Archive for November, 2013

My 25th Anniversary: A Beautiful Life

November 27, 2013

Unknown-3November 27 is my 25th wedding anniversary. Such occasions can be considered meaningless calendrical artifacts. But they do provide prompts for reflection and celebration. Yet in truth I hardly need it, since no day goes by without my reflecting upon and celebrating my marriage.

My wife has said she feels the lack of a sociability brain module that others have; and I feel that myself. There’s a lot of the loner in me. And, when I belatedly got ‘round to hankering after women, I was pretty clueless in going about it. Doubtful of my ability to land a great catch, I’d have settled for less; I cringe to think of some of the unsuitable women I pursued, fortunately without success. It’s an irony that the one I actually did get was the best of them all.Unknown-1

And whereas, for most people, by my stage of life, those fires have dimmed to embers, I am having it backwards – having now what normally comes with youth. It’s said that youth is wasted on the young, and in the sense meant, I certainly wasted mine; but I’m making up for it now, certainly not wasting my elderhood. And the inversion seems advantageous, since now I have the seasoned wisdom to appreciate the gift.

What I mean to say is that I’m actually more in love with my wife than ever. Couplings are supposed to start out passionate and then ratchet down to tamer feelings. This too I’ve inverted. If my marrying Therese was more from intellect than passion – really a utilitarian judgment – that judgment has been wholly vindicated, and the feelings once tame have grown intense.

UnknownBut, of course, just as my choice 25 years ago was not from heedless passion, nor is my passion now heedless either. It rises from what she is and what we are together. Quite simply, we have a beautiful life together. One of the big mistakes in marriage is the hope of changing the other person – an error we’ve never made. Indeed, acceptance of each’s nature, and allowing each to be him/herself, is a fundamental principle of our marriage. But perhaps for us that’s easy. Or for me, at least; maybe the most annoying things about Therese are her leaving windows open, and dishes in the sink; at which I just smile, small prices to pay for all that’s wonderful about her. How splendid it is to be greeted each morning with her smile.

I’ve read that the key to happiness is: low expectations. You’re less likely to be disappointed, and more likely to be pleasantly surprised. It’s worked for me; I am still in a state of pleasant surprise at what I’ve gotten.

Unknown-2

Yet one can see life as ultimately cruel and tragic. Nothing is given to us without its finally being taken away. The beautiful life Therese and I have will end. But no law of the universe decreed our entitlement to such a gift at all. We can only rejoice at what we’ve been given.

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Bloody Mindedness

November 24, 2013

OK, I’m supposed to be an optimist.

UnknownSo there’s this place in Japan called the Yasukuni shrine, a memorial to Japan’s war dead. Fine, except that it enshrines some top convicted war criminals. And leading Japanese politicians insist on paying visits. This infuriates countries like South Korea and China that suffered at the hands of those war criminals. It’s part of Japan’s obtuse reticence about owning up to the evil it did. They don’t seem to realize confession is good for the soul. And it would be cheap confession: after all, hardly anyone responsible for the crimes is still around.

For crying out loud, come up with some fudge to get the war criminals out of Yasukuni; or just stop visiting there. Sheesh.

imagesSimilar story with Turkey and the 1915 Armenian genocide. Would it kill you to acknowledge this happened? “Not on our watch; it was those other guys, long ago, not even guys we liked; in fact, we rebelled against that bunch and threw them out.” But no; for reasons unfathomable to me, Turkey still balks, and makes it a crime even to talk about the Armenian genocide.

Then there’s the ever-troubling Macedonian question. What is the Macedonian question? The name. I kid you not. When Macedonia became a nation, upon the Yugoslav break-up, Greece objected to the name, as though the Macedonians were somehow stealing it because Alexander the Great, 2300 years ago, was Macedonian, and maybe these uppity new Macedonians were implying a claim to the part of Macedonia still in Greece. images-1Macedonia denied this, but the Greeks refused to be satisfied. For a while, the new country actually had to bear the ungainly name, “The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.” I’m not making any of this up. Anyway, 20 years later, Greece continues to bitch and make life hell for Macedonia.

If the Greeks won’t be reasonable, just change the damn name. Call it Nonmacedonia, Unmacedonia, Immacedonia, or something.

And somebody please remind me why I’m supposed to be an optimist.

“Nestor Chylak Killed Kennedy”

November 21, 2013
Nestor Chylak

Nestor Chylak

“Nestor Chylak killed Kennedy,” was a graffiti I found scratched on a wooden school desk almost 50 years ago. It lodged in my brain because it seemed to neatly satirize already rampant assassination conspiracy theories. I didn’t know who, if anyone, Nestor Chylak was. (A baseball umpire, I  just now learned by googling; he had no (known) connection to JFK.)

