Should

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Increasingly, I hear the word “should” in discussions about issues in the real world. You should spend money on education rather than fashion.

Churches should…

People should…

The government should…

“Should” is a verb, used to indicate a course of action one is obliged to. “You should eat your vegetables” is a proper use, assuming the speaker has the authority and knowledge to command the eating of vegetables. If you don’t have the authority to command an activity you should shut your mouth.

It is most commonly used in wishful thinking. “I should get paid for this” is a typical example. Try substituting the words “If only”, “If only I was paid for this”. If that works, you have misused the word “should”. That’s okay, most people understand you were only expressing a desire. But it would be so very nice if the word was used properly, removing the references that perpetuate misuse.

Yes, people should be nicer to each other, but they are not. There is no police force enforcing what we like to call “basic human values”. Well, not officially, but there is the Grammar Police.

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Those “basic human values” actually vary from human to human. The American proverb “Never criticize a man until you’ve walked a mile in his moccasins” expresses an understanding of the roots of tolerance. There is a Canadian variant “Walk a mile in my moccasins to learn where they pinch” that may make the message more clear. On the television program “LOST”, the character John Locke was told he couldn’t walk…

 

You have no idea what a person can’t, or can, do.

“Should”, as commonly used, would most properly be predicated with the words “I feel“, as in “I feel people who own guns should be shot”. Really emphasizing the word “feel” to distinguish it from the word the person will most likely use, “think”. Because unless you’re quoting a statute, you’re expressing your emotions rather than rational thought. In fact a ten year moratorium on the use of the word “think” is in order, as thinking is quite obviously a lost art and is perverted in its current use.

“Should” belongs in the same category as “In a perfect world…”. It’s not a perfect world! Blame whoever you want, Satan, Man, Obama, Bush, the world is not perfect so let’s just do what we can with what we have. Stop telling me what should be and tell me a little about what you have done. The information would be much more useful, and possibly the effect you are looking for would be realized.

After Sandy, a number of people were talking about what we should do. One friend said “I’m going to the shore to rebuild houses, want to come along?”. Guess which proposition succeeded?

We do what we can, not always what we should. I have come to accept people who have greatly disappointed me, because even though I feel they should have done better, in thinking about it I realize they did the best they could. Not the best I could do, but the very best they were capable of. And that is the only measure we have, all that is possible is what we as individuals are capable of.

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After the Bill of rights

This is chapter six of the “Know your Constitution” series. Chapters One, Two, Three, Four, and Five can be viewed by clicking on each of those provided links.

The Bill of rights is not the entire list of constitutional rights. It is the platform upon which we have expressed a growing recognition of the rights of the people and the limits we place on the Federal government. The first amendment added after the Bill of rights was submitted for ratification a little over two years after the ratification of the bill of rights, and ratified within a year. Of course there were only fifteen states at the time, streamlining the process we face today. Most of the next few amendments were clarifications of existing constitutional provisions.

The eleventh amendment reads:

“The Judicial power of the United States shall not be construed to extend to any suit in law or equity, commenced or prosecuted against one of the United States by Citizens of another State, or by Citizens or Subjects of any Foreign State”.

This amendment is often used as the foundation for what we refer to as “state sovereign immunity”, essentially meaning that you cannot bring suit against the government for the repercussions of a law, in this case extending the protections to states against prosecutions from out of state. The most recent argument was Alden v. Maine in 1999, in which a state was sued for a federal violation. This isn’t something that affects the majority of people directly.

The twelfth amendment addresses presidential elections, again, not something directly affecting the average citizen. From an historical perspective, I find it more interesting to see what it corrects. With the number of states growing (now at seventeen) a number of adjustments were being made, for instance the idea of one star and one stripe on the flag for each state was abandoned. The text of this amendment is rather long, but this is where we started electing a vice president rather than the vice president being the second place winner of the presidential election.

By the time the thirteenth amendment was ratified, the country had been through some major changes. It was now 1865, there were thirty six states, but the year before there had been twenty three states, Nevada and West Virginia hadn’t been recognized as states, and the eleven Confederate states had seceded from the Union. As a response to the issue of slavery which had divided the nation, these words were added to our constitution:

“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation”.

At the time, “radical Republicans” were arguing for a more expansive amendment, as you will see there are loopholes for discrimination in the thirteenth amendment. The alternative version was much more direct:

All persons are equal before the law, so that no person can hold another as a slave; and the Congress shall have power to make all laws necessary and proper to carry this declaration into effect everywhere in the United States

Republicans argued that slavery was uncivilized and that abolition was a necessary step in national progress, Democrats who opposed the amendment generally made arguments based on federalism and state’s rights. The Emancipation Proclamation was of questionable relevance, as it applied to citizens of the Confederacy and not the United States (and under the eleventh amendment was fairly obviously illegal, ignoring the sovereign status  of the Confederacy). States that initially rejected the amendment were Alabama, Kentucky, Delaware and New Jersey.

The definition of slavery continues to be argued today. The definition of “person” is still being argued. Nonetheless. The thirteenth amendment was a turning point in society. Although nations such as The Netherlands and Britain had outlawed slavery within their own borders, they remained the major traffickers of international slaves and exploited slavery in their colonies. Following the abolition of slavery in America, the world view of slavery began to change, and in 1926 the League of Nations addressed slavery, followed by a United Nations resolution in 1948.

The fourteenth and fifteenth amendments were ratified in response to the responsibilities placed on Congress by the thirteenth amendment. The fourteenth defines citizenship, contains the Privileges or Immunities Clause, the Due Process Clause, the Equal Protection Clause, and deals with post-Civil War issues, and the fifteenth prohibits the denial of the right to vote based on race, color, or previous condition of servitude (but not sex, that comes later). These amendments have applications beyond their motivations.

Due to the scope of those amendments, I will address them in the next chapter.

 

 

 

 

Conflicting rights

 

 

 

 

 

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When I was young, signs like this were in every establishment. They often applied to me and my friends, as “hippies” were not always a widely accepted group. I suspect they were used to enforce a variety of personal prejudices, but to me they meant “We would rather avoid an argument than accept your business”.

Even Jack Nicholson didn’t get what he wanted.

There is a bill in Arizona, passed by the legislature and awaiting the governor’s signature, that reminds me of why I love Arizona. Arizona is America’s crazy uncle, the one who gets invited to Thanksgiving dinner because he’s part of the family, but we keep him away from the dinner conversation. We love him, but his ideas are just a little edgy.

The bill provides the right to refuse service if such service violates one’s religious beliefs. It has been interpreted by some as legalizing discrimination, and by others as protecting business owners against discrimination.

Personally, I’m of mixed feelings. It’s not a complicated bill (read it again, it’s only two pages), it’s just a complicated application. If you refuse service to someone based on your religious beliefs, that person cannot sue you for discriminating against them. Well, they can, you just have a codified defense.

The conflict itself is multi-layered. It is framed as a gay rights issue, so I will address it in that context. A business owner (in this case a bakery) refused to make a cake for a gay wedding. The owner stated she believed that gay marriage is a sin, and that baking a cake for the wedding would be supporting a sin. The couple decided that instead of going to another baker they would go to the newspaper. Another baker provided a cake for free and the bad press put the original bakery out of business. Free market forces win, but the story doesn’t end there.

Several other similar cases have occurred around the country, with bakers and wedding photographers taking a beating because they placed their beliefs before profits. That should be their right. I say that from a religious, economic, and social point of view. The state should not be capable of forcing you to do business with anyone.

Simply going to another provider is not sufficient for some people, and they bring suit against the business. This has happened in Connecticut, Kansas, Colorado, and New Mexico in the last few months, so Arizona decided to pass a statute that would protect business owners from such legal action.

Unlike other groups that are discriminated against, gay people are not always obviously gay people. Unless they’re getting married, and the absence of a member of the opposite sex in the couple is obvious. It is unlikely that the same gay couple in Arizona would have been denied the opportunity to purchase cupcakes from the baker, and if they had ordered a wedding cake without a same sex couple atop no one would have noticed, so the issues that have brought about this bill stem directly from gay marriage.

So in some ways this takes the issue from “Do you accept gay marriage?” to “Do you promote gay marriage?”. The arguments from both sides that are surfacing are reflecting the “Not in my backyard” or NIMBY emotions of many otherwise “liberal” people. It turns out everyone doesn’t feel the same way about this, or there may be shades between the black and white positions that have been staked out. The bill is designed to protect business owners in the practice of their beliefs, it does not single out a single religion or reason for being denied service. It could apply to anyone, at anytime. Without this bill it would be possible to sue a Halal butcher because he would not provide a roast pig.

