having had a tip on Tamerlan and dropped it. Yeah well, where did that tip come from? The long shadow of the Cold War guarantees that the FBI, of all agencies, wouldn't take a tip from the Russian government seriously enough to keep an eye on Boris Badenov, let alone a Chechen nobody.  Nor would any Republican in Congress now lining up to lynch the agency and its director.

Whatever the facts,  we seem to have given Russia two things. First, Putin can now say "We told you so" very loudly. Second, he now has a licence to go in and take the Caucasus apart whether there is an active rebellion or not. When he's done, he can smile and say how he'd done it to show friendship with the US. Blech.

On other matters, I'm glad Dave Henneberry, who whose boat was literally in the line of fire in the capture of DzhokharTsarnaev, is getting more than a little online help. Had he not been so dedicated to his boat that his first act, aside from lighting up, on being allowed to step out of the house, was to check up on it, this drama would probably still be going on, and there might have been more innocent casualties. I'm sure many of the half-wit internet comment mob are condemning this generosity, but it wouldn't be necessary if he could expect institutional help. First, if his boat or homeowner's insurance company had immediately manned up to cover the damage or loss, there would be no need for support. As for government? I still remember the comment of one of my junior high history teachers, over 50 years ago, that there were then, still,  government Civil War claims that had not been paid. So, good luck with that source.

Having dumped on the legitimate media over the last few days, let's not spare the wannabe media of the social networks. These would be the ones whose Reddit crowdsourced "news" identified two or more innocent people as Marathon bombing suspects, people whose lives are likely to carry this stain forever. Not, you say? Imagine these people being Googled by some HR person as stupid as the Redditors in five or ten years. What do you suppose the results might be?

Some of the crowdsourcers have defended their actions with equal parts of vigour and stupidity. If you don't yet believe in the widespread idiocy of this news source, remember that this lot can't tell the Czech Republic from Chechnya: more proof that the education of Americans in geography is the worst in the world. Even though this sort of thing can be fact-checked with a couple of keystrokes, these journalistic wannabes are too lazy to do so.

If you rely on social media for information, these are the people giving it to you, about the only ones who can manage to make the American mainstream media look good.

And finally, one thing that most red-blooded Americans don't understand is why a Tamerlan Tsarnaev could turn against a country that "had taken him in," rescued him from the perpetual conflict of the Caucasus.

I do. My studies taught me that the older an immigrant is, the less likely he or she is to fully assimilate. It's most evident in language. Children under ten still have very fluid speech patterns, and adapt readily. After that, adaptation becomes progressively more difficult on every front.

In my young adulthood, I learnt a dirty little secret. My grandparents, especially my grandmother, never fully assimilated to the United States. During the Depression, with my grandfather unemployed and my grandmother only working part-time, they were angry, resentful, and not careful to keep their opinions away from their children. My father and aunt, by then in their teens, were just as angry with their parents. They were assimilated and more American than my grandparents. Sorry, red-bloods: failure to assimilate is more common than you may think.

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What curiosity got the cat

One of the surgeons working on the wounded of the Marathon bombing told the media that they were removing "ball bearings...2mm to 3mm diameter" from many of the wounded. Since curiosity isn't the strong suit of contemporary media, especially of the broadcast variety, "ball bearing" became the trope of choice to describe one of the ingredients in these two nasty bombs.

However, I'm afflicted with both curiosity and skepticism. I'm also a recreational cyclist trying to keep machines over 20 years old on the road. As a result I know something about the bearing market. In which it is damn hard to find loose ball bearings of any size; caged and roller bearings have been the norm for most of the 20-odd years since my bikes were built. It's especially hard to find small ones of steel. The few that are out there are ceramic, not steel. Bulk steel ball bearings fall more in the line of antique dealers than mechanics.

A reasonable person should not expect ER surgeons to be up to speed on such mechanical detail. They have enough to do to keep up with their own mechanics. Therefore a reasonable person paid to ask questions might ask if these pellets were truly ball bearings. That reasonable person would notice that while loose steel ball bearings have become scarce over the past 20 years, steel birdshot has become common, relatively cheap, and easily purchased in bulk. (This happened when the use of lead shot on waterfowl was proscribed for environmental reasons.) Because many hunters reload their own ammunition, the component parts of a shotgun shell are widely available. 

The projectiles described by this ER surgeon fit the description of #4, #5 or #6 birdshot, available in steel for $15-$20 for a 10 pound bag. That's not much more expensive per pound than the nails also used in the bombs. Depending on the variety, the gunpowder used in these devices is around $15-$20 per pound and available from the same sources in lots ranging (in my search) up to eight pounds: to anybody. Eight pounds is a lot of gunpowder.

