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Monday, April 29, 2013

Dime pieces

I Skyped with my son yesterday. He had read the post from Saturday morning about how women with blonde hair and big boobs are consistently overrated, so we got onto the subject of rating women.

He said that nothing made him sicker than hearing guys describe girls as "tens" when in fact they're only eights or nines. To prove his point, he asked me how many tens I had known; I was only able to list five or six. I was hesitant to tell him that I had thought his mother had been among them, knowing how he would react, but then went ahead and said it anyway, just to annoy him.

He rewarded me with the expected groan of disgust (no son ever sees his mother in those terms).

I asked him how many tens he'd known. He said he'd only known one, and had maybe seen two or three others. He repeated that it sickened him to hear guys throw that ranking around so freely. I told him he seemed to be taking this awfully seriously, as if these guys had somehow committed a horrible sacrilege. I added that he reminded me of nothing so much as a Muslim who'd just heard Mohammed insulted.

He replied that from now on he was going to declare a fatwa against guys who threw the term "dime piece" (meaning, a ten) around too freely.

I mentioned a woman I had once dated when I was single whom I thought might have been a ten (he had seen her photo). He said, no, she was a hard nine, but not a ten. I pointed out that this woman had driven me absolutely crazy when I had first met her.

My son said that you could want to go to bed with a nine just as much as you might with a ten, or possibly even more, since there was something so breathtaking about a ten that the feeling you got was more one of awe than of lust.

I thought of the woman in the photo and asked, "Can a girl be a ten if she's not that smart?"

My son replied, "No, because if she was really a ten, you'd have no idea whether she was dumb or not."

I thought about that for a moment and admitted that he was right, since everything that comes out of a ten's mouth, no matter how stupid, sounds like magic.

I recounted a conversation I'd had with his uncle about forty years ago. I'd been talking about a girl I'd had an insane (unrequited) crush on in high school, and his uncle had asked me, "How long did it take, from the moment you first saw her, before you were completely smitten?" I had never been asked this question before, so had to think about it. I then replied, "Honestly? Around ten or fifteen seconds." (Never let it be said I'm not superficial.)

His uncle had cackled with delight (in obvious agreement about the timing).

My son said, "That sounds about right. It's not one or two seconds, and it's not like it takes a whole minute, either. You look at her once, then look back, and then look back again, sort of in disbelief. And by that point you're like, 'I can't believe a face can look that good'."

To shift gears, I asked my son how he would rate himself. He shrugged and replied, "Around an eight and a half."

I said, "That sounds about right, because I'm an 8.6 or an 8.7."

He laughed, "Dad, if I'm an eight and a half, you're about a four and a quarter."

The thing is, I actually agree with him. (Not about my rating, but about the concept of a ten.) A ten represents perfection, or a type of beauty so extraordinary that it's even better than (bland) perfection. By definition, none of us can have known any more than five or six of them in our lives.

I suppose you could argue that with a ten point ranking system, each number should represent roughly ten percent of the population. But that would take all the romance out of the concept of a ten.

The distribution of looks is probably better represented by a fairly steep bell curve, with the vast majority of the population falling into the three to seven range.

When I told my son that this discussion proved that he was in fact a romantic at heart, he reminded me that he was the one who had gone to the local bookstore and taken the Marquis de Sade books out of the adult section and put them in the "Teen Paranormal Romance" section (where they keep the Twilight books). 

He chortled, "Can you imagine a teenage girl picking up Justine and saying, 'I like that name, this sounds like a nice book, I think I'll get it'."

I suggested to my son that he was struggling to come to grips with who he really is: a romantic, or a cynical practical joker. 

He replied brusquely that the two don't conflict, and there was no reason he couldn't be both. 

He's probably right.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Sociopath alert: Susan Stillwaggon

It seems that these days we read on a regular basis about sociopaths who fake illnesses in order to gain sympathy and attention. This particular offshoot of sociopathy is sometimes called Munchhausen's Syndrome, and demonstrates how sociopaths have an endless craving for love and sympathy, two emotions they never feel themselves. There is a variation of this syndrome called Munchhausen's-by-proxy, in which people make their children sick in order to gain the sympathy and attention they crave.