What bothers me in all this is the divisiveness it accentuates. For one thing, the baker in question happened to be Christian. If there’s anyone who thinks Christians are more opposed to homosexuality than Muslims, or any other religions, please remove your head from the sand. The situation has been the exclusive realm for Christian bashers anyway, with headlines like “Would Jesus bake a gay wedding cake?”. The answer is an obvious NO, Jesus was a fisherman, not a baker. Please stop trying to define a religion you have rejected.

A person’s right to their sexual orientation does not override another person’s right to practice their religion. And vice versa. Just because photographer “A” won’t take pictures at your wedding doesn’t mean you can’t get married, or that no one else will take the gig. You have a right to be married, photographed, and served cake, just not by the individual of your choice. They have the right to say “No thank you”, you shouldn’t be able to sue them.

In this world, we make choices. If someone wishes to alienate a segment of the population (and their supporters), taking the gamble they will make up the lost business with like minded people, they should be able to do so. This is what capitalism is all about, doing what you believe in, not simply selling your soul for profits. That’s the edgy part about our crazy uncle’s ideas. They make a certain amount of sense to all of us.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Seeing is believing

There has been a trend against language for some time. The masses, easily misled by words, prefer pictures.

Several alleged “news” sources simply post video. No analysis or comment, occasionally going as far as stating “At 2:15 he makes his point” suggesting I should watch two minutes and fifteen seconds of a video to discover what the point might be. Just tell me, I can read, and I can read much faster than the video can tell its story. I have seen “articles” that consist of a collection of “memes”, with no original content. A string of pictures with captions rather than an actual opinion. “You know what I mean” moves to the next level.

“Meme” is derived from “mimeme”, meaning to imitate. The person who coined the word (Richard Dawkins) was looking for a monosyllabic expression. Rarely does a word fit its own definition so well, in some ways an intellectual onomatopoeia.

Recently footage of a chunk of ice falling off a glacier into the sea was headlined “Watch as a piece of the planet disappears forever!”. I watched, and saw ice fall into water. Nothing disappeared. Nonetheless the site was filled by global warming enthusiasts wringing their hands over the shame of it all. Pictures are like that. This is why anti-abortion activists carry pictures of aborted fetuses. The portion of the brain that reacts to visual stimuli skips the part that weighs facts and balances arguments. It’s a function of the survival instinct.

I’ve also noticed a grotesque misuse of graphs. A line on a page is not a graph. Unequal indices and unequally spaced indices are misleading. A graph with missing indices is just a set of meaningless lines. Yes, we can all see the line goes up as it moves from left to right, which influences my opinion as much as a picture of the guy from the Dos Equis commercials. But look! The line goes to the upper left hand corner! Turn the page ninety degrees, has the data changed? Why does the line go down now?

You may have noticed certain words in my articles are underlined. This was once the common way of letting readers know they could click on those words to link to an article verifying the information. Even that simple non-verbal form of communication has been corrupted. In a recent article about climate change, more than half the links were “broken”, that is, they lead nowhere, most often to a “404 Error” page. The casual reader would think there was documentation. Whether this was an intentional ruse to mislead readers or this was a case in which the documentation had been withdrawn is purely speculation.

The written word is not a natural form of communication. It is the product of intellectual evolution. De-evolution is a choice, it is a failure of intellect, and a great band from the ’80s. It is not the path a “progressive” should be attracted towards.

Numerals

Numerals are the names we give to numbers. Twelve, 12, Dozen, XII, Двенадцать, Twaalf, and Doce all refer to the same number. The number is the collection of objects, so the numeral is an adjective describing the collection. In the sentence “Bob has twelve blue eggs” the words “twelve” and “blue” describe the eggs Bob has. If he gives away an egg, the collection has changed as much as if he had bleached one white.

Just wanted to get that out of the way. The word “number” is in some ways similar to the word “anesthesia”, something that makes you numb. Maybe not you, but many people.

Most people do not understand numbers or their relationship to each other. As the data is translated into numerals, the level of understanding does not increase. Part of this is rooted in language, almost everyone understands the difference between addition and geometry, without realizing the difference between million and trillion is geometrical rather than linear. Moving a decimal point is not a function of counting, the simple addition or subtraction of a single unit, it is the multiplication (or division) of a number by a factor of the base. We use base ten, one hundred is ten times ten, or ten squared, one thousand is ten times ten times ten, or ten cubed. One is ten divided by ten, zero point one (0.1) is ten divided by ten divided by ten. 0.1 is related to 10 the same way 10 is related to 1,000. Decimals are easy, fractions drive people insane.

Really big events are often expressed using numerals, but if numerals and the numbers they represents are not understood, the event isn’t understood either. It is often said “Numbers don’t lie”. Words don’t lie either. Both can be used to tell lies.

I give you this as a preface to some numbers I’ll be referring to in the coming weeks. I’m going to be exploring some common myths in our culture, and I want to get your minds in a place where they can analyze the data without taking my word for the meaning of the numbers. For today, I’m just going to go over a couple of ways numbers have been used to lie, or at least mislead.

I have nothing against H&R Block, I’m using their ad as an illustration.

There is a commercial for H&R Block in which they state one billion dollars in tax deductions are missed by people who complete their own returns. We’re going to accept this as a fact without any verification, one billion dollars in deductions. As anyone who has prepared a tax return is aware, one dollar of deductions does not equal one dollar of taxes, but this is an ad for people who haven’t done their own tax returns, so why not go ahead and accept that one billion dollars in taxes have been overpaid. I won’t go into the representations of one billion dollars used in the commercials other than to say there would be different results if the money was in one dollar bills, hundred dollar bills, or pennies.

The population of the United Sates is estimated to be just over 316 million people in 2013. That means the one billion dollars is about $3.16 per person. Using the logic presented by H&R Block, your family of four is due an extra $12.65. Knowing that, are you ready to spend thirty dollars to have them prepare your taxes?

Of course, my numbers are wrong. Although each person should be represented on a tax return, each person does not file a tax return. Of actual tax returns, less than half are individuals (people rather than businesses). A small number (relatively speaking) are filed on paper rather than digitally. That small number is estimated as less than ten percent of the total number of returns, or a little over twenty four million returns for 2013. What, you didn’t think twenty four million was a small number?

So who knows what H&R Block is referring to in its commercials? All that is important is you should get your share of one billion dollars. If that share is a three hundred sixteen millionth, it isn’t much of a share, but you’re not supposed to think about anything other than the pile of bills shown in the commercial.

Next we’ll talk about graphs, visual representations of numbers.

 

 

Idle threats

I never really liked Richard Nixon. I didn’t loathe him, but it was relatively obvious he was in over his head, lacking in maturity and social skills. I see the same lack of qualities in our current president.

I’ve been comparing the two men quite a bit lately. They are remarkably similar in many ways.

There are some differences. Nixon won his first term by a margin just a little wider than John F Kennedy had beaten him by (Nixon ’68 ~ 0.70, Kennedy ’60 ~ 0.17%), then in the midst of the Watergate scandal he won his second election by a landslide (23.15%). Obama’s first term was his stronger showing (7.27%), that margin was cut in half by his second term (3.86%).

Approval ratings are another measure, both men hit spectacular highs, Nixon hitting 67% twice, Obama making it to 69%. Nixon dropped to 24% while Obama has only dropped to 38%, but the telling statistic is the point at which the approval rating and the disapproval rating cross. This is not a zero sum equation, many respondents fall into the “no opinion” category.  Nixon’s numbers crossed in May of ’73, over a year before he resigned, just six months after his landslide win. Obama’s numbers met in February 2010, just over a year after his first election, and danced with each other for almost three years, until June of 2013, since which time his disapproval rating has remained higher than his approval rating.

Both men had unpopular overseas wars in which they took unpopular tactics. Nixon with the bombing of Cambodia, Obama with the bombing of American citizens wherever they might be.

Both men were bullies, Nixon’s “enemy list” was a shock to a naive nation, Obama didn’t quite learn the “plausible” part of “plausible deniability”, with several political adversaries targeted by government agencies.

What brought all this to mind today was a song on the radio. “Ohio” by Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, the story of the Kent State shootings of 1970, in which young people protesting the war were shot by members of the National Guard. I thought about the young men of the National Guard, many of whom were probably doing their best to avoid going to Vietnam, firing on students protesting the war in Vietnam. I thought about reports that Obama has been purging the military, seeking commanders that would be willing to fire on American citizens.

I think about the reports from Kiev, where an anti government protest is slowly unfolding in precisely the same pattern they did in Cairo, and how Obama has just played the same recording he played with Syria, idle threats that he can’t fulfill about “consequences”. Russia “helped” in Syria, giving Obama a way to back down from his rhetoric, Russia is a player in the situation in Kiev.

