Thursday, December 30, 2010

Transitions

Our home of 19 years has finally sold; we settled into our new home earlier this last summer. I stopped by to say goodbye to the old place yesterday. Below are some pictures of the old home:




The home was newly constructed when we purchased it but I began remodeling it immediately, adding custom features and the Japanese garden landscaping. We were pleased to find out that the new owner had lived in Japan for several years; we are certain they will appreciate the garden and pond.

If you are curious to see more photos of the garden, you can view them here. And a chronicle of my remodeling efforts can be seen here.

We are looking forward to living in our new home which has adequate space for our children and grand children and out-of-town visitors to stay.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Dust in the Wind

Senate Republicans attempted to filibuster the bill but the “9/11 First Responders Health Care Bill” was passed by the Senate this month and the president is expected to sign it into law. Republicans, philosophically opposed to increasing the Deficit, were cornered into looking like the Grinch who stole Christmas through their opposition for the bill which provides medical coverage, to the tune of $4.3 billion, for September 11th emergency response workers.

The underlying claim is that, in working continuously around the toxic dust and chemicals surrounding the collapsed World Trade Center buildings, emergency responders have suffered a myriad of health related issues. It certainly is not a stretch to conclude that asthma and other pulmonary conditions could result from working in such conditions. However, it appears that pretty much any and all health issues arising with emergency responders working at the site, such as cancer, are now being tied to those hazardous conditions.

I recall the years of litigation regarding the Dow-Corning and the leaking silicone breast implants. Women were claiming a broad range of illnesses on the defective product. Dow paid out millions of dollars in damages after losing their case in court. However subsequent studies have since shown that the illnesses claimed by the women occur no more frequently in the implant recipients than in the general population at large who did not receive the implants.

Though scientific advances in detecting and curing cancer have increased in recent years, various cancers are still one of the largest causes of death in our society. How are we to objectively evaluate that all the claims of diseases suffered by the 9/11 first responders stem directly from their working at the World Trade Center site?

Science will take a back seat to emotional appeals, in this situation, as the "heroes" we all love to love ask of us to acknowledge their sacrifice. But in the run-up to this legislation, I have not seen any independent studies which compare the types of diseases (excluding pulmonary related) claimed from the WTC site exposure and comparing them to the prevalence of the same diseases in the general population.
"Doctors aren't sure, though, exactly how many people are ill, and scientific doubt persists about just how many of the hundreds of illnesses are actually linked to the trade center dust. Doctors still don't know whether there is any connection between the dust and potentially fatal illnesses like cancer" 1
The political irony here is that police and fire fighters generally tend to lean politically conservative and usually support Republican candidates. During the upcoming election cycles I hope these workers remember which party was the one arguing AGAINST their interests.

For me, the bottom line is that the controversy over this bill would be completely unnecessary were we to have in place a National Health Care System which would take care of ALL sick people, whatever their cause or reason. Why do a few select Americans, who by the way chose a hazardous profession, get to have their health care covered and not their fellow citizens who worked in fields or factories or have simply had the unfortunate luck of having been a victim of probability? Who in Congress speaks for these "heroes"?
The legislation is named for James Zadroga, a police detective who died at age 34. His supporters say he died from respiratory disease contracted at ground zero, but New York City's medical examiner said Zadroga's lung condition was caused by prescription drug abuse. 1
1. 9/11 First Responders Health Care Bill Faces Key Test Vote In Senate - Huffington Post, December 24, 2010

Friday, December 24, 2010

A Christmas Song

My hope is for you all to be blessed by being among loving family and friends this holiday. Enjoy!


Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Myth of Internet Privacy


“Most people do not know they are being tracked, and they aren’t given a choice whether to be tracked or to have their online behavior and personal information shared with large networks of advertisers.” – Nancy King, associate professor of business law, Oregon State University
In my final article about the “hidden” internet I will uncover what most of us probably already know – that we are being watched and profiled, not by a nefarious Big Brother government but by private commercial interests. Our browsing, searching and purchasing habits are being tracked, tabulated and targeted.

Most of us know that “cookies” are placed on our computer hard drives when we visit a web site. These bits of code identify us as return visitors and record what we looked at and how long we dwelled on a particular site. This information is also sent to companies which compile this information and sell it to advertisers to target us for marketing pitches based on our purported interests.

Many of us believe that we can disable or delete cookies, but many sites require them enabled in order to use certain sites. And deleting them is of no protection when the information is passed on to a third party. Beyond cookies there are also “beacons” which run on some of the web sites we browse. Because the Beacons reside on the remote site rather than our hard drives, their information collection activities are beyond our reach or control.

Nancy King quoted above warns that there is little in the way of legal protections over our privacy and even scant less governmental oversight with respect to e-commerce and data collection. It is the Wild West out there and business interests seem limited by only what they can get away with.

In some cases this information can be good, sending information out way that we may not need to search for. But a vast majority of consumers do not realize they are being tracked, who is tracking them and what the information is used for. Recently one of my readers was unaware that their IP address can give away their geographic location. Try for yourself: http://www.ip2location.com/

Laws are scant, having not kept up with new technology. Government wire taping restrictions were written for the times when we all had telephones connected via wires to our homes and offices. It is a Brave New World out there and the laws regarding how technologies have not kept up. (1)Wireless connections themselves can open up more opportunities for surveillance and exploitation.