Yesterday the NY Post ran an article with the headline, Mom told 9-year-old son he had cancer, collected thousands in donations: cops.

An excerpt:

A South Jersey woman told her 9-year-old son he had a deadly cancer when he was really just fine — and led him on by holding fund-raisers and bake sales where she raked in thousands to pay for his sham care, cops said.

Susan Stillwaggon, 35, duped her son, Nick, her husband, and her entire Pennsauken community into believing the boy had Stage 3 Hodgkin’s lymphoma, cops said.

The boy thought he was terminally ill, while she accepted about $2,000 from donors, cops said.

Even her trucker husband Chuck believed his son was dying of cancer, cops said.....

The mom admitted the lie to cops but wouldn’t say it was for money troubles, police said.

“Her response to me was, ‘I need help,’ ” Pennsauken Police Detective Cheryl Duffy said.

Stillwaggon is now hospitalized. Her mom told a local news station she had suffered a breakdown.

She faces charges of theft by deception, forgery, endangering the welfare of a child and using a child to commit a criminal offense.

Recently I seem to have specialized in pointing out sociopaths who don't really need pointing out. I realize it's more interesting to hear about people you might not have suspected, but Susan Stillwaggon illustrates too many facets of sociopathy to pass up.

All you really need to know about her to know she's a sociopath is that she would tell her 9-year-old son he was dying of cancer when he wasn't. Most of us lie to 9-year-olds to make them feel better about themselves. The depth of depravity to which you'd have to sink to tell any child -- let alone your own son -- that he was dying when he was not is unfathomable to those unfamiliar with sociopathy.

Or, all you'd need to know is that she did the same to her husband, making him think that his son was dying. Imagine how he felt. (And imagine how he feels now.)

Or, all you'd need to know to ascertain her sociopathy is that Stillwaggon basked in the warm glow of sympathy she got from her community, knowing all the while that it was based on a false premise, but enjoying it anyway. Most of us cannot imagine feeling anything but the most extreme nervousness -- and then guilt and shame, after perpetrating such a hoax. But Stillwaggon is immune to those feelings.

Finally, when she was caught, her response, rather than a shamefaced admission of guilt, was to say, "I need help," and check into a hospital, as if she were somehow the victim of this entire episode. Sociopaths, when caught, often feign some form of mental illness, as if to prove that they had no choice but to act as they did. It's essentially the not-guilty-by-reason-of-insanity defense.

Another example of this would be Kenneth Bianchi, one of the two Hillside Stranglers, who faked a multiple personality disorder after he was caught, and actually had most of the doctors fooled for a while.

Finally, Stillwaggon illustrates yet another facet of sociopathy: that they come in all shapes and sizes and colors. Here is the picture the Post ran of her with her son:

She looks like every other doting suburban mom, not someone you'd cross the street to avoid. But inside that seemingly affectionate exterior lies the same absolute absence of compassion that serial killers have. (The only difference between Stillwaggon and them is that she doesn't need violence to get off sexually.)

The natural reaction to hearing about this case is to feel sympathy for the son; and the son, more than anyone else in this sordid story, certainly deserves sympathy. But I wouldn't necessarily bet that he doesn't grow up to be a sociopath himself. Hopefully he has gotten enough love from  his father, and established enough of a bond with him, to prevent sociopathy. But if the father works as a trucker, that means he's absent much of the time, and the son's main influence has been the mother. So it's hard to see how he could have established the kind of solid bond with a parent it takes for a child to grow up to be decent.

At this point the ideal scenario would be for Mr. Stillwaggon to divorce his wife and get sole custody of their son, and for Susan to spend some time in jail (preferably, with other inmates who know about her crime). But it may already be too late for the son.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Why parents no longer give their daughters these names.

