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Monday, November 30, 2009

What you are

It's always a bit mystifying and off-putting when people adorn themselves excessively.

For the sake of argument, let's define "excess" as anything with no added utilitarian value, for instance expensive clothes which are neither more comfortable nor longer-lasting or noticeably better-looking than cheaper clothes. (A forty dollar pair of slacks can look sharper than a twenty dollar pair, but a hundred dollar pair is almost never worth the added cost.) Any showy watch (such as a Rolex or Omega) is also excessive, especially now that cheaper watches tell time so accurately.

The basic conceit is that wearing a higher quality product makes you a higher quality person.

I succumbed to this silly disease myself when I bought an expensive car several years ago. Prior to that, I had driven a Toyota Corolla. But five years of wearing a Corolla in my upper middle class town had left me feeling somehow....tawdry. So, even though I'd always looked down on people who put too much stock in their cars, I purchased a Lexus LS 430. (My standard joke is that now I just look down on people who drive lesser cars.)

For a while, having the car actually did, at some inane level, make me feel as if I were the human equivalent of a Lexus LS 430, a powerful, smooth, and well-designed piece of machinery. I never consciously analyzed it that way, but I did sort of feel that way.

(In self-defense: one's thoughts may be a reflection of one's IQ, but one's feelings are not.)

The only problem was, as I discovered, driving a Lexus does not make you the human equivalent of one. Ever since I bought it, I have only gotten older and weaker and slower and balder. And, now that I think of it, poorer.

The fact is, what you are at the most basic level is your intelligence, your character, and your body. Everything else is just window dressing. I suppose you are also your accomplishments, and some accomplishments can result in having more money. But possessions are still a very secondary definition of who you are.

If Albert Einstein had lost all of his money through bad investments, would this somehow have diminished him as a human being? (He might have felt diminished, but it certainly wouldn't have taken anything away from his accomplishments.) Away from his breakthroughs in physics, he seems to have been a fairly philosophical type, and one senses that he could have weathered the loss of his money better than most; maybe that's a better measure of one's worth as a human being.

I can't seem to recall any pictures of Einstein wearing gaudy jewelry. Neither can I recall any such pictures of Bertrand Russell, or George Bernard Shaw, or Leo Tolstoy. In fact, the very ridiculousness of such an image underscores the basic point:

The more expensive the bauble, the cheaper the human being.

An aside: Can those of us who take pride in our physiques pull rank over those who pay excess attention to clothing, or baubles? Probably -- but not by much. One thing I've noticed over time is that people who pay attention to fitness (ardent triathletes and the like) tend to pay less attention to their clothes. People who pay attention to clothes, on the other hand, tend to pay less attention to fitness (fitness being a related but separate issue from weight). I guess this means that if you meet someone who pays a lot of attention to both, you know he's really vain.

Anyway, my next car will be an econobox. Wearing a Prius means that some will mistake me for a liberal, but I don't care. At least I'll be getting better gas mileage. And, perhaps, hiding my shallowness a little better.

(By the way, have you ever heard a more long-winded justification for not dressing well?)


Back in August, I listed some Mark Twain quotes. Among them was the following:

"A man's character may be learned from the adjectives he habitually uses in conversation."

Psychologists call this "projection," or projecting onto others what you are yourself. (When you do it with non-human species, it's called "anthropomorphizing.")

I used to work on a bond trading desk on Wall Street. (When you sit with the same guys for ten hours a day, you get to know them far better than you might want.) One thing I was able to observe was that they were constantly projecting their own traits onto others.

The dumbest guy on the desk was forever saying about various other people, "He just doesn't get the joke." This was his favorite insult. Yet he, himself, was remarkably clueless for a guy working at an investment bank.

Another trader, this one both dumb and self-satisfied, was always saying that various people "fell asleep at the switch." That would be a good description of his own trading style, which was to always try what worked the previous year.

The desk sociopath was forever saying, "I don't trust that guy. He lied to me once." (He thought that by saying this he was indirectly demonstrating his own honesty, but he was in fact doing the opposite.) He would say this about people who were basically honest as well as those who were not.

There was one fellow on the desk who was a truly decent person. He would frequently say of others, "He seems like a good guy." He said this about guys who were not as well as those who were.

I knew a guy in high school who was perpetually accusing other guys of being homosexual (he used the word "flitty," which was in vogue at that time). He would say this about many people who didn't strike me that way, and he would always sound very annoyed as he said it. I'm pretty sure he turned out to be gay himself.

I mentioned this tendency to a friend recently, and he said that he had noticed the same thing with his wife, who was always accusing others of being petty, suspicious, and vindictive. He said he had lost patience with her a couple times and actually said, "Not everybody is as petty and suspicious as you are."

My daughter constantly tells me, "Dad, you're not funny." She is an intelligent girl with many admirable qualities, but a sense of humor is not among them.

Projection is not always negative. I have one friend from whom I take investment advice, who frequently describes others as "very, very smart." This guy himself is extraordinarily intelligent (though his stock picking, unfortunately, has been less than perfect).

Think of the people you know and what their favorite (over-used) descriptions of other people are. You'll find a strong correlation with their own characteristics.

Just so you know, I find myself frequently raving about others' incredible toughness and intelligence.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Say it ain't so, Tiger

There has been a lot of speculation over the past two days over what really happened outside Tiger Woods' estate at 2:25AM on Friday.

The version that the Woods camp gave on Friday is that Tiger had a minor run-in with a hydrant and tree, and when his wife Elin Nordegren heard the crash, she rushed outside to see what was wrong, then smashed open the rear window with a golf club and pulled him to safety.

Coincidentally, on Wednesday the National Enquirer ran an article claiming that Tiger had been having an affair with an events planner named Rachel Uchitel. And, though Tiger had cuts on his face and mouth, there was no blood on the wheel of his SUV.

They should have come up with a more credible story: that Tiger wanted to get in line early for the Black Friday deals at the local Walmart.

It's pretty obvious what happened. They had a fight, Elin followed Tiger as he pulled out of the driveway, and in a fit of rage bashed in the rear window of his SUV with a golf club. This distracted Tiger enough to cause him to hit the hydrant and tree.