Unfortunately we cannot look to government to protect our interests with respect to Internet privacy; oversight has been recently undermined by the FCC recently adopting business recommendations allowing businesses to disregard (2)Net Neutrality.
Instead of a rule to protect Internet users' freedom to choose, the Commission has opened the door for broadband payola - letting phone and cable companies charge steep tolls to favor the content and services of a select group of corporate partners, relegating everyone else to the cyber-equivalent of a winding dirt road.~ Timothy Karr
Read Nancy King’s full article in the Corvallis Oregon Gazette Times, “A Matter of Privacy”

~~~

1. “ Google says mistakenly got wireless data.”Reuters, May 15, 2010

2. “Net Neutrality is the freedom of speech, freedom of choice issue of the 21st century. It's the guarantee of a more open and democratic media system that was baked into the Internet at its founding.” ~ Obama FCC Caves on Net Neutrality -- Tuesday Betrayal Assured, Timothy Karr, Huffington Post, December 20, 2010.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

The Myth of the Democratic Internet

Following on the heels of my last post about the problem of sorting factual from dubious sources of information on the Internet, there is another pervasive myth about the World Wide Web – that it represents an exemplar of free exchange of ideas and is, potentially, an engine for world democracy. It ain’t necessarily so.

A few months back I had posted links to two videos of interviews with former US President, Bill Clinton. Several of my readers outside the US told me they were unable to view these – access from outside the US was being blocked.

In the uproar over the recent Wikileaks controversy, Reuters reported that “The U.S. Air Force has blocked employees from visiting media websites carrying leaked WikiLeaks documents, including The New York Times and the Guardian…” Note – it was not access to WickLeaks that was being blocked but access to public news sources where one could find articles about WikiLeaks.

Yes, the Air Force, like any employer, does have the right to control how their “employees” use their information technology. But the blowback against Wikileaks has been quite revealing. The entities controlling their domain registration and web hosting, bowing to outside pressure, pulled the plug effectively shutting down the site. PayPal and Amazon discontinued their financing connections making it difficult or impossible for Wikileaks to receive funding.

China, a huge engine for emerging Capitalism, has reminded us that they are also still a totalitarian state. Propaganda minister Li Changchun, after Googling his own name and finding information he didn’t particularly like, forced Google to shut down their China based servers. It has long been known that Chinese citizens are unable access information about Chinese dissidents, pro-democracy sites or even accessing any information about the massacre at Tiananmen Square.

Google “Internet Censorship” and one can find any number of organizations deeply concerned freedom to access the Internet. But censorship, control and manipulation of the Internet is not solely a government intrusion. The private commercial companies who provide access, connectivity and content have a strong hand in what flows through the web. The issue of “Net Neutrality” has been lobbied and debated in the halls of Congress. Business interests would dearly love to institute tiered charges for access, promote favored products and services over less profitable, or even completely block or deny access to information they deem for whatever reason.

The technology enabling censorship is remarkably simple. Having been a network technician in my previous occupation, I know how, with simple mouse clicks within Firewalls and Routers, how to divert, block and reroute information traffic. It is common practice now to routinely obtain your precise geographical location from the IP (Internet Protocol) address of your computer or phone.

Google, of course, has made billions of dollars by charging for prioritizing search results using applications such as AdWords and AdSense which offer pay-per-click services to businesses.

Can you trust that what you search for on the Internet today return the best possible results? The answer is No. There are growing numbers of entities with vested interests to protect and the means for controlling what we are able to access. The issue surrounding the controversy about WikiLeaks is but one example. The more frightening prospects are the censorship we don’t know about.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Truth, Lies and the Internet

Last year I had the dubious pleasure of serving on the board of directors of a Home Owner’s Association (HOA). Normally the administrative functions of the board are rather mundane but occasionally there is that one unique person who likes to keep things interesting.

After having conducted exhaustive research on the internet, this individual felt confident leveling charges against the board of directors that his children’s “asthma-like” symptoms could be squarely blamed on the chemicals applied to the lawns by the association’s landscape contractor. Apparently his children were immune to the dander of their three cats and two dogs in the household.

Gaining no traction in his effort to go “organic” and have the landscape crew pull weeds by hand, he conducted a daring propaganda blitz, skittering around the neighborhood in the dead of night leaving fliers under the door mats of his neighbors in an attempt to warn them of the conspiracy being perpetrated by the nefarious board of directors and their gardening storm troopers.

In public view, he became stoic and civil member of the Landscape Committee, lobbying his evidence to the committee chair – a man whose profession is as a water quality scientist. However, Landscape Poison Crusader, a computer technician by trade, was undeterred; armed with “facts” gleaned from web sites, the noble activist assailed the committee studies of how these chemicals caused cancer, allergies, birth defects and any number of horrible health risks.

But the committee chair politely responded with his own Internet research explaining that the landscape products were all approved by federal, state and municipal authorities for application by professional state-licensed technicians in accordance with manufacturer recommendations. And it was pointed out as well that the intrepid health crusader didn’t seem to mind his children swimming in the community pool… sanitized with equally deadly chemicals.

More recently a member of our local Secular Society became the focus of a rant who is convinced that that the 19 hijackers who struck the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11th are alive and well and living abroad and that these acts of terrorism were the work of the CIA to instigate a Bush-lead “Gulf of Tonkin” style pretext for war on Islam. Their source: “credible” Internet web sites.

Today it is possible to instantly retrieve information on any topic imaginable. But sometimes lost in this information cloud is; how much of this information is truthful and useful? I usually try to cite sources when I offer information and opinions; but I am not immune to falling into my own positional bias. We all tend to look for information sources which support our view and discard those which do not.

I the case of the 9/11 conspiracy theorist, this person sought sites which supported their view; dismissing the “official” information as tainted, propaganda, lies. So then how is one to sort out and choose which information to trust and which not? The most direct way is to “consider the source”.

I have sometimes sought health information on the Internet. To my annoyance, often the sites bearing information about, let’s say a vitamin supplement; also provide the opportunity to purchase the item as well. That immediately sets off my credibility alarm. Likewise the sites themselves can provide clues of inherent bias. I’m not sure but a URL with “poisonplanet.com” just might be lacking what one could consider an objective stance. Nancy often restricts her search of health information to known sources such as the CDC or the Mayo Clinic, for example.

But as with 9/11 conspiracy “truth” sites, one can find substantiation that the Holocaust was a hoax, as was the moon landing. One can Googled up evidence that Big Foot stalks the woods of the Pacific Northwest and people are routinely abducted in their sleep by alien spacecraft which perpetrate any manner of probing of their bodies. Who would have known that, remarkably, aliens from millions of light years away are fascinated with our anuses.

Still one cannot be too complacent; dangerous risks all around us. Each of you reading this post may not be aware that the compound Dihydrogen Monoxide (DHMO) is being used heavily in YOUR community every day. DHMO is used in fire retardant and as a coolant in nuclear reactors yet it is found in large quantities in our drinking water, rivers; it is even found in acid rain! Be safe – be informed – visit the non-profit Dihydrogen Monoxide Research Division www.dhmo.org before it’s too late!

Friday, December 10, 2010

The Mouse that Roared

The photo at the left is of a sprung mouse trap found two rooms away from where I had set and placed it; the yummy peanut butter on the trigger completely gone.

The back story: Some sort of little rodent had recently chosen to take up squatting in our vacant house which we have up for sale. Since squinty-eyed little vermin are not a particularly attractive selling feature for a home on the market, the little visitor(s) would need to vacate.