It’s easy to see why so many people disbelieve the official Warren Commission story. It does seem unlikely that such a messed up twerp like Oswald could have pulled off hitting a moving target so far distant. But the real joker in the deck was Jack Ruby, shooting Oswald on live TV (I was watching), defying reasonable (non-conspiracy) explanation.

Facts are the grist of the conspiracy mill; with bushels of them you can pick out a select few and string them together to concoct whatever tale you want. The JFK assassination entails bushels of facts, factlets, and factoids. And it becomes even easier when you include non-facts.

I recently heard radio interviews with authors of two new JFK conspiracy books. One said Nixon knew Ruby, who had worked for him during the HUAC days. The other said Ruby knew Oswald.

images-4Now, this sounded interesting. I haven’t read either book, so don’t know what evidence is adduced. But I do know “facts” can be asserted without genuine evidence. Anyway, it made me read a bit about Ruby, whose involvement had always seemed so puzzling. Well, his working for Nixon circa 1950 just makes no sense. At that time Ruby was a no-account nobody, a million miles from Washington or Nixon. His knowing Oswald also seems implausible because they inhabited totally different worlds.

What is true is that Ruby had contacts with some big mobsters. However, that all related to issues with the strip clubs Ruby ran. Meantime, he was such an unreliable low-life that it’s hard to imagine entrusting him with any role in some high level plot to kill the president. Or even Oswald.

Unknown-1So why on earth did Ruby shoot Oswald, if not to silence him and cover up some big conspiracy? That idea screams out at us; and yet, this would merely have substituted Ruby as the link to the conspiracy, as weak a link as Oswald himself. Again, if there were some deep conspiracy involving LBJ, the CIA, the Secret Service, the Mafia, etc., would they have relied upon such bozo creeps as Oswald and Ruby?

images-2And can we believe that all these necessary participants (it could not have been the work of just a few): a) agreed to join in such a great crime, with huge personal risk but in many cases nothing to gain; b) executed a convoluted plot so flawlessly that the most intensive of investigations failed to reveal it; c) which plot, incidentally, supposedly required several additional murders; and d) managed to keep all this secret over decades?

Read Tim Weiner’s book, Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA, and then consider whether such a huge government plot could have succeeded so masterfully and secretly.

images-3Sherlock Holmes said that once you’ve eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth. Oswald alone killed Kennedy with two lucky shots. Ruby killed Oswald in a bizarre act that cannot rationally be understood. That’s the improbable truth.

Albany Peace Project: Peace Through Magical Thinking

November 18, 2013

I recently reviewed Steven Pinker’s excellent book about why violence is declining. But one thing he failed to take into account was the power of wishing it.

My friend Frank Zollo alerted me to the local Albany Peace Project (APP; click here), pushing three of my buttons: pacifism, supernaturalism, and pseudoscience. A perfect trifecta. Unknown

I’m no war lover; I hate war. But I also hate pacifism because it’s an empty sanctimony that only serves to evade the real and difficult issues human conflict entails. As the one-time pacifist Christopher Hitchens eventually came to realize, there are things worth fighting for (and against); and pacifism would make the world safe for non-pacifists willing to use violence to gain their ends.

APP manages to compound the misguidedness of pacifism by adding paranormal nonsense and pseudoscience. APP is seeking participants “to meditate/pray/focus intention together for 15 minutes a day for the month of January 2014 while sending peaceful intentions to the City of Albany.” APP expects this will reduce crime rates, and plans to conduct research to document this. Its website says dozens of studies, many published in peer reviewed journals, suggest that meditation by a “small amount (sic) of people” positively affects an entire population.images

One example promin-ently discussed is a 9/11 10th anniversary “peace experiment” which was “especially beautiful” because “it began with a bilateral forgiveness ceremony.” Participants beamed “healing inten-tions” to lower violence in two Afghan provinces. And guess what? Attacks and casualties subsequently went down! Post hoc ergo propter hoc!

Translation: “after which, therefore because of which” — one of the commonest thinking errors. X happening after Y doesn’t mean Yimages-3 caused X. In the Afghan case, if violence decreased after the prayer fest, that doesn’t prove the latter caused it; you’d have to investigate what might have changed in the military/strategic situation. Duh.

A similar case discussed on APP’s website was Sri Lanka’s long vicious civil war, whose violence was allegedly reduced by a 2008 “peace intention experiment.” But possibly an intensive 2008-09 military offensive, that crushed the rebels, ended the war, and pacified the country, also had something to do with it.