You can be sure that he is now in the midst of frenzied consultations with his advisers. ("He's sleeping," Elin told the police in an effort to forestall them.)

What we will get in a day or two is a carefully worded statement, which has been vetted by a small army of PR people and lawyers, in which Tiger will vaguely allude to mistakes he's made without actually spelling out any of those mistakes, and in which he will say that he and his wife are working to do what's right for their family and children. You can be sure that the words "family" and "children" will be mentioned prominently.

You can also be sure that the name "Rachel Uchitel" will not be mentioned. When Woods or his people are asked about her, they will probably say something to the effect of "You can't believe everything you read in the tabloids," without actually admitting or denying guilt.

The entire release will be calculated to be as bland and boring as they can make it, in an effort to make the incident disappear down the memory hole as quickly as possible. And it will. Six months from now people will be talking about Woods' next major tournament, and this episode will be referred to only in passing.

Woods, a Stanford graduate, is certainly no Daryl Strawberry. Woods has been very careful thus far to keep his private life private, and to keep his public pronouncements as bland as possible, in an effort to keep those endorsement deals flowing. And he's done an excellent job of this, until now.

What really happened is not even all that interesting. Woods is a young, healthy billionaire who is on the road a great deal of the time. He was undoubtedly constantly faced with temptation, and he succumbed. (He's only human, and it's hard to blame him for that.) His wife found out about it, had a fit, and we saw the results of that fit, if not an honest explanation for it. It's really a very old, and very boring, story.

The only vaguely interesting part of that story is that while Elin Nordegren is absolutely gorgeous (he married her after he was rich and famous), Rachel Uchitel is not. (Uchitel is a little cheap-looking to boot; obvious plastic surgery tends to have that result.) It's always a little surprising when men married to beautiful women cheat on them with far less attractive women. (Anyone remember Steve Phillips?)

The more interesting question is how it has affected Woods. My guess is that he is feeling quite torn. He knows his public reputation is on the line, so he will rely on the PR people and lawyers who have guided him thus far. He also knows that if he goes to the police and gives them an honest accounting of the evening, it will get his wife in trouble. After all, he is now the victim of domestic violence, both when she scratched his face in the house and when she bashed in the back window of his SUV, which would potentially make her legally liable. He also knows that if the entire truth comes out, it will mean the end of his squeaky clean image.

I certainly don't think Woods, or even his temperamental wife, are bad people. They're just normal people with an abnormal amount of money and fame, caught up in the usual human desires and emotions. If he was bad, we'd have seen evidence of it in the past, and we haven't.

But no one, not even Woods, is as bland as he's pretended to be all these years.

Given the nature of golf, and Tiger's public image, it's hard to imagine that the Buick people are going to make humorous, self-deprecating reference to this incident in their future advertising. (But how funny would it be if their next ad showed him driving off as a blonde bashed in the back of his SUV?)

Addendum, same day: Woods has decided to totally stonewall: "This situation is my fault, and is obviously embarrassing to my family and me. I'm human and I'm not perfect. I will certainly make sure this does not happen again....the only person responsible for the accident is me. My wife, Elin, acted courageously when she saw I was hurt and in trouble. Any other assertion is absolutely false."

I call bs.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Why we're better than them, Part II

There has been a lot of press over the past three days about the three SEALS who are charged with dereliction of duty for having bloodied the lip of Ahmed Hashim Abed while he was in their custody.

Abed was the one who organized the murder of four US civilian contractors working as security guards in Fallujah in 2004. After murdering the four men, the terrorists burned two of their bodies and hung them from the Euphrates Bridge.

One of the three SEALs who captured Abed, Matthew McCabe, evidently punched him after they captured him. Abed complained, but the other two SEALs refused to testify against McCabe, so all three will be arraigned on December 7th.

Contrast this to the record of US combat forces who've been captured in Iraq and Afghanistan: not one has returned alive.

The Geneva Convention states that prisoners of war must not be mistreated. But if the we abide by the rule of law while our enemies don't, we're merely hamstringing our troops. And the rules of engagement state that a non-uniformed enemy combatant, when found, can be given a summary execution on the spot as a spy. Armed forces are supposed to wear identifying insignia. Abed was wearing no such thing.

Recent polls indicate that 98% of the American public believes that these SEALs should not be brought to trial. Enough has been said on that score, I won't belabor the point here.

The point I want to make is that this upcoming trial, as ludicrous as it is, is one more piece of proof that we are better than the people we are fighting.

We're so much better than them that they are not, in fact, worth our time. They're certainly not worth American lives and money. We should bring all our troops home and let the Middle Easterners kill each other instead.

Marion Jones

An AP article about Tim Montgomery today reported on why Montgomery used steroids (he wanted to beat Maurice Greene) and his subsequent ban from track and field. The article also discussed his incarceration for having taken part in a check kiting scheme.

The most interesting part of the article came when Montgomery talked about Marion Jones, the mother of his child and formerly the world's fastest woman.

Montgomery said that Jones could make herself cry for the cameras and that her "best work" came when she passed a lie detector test.

I've never known of anyone who wasn't a sociopath who could just will themselves to cry on command. (Tonya Harding, another disgraced Olympian, was also known for this ability.)

Hearing about this ability brings back memories of all those times Jones brazenly and self-righteously denied her involvement with steroids and talked about how drug use was wrong.

Passing a lie detector test is another sociopathic specialty. Polygraphs measure respiration, pulse, blood pressure, and skin conductivity. Lying is stressful for a normal person, so the machine measures stress. The only type of person for whom a lying is not at all stressful is a sociopath.

I'd thought Marion Jones was juicing long before she was actually caught. But this is the first time I ever thought of her as a sociopath.


One rule which most try to follow is that you can make fun of people for their behavior, but not for things they can't help. This is just basic decency.

Thus, appearance, race, gender, and sexuality are off limits. But hypocrisy and the various other sins are not.

Some sins, such as gluttony, or vanity-resulting-in-plastic-surgery, both of which can result in changed appearances, occupy a gray area. But the basic division is one on which there is general agreement.