After finding evidence (droppings) around the parameter of the kitchen floor, and bits of chewed insulation from the garage door, I purchased a few of the cheap garden-variety mouse traps, bated them with peanut butter and placed them at strategic locations around the house.

I had every confidence that I could catch the offending rodent as my major in college had been Biology; particularly excelling in Vertebrate Natural History and Mammalogy. I had been on numerous expeditions in the field where I had trapped any number of small mammals including rats, squirrels, bats, mice even a nutria once. My university level knowledge on animal Ethology and the natural history of small mammals would surely be of practical use now after a 32 year career in banking, information technology and social services.

Unfortunately it appeared that the rodents had also availed themselves of studying the predatory habits of Homo sapiens likely in an effort to ensure their survival. For when I returned to check for trapped rodents, I found all the traps sprung and devoid of their bait; the one pictured having been carried victoriously down the hall and displayed as vengeful mocking.

In reexamining the animal’s droppings evidence again I noted that they seemed rather large for a mouse. Perhaps my quarry was larger, perhaps the Dusky-footed Woodrat (Neotoma fuscipes) which I had so successfully trapped in my college days. Clearly what were called for were larger traps.

However, the following morning, one of the large traps had again been sprung, the other, carefully avoided. When I related my lack of success to Nancy, she drew on her Psychology degree and extensive research in college with rats, reminding me that the animal had now been “conditioned” to avoid the traps. This concept ran through the crevices of my brain like a maze – of course... rats had the capacity to “learn”! A strategy would be needed.

The game between the rats has now escalated. I recalled having had previous success with “sticky” traps”; little plastic pans with gooey jelly which ensnares the little buggers. I placed these adjacent to paper plates of enticing peanut butter. But yet again the following morning, the traps remained untouched and the peanut butter uneaten.

At this point Nancy suggested that we call an exterminator. Indignantly I refused; I was not about to let an expensive college education go to waste – I became even more determined to catch that rat.

By this point I had been invested in increasingly costly trap solutions; my military budget required expansion. I obtained a “Rat Zapper”; a trap which lures the rodent into a small box at point it is dispatched via a huge jolt of electricity. The zapper instructions recommended that the bait, resembling dog food, be placed nearby the un-set trap for one or two nights prior to turning on the lethal current. The strategy: to build up a sense of confidence in the little pest so that it would let down its guard, enter the zapper and…

I placed the zapper trap and spread out the delectable fare to attract the little monster. However the next day the bait remained untouched; likewise the second and third days as well. I also noticed there were no longer droppings in the house. Had my quarry decided to move on to more sumptuous digs?

The rat and I decided to mutually retain our dignities ending the the conflict in a truce.

Monday, December 6, 2010

The Myth of Franken-Foods

My friend Will was proudly showing me his new big/flat screen TV purchase the other day. With regard to operating the remote, he is still on the uphill side of the learning curve, however he was soon flipping through the myriad of channels. The picture quality was exquisite. At one point the channel surfing landed on one of those science archeological reenactment programs about the ancient indigenous Americans and their simple agrarian villages in pre-historic North America. The scene we watched was a beautiful Indian maiden harvesting huge ears of “maize” from a primitive field roughly 10,000 years ago. But something was majorly wrong with this picture – Corn back than was about the size of your thumb with gnarly irregular kernels, not the big yellow sweet buttery corn-on-the-cob of modern summer BBQs.

Corn has been modified by humans over centuries where today there exist about a thousand varieties – corn varieties selected for starch content, for popcorn, for animal feed. In fact, one of the country’s largest crops, the corn grown for making high fructose corn syrup, is completely inedible. Most consumers don’t realize that all the produce we enjoy today has been modified by human hands through selective cross-fertilization and hybridization from their original wild forms. There were no Fuji or Granny Smith apples, no Thompson Seedless or Red Flame grapes, cherry tomatoes or tender asparagus until agriculture scientists, and very cleaver amateurs, selectively crafted them.

Recently a judge ordered that several crops of genetically-modified beets be destroyed. The concern was over the environmental “safety” of these crops possibly inadvertently seeding other nearby fields. But often, when the skin is peeled back from these controversies, the core issues are economic, not food safety. Patent and intellectual property concerns – It’s who “owns” the patent on that crop.

Most of the public do not realize that a sizable amount of the food they consume today, both fresh and processed is at least partially genetically modified. Genetic Engineering involves using a micro-pipette and microscope to lift individual genes responsible for some specific trait and placing that gene in another plant. It is a technological advance no less remarkable than open heart surgery or satellite imaging.

Recently I asked my father-in-law Melvin, a retired professor of Agriculture from Oregon State University, how they used to develop crop plant hybrids at the university a few short decades ago. “We would take plant seeds and radiate them x-rays”, he told me. “About 99% of the seeds were destroyed by the radiation, but the few that survived we would plant and see what mutations developed in the growing plant.” Selecting for the few beneficial mutations was simply a game of odds back then; a hit-and-miss proposition. Occasionally they got lucky and a mutation turned out to be beneficial. They then would try to propagate that beneficial trait into a new plant species.

Scientists would also discover natural plant mutations in the wild. They would collect these plants, graft or hybridize them with other plant species. The successful progeny of these modified plants would find their way into commercial orchards, fields and nurseries. One of the most beautiful trees I had in my garden was a flowering crab apple tree which Mel hybridized from a species which had a natural immunity from a form of disease called Pseudomonas.

The term “genetically modified” or “genetically engineered” brings forth images in people’s minds of dangerous and toxic “unnatural” substances potentially poisoning our bodies. In reality the only thing that has changed is the technology used to selectively manipulate the evolution of plant species. Man has done this for thousands of years; and with animals as well. There were no prehistoric cows, goats, pigs, chickens, until man selectively bred domestication into wild species.

No studies have found any health risks to the consuming public from foods modified by modern genetic engineering over the analog hybridization that has been done by hand over the millennia. We are far more at risk from our eating habits than from the foods themselves that we eat.

Patent #PP4591 - Autumn Blaze Pear
September 9, 1980
Melvin N. Westwood, PhD
Oregon State University

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Red Rock Lodge

Nancy’s lineage reads like pages from a Zane Gray Western Novel. Her mother grew up in Santa Fe on a ranch; the ranch is now a tourist attraction. Nancy's dad was likewise raised on a farm in Moab Utah. His grandfather, Nancy’s great grandfather, was the local sheriff during the era of the real Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and the “Hole-in-the-wall gang” with which great grandfather had a couple run-ins with. But I’ll save those stories for a future post.

Nancy’s grandfather, Howard Shields, was an enterprising man. Ranching was hard work for low pay. Noticing there were no plumbers in Santa Fe, Howard acquired the necessary skills and soon set up a plumbing shop. During WWII, the government set up some sort of odd research laboratory in nearby Los Alamos. There was a flurry of construction going on at this facility which nobody quite knew what it was for. In any event, they needed a good plumber and so Howard got the job.

Again, why the government would want to build some kind of base in the nowhere part of New Mexico desert was a mystery. Even more puzzling was that Howard noticed that most of the people there spoke a lot of different foreign languages. It wasn’t until sometime later after the war that Howard realized he had been the “official” plumber for the Manhattan Project.

Howard moved to Moab where his daughter Wanda met her then-to-be Nancy’s father, Melvin. Howard had done well in the plumbing business and so had purchased some land in Moab. He built a trailer park, Laundromat and a motel, the Red Rock Lodge.

Moab is situated in some of the most scenic region of the United States; most notably, Arches National Park is just outside of town. The Colorado River cuts through the red rock canyons there winding its way on to the Grand Canyon. To decorate the motel, Howard and a friend located a small natural sandstone arch somewhere out in the desert which they promptly dug up, loaded onto a trailer, and planted in the front of the motel. I guess nothing says Red Rock Lodge better than a red rock arch outside the motel office. You couldn’t pull off a stunt like that today, without running afoul of the law.