APP cites a host of other studies, supposedly also documenting mental doings reducing violence. They are bogus, prima facie. images-6Invariably studies like this are shown to be faulty, often simply from the “post hoc ergo propter hoc” fallacy, as in the examples above, and sometimes from simple fraud. That was true of a famous study purporting to show that praying for heart patients improved their outcomes. It was phony. (So was a study claiming prayer helped in-vitro fertilization; one con man responsible went to prison.)

Much though people have long striven mightily to produce such a result, there has never been any scientifically valid evidence for any sort of extrasensory or paranormal phenomenon. Nothing happening in your brain can have any effects outside the confines of your skull. Period. Only actions can do so. images-1

I am an optimist and do believe that positive thinking leads to better action. But that’s not the same as wishful thinking. Belief that praying for peace will bring it about is wishful thinking. The world does not work that way. Unknown-1

Immortality, in Grass Processed Through a Horse’s Digestive System

November 16, 2013

I worked at the New York Public Service Commission from 1970 to 1997. Periodically we have retiree reunion lunches. It can feel like entering a time capsule. Some people seem not to age, or even to improve. At the latest gathering, one who was an old woman 20 years ago was actually looking so good that if I were single . . .  but maybe that just shows I’m getting old.

images-2A former colleague, Jeff, was reminiscing about how much fun we used to have back in the   day. To illustrate, he quoted a line from one of my own legal briefs, from 1977. It wasn’t even a case he’d worked on, yet he remembered it. Oddly enough, I’d recently stumbled on a copy of that very brief, and showed it to my daughter, to make the same point. Early in my career I had found it advantageous to be known for putting zingers in briefs — it got people to read them.

This one was actually my last as an advocate in the trenches; I’d already been named a judge. So I made the most of that final fling, firing away with all guns blazing, and had a fat target – the telephone company’s petition for rehearing on its rate case, re-arguing points already fully dealt with. imagesOne of them I labeled “grass processed through the digestive system of a horse.” I don’t know that that was really so clever, but nevertheless it did become kind of famous among old PSC hands – as evidenced by Jeff’s remembering the line 36 years later!

That – not any of my six books – is probably the only sort of immortality I’ll ever have.

If You Like Your Obamacare, You Can Keep It

November 11, 2013

Unknown-1The President repeatedly said that if you like your health plan, you can keep it (“no matter what,” he even added). He forgot to add: IF the government likes your plan too.

He says he “regrets” people being screwed because they relied on his words. It’s an “apology” akin to those saying, “I’m sorry if my remarks offended anyone” — not sorry about the words themselves, or admitting they were wrong — i.e., a non-apology.

So now all the millions with cancelled insurance are being told: your old plan wasn’t any good anyway, and the government will help you get a better one (once the website is fixed*).

Until then, Obamacare seems to mean more people losing insurance than gaining it. But the real story is the paternalism of government telling folks it knows their insurance needs better than they do, and the new plans will be better because they cover more. What about all those preferring a cheaper plan – cheaper, because it doesn’t cover so much? Tough luck. Government has decided every health plan must cover maternity care, for example; so even if you’re a sixty year old male, you’ve got to have (and pay for) a plan that covers maternity.

Unknown-2It’s another classic case of Liberal Disease: the belief that anything desirable should be required. So if it’s ideally nice for a health plan to cover maternity care, and much else, now it’s all required, for everybody, want it or not.

This is the syndrome responsible for lack of affordable housing. Apartments must meet so many rules and regulations for niceties, raising their cost, that simple cheap rooms the poorest can afford are unavailable. Likewise day care: providers must meet so many government requirements that there’s no cheap day care. And all these requirements were created by the same do-gooder liberals who bemoan the inevitable results, lack of affordable day care and housing. Now they’re doing the same for health insurance.

It was always clear that a key feature of Obamacare is to get insurance to lower-income people by having government (i.e., taxpayers**) subsidize it. So the affluent are paying for the non-affluent. Nothing new there. However, in addition – this is the sneaky part – the healthy are paying for the sick.

Unknown-3That’s what’s really going on with all the requirements for insurance plans. It’s not a “bug” that many folks are forced to pay for a lot of coverage they don’t need, it’s a design feature: another way of sucking money from some people to pay for the health care of others.

UnknownTrue, the very concept of an insurance pool is to spread risk. Everybody pays a little for fire insurance so that the occasional fire is covered. But the difference with Obamacare is that it isn’t voluntary. We don’t get to decide for ourselves whether to participate in this pooling of risk. We’re thrown into the pool.