Just stumbled across a mildly interesting article, 10 Vintage Girls' Names: Unique Names You Don't Hear Anymoreon the site

What made it more interesting was to think about why these names have declined in popularity. I think it's generally a function of the most famous people with that name, an association that is often hard to shake.  For instance, in the last sixty years, few parents have named their sons "Adolf."

In some of the cases I couldn't come up with an explanation, but in others, it seemed glaringly obvious.

"Joyce" has gone from a top 20's name back in the 40's to #969 in popularity now. The most famous Joyces are Kilmer (who was actually a man) and James Joyce, whose surname it was. There haven't been any recent Joyce's to inspire.

"Roseanne" is now ranked at #14,265. This one seemed a little easier to explain. Who is the most famous Roseanne you can think of? Barr, right? How many parents do you think look at their sweet little bundle of joy and hope she turns out to be like THE Roseanne?

Or, for that matter Rosie (Roseann) O'Donnell?

"Hattie," now at #993. (Who knew it was still that high?)

"Dorothy" was popular in the first half of the 20th century, but now ranks at #937. Who's the first person to come to mind when you hear that name? The one who went to Oz? Well, that movie was made in 1939, and has long since peaked. And the most famous real person? Dorothy Lamour? Dorothy Parker? Both long gone. Even Dorothy Hamill is no longer known to people of child-bearing age. So the name languishes.

"Madeline" was popular in the early 1990's but has since lost its popularity. Those popular Madeline books by Ludwig Bemelmans may have lost some of their influence since the start of the internet era in the late 90's.

"Willow" was popular in the early 1900's but has pretty much disappeared since the 1960's. (Is that name too pliable-sounding for current feminist sensibilities?)

"Pamela" was a top 30 name from 1937 to 1971, but is no longer. The most prominent Pamela of recent years has been Anderson. But she didn't achieve Baywatch fame until 1992, so her I-don't-want-my-daughter-to-grow-up-like-that effect doesn't explain the decline of the name starting in 1971.

"Ann" was a top 100 name from 1899 to 1973, but now ranks at #996. Not sure why.

"Leona," formerly a popular name, is now ranked #929. This one is real easy: the existence of that sociopath Leona Helmsley, "The Queen of Mean," was enough to dissuade any parent from choosing that name for their daughter.

"Janet," now #951. Again, fairly easy. The two most prominent Janets of recent years have been Janet Reno, Bill Clinton's Attorney General:

And Janet Napolitano, the current director of Homeland Security:

While both women have had undeniably successful careers, neither quite matches the feminine appeal of Janet Leigh, whose career peaked in 1960, with Psycho:

It does seem parents are more moved by pulchritude than power.

Predictions for the near future: we'll see more Keira's [Knightley] and Angelina's [Jolie], and fewer Amanda's [Knox] and Casey's [Anthony].

Pavlovian reaction

Just saw this picture on Iowahawk's blog:

He has a great blog, but I have to differ with his taste in women.

All my life I've been surrounded by guys who see blonde hair and big tits and automatically go crazy. The women above do absolutely nothing for me.

First of all, none have the kind of refined features you could describe as beautiful. (They put me in mind of Cinderella's stepsisters.) Secondly, they all look stupid. (They look sorta like porn stars, but less intelligent.)

Third -- and this is most damning in my book -- they all look as if they expect you to burst through your pants at the mere sight of them.

There's nothing less attractive than a woman who parades around thinking herself a sex symbol.

I know, I know, attraction is purely subjective, so for me to rant about this is obviously silly. And I understand that most guys prefer large breasts to small ones, which has something to do with why more women get implants than breast reduction surgery.

But to me, none of those women look like they'd be worth the trouble, and even if they were no trouble at all, I still couldn't be bothered.

Another thing: a woman's beauty is a function of her her cheekbones, lips, and eyes. Hair color has as little to do with real beauty as the style of hat a woman might happen to be wearing. I've never understood guys who feel that blonde hair equals beauty.