In the 1950’s and 60’s, Arches, Canyon lands, Monument Valley and other beautifully scenic locations were the backdrop for cowboy and western movies. Directors such John Houston brought their casts and crew to these locations to shoot some of the classic westerns in cinema history. Needing a place to house the actors and crew, The Red Rock Lodge was a favorite of director John Houston and cowboy actors such as John Wayne, Jack Elam, and others.

When Nancy was a little girl the family would vacation with relatives in Moab every summer and would often help Howard with remodeling projects at the motel. One day Howard and Nancy’s father, Mel, were installing the latest new enhancement to motel technology – air conditioning. They knocked on the door of John Wayne’s room asking permission to install one of the new air conditioners. Wayne warned the pair that they should start instead with Mr. Houston’s room; the temperamental director apparently was even more so when he was too hot. Wayne figured it would be a hell of a lot easier on the cast and crew shooting in the desert on location if Houston got his air conditioning before the rest of them.

Howard and his wife Lena sold the plumbing business, Laundromat and finally the motel and retired in comfort to a house Howard built a near the motel. For years Howard and Lena Shields received cards and letters from some of the biggest stars in western films.

Both Howard and Lena died a few years ago but the Red Rock Lodge is still in Moab, catering now to an upscale clientele of mountain bikers who have descended on the red rock trails of Arches National Park.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

We the People?

A while back an acquaintance of mine, a professor of Political Science at Oregon State University (no longer there) admitted to me that he doesn’t vote. I was taken aback; dumbstruck to hear such a statement from someone whose academic career was based on the study of the political process. He went on to explain that the real political forces are the lobbyists and Special Interest Groups which control an overwhelming majority of the policy making in Washington and state governments. Voting, he explained, was simply to lend an “air of legitimacy” to the perception of the democratic process. Elections are nothing more than political theater giving us the illusion of self-governance.

Likely many of us who yield to our cynicism have suspected such is the case; but we tend to hold at least some brief hope that our elected officials serve with some sense of the greater good. In our hearts we don’t REALLY want to believe that a “quid pro quo” exists between our elected officials and certain individuals, groups or businesses interests which grease their campaign machines.

But recently what glimmer of hope in the integrity of our political process was thoroughly extinguished after reading an interview with recently California governor-elect Jerry Brown by Skeptic Magazine.

Brown comes from a generational political family; his father was governor back in the days when my father was employed by the State of California. Jerry Brown, like Bill Clinton, is an extremely knowledgeable and astute practitioner of the gamesmanship which is this country’s the political game.

As my political science professor friend revealed to me, and as further confirmed through this interview with Jerry Brown, “The People” have little true participation in the governmental process. The mere 40% who turned out to vote in the recent elections appear to be essentially the willing pawns of powers they neither recognize nor understand. The Tea Baggers are the most obvious; but Brown’s revealing exposure of the truth behind who truly wields power over our republic is discouraging and revealing. But it likely confirms what many of us have suspected for some time.

Not just for American audiences, this expose’ I on American politics likely pertains to other Western parliamentary and constitutional democracies as well. The link is below – it’s a sobering read:
We the People?
Jerry Brown on Money, Politics,and Who Really Runs America

an interview by Frank Miele - Skeptic.com, e-Skeptic, Nov. 11, 2010

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Thanksgiving - The Feast and the Beast

Let’s make this clear; Thanksgiving is my least favorite holiday. The main focus of Thanksgiving revolves around food. I know many people are very excited about food – I am not one of them. I don’t really care for turkey all that much; the dark meat is OK but the white meat is usually dry. I don’t care for gravy or stuffing and I prefer the mashed potatoes that you fix from a dry powder out of a box.

As a kid Thanksgiving was usually yet another way for my father to give thanks for the invention of alcohol. Most of our relatives spent only one Thanksgiving with us due to my father’s addiction. He would start out as a jovial drunk but as the evening progressed his mood would evolve to dire, then downright evil. Most holidays concluded with my mother crying. As a result, after a few years, we had cycled through our complete list of aunts and uncles, parents, eventually falling back on “close friends” until pretty much nobody was left who wanted to spend Thanksgiving with my parents, sister and me.

Adding to the horror was that Mom was a horrible cook. She believed any food item could, and should, be prepared in a pressure cooker. Turkey, fortunately, didn’t fit in the pressure cooker, so it was baked in the oven until it was akin to parchment stretched tightly over bird bones. The potatoes, though, were rendered to their basic molecular components in the pressure cooker. Vegetables of any sort came from a can and were merely heated. I won’t even try to describe Mom’s dressing least I become ill before finishing this post.

Fast-forward to my adult years; Nancy is an EXCELLENT cook. She has cooked professionally in Mexican and French restaurants and was a sorority house cook at one time. She quit the sorority because the rich little college girls didn’t want to give her a raise. Within two months they hired her back – with a raise. Even the stuff I don’t particularly like, I like when she makes it. And she loves Thanksgiving – so my gift to her is I turn the entire holiday over to her and I handle the cocktails.

One year Nancy, her friend and I were invited to Thanksgiving at my sister’s a house two hour drive away. Sister advised us to plan to arrive around Noon. We arrived at the appointed time, hungry having not had lunch; fully expecting a hot brown turkey to be removed from the oven after a short visit and cocktails in the living room. However, to our horror, my sister announced as she took our coats: “Well, I had probably better get that turkey into the oven.” Nancy, friend and looked at each other; our jaws agape.

After starting the turkey cooking, my sister brought out a dish of crackers to enjoy with our cocktails… the three of us devoured them by the handful; we tussled over the bowl. I have recollection of one of us possibly upending the bowl directly to our mouth. In any event, in seconds the crackers were gone! Bits of cheese and bread sticks disappeared as quickly as my sister placed them on the coffee table. We managed to hold our hunger at bay for the hours it took for the turkey to be done.

A few years later it was our turn to host family Thanksgiving. It was decided that I would BBQ a turkey. I am quite the master at BBQ, I say humbly. I set up the grill with the charcoal and water pan to exacting specifications, lit the fire. For entertainment while waiting for the turkey to cook, I had set up two computers with “Duke Nukem” and my brother-and-law and I commenced to game against one another on the two machines. For those of you who are not familiar with computer gaming; one of the pitfalls of this activity is a form of “time dilation” – that is: the further one immerses oneself in the game, the slower time passes.

I can clearly state that I was completely ignorant of how much time had passed when I heard Nancy call me from the kitchen asking why there was “so much smoke coming from the BBQ?” Dashing outside I lifted the lid; turkey burst immediately into “backdraft” as flames leapt feet into the November sky. There before me was a blackened hull of a turkey, devoid of little edible meat. Fortunately, my brilliant wife had prepared a “back-up” turkey using the conventional oven method. Thanksgiving was saved.

The next day after returning my daughter back to her college dorm room, she ran ahead of me down the hallway loudly announcing to all her friends that “… dad set the turkey on fire”! (Remember, Kara?)

Today Nancy’s son and our son-in-law are both vegetarians. One year we tried cooking a “Tofu-Turkey”. This is an idea which is good only in concept. After that one experiment, our vegetarian family members seem quite thankful for veggie riblets and garden burgers.

We are hosting Thanksgiving again this year in our new house. I offered to BBQ pork ribs but Nancy soundly rejected the idea. I will stick to the arena of Thanksgiving in which I excel: cocktails.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

TSA Porn

During WWII one of the many vexing problems facing the Allies was countering the devastating effects of German U-boat attacks on merchant and war ships. To effectively minimize the toll German U-boats were exacting on Allied shipping, they needed to be located and destroyed before they could execute their attacks. But the U-boats could be anywhere; crisscrossing the entire Atlantic in search of them was out of the question. Considering the vastness of the Atlantic Ocean, how could the Allies hope to find what were essentially needles in a haystack?