So where does that leave stupidity? Most of us, even if we would never make sport of someone's looks or sexuality, don't hesitate to mock stupidity.

We all enjoy laughing at those lists of incredibly dumb mistakes that students make, and don't feel the slightest guilt about doing so. Yet we call it a guilty pleasure when looking at, say, a National Enquirer article showing a series of photographs of stars with cellulite.

Yet neither of those are things which people can help.

Certainly no one hesitates to criticize bad character. But being able to camouflage bad character is often a matter of intelligence. A smart person is more aware of the image he is presenting, and will remember his own past behaviors better. And he will use his superior memory to guard against appearing hypocritical, even if he is a hypocrite. Likewise, a smart criminal is more likely to get away with his crimes. So when we criticize bad behavior, at a certain level we're actually criticizing stupidity as well as character.

Yet intelligence is something that we are essentially born with. Without getting into an extended discussion of the nature/nurture argument regarding IQ, the fact is, it's basically something we can't help.

So maybe stupidity is something we shouldn't make fun of.

Nah. It's too much fun to do so.

(Full disclosure: the author is not quite as observant of the above rules of etiquette in person as he pretends to be on this blog.)

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

How would you react if you found out that your real father was Charlie Manson?

(Matthew Roberts, left; Charlie Manson, right)

Two different people sent me the following article from Tuesday's NY Daily News about a 41-year-old man who was adopted as a ten year old and raised in Illinois, and who recently discovered that his real father is Charlie Manson.
(Italics mine.)

It's like finding out your father is Hitler," Matthew Roberts told the Sun newspaper.

Roberts found out about his long-lost daddy about a dozen years ago after using a search agency to find his birth mother. The birth mother told him that she had been raped and that the 1960s Helter Skelter killer was his father.

(Gotta wonder if it was really, in the immortal words of Whoopi Goldberg, "rape rape." If I were the mom I'd probably be claiming it was nonconsensual too.)

"I'm a peaceful person - trapped in the face of a monster," Roberts said. "My hero is Gandhi. I'm an extremely non-violent, peaceful person and a vegetarian. I don't even kill bugs."

The truth of Roberts' birth unfolded gradually as he and his mother began to write each other.

At first she refused to pass on details, but ultimately she revealed that she had been captivated by Manson and joined his cult in San Francisco.

When his mother saw Roberts' photograph she said her suspicions were confirmed. The killer and his son share nearly identical facial features and they have the same thick, dark hair.

Roberts has corresponded with his unrepentant father, now 75 and confined for life in California's Corcoran State Prison.

The mass killer confirmed he is Roberts' father, and recalled the times he spent with Matthew's mother in a string of ten rambling handwritten notes and postcards signed with a swastika - the same symbol he has tattooed on his forehead.

"He sends me weird stuff and always signs it with his swastika," Roberts said. "At first I was stunned and depressed. I wasn't able to speak for a day. I remember not being able to eat."

(That sounds like a little bit of an exaggeration. Not able to say a word for an entire day? And he certainly doesn't look as if he's missed too many meals. Who knows, maybe his father is trying to help him diet with those weird missives.)

But, he added: "He's my biological father - I can't help but have some kind of emotional connection. That's the hardest thing of all - feeling love for a monster who raped my mother. I don't want to love him, but I don't want to hate him either."

Judging from the fact that Roberts now wears his hair like Manson -- hardly the current fashion -- and affects that devilish goatee, one would have to assume that he feels more than a little connection. (If he were really so embarrassed by his heritage, wouldn't he cut his hair short, maybe dye it blond, and don a suit and tie?) Plus, he actually corresponds with Manson, something not everyone would do.

(The above photograph, by the way, is from the NY Post version of the story. The Daily Snooze only saw fit to include a picture of Manson, even though we already know what he looks like. The Post also mentioned that Roberts suffers from schizophrenia, though judging from the commonsensical tone of his comments, I'd guess he's been taking his meds.)

How would most people react if they happened to discover, mid-life, that their biological father was an infamous killer? I can imagine several reactions, depending on one's character:

One would be utter dismay: Oh no, I'm cursed! I have the mark of Cain on me! No wonder I have these mental problems! I wonder if it's my fate to snap one day.

Another would be embarrassment: Oh god, the shame of it all. I'm going to change my name and go into hiding.

Another would be a sort of twisted pride (especially if the adoptive parents hadn't done such a great job): Yeah baby, no wonder I'm such a badass! Yes! Here I am boys and girls, the second coming of Charlie Manson! Watch out!

Yet another would be the socially savvy response: I'll be able to dine out on this for the rest of my life! People are going to find me fascinating. Everybody will want to get to know Son of Charlie. It'll probably turn me into a bit of a chick magnet, too, at least with a certain type of girl. I know Dad never had a problem getting girls.

One has to wonder how much of Roberts' personality is a matter of nature, rather than nurture. To the extent that it's nature, he must have some of Charlie's characteristics.

On the other hand, his upbringing was undoubtedly more wholesome than Manson's. It would be near impossible for it to have been worse. Manson was born to a 16 year old prostitute who had no idea who his father was. When Manson was a little boy, she once tried to sell him for a pitcher of beer. His uncle forced him to dress like a girl for his first day of kindergarten. Manson was in and out of juvenile detention facilities from the age of ten. (As an 11-year-old he reportedly raped another boy in one of those facilities.)

Given Manson's own hellish background (who knows how he would have turned out had he had a more normal upbringing), Roberts is hardly a case from which one can draw conclusions about the nature/nurture debate.

But he does make an interesting case study about how finding out that one has an infamous father can affect someone.

Addendum: My sweet 15 year old daughter just read this and offered, "Dad, he's better off than I am."

(updated version) Man -- a dog's best friend

From Monday's news, via the AP:

Kangaroo tries to drown dog, attacks owner

The Australian, Chris Rickard, was in stable condition Monday after the attack, which ended when the 49-year-old elbowed the kangaroo in the throat. He said he was walking his blue heeler, Rocky, on Sunday morning when they surprised a sleeping kangaroo in Arthur's Creek northeast of Melbourne. The dog chased the animal into a pond, when the kangaroo turned and pinned the pet underwater.