The administration says that when the dust settles, many people will actually pay less for insurance. My wife was one whose plan was cancelled, and we did get another, through the New York website, a little cheaper. For now.

But the future viability of the whole Obamacare scheme depends on its working as hoped – that is, all the sheep obediently line up for shearing – all the young and healthy people sign up for more health coverage than they really need or want, in order to pay for all the older and sicker folks. imagesIf instead the insurance plans attract too few suckers***, they will hemorrhage money treating the old and sick, causing next year’s rates to rise substantially – thus attracting even fewer healthy young people. And so on, a vicious circle that unravels the whole thing.

* Rather than trying to fix it on the fly, wouldn’t it have made more sense to call a time-out and close the website temporarily for repairs?

** Or more borrowing from China.

*** Yes, there’s a penalty for non-insurance, but for most people it’s much less than the insurance cost. Also, the penalty is on your tax return, and query how well the severely understaffed IRS can police it – will they verify that people claiming to be insured really are?

Carl Strock: Telling It Like It Is

November 7, 2013

thCarl Strock was a local newspaper columnist in Schenectady, NY, whose career ended badly. He then self-published a book reviewing it. The kind of book only relatives and friends would buy, and few would read — you might think.

Well, think again. And go straight to his website and buy the book (From D’burg to Jerusalem). It’s terrific.

Actually, it might be kind of depressing, because Strock presents a parade of stupidity, cupidity, injustice, scandal, hypocrisy, and all-around awfulness — but written with such drollery it’s a joy to read.

Take the Schenectady Police Department — please. In the film, The Place Beyond the Pines, those cops came off pretty badly. The reality was worse, as Strock details. Unknown(Crime rates among police officers are higher than for the general population. Unfortunately, too often police work attracts the wrong sort.)

Strock hates injustice — especially when perpetrated by the justice system itself, again all too often. One target is family court, and child protective services (so-called). images-2While we obsess about the largely imaginary danger of children snatched by strangers, government agencies snatching them is actually common. After some horror stories of children abused while government did nothing, social service people are now so terrified of this they’re quick to take kids away from parents on the slightest suspicion. This means putting them in foster care with strangers — which statistics prove far more likely to result in harm than parental custody. As Strock shows, the system is so screwed up that all this “child protection” hurts more kids than it helps.

Unknown-1Similar story with the “animal welfare” folks. Strock tells of a cat lover finding some abandoned kittens. The SPCA wouldn’t help. Some were already dead, the last two in such bad shape the guy had to put them out of their misery by drowning. Next thing you know he’s prosecuted for animal cruelty; most of his own cats are taken away, to a “shelter” to protect them from this monster — meaning they are killed. Excuse me, “euthanized.” The SPCA defends this as “humane.” Strock notes that meanwhile the state government positively encourages people to go out in the woods and shoot defenseless animals, often left to die agonizing deaths. Humane?

And remember the nationwide witch-hunt some time back about child sex abuse? The “recovered memory” game? All bogus. In the famous McMartin day care case, none of the lurid allegations was true. None. Therapists and police investigators planted all that nonsense in the minds of suggestible young children. But there, and elsewhere, a lot of innocent people had their lives ruined.

One was Jack Carroll, a local case Strock also discusses. The case against him (abusing his step-daughter) was obviously garbage. But an egregious prosecutor, Patricia DeAngelis, got a jury to convict him. When that was overturned on appeal, DeAngelis prosecuted Carroll on new charges, resulting in an even longer prison term.

Similarly disgraceful was the “terrorism” convictions of two local Muslims, Aref and Hossain, which I’ve previously mentioned. Carl does a great job showing how wrong this was.

He also takes on religion. He doesn’t think the idea that non-Christians will (should) burn in Hell reflects “Christian love.” After mercilessly exposing creationist bunk, he got challenged to a public debate on that topic. images-1I went to it — or tried to; we couldn’t get in because a home-schooled fundamentalist army arrived early to monopolize the seats. Strock is candid about his performance — a fiasco. His opponent was Jay Wile, a practiced creationist propagandist. And (as Strock notes) their religion doesn’t keep such people from shamelessly lying. It’s easy to lose a debate to someone who just makes up facts.

But Strock’s book is full of useful facts. Like the Bible instructing (Deuteronomy 13:6-10) that you should kill someone images-3trying to convert you to a different religion.  I’ll have to remember that next time Mormon proselytizers come knocking.