When Obama says “there will be consequences if people step over the line, and that includes making sure the Ukrainian military does not step into what should be a set of issues that can be resolved by civilians”, which civilians is he speaking of? A man who has ordered the murder of civilians himself and funded militants at the cost of American lives hasn’t bothered to make a distinction between civilians and non-civilians previously. Why now?

None of this appears to be heading in a healthy direction. Nixon was a megalomaniac but when overwhelmed by failure he resigned, despite his positive accomplishments. Obama lacks the grace of Nixon (I can’t believe I can say that about anyone). As unrest grows in this country, it seems reasonable to expect the “occupy” movement to find itself in increasingly violent situations. There have already been attempts to hide violence against American protestors, the next move will be to label them as a terrorist group.

We are not in a position to feel secure in the inherent good will of our tin soldiers, we have in fact been given notice to expect violence on our own soil. Our administration has attempted to distance itself from its activities, IRS attacks on conservative groups were brushed off as being without authorization, as have a great deal of the NSA’s interceptions of American conversations. Will an “unauthorized” drone strike be next?

The National Guard was ordered to Kent State to scare the protestors. They were supposed to be an idle threat. The story at Kent State was the shootings were unauthorized.

Idle threats can be pushed into reality.

 

 

 

So say we all

There’s an important concept within democracy that seems to be misunderstood.

The majority decision is the law. It is not inherently “right”, or “fair”, or even “intelligent”, it is only the law.

We got along for quite a while enjoying the benefits and responsibilities of a democracy. I’m not exactly sure why things have changed, but they have.

Very possibly it is the collision of the “me” generation and their offspring with the “information superhighway”.

The responsibility of living in a democracy means accepting you will not always be in the majority, nor will you always be in the minority. The importance of your ideas and beliefs is equal to the importance of ideas and beliefs you don’t agree with. It is the interaction between people of different views that produces growth. Sometimes we rise above where we are and learn something neither party had considered before.

Somewhere along the way a large portion of American society has come to believe that being a majority infers some moral and intellectual superiority, there is nothing to learn from the minority and they should be destroyed. A scorched Earth approach to social interaction.

As dangerous as that state of mind might be, what is happening is even worse. Since being in the majority is the only accepted validation of ideas, it becomes more difficult for an ego to accept it might be wrong about anything, therefore it creates a majority that doesn’t exist. “I’m not wrong, and everybody agrees with me” has replaced “you may not agree, but this is what I think”. By following this path, the wounded ego empowers itself with an illusion.

The essence of democracy is we do not believe in precisely the same things. We do believe in each other.

In a discussion about religion, self proclaimed atheists state they are not only a majority, but they will supplant all religions. This is the kind of nonsense you hear from religious fanatics, but don’t suggest atheism is a religion, because even though the person speaking is telling you out of one side of his mouth that everyone agrees with him, out of the other side he’s saying there is no definition for his beliefs.

In a discussion about politics a member of one party states the other party is the “enemy of democracy” and this opposing party will cease to exist. Suggest to the person a democracy requires at least two points of views, and you are labeled a fanatic. Both sides see the other as idiots intent on evil.

They are not idiots. Well, some of them are. You read this on a computer screen. At your fingertips is the massed information of our civilization, opposing viewpoints, and pictures of cats. You may be a genius, a poet, an artist, a mailman, or an inmate at an asylum. You might be anything in the world, and your opinion is equal in value to mine. We may not be of equal intellect, in fact it is unlikely we are. It is our responsibility to be civil with each other despite our differences.

Opinions are not truths. There is no objective “right” and “wrong” with opinions. There is simply the majority and infinite minorities. Membership in those groups changes every day. Being a participant in democracy, it is important to understand that today’s majority is tomorrow’s minority, and the way you treat others may be the way you are treated.

It’s not easy. Just as the majority of milk is not cream, the majority of society is not the best we have to offer. Education is our greatest tool, but the majority prefers propaganda.

Be proud to be different. Do not be swayed by other opinions, but listen to them. Learn the facts and make up your own mind. Because in the final analysis, your own mind is all you have.

 

 

The width of the brush

In 1992, Mattel introduced “Talking Barbie”. Each doll repeated four phrases randomly selected from a pool of two hundred seventy possibilities. One of those phrases, “Math class is tough”, was considered so offensive that Mattel was pressured into removing it from the pool of phrases, and offered to replace any doll that had the phrase in its selection.

There are groups of people who feel that children are influenced by the toys they play with. They believe that a plastic doll that only remotely resembles an actual woman promotes an unattainable body image. So does a purple dinosaur, and dinosaurs had trouble with math as well. Little girls don’t want to be their dolls, they want their dolls to be their friends. Having a friend who has difficulty with math might make a little girl feel a little superior to the busty blonde doll, or it might make a little girl who is having trouble with math feel less isolated. Instead, the reasons males typically score higher in math tests doesn’t get discussed.

Of all the anti-defamation leagues out there, the blondes have the most difficult job.

It is all too common to paint an entire group with the same brush. Stereotypes exist to allow us to move quickly through life. My car can go 120 mph, but I only drive the speed limit, and on nice days I may stop beside the road and enjoy the scenery. We can slow down in our appraisals of others in the same way.

In Florida, a man (Mr. Dunn) was on his way home from his son’s wedding, and stopped at a convenience store for some wine before returning to the bed and breakfast where he was staying. He pulled in next to a car full of teenagers listening to loud music, and while his girlfriend went in the shop he got out of his car and asked the teenagers to turn down their music.

The exact words that were exchanged will never be known, but Mr. Dunn states that Jordan Davis, a seventeen year old passenger in the car, said “you’re dead”. They were Mr. Davis’ last words, because Mr. Dunn responded with gunfire. As the car full of teenagers tried to drive away, Mr. Dunn continued shooting. When his girlfriend came out with the wine, they drove to the B&B, he walked the dog and they ordered a pizza. The next day when he heard on the news Davis was dead, he was so upset he took a nap before driving home.

Mr. Dunn argued he was not guilty because he was simply defending himself. “My intent was to stop the attack, not necessarily end a life,” he testified. “It just worked out that way.”

When emptying a .45 caliber into a car full of kids it often works out that way.

His attorney said “My client did not wait to become that victim,” he said. “My client did not wait to either get assaulted by a weapon or have someone potentially pull a trigger”. How ironic.

Were that true, perhaps he should have stayed in his vehicle instead of provoking an argument with a group of teenagers. It appears that was the path to preventing someone from pulling a trigger.

Mr. Dunn is a grade A wanker. A weak insecure man who carried a gun to make himself brave enough to start fights which he could only get out of by using the gun. He was found guilty of attempted murder for the three other teenagers in the car, but the jury could not reach a verdict on the murder charge.

Reasonable, thoughtful members of society who wish to carry a firearm will now be equated with this irresponsible murderer. People with a blind aversion to firearms will use this incident as evidence that no one should have a gun. People who blindly support gun rights will use this incident as evidence that Mr. Dunn rightfully used a firearm for self defense (that is not what the verdict infers, but I’ve already heard it said). Both sides of the issue painting the other with broad brushes.

We have the capability to be the most articulate species on the planet, our minds are capable of detecting infinite subtleties, yet by and large we reduce the issues we face to stark, digital elements. When an issue has nuances we don’t wish to consider, we paint over them with a broad brush.

 

Minimum wage

For those of us who don’t earn “minimum wage”, there are a number of things we need to understand before arguing about what the minimum wage should be.

For starters, there are two (federal) minimum wages. There is the minimum wage for “normal” jobs, which is currently $7.25 per hour. Then there is the minimum wage for tipped employees, which is currently $2.13 per hour. Additionally, there are exempt employees. These include people work for businesses with less than half a million dollars of annual sales, seasonal amusement and recreational businesses, fisheries and small newspapers. It also tacitly includes “under the table” employees, which would be most people who work for cash.

Minimum wages vary from state to state, which makes sense, as the cost of living varies.

If that makes sense to you (which it should) you might ask “why is there a minimum wage at all?” States have seen fit to increase the minimum wage based on local conditions, why don’t workers just not work for less than they are worth?

The simplest, and truest, answer is that they don’t. Talented workers move on to better paying positions. This includes tipped employees, who in some instances (I can only speak about waitresses, I don’t know how it works for hairdressers and others) make hundreds of dollars an hour.

Market forces drive the actual minimum wage. An employer looking for better employees pays more. In most cases the federal minimum wage protects the very bottom of the employment barrel. When an employer chooses the lowest wage it will pay, that amount is the “minimum wage” for that company. When the president recently raised the minimum wage for government contractors to $10.00 per hour, it was an incredibly cynical and deceptive move. To start, it only applies to new contracts, but more to the point, there are precisely zero government contractors earning less than $10.00 per hour.