When Rickard tried to pull his dog free, the kangaroo turned on him, attacking with its hind legs and tearing a deep gash into his abdomen and across his face.

"I thought I might take a hit or two dragging the dog out from under his grip, but I didn't expect him to actually attack me," Rickard, 49, told The Herald Sun newspaper. "It was a shock at the start because it was a kangaroo, about 5 feet high, they don't go around killing people."

Dogs often chase kangaroos, which have been known to lead the pets into water and defend themselves there.

Rickard said he ended the attack by elbowing the kangaroo in the throat, adding Rocky was "half-drowned" when he pulled him from the water.

What an interesting and effective way for the kangaroo to defend itself.

Australia has long been known to zoologists for its unique fauna. The other continents all have relatively similar animals. Asia, Africa, Europe, South America, and North American all have (or had, in Europe's case), big cats. Asia has the tiger and the snow leopard. Africa has the lion, the leopard, and the cheetah. Europe used to have the lion. North America has the cougar, and South America has the jaguar. There is some overlap (jaguars have been spotted in North America, and there is a small population of Asian lions), but each continent basically has its own version of a large cat. Australia has none, unless you count the Tasmanian Tiger, a unique cat/dog hybrid which may or may not be extinct, depending on whether the recent sighting reports are to be believed.

(Africa actually has its own version of a cat/dog hybrid, the hyena, which, surprisingly enough, is actually more closely related to the cat family than to the dog family.) But most of the continents have similar canine, ursine, porcine, and ungulate species as well, with varying subspecies.

Australia is different. The kangaroo is found nowhere else on earth. The koala "bear" is found nowhere else. And the duck-billed platypus is famous for being the only known "mammal" which lays eggs.

The ten most poisonous species of snake all live in Australia. Roughly 30,000 people a year die of snakebite, and 25,000 of those are in South Asia. This makes sense, when you think of all the poor people who work barefoot in rice paddies and live in primitive open air housing with cobras and kraits and Russell's vipers slithering around. You don't hear of as many people being killed by snakebite in Australia; that's because most of the really poisonous snakes live in the Outback, where there just aren't that many people. Australia is an entire continent with a population of only seventeen million.

North America was until recently home to much more spectacular animals than now roam the continent. A mere 10,000 years ago -- the blink of an eye in evolutionary time -- we had saber-toothed tigers, woolly mammoths, 500 pound beavers, giant elk, and giant ground sloths wandering the continent. Hard to imagine them wandering among the subdivisions and freeways today.

One of the most fascinating things about wildlife are the number of species which are still being discovered. Most of these are various kinds of subspecies of insects, or small fish. And many of the unknown species are supposed to live in the shrinking Amazon rainforest. But there have been 408 new species of mammals discovered since 1993. Some of the more notable of these include the so-called barking cow in Laos, a new rhinoceros species in Viet Nam, and a giant peccary in Uruguay. And 25 new species of monkeys have been discovered (including 9 lemurs).

There are certainly plenty of wild places left away from the Amazon rainforest which could harbor unknown species. Even a place like the United States, which we tend to think of as very civilized and even overdeveloped, has lots of wild areas. We have a tendency to think of the entire country as being like the suburbs or cities where we live, with a few national parks thrown in to remind us of what the continent used to be like. But the next time you fly across the country, look out your plane window. Most of what you see is green (or brown, depending on the time of year). The towns seem few and far between.

Who knows what species we have yet to discover.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Rock star sex?

From this morning's AP, via the NY Post:

Sully's heroic landing led to 'rock star sex'
LOS ANGELES — Pilot Chesley Sullenberger jokes that his heroic handling of a disabled jetliner brought him "rock star sex" in an interview for "NBC's People of the Year" TV special.

Sullenberger, who safely ditched a US Airways plane in New York's Hudson River after geese hit the engines, is among those interviewed by Matt Lauer for the Thanksgiving Day special.

Lauer asked Sullenberger and his wife, Laurie, whether his sudden celebrity helped or hurt their relationship.

"He doesn't know I'm gonna say this, but I had joked the other day that ... the hero sex really helps a 20-year-old marriage," Laurie Sullenberger said with a laugh, according to an NBC transcript.

"Rock star sex," Chesley Sullenberger chimed in.

Sully, you are a true hero for having walked the length of that plane twice after it landed in the Hudson to make sure there were no passengers left on board. But I don't think that the phrase "rock star sex" refers to sex with a woman you've been married to for over twenty years.

On the other hand, if that's what makes you happy, I'm glad, because you certainly deserve whatever good in life comes your way.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The perp walk

One of the time-honored traditions of law enforcement is the perp walk, where the authorities parade the guilty party in front of the cameras to show the public that they are doing their job. This is done by both the FBI and the local police.

Above left is a picture of this morning's featured perp, the "baby-faced" (according to all the newspapers) Carvett Gentles, whose stray bullet managed to find its way into the skull of innocent 17-year-old bystander Vada Vasquez.

The picture brought to mind a pattern I've observed over the past few years, whereby the law enforcement authorities seem to try to match their perps with an officer of the same race, at least while the cameras are rolling. The image of an innocent-looking young black boy, no matter how heinous his crime, being manhandled by two Dick Butkus-lookalikes is not the one that the NYPD wants to project in this racially hypersensitive age. So they carefully matched young Carvett with an older "brother" to hold his left arm.

The thinking seems to be, well, we all know that law enforcement is dominated by whites, and we all know that crime, especially violent crime, is committed disproportionately by nonwhites. But be that as it may, we have to work against the perception fostered by the media that we're just a bunch of cowboys going around looking for minorities to roust. So every time we stage a perp walk, let's make sure that we have an officer on hand who looks like the perp.

The same thinking was at work with the arrest a month ago of hedge fund billionaire Raj Rajaratnam. Evidently the FBI didn't have an ethnic Indian available, so they made do with the closest thing, an East Asian, to hold his arm for the cameras (see picture above right). The feds were able to hit the mark exactly, however, when announcing their indictment of Rajaratnam: they had U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara handle the news conference.