My curiosity stops short of trying to search for the purported bomb-making sites: instinct says this is not the time to go prowling around them, so I don't know exactly how much of each ingredient they are supposed to hold. The component figures raise a point. A large part of the "evidence" advanced by talking heads is that these two putzes could not possibly afford the components; therefore they must have had external support. The same sources point to "no visible means of support."

Pardon me, but they had family and one had a wife. They may have been supported by family and one hopes the police will investigate that, even if it doesn't occur to pundits with an ax to grind. Two young men, supported by families, spreading out their purchases, could certainly afford a bomb's raw materials at these prices.

Washington Republicans and the gun lobby are trying to use the bombing as a way to reinforce their argument that stiffer gun laws won't prevent tragedies. Well, if two of the principal components of the bombs are available in bulk to recreational firearms users, then this event most certainly crosses into territory in which reasonable regulation would make a wicked big difference.  Sensible gun control also means bomb control.           


Friday, April 19, 2013

This is what its supposed to look like

Never mind the controversy: this is what a journalist should be doing in times of crisis. This is the work of a photojournalist, of course, but their craft shows vividly what anyone in the field should be after: capturing and conveying the immediacy of the moment, ideally with the hope that someone, somewhere, may actually learn something. That hope may often be pretty deeply buried, but it ought to be there.

However, like many photos, this one is somewhat dependent on its descriptions, in this case the adjective "terrified." Small children are easily frightened. That's a universal survival skill among mammals that helps ensure there will be more mammals. What if the description told us that a child who fell on the sidewalk is being comforted by an adult? In that respect, the legendary news photos cited at the link above may be journalistically superior to Bill Hoenk's effort. They convey the horror of their moment independent of any description or caption. The context and witnesses will surely keep this photo from swinging into controversy like that  surrounding Robert Capa's Moment of Death photo. Still, it's pretty impressive.

Hoenk was a rarity that day, because he was doing his job well. He was not turning rescuer. He was not panicking on air. He was not indulging in the wildest of speculations live. He, and a handful of other photo and video journalists showed the world what was really happening at the Marathon, and thus deserve thanks and praise. If their work scares you, there are clearly many others in the media happy to indulge your tastes.

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Thursday, April 18, 2013

Riddle me this, and this, and this...

Yesterday's Marathon bombing news (4/17/13) made the day-of coverage look rational by contrast. The escalation of the information that the image of a suspect had been identified to "an arrest has been made and the perp will immediately be arraigned" took, what, an hour and a half?  It resembled the game of gossip more than news gathering. The de-escalation took the rest of the day. No one likes to admit they've made themselves look stupid, and media on the scene at the Federal Courthouse hadn't let go of the story when I gave up in disgust in mid-evening. Not even Gov Deval Patrick's beautifully crafted, smiling putdowns discouraged them.

At one point, near the end of this, I found a "story" by an online "journalist" which stubbornly stood pat. His source? A friend had overheard a BPD person saying (to whom?) that law enforcement had identified a man stuffing bags into trash cans. This sourcing is right out of the urban legend playbook. He claimed to have a confirmation from another, unidentified law enforcement source. Was this a statement, or did someone else overhear?

Christ wept: this is journalism?

I need hardly say that the alleged description of the suspect/detainee what-have-you varied with the political colouration of the news source. The further right the source, the darker the skin of the suspect.
Meanwhile, I do have a couple of questions unanswered in all the noise. Certainly there was security and vigilance, but a couple of gaps present themselves.
The dangers of explosive devices in backpacks have been known in Europe for over 30 years. Back ca. 1990, in the UK for example, if one left one's bags on a seat in a Tube station to look at a kiosk ten feet away, they'd be gone by the time one turned around.  However, we're told that at the Boston Marathon, runners are able to leave backpacks, or have friends leave backpacks, just about anywhere in the vicinity of the finish. At best, this seems rather a haphazard arrangement. I understand there is a bag check for registered runners, so I wonder if the alleged scattering of bags belong to unregistered runners. Of course, one must leave open the possibility that this is yet another fabrication.
The BAA already frowns upon unregistered runners, to be sure,  and if loose bags belong to the latter, it's another strike against them. Still, if they've used their ingenuity to get in the race, is it such a stretch to use a little more to stow a bag in a safe place?
Observation. Since 9/11, the MBTA has supposedly ratcheted up security and conducted random bag checks and related searches. I ride the T pretty often, and in eleven-plus years I've been through bag checks twice. Security seems honoured more in the breach than the observance unless some specific threat is in the air. A clever local must certainly have noticed this.
I direct a simple rant at another bit of slovenly American media "thinking." It does no service to persist in labeling paranoid ramblings as "conspiracy theories." To label any of this drivel a theory is to give it a credence which it never has and does not deserve. The word implies a level of rationalism which is uniformly absent from any such crap.
Today, we learn that Elvis sent ricin to Washington, and that a Texas fertiliser factory has blown up. Even though the evidence so far points strongly toward industrial accident, we find no one in the media willing to let go of the alternative explanation.* Imagine what they may do with a tornado or a mining accident.
*I will await the evidence. However, my work experience indicates that in Texas, enforcement of workplace safety seems considered an infringement of the owners' liberties. Two plus two is what?