Out of this dilemma came the science of Operations Research; an interdisciplinary mathematical model which would predict the “most likely probability of near optimal solutions to decision-making problems”. Using science, Allied anti-sub warfare effectively reduced the U-boat threat without having to resort to systematically searching every square mile of the Atlantic Ocean.

Recently there has been a rising public uproar over the latest, and more invasive, passenger screening processes; the full body scanners and hand pat-downs of passengers who do not want to be subjected to the “revealing” scans. Pilots are complaining as well citing the logical conundrum that they are already in command of the aircraft; the need for a bomb or gun is completely irrelevant should a pilot decide to use an aircraft as a destructive instrument.

Those objecting to the new screening techniques are reminded that passengers enjoy no constitutional right to fly on commercial aircraft. But in this controversy one major question is being overlooked: are these increased security measures truly increasing air travel security? Most people might argue that checking every single passenger for risk is the most thorough screening possible; but is this the most effective procedure to ensure airline security, and at what cost? Long lines, aggravated passengers and wasted dollars are clearly the result of the current methodology.

One solution might be to apply the science of Operations Research to the problem – using probability analysis to target the most likely sources of security risks. Take for example my son who travels almost weekly for his job. He is screened on every trip, yet no history of his travel and an assessment of his risk to security, are recorded. There are no factors in his life, work, relationships or personal life that would indicate he presents a potential risk presents to other passengers. Yet a system is in place which provides potential creditors with a detailed assessment of his risk as a borrower; his credit record follows him everywhere. Were a similar “travel credit record” to be established for people such as Jesse, he and others could potentially bypass the work intensive security screening procedure. This is but one example of employing Operations Research to improve the quality of airport security and reduce the costs and aggravation of the screening process.

Sheldon Howard Jacobson, Ph.D. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has proposed applying Operations Research to the problem of airport security. Dr. Jacobson has produced a 6-minute video, “Aviation Security: Assessing the Risk”, which clearly explains his proposal to improve airport security.

Until an integrated approach is brought to transportation security, passengers will be increasingly subjected to unnecessary and intrusive distress, increased costs associated with air travel and marginal effectiveness toward greater airline security.

However, a recent under-cover Japanese airport security video has surfaced – as you can clearly see, the Japanese are taking airport security screening most aggressively. Take a look:

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Atheism as "Faith"

One of the argumentative maneuverings religious believers attempt to ploy on Atheists is the argument that Atheism is, in itself, a belief system – that Atheists have “faith” that there are no gods. It is a clearly specious position; first, one cannot hold a belief in a negative, a “Not”, position; and secondly, the definition of “faith” is acceptance without proof. Atheists say there is no proof... were convincing proof of god(s) to exist, there would be no Atheists! Considering Atheism a form of faith is like considering baldness a type of hair style.

Interestingly, this week one of our Secular Society members will debate a professional theologian and debater on this subject at the local university Socratic Club forum.
The OSU Socratic Club will sponsor a debate on the topic, "Do Atheists Have Faith?" on Monday, November 15, at 7 p.m., in Gilfillan Auditorium on the OSU campus.

It is a common assertion in conversations between secularists and religious believers that religion is a matter of “faith,” which is devoid of any cognitive content and therefore, in the eyes of many secularists, of little or no truth value. Michael Gurney will argue that faith is commonly found among secularists and religious believers alike because everyone, including atheists, has a faith of some kind. Martin Erwig of OSU will argue that those who hold a secularist view reject faith claims altogether and base their views on science, rationalism, and human autonomy.
The theologian has his work cut out for him for this debate. For one thing, with an estimated 15% to 20% of the US population claiming no religious affiliation or belief in any deities, one might ask where are all the Atheist “churches”? Religions have built testaments to their belief over history in the form of huge edifices of architecture, works of art and music – nothing even remotely approaching this magnitude of devotional display exists for Atheists. That is… until now!

Thanks to Steve Martin; I give you the first in history Atheist Hymn:

Friday, November 12, 2010

Veterans Day + 1

Yesterday was Veterans Day, in some places, Armistice Day; a day when we are supposed to remember and honor the men and women in uniform who serve, and who have died serving, our nation in times of war and peace. And today, the day after Veterans Day, we can then return to forgetting those sacrifices and ignoring the unequal price they pay to ensure the comforts we enjoy.

Since the Conservatives recently regained their section of Capitol Hill turf the news media has been awash in championing their agenda; which is to cut government and reduce taxes (aka: foster unfettered expansion of moneyed interests). Example: CBS news anchor Katie Couric (who I believe has no more stature as a journalist than the kid who delivers the daily paper) touted all the ways in which the Conservatives plan to reign in government and runaway spending. With no fact checking or journalistic inquiry, she parroted the “facts” about the Social Security System being in “red ink” and on the brink of collapse and being a major cause for the burgeoning deficit. That fact is, that is NOT true!

So now the new prevailing and perceived shining path toward restoring America’s Greatness reads as follows: Ending tax cuts for the wealthiest 1% of our elite is off the table. Targeted instead are the costs of supporting the poorest of our citizens; Social Security, Medicare, Welfare. It will be an ironic twist of fate if any Tea Baggers on unemployment voted Republican – unlikely UC benefits will be further extended, these folks might be the first to realize how they just voted to cut their own economic throats.

But among all the gnashing of teeth and wringing of hands over concern for our increasing national debt, the absence of the cost of our unnecessary and fruitless war in Afghanistan is the overlooked Elephant in the Room. We are borrowing close to One Billion dollars A DAY from China to maintain this war which has no expectation of any positive outcome whatsoever. Instead, we will continue to pay for it off the backs of people perceived as too lazy to go out and get jobs… which, incidentally, don’t exist. Large segments of our nation are apparently thirstily drinking the Kool Aid being served up by our political leaders.

The cost to our country for this war, and the Iraq war, have been deftly shielded and sanitized for our consumption. This has not always been true in our history. During World War II our nation sold bonds to finance the war. Everyone paid taxes to fund the war and few complained. It was necessary for all citizens to participate in one way or another in the defense of freedom. Everyone felt the pinch; consumer items such as sugar, coffee and materials like rubber and gasoline were rationed. No one was exempt, if you were not serving in uniform you were, in some way, supporting the soldiers who were. We were pulling together.

Again taxes were increased during the Vietnam War. In some sense, the cost to the taxpayer for Vietnam was but one of many pressures the public felt, in addition to the photos of caskets being shipped back home, which forced the government to yield to the growing outcries to bring that war to a close.

That is not the case today. Only recently the Obama administration has lifted the prohibition of pictures being released of flag-draped caskets being returned from the Middle East. But these images seldom make it into the consciousness of the news media; apparently more newsworthy: a Tea Bagger in a three-cornered hat with a misspelled sign calling the president a Socialist is the media’s primary focus.

Those in power have taken great pains to insure that this war costs the American taxpayer nothing; unless, of course, it happens to be YOUR child or loved one who has chosen to serve in the active military. I have not heard one public official suggest taxes be increased to pay for the War on Terrorism. And now it is quite clear that they neither want to factor in the cost of the war anywhere into the incendiary discussions about the rise of our national deficit.