You know, just so no one would think they were "racist."

It's a wonderful new world we live in: if you commit a crime, you get to be arrested by your own, at least when the cameras are rolling. (No such guarantees when it comes to the unfilmed jail guards, however.) It's unclear exactly what the point of all this is, other than proving that the law enforcement authorities are exquisitely sensitive to ethnic sensibilities these days.

If you're aware of this pattern, you'll notice a lot of it. This transparent image-burnishing would actually be sort of funny if it did not reflect a deeper rot.

A long, sad journey

When I was 17, I read Fyodor Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, and thought it was the greatest book I had ever read. As a teenager, I was also partial to Herman Hesse and Kurt Vonnegut.

In my twenties, I was an omnivorous reader, with a slight preference for science fiction and thrillers.

In my thirties, mysteries became my favorite form of escape. (Particularly mysteries I had already read.)

By my forties, I had lost my sense of shame, and was happy to indulge in gossipy books.

By age fifty, my favorite reading was the National Enquirer. (The Kitty Kelley oeuvre simply required too much uninterrupted attention.)

Now that I'm addicted to the internet, I can no longer even make it through an entire Enquirer.

The really sad thing is, none of this bothers me in the least.

Why we're better than them

I'm not sure how, but I seem to have gotten onto the HumanEvents mailing list. Today they sent out an email containing an article written by Chuck Norris. Yes, that Chuck Norris. I normally don't read his stuff because, frankly, his writing is about on a par with his acting. (He strikes me as a fine fellow, by the way, just not much of an actor or a writer.) But today's article was titled "Visiting Major Nidal Hasan's Hospital" and I was curious what it was about.

The article was mostly about Norris' visits to Ft. Hood and West Point. He got very welcoming receptions from the soldiers at both places. Norris said he was sickened (and moved) by the fact that Hasan was receiving the finest care in the Brooke Army Medical Center, the same place where the soldiers he wounded were being treated.

This got me to thinking, in how many other countries would this be the case? Certainly not in the countries we are fighting wars in right now. Speaking as someone who is a fan of neither war, and who would like to see all our troops withdrawn immediately from both places, I have to say that this is as much proof as anyone would ever need that we are a civilized country and they are not.

In fact, it would make me downright proud -- if it weren't for the fact that I'm not so civilized.

I'd prefer to see Hasan handed over to the parents of the soldiers he shot.

Sociopathic motivation

(Alyssa Bustamante)

From the AP this morning:

Girl, 15, Charged as Adult in Murder

Police Say She Killed 9-Year-Old to 'Know What It Felt Like'
JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (Nov. 18) - Blessed with a Friday off school, 15-year-old Alyssa Bustamante dug two holes in the ground to be used as a grave, authorities said. For the next week, she attended classes, all the while plotting the right time for a murder, they said.

That time arrived the evening of Oct. 21, when Bustamante strangled 9-year-old neighbor Elizabeth Olten without provocation, cut the girl's throat and stabbed her, prosecutors said. Why?

"Ultimately, she stated she wanted to know what it felt like," Missouri State Highway Patrol Sgt. David Rice testified Wednesday during a court hearing over the slaying.

It's surprising how often one hears of a motive like this for murder. Most people, upon hearing such a statement, usually assume that there must have been some other, hidden motive, like a long standing animosity, or jealousy, or somesuch. But with a sociopath, a mild curiosity is all it takes.

Edmund Kemper, the 6'9", 280 pound serial killer who operated near Santa Cruz in the 1970's, killed his grandparents when he was fifteen. He later stated he did it just out of curiosity to see what it felt like. Around fifteen years ago there was a case in New Jersey where a boy killed a pizza delivery man. He later said he just wanted to see what it felt like.

You can't understand sociopaths until you can fathom their absolute lack of consideration for other human beings. To them, you're no more than a toy, to be discarded when they have no further use for you. The problem with recognizing sociopaths is, they are often so good at counterfeiting the positive emotions (love, affection, loyalty, gratitude) that at first you are apt to think them actually nicer than average. But they are merely acting. The only reason most sociopaths won't kill you is that they don't want to be bothered with the possible repercussions.

It's hard for a normal person to get his mind around such an alien mentality. But it's better to understand them, and be on your guard against them, than to let them catch you unaware.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Rockford Files

(James Garner as Jim Rockford)

One of the best shows ever to run on TV was The Rockford Files, which lasted from 1974 to 1980. The show has been in syndication ever since. I've watched a number of episodes recently (you can see them on

The show starred James Garner as private eye Jim Rockford. Rockford was a departure from previous television heroes in that he would lose half the fistfights he got into, and was also a self-professed coward. All previous private eyes had essentially been superheroes. Garner was perfect for the role, exuding a regular guy-ness which was refreshing in that era.

Almost every show had a designated turkey, usually Rockford's friend or client, as well as a villain. The turkey -- often Angel Martin, played by Stuart Margolin with consummate sliminess -- was there to give Rockford a foil, as well as someone to rescue.

The Rockford Files ended mid-season in 1980, not because of sagging ratings, but because Garner's various injuries were causing him too much pain. (Garner did most of his own stunts.) There hadn't been any studio-related contractual dispute, either, as it was Garner's company, Cherokee Productions, which produced the show. (Garner is one quarter Cherokee.)

Watching the show now, the frequent car chase scenes seem curiously anachronistic. (Garner had raced cars when he was younger, and must have encouraged the inclusion of such scenes.) Rockford is a little too good to be true, though that's forgivable for a TV hero, and Rocky (his father) is a bit too cornpone. And the plots don't always make perfect sense.

But the shows are still worth watching, both for the dialogue and the humor.

Much of the humor is set up by each show's designated turkey. In one episode, Rockford is trying to help a young lady who is being scammed by a corrupt "guru" who is in fact only interested in her money. When Rockford asks her a specific question regarding her situation, she airily replies, "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" (This was a popular pseudo-mystical, Zen-derived expression of the era.) Later on, when the guru's scheme unravels and the girl provokes him, he slaps her. Rockford witnesses this, then informs her, "That was the sound of one hand clapping."