Who actually earns minimum wage? Approximately one and a half million workers. Another two million are tipped or exempt, making three and a half million people at or below minimum wage, which is 2.5% of all workers (1.5% of potential workforce). Put another way, the number of people who die from all causes each year is about two a half million people. If people who have died in the last year sounds like a small percentage of the population, it is more people than those who earned the federal minimum wage.

I separate the “below” group for another reason. When government officials talk about raising the minimum wage, they aren’t talking about those people who are exempt. Despite several increases in minimum wage, tipped employees haven’t had an increase in twenty years. In 1993 dollars, that $2.13 is worth $1.32. These people will not benefit from an increase in “minimum wage”.

I do agree that the federal minimum wage should be tied to inflation. Currently, the President is proposing a forty percent raise, from $7.25 to $10.10. You might think a 40% raise is due. The last time an increase in minimum wage was passed into law was…seven years ago. The percentage of increase at that time? Forty percent. From $5.15 to $7.25 in three steps.

One result of that pay raise was a ninety percent reduction in the number of people earning minimum wage. How that relates to the increase in unemployment in the sixteen to twenty four year old segment of the population (from 15% to 25%) can be debated by analysts, but there is no debate that the change had no effect on those earning less than minimum wage, other than increasing their number.

It appears that increasing minimum wage causes a decrease in minimum wage jobs, which is just so obvious I would prefer further research to prove if the relationship is actually causal and not just correlated.

It is quite clear that the number of people directly affected by an increase in minimum wage would be, in fact, minimal. There of course would be the ripple effect, those people who are currently slightly over minimum wage would receive an increase in pay to bring them to the new standard, and possibly greater responsibilities as their colleagues who were earning minimum wage are dismissed. In the short term, there will be an increase in the number of people earning minimum wage, which is bound to be uncomfortable for both employers and employees.

In the end, an enormous amount of political posturing, assigning of inappropriate stereotypes, and name calling will take place, which will benefit no one. Well, it will benefit the politicians who capitalize on “class warfare”, which oddly enough can take place even when the “classes” don’t exist anywhere other than in the minds of their misinformed followers.

Our daily bread

There was a book by Philip & Phylis Morrison, “The Ring of Truth“. It is about the scientific method, and subtitled “How we know what we know”. It is a fascinating adventure into “popular” science, the idea that by presenting material about science in a non-scientific manner, lay people will be educated about the scientific method.

Much like teaching carpentry with a book about pastry, the results were somewhat disappointing. People who already understood the scientific method found the book interesting for its anecdotes. People who didn’t understand the scientific method found the book fascinating because anecdotes are often more interesting than data, and went forward believing they were now “Scientists”.

A dark day indeed.

Presently, we have descended intellectually to a point where “The Ring of Truth” is all that is required as proof for a theory.  Popular consensus carries more weight with lay people than actual facts, and education is deplored as “mind control”. “Research” means finding agreeable views on the internet, regardless of source.

In the name of “equality” we have skipped past the fact fifty percent of the population is of below average intelligence, and average intelligence is nothing to brag about. Everyone feels good about themselves and gets a trophy for being special.

There are “red flags”, items that should be obvious in the media that something is “sketchy” about a story, yet the same things that are red flags to those over median intelligence are the ring of truth to those below.

Take this as you wish. When a story is all over the news, does that make it true? When you hear the same story from several sources, does it trouble you that not a single source asked obvious follow up questions or dug into the subject a little deeper than the surface?

Take for instance azodicarbonamide.

Azodicarbonamide

Azodicarbonamide

I’m partial to CHON,  the essential elements of life, Carbon, Hydrogen, Oxygen, and Nitrogen. I know you can put them together in ways that are toxic to life, but no life on Earth exists without them. This group of CHON is a commonly used food additive, but for some reason it has been in the news lately. No, not the actual chemical, just a little about two products that contain it, and one of the many companies that uses it.

Compare it to the chemical that is often used in its place.

HCO− 3 + H2O → H 2CO 3 + OH−


NaHCO3 AKA “Baking Soda”

Azodicarbonamide is used in the same way as Baking Soda, when moistened it produces bubbles, those things that make the difference between “dough” and “bread”. It is used by most commercial bakeries in the United States and the United Kingdom. There have been questions about its safety in large doses as an inhalant, so it is banned in many countries, and limited to only forty five parts per million in food in the United States. In case your brain doesn’t work with numbers like that, ten thousand parts per million is one percent of the total, so forty five parts per million is .0045% of the ingredients.

Despite the fact azodicarbonamide is in most of the bread you eat, you may think that only Subway uses it. This should be the first red flag. Why would they be the only ones to use it? They aren’t.

You may also be aware that a variation of azodicarbonamide has commercial uses and is used in the production of some foamed plastics, like exercise mats (those little bubbles turn rubber into foam), but it is more likely that you have come to believe that azodicarbonamide has only two uses, Subway bread and yoga mats. Wow what a specialized chemical.

It should also be noted that a variation of the chemical Hydrazine (an antidepressant), known as both Hydrazine and Diazane, is used as a component of rocket fuel. Anti-depressants are not rocket fuel, bread is not yoga mats.

Hydrazine MAOI

Hydrazine MAOI

93px-Hydrazin.svg

Hydrazine rocket fuel

The question that has not been asked is “Why is it so important for Subway to remove a common ingredient from its bread?”. No one has suggested anyone else remove it from their bread, so why Subway? Could it be a competitor starting this fuss? If there is a health concern, it seems more likely that you would inhale azodicarbonamide when doing a downward facing dog than eating a sandwich.

But that only has the ring of truth, no empirical data exists.

Priorities

Setting priorities requires understanding. Understanding not only the issues being prioritized, but the effect those priorities have.

We often refer to Mark, chapter 12 verses 41 to 44 when it comes to being charitable, “41 And Jesus sat over against the treasury, and beheld how the people cast money into the treasury: and many that were rich cast in much 42 And there came a certain poor widow, and she threw in two mites, which make a farthing.43 And he called unto him his disciples, and saith unto them, Verily I say unto you, That this poor widow hath cast more in, than all they which have cast into the treasury:44 For all they did cast in of their abundance; but she of her want did cast in all that she had, even all her living.

This is often interpreted as illustrating the depth of commitment of a poor widow who gives all she has in contrast to wealthy people giving what is easily afforded. It is not. Read further.

The next chapter (13) begins “And as he went out of the temple, one of his disciples saith unto him, Master, see what manner of stones and what buildings are here!And Jesus answering said unto him, Seest thou these great buildings? there shall not be left one stone upon another, that shall not be thrown down.And as he sat upon the mount of Olives over against the temple, Peter and James and John and Andrew asked him privately,Tell us, when shall these things be? and what shall be the sign when all these things shall be fulfilled?And Jesus answering them began to say, Take heed lest any man deceive you:For many shall come in my name, saying, I am Christ; and shall deceive many.And when ye shall hear of wars and rumours of wars, be ye not troubled: for such things must needs be; but the end shall not be yet.For nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom: and there shall be earthquakes in divers places, and there shall be famines and troubles: these are the beginnings of sorrows

In this context, you can see that the widow and the wealthy had given to build a great temple, but it was a false temple. She had given all she had to scribes building great temples, when Christ, who had for her eternal life, stood only steps away, ignored.

As we make choices in life, it is our best qualities that move us to give of ourselves. We should not be blind to what it is we are giving to, and what giving denies to the the issues we have not prioritized. More importantly, we need to be selfish enough to give of ourselves to that which will benefit us. To do that, we need to understand what will actually benefit us.

Killing puppies

Let me start by saying I am in no way advocating the slaughter of your child’s pet.

sleeping-dogs-animals-cute-cuddling-kids-1360368319

As usual, I am addressing more than one subject.

Everybody loves dogs. Even people who are afraid of dogs love dogs. They’re loving and loyal, cute and cuddly. Stories about animals invoke more empathy than those about humans. How could anyone hurt a dog?

Perhaps it is because, as descendants of wolves and brothers of hyenas, dogs are predators. Left to their own devices a dog returns to pariah or even feral behavior rather quickly. Born in the wild dogs are not domesticated pets, no matter how cute they are. When I worked in Animal Control, one of the more frequently asked questions about stray dogs was “will he bite?” (regardless of the dog’s sex). The only answer I could give was based in honesty. “He has teeth”.

Like people, dogs can be deceptive, the “fiercest” dogs can be playful, the cutest dogs can be vicious.

Good Dog?

Good Dog?

As with any ethical issue, controlling stray dogs gets bound to emotional responses. People portraying themselves as humane and loving feel perfectly comfortable threatening violence including murder against human beings involved in animal control. Even dogs that have attacked children receive more sympathy than their victims.