I find it tragic that every day men and women go out on patrol in desolate places of the world based on pointless strategies, facing death and/or injury; while at home, Americans stop but one day a year to honor their commitment with parades and plastic flags made in China. Well hey… they volunteered to be in the service, didn’t they? I wonder who’s on “Dancing with the Stars” tonight?

Further reading:
1. "Bush-Era Tax Cuts Depart From History of America War Finance" Urban Institute
2. “The history of America’s tax system can be written largely as a history of America’s wars.”
and Taxes, by Steven A. Bank, Kirk J. Stark, Joseph J. Thorndike.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Cool Clear Water

When we checked into our motel room in California, there on top of the TV set was a small plastic tray with two "complimentary" quart bottles of water... complimentary, that is, for $5.50 each + tax.

Now I am not a particularly astute shopper and I don't spend a lot of time comparing prices of various consumer goods. But after picking up our rental car prior to checking into our motel, I noted that gasoline was $3.20 a gallon near the airport, which I am sure was not the cheapest gas in the vicinity. A quick calculation revealed that a equal gallon of "Fiji" water would cost $22.00 - that's 688% MORE than an equal volume of gasoline.

Fiji Water has it's own web site: fijiwater.com (At $5.50 a quart they can afford it, the bird sounds alone are worth the visit). Really, you SHOULD check their site out, they have information about the Fijian aquifer, cocktail recipes, contests, even a blog! I have seen corporate retail web sites that have less information about their products than this site about drinking water from Fiji. From their site:
In this isolated and idyllic setting, FIJI Water is drawn from an artesian aquifer that lies hundreds of feet below the edges of a primitive rainforest.

That distance and isolation is part of what makes FIJI Water so much purer, healthier, and richer in taste than other bottled waters.
Really - you mean to tell me it costs more to put water in a bottle than, say, drill hundreds of feet under ground in deserts or deep water off-shore platforms, pump up the sticky muddy-water-goo, ship it across the globe in huge supertankers, refine, crack and distill it through a massively energy-intensive industrial process then ship it in tankers to local distributors where it is held in tanks and pumped into our plastic bottles?

When we returned home from Southern California my water bill was waiting in my mailbox. For 8 "units" (5,984 gallons) of pure Oregon municipal tap water, I pay $22.88. This means that it cost me roughly $0.38 cents for 100 gallons of water.

Now of course there are trade-offs. Unlike gasoline which is consumed in my engine and gone forever; conversely, I only get to "use" my city provided water. A goodly amount of it is returned back to the city through an entirely separate set of pipes after flowing through my kidneys and other useful household appliances. So essentially, I have to pay the city for water TWICE. In addition the $22.88 the city charges me for delivering water to my house, they charge an additional $18.70 for "Waste water", $5.48 for "Storm Water" and a $1.36 "Transportation Maintenance Fee". (I guess pipes are not entirely reliable for getting water from one place to the other; perhaps they have to call a "water taxi" occasionally.)

Still, compared to Fiji water, my municipal water is a whopping bargain. Had I instead chosen last month to water my lawn, filled my spa and flush my toilet with Fiji water, it would have cost me $131,648.00 !

Okay, so water in Southern California is likely somewhat more expensive than here in Oregon where we, on the other hand, get free lawn irrigation pretty much the entire months from October through May. However It didn't really dawn on me just how crucial water conservation must be to Southern Californians until until I stepped into the bathroom in our motel room and took a picture of the bath tub.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

California Screaming

I’m playing catch-up, at the moment – trying to get current on the several blogs that I follow. Nancy and I just returned from Southern California where we acquired a new daughter-in-law – my step-son’s wedding and a brief reunion with relatives we usually only seem to connect up with at weddings or funerals.

Our itinerary required us to fly into the southern half of the Los Angeles basin (Orange County) and transverse then north (Ventura County) via automobile. If you ever want your awareness to focus on the reality of funerals, try driving on Southern California freeways. They will make a Believer out of you.

From the moment you step off the plane to when you wrestle that carry-on into the overhead compartment at departure, the pace of the So Cal’s lifestyle is “hectic” to put it mildly. Public transportation is a completely off the radar of Southern Californians here in this part of the world where the automobile is King. Nancy had reserved a full size rental car; I opted instead for a smaller vehicle feeling that being light and fleet-of-foot would give us a greater edge toward our survivability.

In general I would say that southern Californians view their highway system as one large reality-based video game. The goal is to get from point A to point B in as little time as possible. When the freeways are not choked to the point of being long narrow parking lots, they are drag strips. I concede that I can somewhat understand the “need for speed” as traveling on the side streets is a major trial of one’s patience. The traffic lights are excruciatingly long in cycling. More than once I pondered the economy of turning off my engine at the stop lights. The Southern Californians have adapted, however - I saw people glibly thumbing” away on their i-phones while stopped in traffic.

But the freeway is another matter entirely. Here one indulges the need to shrug off the bonds of traffic and hurtle heedlessly into the horizon as fast as humanly possible. My goal was simpler… to attempt to maintain sufficient distance from the other four-wheeled objects while sustaining a decent velocity. But then again I was always a wimp in any sort of video game. Dying was annoying even when I could hit the “replay level” button.

And sure enough, there were wrecks… though far fewer than I had expected. Still the acts of stupidity bravado were astounding to witness. For example: two motorcyclists jetting between cars and lanes traveling easily over 100 mph, by my estimation. I wondered if they knew there was no “replay level” in real life should they be just ever so slightly off of their hand-eye coordination. And if the worst were to happen – there would be no sympathy or pity from their fellow motorists who would more likely curse them for creating a mess and further delaying traffic.

The frenetic mentality was not limited to the roadways. At our motel a guy riding down in the elevator with us decided that the doors were taking excessively long open as we reached our floor – he “knocked” on the stainless steel elevator doors, I guess thinking somehow they would get the hint and open more quickly. Busy guy and precious nano-seconds were being wasted!

One of my blogging buddies, Gutsy Writer, is writing a book about their family abandoning the fast pace of Southern California and moving to Belize. As she explains on her blog: “To Live a simple life. Escape gridlocked freeways and the Orange County, California rat race. Teach our kids gratitude instead of entitlement.”

We all know it’s there, yet I think one cannot truly appreciate the full scope of the societal and emotional desert which is Southern California until one temporarily immerses themselves into it.

My step-son, now living in Orange County (where there are no longer any orange orchards, by the way… NONE) was raised in the beautiful green of the Pacific Northwest. I asked Jesse one day if he ever missed the cool clean air, the forests, and the greenness of his home state. “No, I pretty much stay inside most of the time”, he replied, then returned to checking his i-phone.

But now my step-son is married and with lovely a new bride. And I can’t help but wonder, if children result from this union, if perhaps Oregon will regain some sense of allure to the young parents. I can only hope.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

My Nigerian Landlord

Shortly after I posted my fanciful online encounter with Anya in “From Russia With Love”, I became embroiled in a REAL online scam.

Back Story:
We have our old house listed for sale in town. In the last couple of days we received four phone calls from “renters” asking about our house for rent advertised on CraigsList. Our house isn't for rent. One of the callers thought there was something suspicious about the ad after e-mailing the "agent" listed in the ad and receiving a reply from Nigeria!

We subsequently found that apparently two fake ads had been placed on CraigsList which were later flagged and deleted before we could view them. But shortly a third ad was posted – there it was, complete with pictures of our lovely home advertised for rent for $700 deposit. The only contact provided was the “spoofed” e-mail address of the listing Realtor.

I decided to pose as a prospective renter for my own house under the adopted name of Jay Edgar Hoover. I have copied my e-mail exchange with Nigerian scammer into an Adobe Acrobat document which you can read in it's entirety here. (My side of the correspondence is colored blue.)

After my "application was accepted", the guy in Nigeria actually called my cell phone asking for "Jay"... not thinking, I told them they had the wrong number. Damn, stupid mistake! But eventually they called back. I told them I didn't know how to wire money to Nigeria - In actuality I was stalling them; I wanted to have my tape recorder by the phone to record the conversation. I heard lots of voices in the background, it sounded like a classic "boiler room" operation.