One of the funniest episodes revolved around Rockford's unwilling partnership with another private eye, Lance White, played by Tom Selleck (soon to become famous as Magnum PI). White is adored by all the characters Rockford is despised by, including the police lieutenant Rockford regularly locks horns with. White is also impossibly idealistic and naive -- but turns out to always be right, against all odds. In one scene when he and Rockford are held captive by an aging, legendary criminal kingpin (who has just been rejected for asylum in Israel), White high-mindedly informs the man, "You should know by now -- crime doesn't pay." (Of course, it has for this kingpin, and spectacularly so.) Both the kingpin and Rockford roll their eyes at this. But of course, White is able -- through a very lucky set of circumstances -- to bring the man to justice. And Rockford, though he saves White on several occasions, ends up looking like White's ineffectual sidekick.

Unfortunately, this episode is not available on Hulu, but many others, all worth watching, are.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Good witches, bad witches

(Above left, Sharon Stone; right, Megan Fox; below, Bette Davis)

I watched The Wizard of Oz (I must be part gay) for a few minutes last night, and happened to catch the scene where Dorothy first arrives in Oz. When she says she thought all witches were old and ugly, Glinda (the Good Witch of the North) informs her, "Only bad witches are ugly."

That got me to thinking, is there any correlation between looks and character? Most of the beautiful women I've known have been nice, if a tad spoiled.

Then I thought, how could the arrangement of features on a face have anything to do with the psychology on the inside of the skull? But then I thought, good-looking people are generally treated better, even in childhood, so maybe this somehow allows them to develop into more gracious, kindly personalities. And ugly people, who are more likely to be ignored, do have more reason to be bitter.

Then I thought of the one place where the most beautiful women congregate: Hollywood.

I thought of Angelina Jolie, Sharon Stone, Megan Fox, Anne Heche, Margot Kidder, Sean Young, Lindsay Lohan, Halle Berry, Farrah Fawcett, and Mischa Barton. Then I thought back a bit further, to Joan Crawford, Frances Farmer, and Bette Davis.

If you read the gossip pages, as I do -- as I said, I'm part gay -- you realize part of the job requirement for being an actress is, you have to be sorta insane. (Okay, scratch the sorta.) It's as basic a requirement for the job as having a narcissistic personality is for being President (unless you're an accidental President like George Bush Sr. or Gerald Ford.)

Conclusion: You can't believe everything you hear in The Wizard of Oz after all.

If you're thinking that I'm just using this ridiculously trite piece as an excuse to put up pictures of beautiful women (with reputations as bad witches), you're right. I've come to the conclusion that in order to hold peoples' interest, I can't just keep putting up dry political pieces (see "I'd vote for this guy" or "Blood" for examples of extreme aridity).

I have to make this blog more like a tabloid and tart it up a bit.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Barack Obama hard at work deciding what to do about Afghanistan

Okay, so you can outjump some white boys who are probably throwing the game anyway.

It's time to make up your mind, sir.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Charla Nash

The online edition of this morning's New York Post has a photograph of Charla Nash, the woman who was mauled by the chimp in Stamford earlier this year. I was going to include a link to it, but decided against it. I am usually less bothered by this kind of thing than most people, so I looked at the photograph. But I was quite disturbed by it.

In a case like this, it's hard not to think that she might have been better off dying. She's lost her eyes, her jaw, her nose, and all but one of her fingers. She says she is not bitter, which, if true, is testimony to a remarkable strength of character.

In the meantime, she's suing the state of Connecticut for $150 million, saying that they had been warned that the chimp which mauled her had been brought to the attention of authorities before, and they had done nothing about it (which is true).

Any jury with normal human instincts, when they see her, will award her a lot of money. At least her family will be rich when she passes on.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

I'd vote for this guy

What we need is a no-nonsense leader who will say:

No more foreign adventures, we are not the world cop. Let's pull out of Iraq and Afghanistan immediately and unconditionally. And while we're at it, let's withdraw all aid from the Middle East, we shouldn't be in the business of propping up governments. Let the other countries destroy each other, it's not worth American lives and money.

Collateralized debt obligations and credit default swaps must be regulated like any other security. Firms which want to trade these instruments must put up margin just as with futures and options. Wall Street firms must have capital ratios of no more than ten (times their equity in assets). With those regulations in place, if a Wall Street firm still fails from excessive amounts of the wrong kinds of bets, too bad. You're bankrupt, and so are your shareholders. No more gambling with taxpayer money. And at the banks currently on governmental life support, no one gets paid more than half a million a year. Period.

If a car company goes bankrupt, the bondholders own it. Not the unions. That's the law. The unions -- along with incompetent management and lousy engineers -- are what made the car companies bankrupt in the first place.

We have to take serious steps to balance the budget. Otherwise this is going to be the United States of China.

It's not the government's business to deal with victimless crimes. Let gays do what they want, including marry each other. The government's only role when it comes to sex is to protect children and nonconsenting adults.

No more racial politics. Disparate impact is inevitable in a diverse society. Not all groups have the exact same abilities or inclinations. Affirmative action or any other form of racial spoils systems are out. For college admissions offices to take into account an impoverished background is fine -- that's merely equalizing opportunity, not outcome. If proportionally more blacks than whites get helped, that's fine, too, because they're being helped because they're poor, not because of their race.

No special categories of hate crimes, which is merely affirmative action punishment favoring certain protected groups. The laws regarding violent crime are plenty adequate already.

If you feel abortion is immoral, don't get one. If you want one, go ahead; it just means people with your instincts will go extinct more quickly.

The borders need to be sealed. US citizenship is not the birthright of everyone in the world. And it's also not available to a child whose mother sneaks across the border to have her baby.

My guess is, this is how the majority of the electorate feels. The problem is, neither the Republican nor Democratics offers such a platform. The libertarians do, but they are considered a fringe group. Our two party system is superior to the communists' old one party system, but a system which made room for more than two parties would be even better.

Blood (the complete version)

The recent massacre brings up the issues of dual loyalties, affirmative action, and racial profiling, and places their outcome squarely in front of the American public.