Then there was our very own local divine, Kateri, who died in 1680 but supposedly miraculously healed a child’s flesh-eating bacterial infection in 2006, thus qualifying her for sainthood. Unknown-2In all the fawning press coverage, Strock was apparently the only journalist who thought of calling the hospital to get the facts. Turns out the kid actually was saved by the most intensive of medical efforts; but not without horrible facial disfigurement. Thanks a lot, Saint Kateri (and you too, God).

Throughout, Strock never quailed from naming names. Many are covered with shame. Strock (unlike me!) was never sued for libel. But still, one wonders, how did he get away with it all? Well, in the end, he didn’t:

Strock wrote about his visit to Israel; going with no preconceptions, as a tourist, he was surprised by what he observed. I’ll put it this way: Israel’s relations with the Arabs under its jurisdiction don’t do it proud. Perhaps Carl was (as usual) a bit indelicate (OK, insulting) in some portrayals. But his characterizations of Israeli/Palestinian realities were basically honest reporting. Yet Carl got labeled anti-semitic — a false accusation far more incendiary than anything Carl said about Israel and Jews. It got so bad he was even connected to the stupid “death ray plot” I’ve written about. Anyhow, it seems odd that after all Carl’s remorseless lampooning of Christianity, it was umbrage in Jewish quarters that ultimately ended his career. He wasn’t actually fired, but put in a doghouse so incommodious he felt obliged to quit.

The final lesson? America is not perfect. But a country where a Carl Strock could do what he did for 25 years, at least, is a pretty great country.

Jonathan Franzen’s “Freedom”

November 3, 2013

Jonathan Franzen’s first significant novel, The Twenty-Seventh City, was pushed at me by my librarian wife. imagesI was impressed by a writer so young (mid-twenties then) having such insight into people. (Lack of same made me give up writing fiction.)

He did it again in The Corrections, an even more humanly intimate book. Franzen isn’t just trying to write novels like other writers nowadays do. Theirs may often be piquant, clever, entertaining, deep, even brilliant. But Franzen strives to do what Tolstoy, Flaubert, and Proust did.

His latest big opus, Freedom, even has a nod to Tolstoy. UnknownIt’s basically a triangle story: the marriage of Walter and Patty, with Richard the third leg. If there’s an overall theme, it’s conveyed by the tendentious title. It’s free will: people making choices and (of course) not always good ones. Part of the book takes the form of a long autobiographical essay by Patty, entitled “Mistakes Were Made.” Her biggest mistake was what she then did with that manuscript.

We always read such books, in part, as self-evaluation. And I was struck by the contrast between the sheer complexity of what was going on with Franzen’s characters and the uncomplicatedness of my own family situation. images-2I was even moved to discuss this with my wife. Sometimes I feel I’m a monument of self-satisfied complacency. I did, long ago now, have a more tortuous relationship with a woman; indeed, it still feels like I’m in the calm after a storm; yet not even that storm entailed the labyrinthine quality of Franzen’s story.

Maybe a novelist like him could portray me as papering over some inner snakepit of turmoil and pathology. But I don’t feel it.

Unknown-1This book is full of politics. Walter is a deeply earnest Minnesota liberal tree-hugger (bird-hugger, actually). From the start I found myself hearing his lines with the voice of Garrison Keillor doing his semi-loser character phoning his mother. That voice proved pitch-perfect throughout the novel.

Walter vents his societal and environmental concerns, with such passion and eloquence that you’d suppose Franzen is expressing his own views. Yet I wasn’t quite convinced this is not in fact a devilish send-up of people like Walter. While it’s obvious Franzen truly loathed Bush II and the Iraq War, otherwise there’s something a bit off about Walter’s rants. There’s a delicious set-piece where Walter and his assistant (and lover-to-be) try to enlist borderline rock-star Richard in an anti-population crusade, with Walter’s windy speeches punctuated with neatly puncturing one-liners from Richard.

It reminded me of a great scene in The Corrections where a young lefty college prof belabors a standard anti-corporate diatribe – whose foolishness a student then deftly disembowels. And Freedom contains one telling line about liberal denial of reality that no Walterian liberal could have penned.

Unknown-2Especially over-the-top was an episode that only occurs in novels and movies – Walter’s speech at a corporate shindig going wildly off-message blurting his true subversive beliefs. Having him zoned out on medication is the author’s pretext, but it’s a thin one. And did he portray Walter bellowing that humanity is “a cancer on the planet” because he, Franzen, believes such stuff, or to show what nuttiness Walterian thinking can lead to?

The book reaches a satisfying ending. I won’t be a spoiler with too much specificity. But it does illustrate the theme of free will – we have the capability of acting, taking our fates in our own hands. Reading the penultimate section, I was pounding the page, exhorting Patty, “You should just go and . . . .”

And then she does.