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Tuesday, April 16, 2013

A new spin on yellow journalism

Back again. Blame the absence on the Beast, because I've grown tired of documenting it, especially when I've found out that people with no dog in that fight feel obliged to say that TN patients are exaggerating. 

So I return to one of my standard topics, the disgraceful performance of contemporary news media in times of emergency: in this case, the explosions at the Boston Marathon finish line.

We shall not pass lightly over the embarrassing overreaction by Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis and by most of the area news media to a fire at the JFK library. It happened soon after the explosions and people with the jitters conflated the two incidents. Props to The Examiner, which has forthrightly admitted that there never was a bomb. Also to NECN News, which had the sense to send a mobile unit to the library when they couldn't get into the Back Bay. They covered it as a fire nearly from the beginning.

The next favourite story is that "other devices" were found in the vicinity. Were they? We have one official statement which stays alive as news, from later yesterday, to that effect. By the time I went to bed, there was a lonely statement that said "maybe not." This morning, everything but the original speculation on speculation seems to have vanished from the news cycle.*

Inevitably, every talking head drew comparisons with 9/11, even though there are hardly any except that a bunch of people, including a bunch of media, who were not victims talked themselves into a frenzy of fear. There is a real parallel, the Olympic Park bombings in Atlanta in 1996: real in the MO, real in the casualty figures, real in the absence of a claim of responsibility, real in the similarity of venues.  It may even become more real if the law goes after a scapegoat and lets the actual perp go free for years afterward. After 17 years of the nonstop news cycle, it may be that law enforcement has given up on studying parallel cases and surrendered to the sound bite.

It is understandable that journalists who find themselves in proximity to a disaster whilst covering something else should be rattled: most people are.  However, one of the considerations that is supposed to make journalism a profession is the ability to rise above fear and horror until one finishes the story, when one can break down in private. That feature of professionalism was conspicuous by its absence among most journalists close to the event. We start with the local Fox News channel, which began broadcasting "we are under attack" as soon as the first rumour about the JFK Library surfaced.  Only one channel, WBZ, the local CBS outlet, was actually there. They began well, having an exclusive, then coverage began to break down under the press of events. They of all people should have been filtering official statements and pressing the authorities on statements that now appear unfounded. Worse, some of the crew committed a cardinal sin of journalism: they stopped covering the event and became involved in the rescue effort. It's a human reaction, but experience shows that quality of coverage suffers.

Having some personal interest in real information, we surfed through unsatisfactory coverage by absent media until we turned with hope to PBS. Alas, even the News Hour turned out to be slightly tainted by the speculative germ.  Nor did it help when they broadcast an interview with Boston City Councilor Steve Murphy. Now, I'm a Murphy maternally, so I appreciate the desire to tell a good story that runs in the gene pool. The lad's eyewitness account gathered steam and detail with each telling. However, only someone who has never before seen an explosion could have called either a "mushroom cloud." (Now there's a sound bite!)

Unfortunately, PBS coverage hit a low moment with the generally reliable news commentary of Greater Boston. Host Emily Rooney lives near the finish line but was not there for the explosion: close enough to be jumpy, though. She assembled a guest list of media (and the omnipresent Steve Murphy), most of whom were eyewitnesses to the explosion. Rooney would have done better to surrender the chair to someone who was not directly involved in the event, someone who could have shown some journalistic detachment. Instead, she and her guests reinforced each others' fears. By the end of the show, Murphy had added "fireball" to "mushroom cloud." A couple of guests, who had seen the worst, seemed close to hysteria. All of them had looked into the future and decided that Boston would never again have a public event. Clearly, no one was buying into "Keep calm and carry on." That's unfortunate, because Boston will need doses of that for some time.  Although a couple of the guests had attempted to get interviews on the scene, by the time they taped the programme everyone was a witness and no one was a journalist.

I understand horrors, having seen a few myself. But if one professes to be a journalist, one has three choices: put a cork in it and cover the facts, direct one's anxieties into the story by letting the words speak, or shutting up until one has command of one's emotions.

Overall,  event coverage for April 15 rates a D. My expectations for some days to come are no better.

* Late news, and thanks to NECN again: Statement from Gov. Patrick that there were only two devices. Once again,  rumour goes around the world before truth gets its pants on.

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