Alas the scammers apparently caught on that THEY were instead being scammed; no further e-mails nor phone calls were received.

Conclusion:
As it turns out, one of the couples who called us from the fake ad about renting our place turned out to be genuinely interested. If our house doesn't sell by the end of the month, my Nigerian Landlord may have done me a nice service by referring us to some potentially suitable renters!! (I wonder if I should tell him the place rents for $1,100/month instead of the $700 he was asking for?) ~ Nahhhh!

I'm on -the-road this weekend. Hope to catch up to your blogs and comments on my return Monday. - R

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Quarter Life Crisis

Never trust anyone over the age of 30. ~ Timothy Leary
My “baby” recently celebrated her 30th birthday earlier this year. When she was born I had just turned 30. Back then I had a good job (which I hated) and my marriage was beginning to unravel. Mt. St Helens would blow a couple of months later on May 18th and that Fall Ronald Reagan would be elected president. Overall, though, life was pretty good for us Thirty-Somethings back then.

Fast-forward another thirty years. It’s tougher now to find work or to buy a house. Our country’s finances are in a seemingly endless downward spiral into national deficit. We import way more than we export, primarily because we don’t make anything any more. Our expectations are high but our opportunities seem scant. As a Baby Boomer I have often said that I feel that our generation has lived in the best times man has ever had, and will ever have, on this planet. All the while the global population will soon exceed 7 Billion people.

My kid’s generation is facing “Quarter Life Crisis”, the sinking realization that they may not have an entirely better life than we enjoyed during our peak years. There are books and web sites devoted to the concept. You can probably download them onto your Kindle.

Some of the recognized symptoms of Quarter Life Crisis are general insecurities about the ability to have meaningful employment, sustained income, friends, family and primarily, fun. In short, the same things our generation worried about as we were reaching Mid-Life crisis. Although one of the major differences facing the younger generation is that there is more competition for fewer resources than there was in the Boomer generation. Advanced technology, in the form of instant access to information, may really only serve to make these inadequacies more apparent.

Our parents often helped us financially when we were young. But we now note that it is somewhat more difficult to help our kids to the extent our parents helped us. Many of our generation are considering “reverse mortgages” to supplement our dwindling purchasing power. In times passed, parents could be expected to hand off their house, or at least some estate, to their kids. Today, even with the mortgage paid off; our medical insurance premiums alone are now more than our house payment was – about a third of our retirement income. We Boomers are feeling the squeeze.

Some pop sociologists lay the blame for Quarter Life Crisis us Boomers, claiming we brought up our kids in a permissive atmosphere, implying to our children that they deserved anything they wanted; that life should expected to be fun and entertaining, or that upward mobility was a given. Did we raise our kids with a sense of entitlement? Did we promise them better lives than we had? Perhaps; but I think it is a gross generalization. I think we hoped that we raised our children to feel they are at least as deserving as anyone else (not better). Hopefully we were able to instill some sense of ethics and justice – what goes around; comes around. I hope.

The new corporate mindset within this country has now been hard-wired into our culture and politics. It has resulted in the largest transfer of wealth in our history since the Great Depression. In a decade the disparity between what executives earn compared to their workers has gone from 30% to a 300% difference. They have effectively gutted the Middle Class.

One has to wonder why, philosophically at least, the wealthy are so eager to kill the Goose that Lays the Golden Egg that has been the progenitor of their wealth. The symptoms have manifested itself in the form of the housing and related financial collapse of 2008, high unemployment, widening trade and budget deficits. These are very real issues which affect our children directly. Most of our kids feel there will likely be no Social Security available to them when they reach retirement age.

So how do we advisr our kids about dealing with Quarter Life Crisis? What can we do besides simply dying off and leaving them our dwindling assets?

Hopefully the solution won’t be to seriously implement “Logan’s Run”.

Friday, October 22, 2010

From Russia with Love

Love and marriage, love and marriage,
goes together like a
Лошадь и вагон. - Perry Como
I received a welcome deviation from the usual e-mails imploring my assistance in lubricating millions of dollars from bureaucratic Nigerian bankers; this one informing instead that there were lovely women in Russia eager to marry me. After researching what potentially heinous sort of malware awaited my libido-driven click, I felt confident enough to visit photoswomens.com.

There the site informed me that: Thousands of Russian women from Ukraine and Russia want to get married, create a family, and be happy. We offer russian [sic] dating service for men seeking beautiful russian women for dating and marriage.

What a surprise, it seems that only the most lovely among former Soviet Bloch unemployed models are seeking Western husbands. Apparently all the plane-Janeofskies have already paired-up with suitable Volga boatmen from the village. These poor girls are left to cast a wider net, it would seem.

Having previously already married two blonds in my lifetime, I decided to remain on familiar territory and dashed off a quick note to Anya (pictured above). Unfortunately I was informed that my message could not be delivered without first submitting my VISA... not the immigration kind, the plastic kind. Apparently Prime Minister Putin is sensitive to potentially imbalancing his country's trade relations with the United States. I certainly can't blame Pootie-Poot for not wanting to let go their number one export without ensuring sufficient Rubles in return.

But somehow my furtive attempts at communicating with Anya managed to skirt the People's Ministry of Communication attempt at censorship and I received a delightful e-mail from Anya. Her hope was that the requirement to secure American dollars (widely acceptable in Russia) could be temporarily forestalled until we got to know one another better.

I told her that her photo was stunning and I would greatly like to see more of her. Unfortunately, she explained, all scanners in the Ukraine are "pay scanners" requiring a credit card number in order to operate. Obviously I would need to increase my efforts in appealing to her good graces and Eastern European charms if I were to successfully woo additional information and likenesses from her.

Knowing Ukraine to be a poor country I tried appealing to her on a simlar level; I explained that my credit was exhausted and that, now homeless, I was reduced to e-mailing her from the convenience of the free computers in the public library. I explained that, though already married, I was a member of an off-shoot religions sect in Utah which not only allows, but encourages, the taking of multiple wives. But due to my flagging financial situation, multiple criminal convictions and dwindling amounts of both teeth and hair, American women seemed a bit to "haughty" to yield to my many charms.

My appeal apparently wormed its way into her heart as Anya finally relented and e-mailed another picture my hopeful new Russian bride:

Monday, October 18, 2010

False Heroes

This post comes on the heels of my recent post Spitting out the Truth prompted by a comment made to that article by fellow blogger, Secret Agent Woman who remarked regarding a veteran she knew who had lied about his war experience - her comment suggested this entry. Thanks, Secret Agent Woman.
Eighty year old Portland resident Lafayette Keaton was a local hero. A veteran of WWII, Korea and Vietnam, Keaton was honored by local veterans groups and often invited to speak of his experiences to civic organizations and local schools. Friendly and unassuming, this quiet man would show up in his dress uniform sporting the Silver Star he had earned for his acts of heroism during the Korean War.

But Keaton spoke mostly of his harrowing and vivid accounts of his three deployments to Vietnam. Recalling his experiences in the Army Rangers he admitted that he still awakens with nightmares. But his proudest accomplishment, as he tells it, was of his participation of the liberation of the Japanese prison camp in Los Banos, The Philippines, during WWII.

However it turns out that the only real war Keaton has been fighting all these years has been with the truth – Keaton joined the military 1952, too late for WWII. He served only two months in Korea in an administrative position and well after the cession of combat. He has never set foot in Vietnam. Keaton is a fraud. [1]

One evening my wife Nancy and I had the pleasure of dining with an acquaintance, Dr. Loren Pankratz. Loren is Consultation Psychologist and Clinical Professor at Oregon Health Sciences University in Portland. Previously he has worked at the Portland Veterans Administration Medical Center; he has a special interest in deception in medical patients.