In Sochi, Russia, this drama is playing out on a world stage. The same people who denounce plans to humanely remove wild dogs as bureaucratic doublespeak don’t even pause before sliding into their own slanderous comments. Facts are denied and speculation sworn to as truth.

Located in a largely uninhabited area, Sochi is a resort on the Black Sea at the foot of the Caucacus mountains. With the onslaught of construction leading up to the Olympics, the wild dogs that run through the area congregated near the new source of food and shelter. Most reports, from both sides of the issue, place the number of dogs in the thousands. These are not stray pets, there are not thousands of children missing their puppies along the Georgian border.

The local authorities contracted to have the dogs removed. This is where it goes goofy. While most people agree the dogs were disease ridden and had attacked people (some say “there is no evidence of attacks” and then make unsupported claims about impossible numbers of dogs killed), the idea of killing the dogs flipped the logic switch to the “off” position. Accounts have routinely referred to shooting and poisoning dogs, by the hundreds and even thousands. This should cause even the blindest activist to question stories referring to the thousands of dogs that have been saved. If you can have it both ways there must have been an incredible initial population of dogs. Maybe some were wolves?

There is no verification of how many dogs were killed, or how. Shooting can be humane, as someone who at one time performed euthanasia six hours a day I can tell you that animal suffering is easily absorbed, being humane is in the human’s best interest. Indiscriminate poisoning is crazy, again, the object is to kill, and randomly poisoned bait can be picked up by undesired targets, or be insufficient doses to kill the animal that does pick it up. If someone is being paid per carcass, there’s no proof of death if random poison is used. Have tranquilizer darts been used? Probably, they are a safe (for the officer) and humane (for the dog) approach. But “Poisoning” and “Shooting” are manipulatively used words, yanking at the same emotions that were being manipulated with the choice to use pictures of cute puppies instead of the wild dogs chasing children down the street.

Is there room for improvement in the world of Russian animal control? Without question. But in my mind, those improvements can wait until Russia can start treating humans more humanely. For many Russians, being treated like a dog is a step up.

More from the Bill of Rights

This is chapter five of “Know your Constitution”, here are the links for chapters One, Two, Three, and Four.

We pick up with the seventh amendment.

“In Suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise re-examined in any Court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law”

This one may seem a little mundane. It has never been “incorporated”, that is to say applied to the states, although every state complies. The twenty dollar limit has never been challenged or changed, allowing for inflation $20 in 1789 is about $526 today.

Important parts of this amendment is the establishment of jury trials in civil cases (which may be waived if both parties agree) and protection of civil findings in higher courts. It is the most straightforward and least disputed amendment.

The eighth amendment has been bandied about quite a bit.

“Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted”.

The purpose of this amendment is to limit the power of judges. While we look at “mandatory sentences” as ways to force judges to hand out harsher punishments, this amendment requires judges to follow precedent, granting reasonable bail rather than using bail as a form of imprisonment before trial, and limiting punishments to a societal norm.

This amendment is most often brought up in reference to torture. While physical torture appears to be covered by this amendment, it is only because torture is unusual. Punishments are judged based on the crime, so while some have been determined to be excessive for any crime, as in Wilkerson v. Utah, in which the Supreme Court commented that drawing and quartering, public dissection, burning alive, or disembowelment constituted cruel and unusual punishment regardless of the crime, but the reality of the amendment’s meaning is that it would be unusual to sentence someone to five years imprisonment for a parking ticket.

The Supreme Court declared executing the mentally handicapped in Atkins v. Virginia, and executing people who were under age 18 at the time the crime was committed in Roper v. Simmons,  to be violations of the Eighth Amendment, regardless of the crime. “Cruel” is applied more often to mental duress than to physical duress. “Unusual” applies to staying within precedent of historical punishments.

The ninth amendment is protection against legalese.

“The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people”.

Quite simply, “Just because we didn’t mention a right doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist”. From this amendment springs all the arguments for interpretation of non enumerated rights. Notice that this is not a limitation of rights, not a “and after a certain time some of these rights no longer exist” statement. This allows for growth and expansion in the recognition of rights.

This idea is reinforced in what was at the time the final amendment, the tenth.

“The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”

This will likely be the amendment cited in states that have legalized marijuana, in that it has been used to remove states from enforcing contradictory federal statutes, in 1998, the Court ruled that the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act violated the Tenth Amendment in Printz v. United States.  The act required state and local law enforcement officials to conduct background checks on persons attempting to purchase handguns. Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the majority, applied New York v. United States to show that the law violated the Tenth Amendment. Since the act “forced participation of the State’s executive in the actual administration of a federal program”, it was unconstitutional.

These are the ten amendments of the Bill of Rights. Echoing the last few amendments, they don’t cover everything nor were they intended to do so. Another seventeen amendments have been ratified, most recently in 1992.

Our constitution grows, because it is alive. It is vibrant and adaptive, and it never loses its importance.

A barrel with two spigots

It is said that Benjamin Franklin described New Jersey as “A barrel with two spigots”. He was speaking to the fact evident even then, the two major metropolitan areas in New Jersey are New York City and Philadelphia. What are classified as “cities” within the boundaries of the state are urban nightmares even Jersey natives avoid. Camden has been declared the least safe city in America, Trenton required the deployment of State Troopers to control a spiraling crime rate and their mayor refuses to leave office even after having been found guilty of corruption, and just speaking the word “Newark” strikes fear in most Jersey hearts.

Among New Jersey’s long list of personality disorders is its fear of commitment.

Looking at the last twenty years, the position of Governor has been a tough gig. Years passed in which no one really knew who the Governor was. Campaign slogans were typically variants on “at least he’s not the other guy”. Jim Florio faced derision from almost the moment he was elected in 1989, bumper stickers of “Florio free in ’93” popped up in January 1990. He was replaced by Christine Todd Whitman, who was embraced for a few years until she fled to the EPA to get away from a New Jersey that had turned on her. A variety of appointees held the post until the election of Jim “Mcgreedy” McGreevey, who was only slightly less faithful to New Jersey as he was to his wife, revealing to both simultaneously that he was not only a homosexual, but he had appointed his long time lover to a position within his administration, and would be resigning as governor, husband, and father all in the same speech. At least he was efficient. He was replaced by Jon Corzine, a Daddy Warbucks type who found that flaunting your wealth in the midst of a recession is not the best way to endear yourself. After being injured while not wearing his seatbelt in a speeding car while his State Trooper driver was texting, Corzine just paid the fines and publicly paid his own medical bills, rather clearly stating he was wealthy enough he didn’t have to obey the law. He then went on to “misplace” one and a half billion dollars at his new firm before resigning.

Which brings us to Chris Christie.

The Star Ledger, New Jersey’s largest newspaper, endorsed Chris Christie for reelection as Governor last year. Tough editorial call, Christie was walking on the water left by super storm Sandy, no credible Democrat was interested in wasting time running against him. Barbara Buono took advantage of the vacuum and jumped into the race, but her policies alienated even hard core Democrats, she lacked party support, and trailed by more than thirty points at times.

Displaying the same level of integrity with which they haltingly endorsed Christie for Governor, the editorial board of the Star Ledger has decided to rescind its endorsement, just ninety days too late.

Still holding to the position that Buono was seriously flawed and “bad for New Jersey”, the Star Ledger says it “regrets” endorsing Christie, based on allegations of inappropriate behavior. I would like to allege that the Star Ledger is inappropriate to line bird cages with, as there is the distinct possibility a canary might lose it’s tenuous grip on life if exposed to the toxic opinions held within.

The Star Ledger still thinks Christie is the superior candidate for President of the United States in 2016, he’s just not “good for New Jersey”. That squirming is because sitting on the fence is awfully uncomfortable. How can a candidate who is not good for New Jersey be a good choice for New Jersey voters as President? Has journalistic integrity become passé? Do they really think their readers can not recall the last sentence?

Chris Christie is currently being tried in the court of public opinion. No evidence has come forward linking him to any of current scandals, some of which are only alleged scandals at this point. He openly admits members of his staff acted inappropriately, and has fired them (unlike our current president). Should any of the current allegations prove true, it might be appropriate to not vote for Christie in the future. There is nothing we can do about the past. What will the Star Ledger do if these accusations are proven false? Will they re-endorse Christie for the 2013 election?

A newspaper is supposed to deal in facts, working with hearsay gets messy fast.

 

 

 

 

The price of being an Ambassador

There is a class system within the Department of State, one that might seem obvious to outsiders. There are career diplomats, people who have sacrificed life as an American in order to be in the Foreign Service, and the political appointees, chosen for their contributions to the incumbent administration.

Chris Stevens served in the Peace Corps during college, and went on to earn his JD from Hastings in 1989, He joined the Foreign Service in 1991 and served for ten years before being appointed Ambassador to Libya. He then paid the ultimate price.