It's not surprising that Nidal Malik Hasan, with his radical Islamic views, would open fire on US soldiers in Ft. Hood. What is surprising is that with all of the warning signs he gave off, no one did anything about him beforehand. Hasan was even promoted to Major earlier this year despite extremely poor performance reviews. When he "counseled" returning veterans suffering from post traumatic stress disorder, instead of trying to help them heal, he evidently harangued them about the unjustness of the wars they had just fought in.

But he was promoted anyway, because the Army has unofficial quotas for minorities, including Muslims, and wants to appear a model of diversity.

Hasan told his fellow soldiers that infidels should be killed. He said that Muslims should wage war on Americans. He said he was a Muslim first and an American second. And he made absolutely no effort to hide his beliefs. (Sure enough, he yelled "Allahu akbar!" as he began his killing spree.)

Now it's emerging that he attended the mosque of a radical imam in Virginia and had tried to get in touch with al Qaeda. Yet the FBI, which had intercepted those emails, dismissed them as inconsequential.

So why did nobody do anything? Because the Army brass, the FBI, and everyone else involved in this sordid affair are all afraid of being called racist.

Race is, of course, America's great sacred cow. We are supposed to repeat, "Our diversity is our strength" until we actually believe it. But a Balkanized America -- which is what all these racial set-asides have resulted in -- is a much weaker America. Yet, we're not supposed to notice.

Over the past eight years, I've never once been singled out for individual attention when boarding an airplane. I'm swarthy, male, and vaguely ethnic (some would say fanatical-looking as well) in a way that should scream "terrorist!" to any half-awake security person. Yet I've always been whisked right by, while witnessing little old white ladies being pulled aside for special attention.

This certainly doesn't make me feel any safer. Call me silly, but I value my life over my (possibly hurt) feelings any day.

Japanese-Americans who live on the West Coast were interned during World War II simply because of their ancestry. No one today regards this as anything but a tremendous injustice. At the time, FDR -- that great liberal icon -- thought there was a possibility that Japanese who lived on the West Coast might side with the Japanese if they invaded America. This was not entirely unreasonable; blood is often thicker than citizenship. It certainly was with Nidal Malik Hasan. Or look at la Raza's stance on immigration.

During World War II, Japanese-Americans who were from Hawaii and elsewhere were allowed to serve in the US Armed forces, and they often served with distinction. Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii won the Medal of Honor for having served on the European front. Yet Japanese-Americans were not allowed to serve on the Pacific front because it was thought that they would have mixed feelings about fighting people of their own ancestry.

While the internment was completely unfair, it seems reasonable that the Army would quietly steer soldiers away from situations in which they would be asked to kill their own kin.

What should have been done with Nidal Malik Hasan, a Palestinian Muslim whose sympathies lay entirely with the other side? First, he should never have been promoted. Secondly, he should have been fired from his job after his horrible performance reviews at Walter Reed. And the Army -- and FBI -- should have taken some sort of action when it became apparent he was trying to contact al Qaeda. He had tried to commit treason long before actually pulling the trigger.

The Army should also have some sort of clawback provision for soldiers who get hundreds of thousands of dollars of free medical education at their expense, but then for some reason prove themselves unfit to serve.

In the meantime, it's entertaining to watch the dance Barack Obama and the media are doing to steer public opinion away from any commonsensical conclusions about this incident. Obama's first response was that we shouldn't rush to judgment -- something he himself was all too willing to do in the Henry Gates affair. And the media has suggested that Hasan somehow caught PTSD from the soldiers he counseled (as if it were contagious, like a venereal disease).

Certain ethnicities are more likely to react in a certain ways, and commit certain types of crimes. If the authorities are prohibited from taking this into account, they will not be able to do their jobs effectively. Willful blindness has never been a wise policy.

It certainly wasn't in Ft. Hood, where our diversity proved to be our weakness.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

The kind of husband you want

The following account is from this morning's NY Times:

The police say they have an audiotape that disproves claims by the 37-year-old wife of a wealthy health care executive that she was abducted from her Forida beach community by a 25-year-old mechanic. Investigators say that the audiotape proves that the wife, Quinn Gray, plotted the kidnapping with Jasmin Osmanovic, who the police say was her lover. The sheriff of St. John's Count, David Shoar, said Ms. Gray and Mr. Osmanovic, were heard plotting their extortion scheme on the tape. The authorities in Ponte Vedra said Ms. Gray's 38-year-old husband, Reid Gray, found a note from his wife on Sep. 4. The note said that three men wanted him to deliver a ransom of $50,000 and that he was not to involve the police. Mr. Gray is standing by his wife in the case, paying for her legal defense as she and Mr. Osmanovic face extortion charges.

Love to have been a fly on the wall for that conversation. ("Oh honey, you know I'd never do that. I love you way, way too much to ever try to pull a crazy stunt like that. The police are just trying to make themselves look good. You're the most important thing in the world to me, you know you are.")

Sounds as if somebody needs an education in sociopathy. (Actually, he got one but seems to be ignoring it.)

This willfully obtuse fellow is a successful health care executive, too. If this incident is any illustration of the brains it takes to succeed in that field, well, no wonder a trip to the doctor costs so much these days.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Whither Steinbrenner?

It used to be in the old days, George Steinbrenner, owner of the NY Yankees, was a dominating, domineering presence. Back in the 70's, when he used to hire and fire manager Billy Martin, he made as many headlines as any two of the players combined.

I'm not a baseball fan, but learned enough through osmosis to know that he was a guy everyone loved to hate.

In all of the articles I've seen about the Yankees' World Series win, I have yet to see Steinbrenner's name mentioned. I checked Wikipedia to make sure he was still alive, and sure enough, he is, and still owner of the Yankees, although he is no longer chief executive, a role he has delegated to his sons Hank and Hal.