Loren has been hired as a consultant, as an expert witness by attorneys in cases where patients were suing their psychologists or psychiatrists for malpractice in “repressed memory” cases. These are incidents of people who have falsely been led into believing they were suffering repressed and blocked memories of horrific, sometimes even ritual, abuse. In the vast majority of these cases, the repressed memories have turned out to be false; the results instead of impressionable patients and their clinicians all too eager to encourage these fictitious beliefs.

Loren’s book, Patients Who Deceive, was drawn from his experiences treating patients who “acted out” illness. [3] Later, during his tenure at the Veterans Administration, floods of new patients returning from Vietnam were being assessed for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Many of these vets complained of night terrors, depression, drug addiction and physical ailments. When interviewed clinicians often heard patients describe horrible atrocities allegedly witnessed by these returning vets. The belief grew that these men were part of a growing epidemic of PTSD. Pankratz was particularly troubled that that treatment for PTSD was often unsuccessful for a particular segment of these patients.

Loren and others began treating PTSD vets at the VA hospital. However, unlike most of his peers, he took one additional step of requesting copies of their military service records. What he found surprised him – many of these supposed war-traumatized vets had never served in Vietnam or in any war zone. A few, it even turned out, had never been in the active military.

Our culture is rife with fiction about Vietnam vets. Movies such as Rambo, and Born on the Forth of July, for example, promote the idea that our war in Vietnam disgraced and dishonored not only our country but the men and women who served there. Almost anyone will admit seeing the supposedly “homeless vet” on the street corner holding a sign on which is scrawled “Vet will work for food”. Having myself worked in state human services, I knew for a fact that many of the homeless "vets" on my caseload had never served in the armed forces. Anyone could claim to be a vet for the simple price of a used cammo jacket from the military surplus store.

In his book, "Stolen Valor", by Dallas stockbroker and Vietnam vet B.G. Burkett, he recounts similar such stories. [5] Burkett was interested in raising money for a veterans memorial in Texas. But he was stymied by the negative image of Vietnam vets presented in the media; a hodgepodge of shaggy bearded and long haired misfits, whackos and losers who did not fit his memory of the elite and polished units with whom he served. Armed with the Freedom of Information Act, Burkett confirmed his suspicions; that many of these so called vets either never served or were never in a theater of combat.

What are we to make of this deception? The news media would suggest that significant numbers of our service personnel returning from war in Iraq and Afghanistan with significant and permanent mental disabilities. But Loren Pankratz and some others don’t believe the problem is as wide spread as suggested. True, readjustment to civilian life can be difficult particularly in tough economic times at home. Military deployment is indeed hugely disruptive to families and finances. There is no doubt that the traumas of serving in combat can generate life altering changes.

But Pankratz reveals that most returning vets want the same things we all want; a home, loving and supporting family, meaningful work and a happy life and secure future. Most find ways to reconcile their experiences, some of them traumatic indeed, yet eventually reintegrate successfully back into civilian life. Yes, there are indeed substantiated cases of PTSD. However Loren says that the vast majority of cases, these veterans do get better over time.

Yet there will always be the patients who deceive; their symptoms belie a deeper extent of their illness, and in some, their strong need to be ill.
Pankratz: My favorite example is from the National Vietnam Veteran Readjustment Study (NVVRS), research that consumed four years and $9 million (Kulka et al. 1988). Six women in the study claimed that their stress was caused by being a prisoner of war. Not one of the many researchers involved in the study apparently realized that no American military woman ever became a POW in Vietnam. [4]
~ ~ ~
References
1.
“War hero impostor falls to the facts”, KATU TV news web site, March 14, 2010
2.
"Fake Heroes", Today's Officer magazine, Fall 2005
3.
“Patients Who Deceive”, Loren Pankratz, 1998
4.
"More Hazards: Hypnosis, Airplanes, and Strongly Held Beliefs", Skeptical Inquirer Magazine, June 2003
"Stolen Valor: How the Vietnam Generation Was Robbed of Its Heroes and Its History", B.G. Burkett, 1998

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Repo Man - First Blood

Fresh out of college with a Biology degree, I was eager to put my “science” to practical experience. However, pickings were slim and I soon reached the acceptance that ANY employer willing to pay me would be greatly appreciated. I accepted employment for a large Pacific Northwest Bank. As it turns out, as a scientist, I was in good company; virtually none of my fellow bank employees had degrees in finance or business – mostly Liberal Arts majors; there was even a guy in the commercial lending department who graduated from seminary. But I digress…

This bank wanted its future loan officers to understand implicitly what a “bad” loan was. Therefore budding young loan officers began their tenure collecting bad debts in “the field”. My entry level position was, therefore, as a “Repo Man”.

This was going to prove to be a tough gig for a shy, 5’ – 6” 145 pound middle class white boy. I was already fairly shy; so much so that I would avoid calling the movie theater to check show times unless I was fairly SURE I would get a recording. My first trial was making it through the interview, which I thought I had blown as the old codger interviewing me never gave me the opportunity to say anything. Miraculously I was hired and soon found myself in “training”. My training constituted riding along for two weeks with another experienced “Outside Collectors”. Once fully trained, I was issued my own vehicle, credit card, assorted Portland road maps and a briefcase full of delinquent accounts.

Here was the game: If the bank (me) could get the collateral back to the car dealership before the delinquency passed the 90-day mark, the car dealer would have to make the delinquent loan good for the Bank. We usually were assigned cases at the point where they were about 60 delays delinquent; previous collection efforts having failed to this point.

So here I am someplace in rural Oregon out on my own my first week on my own. I pull up to the delinquent customer’s house (referred to in repo jargon as “the Flake”). Step one; position your car (door unlocked) facing toward the street in the event one should need to make a hasty escape. There on the front lawn I positively identify “The Collateral”; a bright red Toyota Land Cruiser. Of course this house happens to be situated by itself in the middle of a field, visible for miles in any direction. My reconnaissance reveals that this location is NOT going to be an easy target to sneak up on should I have to return later in the dead of night. Noted.

I knock on the door; a HUGE man steps out the screen door and onto the porch. He’s wearing torn red and black plaid shirt and bib overalls. The stereotype generator in my mind suggests his name might be either “Tiny” or “Bubba”. I am dressed in a sky blue leisure suit.

I launch into my spiel – “…you are two months delinquent on your account, blah blah…ignored notices, blah blah blah.” Then I wrap it all up with my demand “… and if you do not bring this account current, I will be required to take yon vehicle into my possession.”

At the close of my speech – total silence… except for the annoying dog at our feet barking incessantly throughout my entire dialog. Bubba, not wanting his response depreciated by the interrupting dog, draws his leg back then punts the dog into the air and clean off the porch. While the dog is still in flight, he then turns to me and says: “So a little guy like you is going to drive my car away?” Summoning Herculean effort in retaining my composure, I respond: “Yes, sir… I’ll just move the seat forward and drive it off.”

I think the disparity in our body builds mutually suggested that physical combat, at this point, was not warranted. To my relief, he agreed to arrangements whereby he would come into the local branch office the following day and pay up his arrears. I believe I have pulled off a coup.

However, a few days later the branch informs me that Bubba never showed and his account is still delinquent; the guy just blew me off.

By now it’s a Friday afternoon. Having the “key code”, a local locksmith has cut a key for the Toyota. I am at “the Flake’s” place of employment, a manufacturer of railroad freight cars where he is a welder. I cruise up and down the employee parking lot until… there it is, the red Toyota Land Cruiser. I gain access to the vehicle; It is full of fishing gear. He apparently has a big weekend planned.

The engine fires and I slowly drive this guy’s car out of the employee parking lot. Damn, he’s going to be pissed when he gets off work and finds his car gone! I’ve just repossessed my first car. Oddly, my right foot is trembling... it will tremble like that with every car I repo over the next two years.