Chris Stevens was one of the good guys. When the administration said about Chris and his colleagues “They exemplified America’s commitment to freedom, justice, and partnership with nations and people around the globe, and stand in stark contrast to those who callously took their lives.” you would never have believed he had been left twisting in the wind without help during an attack.

It is nothing new for presidents to sell the position of ambassador to the highest bidder, it just seems the price has gone up, the qualifications have been eliminated, and the value of a position in which the folks who sent you may choose to martyr you should have fallen.

At least Joe Kennedy could speak the language of the nation to which he was appointed ambassador, and had actually visited in 1933 (with FDR’s son, James Roosevelt, to buy distribution rights for Scotch whisky). He was an absolute failure as a diplomat and came home before things got too hot in England, leaving others to promote his personal agenda.

Our appointed Ambassador to Norway started his term by apologizing. Not knowing anything about the nation he would be an ambassador to had not prevented him from insulting them, before he ever visited the country. Our Ambassador to Argentina has never visited the country, and doesn’t even speak Spanish. If we were talking about China (and we will be) I would understand, but Spanish? Our new Ambassador to Hungary can’t find the country on a map, and has no clue what she will be doing there. All these people do understand that the base price for a position as foreign ambassador is $500,000. Despite their inadequacies, we should hope they never have to pay the price Chris Stevens paid.

Our newly appointed ambassador to China does fit a time honored tradition. Promoting troublemakers out of the arena so they can no longer cause trouble. Max Baucus, senator from Montana, states openly that he’s no expert on China, but looks forward to this new adventure. Had he been an expert on China maybe he wouldn’t be quite as excited.

Diplomacy is an art, a slimy art of lying and deception but an art none the less. It is increasingly important in our world, where impressions and innuendos are more lethal weapons than assault rifles. Now is not the time to be assigning “ugly Americans”, people with no sensitivity to other cultures, to represent America.

This pattern of assignments indicates a failure in foreign relations, a contempt for the process of statesmanship. It is quite amazing the person making these appointments was recognized in 2009 for “his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples”. Unless that award was for sale as well.

Meanwhile, at the rebel base on Tatooine…

1551645_10203162630216601_1464973946_n

No, not really. Those are not X wing fighters, although they have been mistaken for alien spaceships. These are A-12 (OXCART) aircraft, very possibly the most advanced aircraft ever built, doomed to be killed by a blackbird.

Now that much concerning the development of these craft has been declassified, we can talk about these exotic craft and the people who worked with them.

I’ve been meaning to write about this for a while, since the flurry of activity last November and a number of friends sharing photographs that are no longer classified. What finally motivated me was a reference to Polaroid cameras the other day, and the recognition that strategic reconnaissance is a vastly unknown art.

Almost everyone has heard of Dr. Edwin Land, creator of the Polaroid camera. What many are unaware of is Dr. Land’s contribution to surveillance. In World War two he adapted his vectograph, a polarized 3D image, to defeat camouflage. Vectograph uses a system that polarizes the left/right images rather than using color filters. Dr. Land developed the cameras used in the U-2, OXCART (and later SR-71 BLACKBIRD), and several series of satellites.

These cameras took images from incredible distances. The closest perigee of a KH-11 was 157 miles, while the A-12 was flying at about 19 miles with an air speed over three times the speed of sound. The precise resolution remains classified, but paired with excellent photo interpretation, we managed follow a great deal of activity.

Strategic surveillance has always been around, we watch each other, and sometimes the curtain of secrecy which separates engineers of differing political persuasions can be pierced.  The greatest airframes have been designed by Russians, but the imaginations required to exploit those airframes with superior avionics have been American. You knew the Mig-25 magically turned into the F-15, but now you know the stealth program began with a Russian design. When we first saw one on a runway we thought it was a Russian space shuttle prototype, the design became TACIT BLUE.

Today surveillance is more signal oriented. In the flood of communications made available to every drooling biped on the planet, computer algorithms “listen” to our conversations, looking for keywords. The same way advertisers zero in on you, hitting you with ads for whatever you just looked for, programs like NARUSINSIGHT look for key words or combinations. Even with the most sophisticated and immense computers in existence, only about thirty percent of traffic can be monitored. Observe a smaller pool of communication, and you can catch everything (reveal what you’ve found and people stop talking).

The “revelations” about surveillance are only surprises to those who haven’t been paying attention. The fears about surveillance are only as founded as our own self measurements of guilt. Was it a bad thing for Victoria Nuland to express her feelings in a private phone conversation? I don’t think so. I think it points out the importance of appropriate interpretation. Personal opinions are not state agendas.

The biggest secret is there really are no secrets.

Why bad things happen

“If there was a God, he wouldn’t let this happen”.

First off, what makes you think God is male? Is it not the greatest indicator of ego centrism (and sexism) to determine the creator of all that exists must fit our belief that all beings must be either male or female, and the great architect would have to be male?

The fact such a question is asked is the greatest indicator that the person asking the question is incapable of understanding the answer.

Are they asking why humans die? Well, you’ve got a choice, if you want to reproduce, you have to die. Unless you have infinite space to house all the generations of your species. We die, and we don’t know when we will die. Would you really want to know? At what point would you start saying “This is the last time I’ll do this”? How much of your life would be wasted mourning its loss?

I’ve recently become aware of a study which indicates people with Multiple Sclerosis may have a life expectancy of six years less than people without Multiple Sclerosis. What does that mean? I’ll be six years younger than all the other people around me when lightning strikes?

We all die. There is no avoiding it. The only blessing we have to make it easier is that there is absolutely nothing we could have done to avoid dying. There’s the looking both ways before walking into traffic things, but when it is your time, it is your time.

I think of John Heinz’s death. My second wife worked near where his crash took place. She had stepped out for a cigarette and saw the two aircraft, and heard the crash, her supervisor had children at the school the wreckage fell on. That evening we watched Peter Jennings on the evening news. He finished a story with the sarcastic ad lib “Which is about as likely as having a plane fall out of the sky on you”.

The next story was about John Heinz’s helicopter and the plane it collided with crashing into a schoolyard full of children.

Jennings was fairly pale to start with, when the camera came back to him he was a whiter shade. I laughed.

Like someone slipping on a banana peel, his gaffe outshone the images they couldn’t show on television. Laughter is the best medicine. Sometimes it’s the only medicine.

In the fifth chapter of Matthew, verse 45, Jesus says “That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust“. We’re all treated equally.

Fear of death is more often the fear of another’s death, the loss of companionship. We recognize our own mortality, but don’t like the way it looks on others. We know we can handle the loss of our own life, but feel sadness for our friends faced with the same loss. Why do we do this? We say “She’s in a better place”, or “He won’t suffer anymore” in the midst of our own suffering.

I can only speak from my own experience. When the doctors acknowledged they could not do anything else for Emma and assigned her to palliative care, I didn’t want her to come home on the 4 July weekend because I was worried about readmitting her to the hospital if she took a turn for the worse. She couldn’t get any worse. She was going home to die, there would be no return to the hospital. Everyone knew that but me. I’m sure Emma knew she wouldn’t be running in the tall grass again, she just wanted to be home, in her own bed, with her cat. She lived up until she died. She did not give up and live a breathing death, she was alive every moment. She had mourned other losses in her life and wasn’t about to mourn her own, that was my job.

I think the entire experience gave me new perspectives, altered my way of viewing the universe. That, I believe, is why “bad” things happen. Those of us who survive are supposed to learn and share the lesson.

Here’s what I learned. Life is for living, there will be plenty of time to be dead later. Bad things don’t happen to me, they happen to the world, I just happen to be nearby.

People who ask “why does God allow suffering” sound to me like spoiled children complaining about eating vegetables. The process of life is far more complicated than the immediate desires of the individual. We are given the opportunity to grow from all of our experiences, and should find a way to be thankful for each of them.

‘.

Easy Eggplant Rollatini

Rollatini is a rich, luscious dish of eggplant and cheese. I wanted to make this without frying the eggplant, in an attempt to get away from the things that go along with frying like extra oil and the obligatory breading, in an attempt to lower the calories and fats. The measurements are mixed because my scale measures in grams and the rest of North America uses ounces. Prep time is less than thirty minutes.

You will be best served by a large food processor. Chopping and blending the spinach/cheese mixture is so much easier that way. You’ll want at least one cookie sheet and a 13X9 pan, parchment paper and foil.

Ingredients:

One large Eggplant

A cup or so of marinara sauce (make your own*)

one egg

one 15oz container of Ricotta (use the skim milk type if you must)

one half cup grated Pecorino Romano cheese

Spinach. I usually use hand fulls as a measurement, but I weighed it, 100 grams.