Every time I go to some place like Spain or Yugoslavia (that's what it was called when I was last there), I always end up wishing I'd grown up there instead, because the women there generally don't strive for the over-stuffed, over-proud look of the Miss Valvolines above.

And, I wouldn't have had to grow up feeling like an outcast whenever all my buddies would go ape over some wannabe Pamela Anderson. (It's easy for a grown man to say "She does nothing for me," harder for a 15-year-old boy.)

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

How soft have we become?

Reading about the Chechens, especially here, has driven home how pampered, by contrast, our country is. But Chechnya is a small place, so not an apt comparison to the mighty U.S.A. Perhaps a better comparison would be China, a nation which more resembles an early stage Roman Empire, compared to our late one.

The best indication that a nation is in decline is usually the softness and self-indulgence of its people. (Before the fall of the Roman Empire the Romans became known for their gluttony.) This chart shows that we are, literally, the softest -- i.e., most obese -- nation on earth, with over 30% of our citizens being obese. (Mexico ranks second, with 24%.)

There is a great deal of focus in this country on ensuring our safety. From cradle to grave, a huge amount of ingenuity has gone into eliminating various dangers. If any company has manufactured a product which might possibly contribute to a mishap, no matter how much we are at fault, we are encouraged to sue that company. In China, they would scoff at such abnegation of personal responsibility.

One of the dangers we try to eliminate is airborne toxins and pollutants. In China, they pay scant attention to such things, and just continue to ramp up production instead.

In China, if you are convicted of corruption, they shoot you. In this country, serial killers are more likely to be given a life sentence than a death sentence. And if they are given a death sentence, they get free medical and dental care and three squares a day for upwards of ten years before they are finally executed.

The Roman Empire overextended itself. We are similarly overextended, thinking mistakenly that we can bring enlightenment to unenlightened corners of the globe. The Chinese have a huge army, which they use only to ruthlessly stamp out rebellions on their borders.

The fall of the Roman Empire was preceded by the rise of feminism. Feminism has been on the rise in this country for the past forty years. (I'm not making a value judgment here, merely pointing out a fact.)

The focus of this country is on redistribution rather than production. Much energy is expended on  providing for the less productive, rather than encouraging the productive.  It's certainly nice to have a strong social safety net, but such an inviting net is not conducive to the long term strength, or unity, of a country.

Worse, there is a lot of energy expended denying that some are productive, and others are not -- or that some are more intelligent and law-abiding than others. The near-hysterical promulgation of such propaganda also makes for a shaky foundation for a society.

We have a program called "No Child Left Behind." The Chinese educational philosophy might better be described as, "Let's Leave the Western Children Behind."

China guards its borders jealously. Anyone caught in the country illegally is likely to be charged with spying, which is punishable by death. We punish illegal aliens by giving them a path to naturalization.

China has an upper class formed in large part by crony capitalism, but they also have an expanding middle class, which is the backbone of any nation. We have a shrinking middle class. Both of our political parties pay lip service to the middle class. But the Republicans promote policies which in fact benefit the upper class, and the Democrats promote policies which benefit the lower class. Both are prescriptions for disaster.

There are still pockets in America which seem unspoiled. Mormons still seem to have something of a pioneer mentality. They work hard, don't indulge themselves, and don't bother with much of the silliness which has overtaken the rest of the country (even if they have their own versions). The Amish are considered curiosities these days, but at least they have not let themselves get soft. And the martial virtues are till revered in the military, at least in the infantry and in various Special Operations units.

But for the rest of us, it's gluttony and entertainment from the Coliseum, or its modern day equivalents.

Don't get me wrong: I'm glad I live in the US. If someone gives me inside information, I'd be tempted to take it, and I wouldn't want to be shot for that. I also prefer to breathe clean air. And it's nice to know that should I fall upon hard times, there will be some sort of social safety net for me.

Full disclosure: I also enjoy being self-indulgent. Writing this useless blog and practicing for masters swimming probably represent the height of self-indulgence.