According to Wikipedia, Hank is similar in temperament to his father. But he either purposely keeps a lower profile, or the media has deliberately chosen to ignore him.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Good coaches, bad coaches

This article might actually be of slight interest to nonswimmers, as it is more about the relationship between coaches and athletes and less about swimming:,%20Bad%20Coaches

Monday, November 2, 2009

Our man in Afghanistan

(On left, Hamid Karzai; on right, actor Ben Kingsley)

President Obama evidently just made a congratulatory phone call to Hamid Karzai on his "election." Back in August, Karzai had stuffed the ballot box with more than a million fake votes. When this became embarrassingly apparent, it was determined that there be a runoff election between Karzai and runner up Abdullah Abdullah. Yesterday, however, Abdullah withdrew from the election, saying that it would be fraudulent as the first. So today Karzai was declared the "victor."

Personally, I think anyone who tries to steal an election should not only be automatically disqualified, but clapped in jail as well. But the White House seems to be figuring, well, we gotta bet on someone. Karzai may be corrupt, but at least the former CIA operative is our corrupt leader. (The current administration, hailing as it does from Chicago, may feel a certain sympathy for that particular foible.)

Karzai seems to bear a strong resemblance to Ben Kingsley, who is most famous for his Oscar-winning turn as Mohandas Gandhi back in 1982. In behavior, however, Karzai probably more closely resembles another Kingsley role: Meyer Lansky (in Bugsy, 1991). The resemblance resonates all the more when you consider that Hamid's younger brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, is reputed to be one of the biggest heroin dealers in all of Afghanistan.

This farcical "election" underlines more clearly than ever why we should get out of Afghanistan. We first went there with the intention of rooting out Al Qaeda and finding Osama bin Laden. We merely pushed al Qaeda into Pakistan and we never found Osama. But somewhere along the way our mission turned into an attempt to remake Afghanistan as a united, modern democracy. The only problem with that is that the various Afghan tribes have no interest in uniting, they have no interest in democracy, and they despise the U.S.-approved Karzai for being the corrupt man he is. And the longer we stay there, the more they hate us.

If you were at a party where everyone hated you, wouldn't you leave?

The problem is, Obama doesn't want to be seen as the one who lost the "war on terror" when he runs for reelection in 2012. Obama doesn't want to wage war on Muslims in some faraway land. All he cares about is making sure that black people get a larger share of the pie. But because he wants to be reelected, he'll let the Afghan war drag on in a desultory fashion with no satisfactory conclusion either way. This is why when he finally makes a decision, it will probably be to send more troops, but not as many as McChrystal wants. (This is the equivalent, as others have pointed out, of voting "present" in the Senate, something Obama was known for.)

If they ever make a movie about this war, at least they'll know who to cast as Hamid. That will be the only straightforward part of this whole sordid, misbegotten venture.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

For exercise addicts only

Training your body to do something is actually a fairly straightforward concept: you must train hard so that your body adapts to the training, and you must keep giving it progressively harder exercises to do, so that it becomes increasingly stronger.

At the same time, you must also recover let your body recover in between workouts. If you train hard and never give your body a chance to build itself back up, you'll simply wear yourself down to a crisp.

It's a simple concept, but one which a lot of people seem to get wrong.

What you're doing when you're exercising is actually tearing your muscles down. After you've torn them down, those muscles, with proper nutrition and rest, then rebuild themselves in ways that next time it will perform that exercise better. But without that recovery period, you'll just continually tear your muscles down and not give them a chance to recover.

Most people do either too little or too much. People who aren't into exercise just let themselves go, and wind up with minimal muscle and maximal fat. And people who are addicted to their exercise tend to overdo it, and get injured that way. Injuries tend to happen when someone doesn't give himself enough recovery time. And that period of recovery time needs to be longer as we get older.

The average jogger will run something like three miles a day, every day, at eight minute pace. What he is effectively training himself to do is run three miles a day at eight minute pace. Period. He'd be better off running five miles, every other day. He'd not only be training his body to run further, and therefore be stronger, but he'd be allowing it to recover in between runs.

He'd be even better off if he varied his exercise more, so his body adapted to different types of stress. If he ran sprints and did calisthenics Monday, took Tuesday off, ran long distance Wednesday, took Thursday off, then swam on Friday, he'd find himself feeling much stronger than if he just ran three miles every day. He'd have more speed and explosive power, more endurance, more looseness to his muscles, and healthier joints. He'd also look a lot better.

Look at the people you know who run daily but do nothing else. They mostly look like the before picture in the old Charles Atlas ads. Plus they develop a certain brittleness to their bodies. They'd be much better off varying their exercises, and incorporating yoga and other upper body exercises. With the advent of Pilates, body sculpting classes, kettlebells, yoga, etc, fewer people are getting it wrong than twenty years ago; but many still are.

A former Mr. Olympia, Dorian Yates, trained each muscle group exactly once a week. He said if he went hard, that was all he needed to do. And he understood the damage that overtraining can do. Arnold Schwarzenegger, back in his Mr. Olympia days, once purposely sabotaged up and comer Lou Ferrigno by telling him that he himself trained with massive amounts of reps -- which wasn't true. (Not unlike the way the California legislature is now sabotaging Schwarzenegger.)

Think of the sprinters in both swimming and running. Most of them are basically lazy But as a result, many of them have more explosive power. Sprinters tend to look like studly, distance athletes geeky. Some of this is genetics, but some of it is the nature of their training. Be dedicated, work hard, turn yourself into a wimp.

Another concept that many people tend to lose sight of is specificity of training. If you're training to swim a 100 yard freestyle in under 50 seconds, doing endless repeats of 100 free's (or multiples of 100 free's) at 1:10 pace will do you next to no good, and it could even harm you. What you should be doing is repeats of 50 freestyles in as close to 25 seconds as you can get. These stressful days should be interspersed with easy days, which might include 100 yard freestyles at 1:10 pace. But if all you do is swim long distances slowly, your sprinting will never improve. (I use swimming as an example because serious track athletes tend not to get this concept wrong as often.)

My apologies for this boring post, but it's advice some would do well to take.

I suppose I could heed it myself. Last night my son mocked me by pulling his t-shirt over his chin (to represent my weak chin) and whining, "I can't get my books published." When I told him that he shouldn't be so hurtful to me during my formative years, he replied, "Yeah, formative -- formative of that spare tire around your stomach."