Basil leaves. One plants worth, came to 16 grams.

one large garlic clove

120 grams of grated mozzarella cheese

Directions:

Heat the oven to 400°F

Slice the Eggplant lengthwise into quarter inch slices. Emma always sprinkled the eggplant with kosher salt and pressed it by placing it under a cutting board for about fifteen minutes to reduce bitterness. I don’t know if it makes a difference, but I still do it.

In the food processor, place spinach, basil, Ricotta, Pecorino Romano, the egg, pressed garlic clove, and a pinch of salt. Process until smooth.

Place the eggplant slices on parchment covered cookie sheets. Season with a touch of salt and pepper if you wish. Cover with foil and bake for eight minutes. You are not cooking the eggplant, just softening it.

Coat the bottom of a 13X9 pan with marinara sauce.

Spread about two tablespoons of cheese mixture on a slice of eggplant, leaving about an inch of the wide end clean. Roll from the narrow end. place seam side down in pan. Repeat with the other slices, filling the pan. Top with remaining marinara sauce, seal with foil.

Bake for forty five minutes.

Wash the food processor, cookie sheet, knife, measuring cups and the saucepan from the marinara.

Remove foil, cover with mozzarella cheese, place foil over pan lightly and return to oven for fifteen minutes.

Let cool five to ten minutes before serving.

* Marinara sauce:

Really? Heat a can of crushed tomatoes, press a clove or two of garlic, add oregano and basil to taste. Add some Pecorino Romano, crushed red pepper, onion, olives, a little red wine, whatever sounds good. Just give some life to the tomatoes and you have marinara. No sugar, no extra salt, no preservatives.

viola

Dinner is ready and the kitchen is clean.

Groundhog Day

You hear the words “Groundhog Day”, what image do you see?

Wheel_of_the_Year

Celtic wheel of the year

2 February was first celebrated as a holiday by Celts, called Imbolc. There is no documentation of the paleoamericans who were in Puxsutawney celebrating large rodents as anything other than dinner so  the Celts get the credit.

It is a cross quarter day, midway from the Winter solstice to the Vernal equinox. It is celebrated as Candlemas day in the traditional Catholic church, and in Germany the tradition of forecasting weather on Candalemas originated. “If the hedgehog sees his shadow at Candlemas, he will crawl back into his hole for another six weeks”. Short on hedgehogs and national identity in the new world (the Pennsylvania Dutch are actually Pennsylvania Deutsch, or Germans) they adopted the groundhog and the tradition continues.

Hedgehog-479x359

Wenn der Igel Lichtmess seinen Schatten sieht,
so Kriecht er wieder auf sechs Wochen ins Loch.

Interesting (to me) aside. Cross quarter days are approximately forty days apart. Forty days is a period mentioned several times in the Bible, and some linguists feel it is used in a non literal sense, as in “a long time”. It can be seen as a very large number, twice the fingers and toes of one person. Forty lashes was the maximum punishment. David reigned as King for forty years. Israel ate manna for forty years. Egypt was desolate for forty years. Abdon has forty sons (and hopefully more than one wife). The great flood was forty days of rain. And then forty days is a cross quarter interval. I love when math intersects with customs.

The image that came to your head when you heard “Groundhog Day” was more than likely this:

I love that film. I love the story, the moral, the performances, in fact the only thing I don’t like about the movie is the way it has become an overwhelming cultural reference.

Groundhog Day was a film. The experience of the character “Phil” is Déjà vu, or “Already seen”. Déjà vu was also a song by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young on their album of the same name and different pronunciation. Yes, in one of those “almost a homonym” situations, “vu”, French for “seen” is not pronounced as “view”, English for “scene”. “Groundhog Day” is not a synonym for “Déjà vu”. Yogi Bera would have a field day with this.

This year Groundhog day was also Superbowl day, a day Peyton Manning would certainly want to never repeat.

Didn’t see that one coming.

Insulation

One of the qualities Americans seek in a potential President is a connection to the “average Joe”. The other is the ability to deal with complex international affairs beyond the comprehension of the above average Joe. It’s a tough gig.

Take the current occupant. A mixed race man from a broken family is about as average as you can get. Smoked marijuana in college, still smokes cigarettes, overbearing moose of a wife, sounds like Mr. Middle America. Winning the Nobel Prize for international diplomacy while still a first term Senator from Illinois looks awfully good on paper, as do most of his credits. As with most hype, it’s been just enough of a balloon to fly him to reelection before deflating.

That’s a hard act to follow. Americans tend to be clever enough to only get fooled twice in a row. And then twice in a row by the other party, and then again. So 2016 doesn’t look great for the Democrats, it’s the Republicans turn.

The party in power tends to start trying out new candidates as soon as their office holder starts flailing, kind of a “Thanks for voting for us, we’ll do better next time” thing. The opposing party floats its collection of losers, the “Even this idiot is better than who is in office, and we’ll come up with someone better by the election” play.

The intelligent way to operate, the “Let congress do its job and see who actually accomplishes something” approach would have a negative outcome for both parties. Close observation would make it known that not only are there no appropriate candidates for President in Washington, there are very few strong candidates for janitor.

There are perennial candidates, most of whom acknowledge their lack of seriousness. Pat Paulsen was my favorite, Ralph Nader never realized that he was a joke, which was a joke in itself, and Joe Walsh has done everything to get through to his fans that he is only running for Vice President, but they’re…well, they’re Joe Walsh fans.

Joining the list of perennial candidates is another comedian who is grossly underrated for her work, largely because satire is often mistaken for reality.

Hillary Clinton, often jokingly referred to by her stage name “the smartest woman in the world”, is being trotted out to divert attention from the continuing failures of the current administration. She has a following, Henny Youngman kept his career going for seven decades based on one joke, she’s on her fifth decade, and is still getting mileage from “Take my husband, please”.

Her early work has largely been forgotten, getting fired from the committee to impeach Richard Nixon was an early masterpiece, but she really hit her stride in her involvement of covering her husband’s affairs when he was governor of Arkansas. Her brilliant investments in Cattle Futures and Real Estate cemented her reputation as a comedian, so much that Vince Foster and James McDougal allegedly died laughing. Her healthcare proposals certainly had everyone chuckling.

The story about dodging sniper fire was funny enough to get her appointed Secretary of State, but the laughter was waning when she lost it on stage when heckled over Benghazi. Apparently some people felt it did make a difference whether the Department of State abandoned a diplomat and his bodyguards when they called for help. Personally, I think it was because she thought “Sniper fire” meant “Paparazzi” as she had defined it in Bosnia. Some jokes just bomb, what can you say, widows and orphans can be a tough crowd.

Her latest joke is that she hasn’t driven a car since 1996 (although in her 2008 campaign she did say she was driving a hybrid SUV). When it was suggested that someone who had not driven a car in seventeen years might be a little out of touch with the average American, the knee jerk response was “Well, living in New York you don’t need to drive”.

Two thoughts jump to mind. One is “Oh, so that’s why there’s no traffic in New York, no one drives”. The second was “How does being from New York make anyone normal?”.

I guess if you see living in New York as “normal”, you would yourself be a little insulated, unable to see a lifelong history of deceit as being a negative quality. Meanwhile, the other ninety five percent of America is wondering why such people are speaking on national trends, as they clearly don’t understand or speak for the nation.

Over the next few years, as this question gets spun through the political cycle, try to remember the essential point.

Not driving does not mean you are insulated from society. Thinking you are normal when you are clearly not is what insulates you from society.

Garages

The first time I saw this ad, I knew where I wanted it to go. I was shouting the line before it got there, and then they said it. “The Ramones started in a garage“.

 

 

Garage bands are about dreams. This works out really well, because dreams are what makes music happen. Yeah, there’s a lot of work, practice, late nights in scummy bars for no money, unloading equipment in the snow to get to the spare tire and all the other things that make great stories later in life, but dreams are the fuel that takes you all those places.

I have a friend I met about twenty years ago. At the time, all I knew about him was that he was the best technician the company had, so he was someone to learn from. One thing I learned was that I would never be able as good as he was, so even though I did manage to steal the “Tech of the Month” award from him a few times, I moved on to another company.

I ran into him again a few years ago, our paths intersected with a common friend. In addition to being the best technician Minolta has ever employed, Guy Campo is also an accomplished musician. He described his band as a “garage band”, because he’s still doing the nine to five thing as well. Lieve and I have been to see him play, and we’ve run into him (and his beautiful fiance) at a few concerts. He still amazes me, in that his “hobby” takes up more time than my job ever did. He works at least forty hours a week, plus rehearsals and performances, and is having a blast with life, always tweeting from some great restaurant  or event. I’m guessing he just doesn’t sleep.

Nearing the age at which many people choose to retire, Guy is still knocking himself out making music. I’ve known a lot of musicians. They have attained various levels of success, and Guy, like the people I consider most successful, is successful because what he’s doing makes him happy. That’s the secret, folks. Do what makes you happy. If you can make other people happy by doing it, even better.

You would make Guy and me both happy if you would download his latest, “Crackin’ up my Cadillac”. Isn’t that weird how we started this story with a Cadillac commercial? Guy is involved in a contest with the Hard Rock Cafe, and to vote for him all you have to do is download his song from their page on FaceBook. You get a free song and he gets a vote. Another win/win.

That link again is https://reverbnation.com/contests/2712/artist/375620, or you can click here. If you’d like to hear more of his music, there are several videos on the you tube page below. He plays a couple of locations on the Main Line routinely, if you’re around Philly, check him out.

Keep the dreams alive.

 

Wine snobs

There may be a bit of a wine snob in all of us, it inspires a false sense of superiority.

If you know wine, it is easy to view those who don’t with contempt. If you know what you like, it is easy to view wine snobs with contempt. If you choose a wine because you like the way it sounds, you’re obvious and everyone views you with contempt.

When I worked with dogs, a colleague made the observation that when a dog wins “Best in Show” at the Westminster Kennel Club it damages the breed. When a breed wins more than once in a decade, it destroys the breed. The idea was once a breed becomes popular every Tom, Dick, and Billy-Bob starts breeding them in their garages. The resulting dogs are inbred and even cross-bred, and the purebred features of the dog are lost.

The snobbery part can be seen in music. You all know that guy who has to be the first to hear a band, and then when other people start listening, he’s moved on and your interest in the band is passe. Yes, I’ve seen one hit wonders overplayed, and bands that worked years to get one album with their best work together, but most bands improve over time, touring is great practice. It’s only when they’re pushed to release work that’s not ready that bands get worse.

Wine works the same ways. Zinfandel is a wonderful grape, and Sutter Home in California made an intense Zinfandel back in the 1970s. The way they concentrated the wine was by using the saignée method, in which some juice is bled off before fermentation, giving the remaining juice more contact with the skins. The juice that was bled off became “White Zinfandel”. A vintage of white zinfandel had a bad or “stuck” fermentation, leaving it sweet. Some spawn of satan vintner preferred this version, and within years “Zin” was a white wine, very few even remembered it was a red grape. It became so popular and over produced the product suffered. While rosé wines are beautiful white renderings from red grapes, saignée wines are only poor copies, and I don’t care for sweet wines anyway.

Merlot suffered a similar death, one colleague at the winery opined it was because people liked the way it sounded. “Mare low”, said slowly, with lips staying in a circle long after the word is finished. The grape itself is a mainstay of Bordeaux, depending on harvest style it can either feature acidity or tannin, making it perfect for use in blends. As a varietal, Merlot can have any number of presentations, most usually a low tannin earthy wine. How it turns out depends on the vineyard more than the grape.

There is nothing special about wine as a beverage. There is nothing special about painting as an art-form. Their merits rest in the subjective experience of the beholder.

There are a number of traditions associated with wine. They each have a purpose, and are a tool in separating wine snob from wine snob poseurs.

Corks. The purpose of a cork is to seal the bottle. Oxygen is the enemy of wine (remember that, there’s a test later). Cork expands when wet, so a bottle stored on its side keeps the cork moist, and the bottle sealed. Cork is a natural product, and with the increase of wine consumption it has become scare and costly. Rubber and plastic corks seal regardless of whether they’re moist or not, so you can store the bottle upright without worrying the cork will dry out. Synthetic corks can be a pain to drive a screw through, so twist tops are an even better solution. They lack elegance, but they do the job well enough that Coca Cola bottles one billion bottles with screw caps every day.

Storage seals. If you’re one of those people who doesn’t finish a bottle of wine in one sitting, you’ll want to close the bottle. Stuffing the cork back in doesn’t always work, and considering that you want to keep oxygen away from the wine overnight, there are a couple of ways to purge the bottle. The first I saw was canned nitrogen, which could be sprayed into the bottle before it is re-corked. The method I use is a vacuum cork, a rubber one way valve that fits in the bottle, to which you apply a hand pump to create a vacuum in the bottle.

Cork Screws. While I’m on the subject, let’s cover the physics of removing a cork. If you’re using an archimedian screw, you’re working against yourself.

Archimedean

archimedian screw

This screw winds into the cork, causing it to expand and thus press against the sides of the neck, making it more difficult to remove. If the cork is old, you can end up boring a hole in the cork.  A worm, preferably teflon coated, winds into the cork, grasping it. The prong type takes a little practice, and I’ve pushed a few corks down into the bottle with them, but they work cleanly on cork or synthetic.

Temperature. Temperature hides certain aspects, so white wine is typically at its best cool. Red wine is appreciated for the qualities that disappear when cooled, so reds are typically served at room temperature. Those are the rules. If you are drinking uncle Tony’s wine that he makes in the cellar, go right ahead with the ice cubes, it will probably be better cold and watered down.

Red with meat, White with fish. Wine is food. Yes there are general guidelines, but if we never tried new combinations we’d still be eating raw antelope. Just as different people prefer different foods, different people prefer different wines, and the combinations will vary. Broccoli rabe may overwhelm a sauvignon blanc or even a chateauneuf de pape. Which foods you pair with which wine is a personal taste.

Decanters. Before there were filters, wine would develop sediment in the bottle. In order to prevent this sediment from making the trip into your glass and onto your tongue, you might decant the wine, typically into a bottle with a wide flat base. This allowed the sediment to stay in the decanter. Today, they allow the wine to oxidize.

Letting a wine “breathe”. Speaking of oxidation, lately I have seen aerators for wine. these impart oxygen to wine, what we used to call “letting the wine breathe”. If you are serving a wine heavy in tannins, you might want to expose it to oxygen to reduce the astringency. You might also ask yourself why you bought an expensive bottle of wine and drank it before it aged properly. Tannins are the molecules in wine that absorb oxygen and allow the wine to age.

So here’s the test.

I’ll post answers in the comments section in a few days, or after someone gets it right, whichever comes first.

1) What is the enemy of wine? (Bonus points for why you might want to go to all the trouble of keeping the wine safe, and then expose it to the enemy at the last moment).

2) In the film “Sideways”, Miles, who railed against a certain varietal during the film, had a cherished bottle, a 1961 Chateau Cheval Blanc from St. Emilion. What was the varietal? (Bonus points for the grapes that are blended in Chateau Cheval Blanc)

The wine doesn’t make the occasion special, the occasion makes the wine special.

Predeterminism

I’ve never quite understood how people can believe in predeterminism, that all events are inevitable and unchangeable. I can see it growing from the disappointment surrounding the discovery there are things we cannot change, but it feels like a surrender.

I recognize that the sun will rise in the East each morning, and should I release my coffee cup it will fall to the floor, but I believe releasing my coffee cup is a choice. I believe when God created the universe, and said “Bang!”, there was light, and God knew what would happen next in the same sense I know my banana bread will be ready in an hour when I place it in a 375°F oven.

Continuing the baking analogy, creation was proofing the yeast, the great flood was punching the dough, Christ was placing the loaf in the oven, Revelations represents the finished bread. Does God know there will be bread at the end of the process? Of course. Does God know where on the bread a remaining bubble in the dough will cause a brown spot on the crust? No, but he does know there will be brown spots.

In physics we know certain things about the behavior of subatomic particles. We know they behave within certain limits in a scale of probability. Is it possible that every molecule of oxygen will congregate in a one meter cube in the corner? Yes, it is. Brownian motion is random, so any outcome is possible. If we were to measure the area involved once per second over the course of five billion years, we might never see it happen, because although it is possible, it is highly improbable.

If every event in the universe is predetermined, if we are part of some grand, rigid machine, how would we know? Every conversation, every thought, every attempt at action we make and its result would be predetermined. That we would ask, consider, and discuss the issue would be predetermined. If it is predetermined that I will win the lottery, it must also be predetermined that I will purchase the winning ticket.

Belief in determinism or predeterminism is rooted in faith, there is no real proof for either side.

In my life, I have acknowledged my inability to control the universe. Disease comes along randomly, sometimes it can be treated, sometimes it can be cured, sometimes not. If the course of a disease is predetermined, is not that determination based on attempts to treat it? If my destiny was set at the instant of creation, isn’t a part of that destiny my struggles to alter my path? If I decide that I am a pawn to predetermination, that decision in itself would be predetermined.

Trying to see the universe through the measure of a life that at best spans a century is foolish. In the ninth verse of Second Peter, it is said “The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance”.

 

God is waiting. He has forever. You don’t.