I would have enjoyed being a late stage Roman circa 400 A.D. as well, what with all those feasts and orgies. And I would have hated to be a centurion back in 100 B.C., sleeping on the ground in faraway lands and wondering if I would survive the next battle with the Teutons or Gauls.

I wouldn't have even wanted to be one of the ones whose job it was to build those aqueducts. (Give me Nero's life instead.)

I'm also glad I live in a society which places such a premium on safety, as I prefer to live rather than die. I prefer to have the biggest threat to my safety come from a high cholesterol level brought on by too many parfaits rather than from invading Huns.

But I also recognize that I am living in the most coddled circumstances in history.

One of the biggest problems facing our country is that not all of the world's peoples are quite so self-indulgent. Many of the Muslim countries, for instance, are filled with people who will gladly give their lives for the chance to take a few of ours.

And that imbalance, typified not only by the Tsarnaev brothers, but also by Chinese willing to work eighty hours a week, is what may well prove our downfall.

Sorta like how it happened with Rome.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Ethnic cleansing in the land of Oz

Last week I saw Oz the Great and Powerful. It had little of the charm of the original, and seemed to be aimed primarily at kids.

That aside, what I was really struck by were the racial dynamics of the casting. Roughly ten percent of the Munchkins and Tinkers were black, yet there was not a single Asian or Hispanic in sight. Hollywood is obviously uncomfortable excluding blacks, yet they seem to feel perfectly comfortable excluding Asians and Latinos. What gives?

Even worse, this movie was supposed to be a prequel to The Wizard of Oz. Yet by the time Dorothy landed in Oz, there was not a black to be seen. What had happened in the intervening years? Had the white Munchkins simply killed all of the black ones? They certainly showed no signs of their intentions in Oz the Great and Powerful, even going so far as to appoint a black man as chief tinker, a position requiring great mechanical ingenuity.

I would never have guessed that the Lollipop Kids were white supremacists, but it does appear that way. (Were the Scarecrow and the Tin Man guilty as well? Perhaps Oz himself played the role of Hitler.) Somebody should investigate.

Another interesting aspect of the movie was that all of the white residents of Oz looked like cornfed Anglos straight from the 1943 cast of Oklahoma! And the good witch was played by Michelle Williams, a blonde Anglo of part Norwegian descent:

Yet the wicked witches were played by Rachel Weisz and Mila Kunis, both of whom are of Jewish descent:

Was there a message being conveyed there? Are the folks who run Hollywood really that anti-Semitic?

I must confess myself greatly confused.


When I first read about the Tsarnaev brothers, I actually started to feel a tiny bit of sympathy for Dzhokhar, the younger one. It seemed pretty obvious that he had been led astray by the older one. The initial accounts of their life made it sound as if Dzhokhar had worshipped his older brother, Tamerlan. It sounded as if Dzhokhar, who studied hard and had friends, was the well adjusted one, and Tamerlan, who claimed he had not made a single friend in America, was the misfit.

Tamerlan had been a boxer, and had been known to beat up his girlfriend. (Having been named for one of the most bloodthirsty conquerors of all time, did he have any choice?) He had also reportedly become a more fervent Muslim than Dzhokhar.

Tamerlan even had a much more aggressive cast to his face, whereas Dzhokhar somehow looked more peaceful (though this may have been partly a function of their ages).

Then there was the fact that Dzhokhar was only 19 years old. (I would never have done what he did when I was 19, but neither would I want to be judged today on what I said and did at that age.)

But then I read that on Wednesday evening, two days after the bombing, Dzhokhar had partied with his fellow intramural soccer players at U Mass Dartmouth. By all reports he had seemed fine, and had acted normal. At one point he even described himself as "a stress-free kind of guy."

That ability to enjoy oneself after such an act smells of sociopathy: sociopaths actually do tend to be far more stress-free than the rest of us. If Dzhokhar had been pulled reluctantly into this crime by his brother, he would have been, at the very least, a little perturbed at the suffering he had caused. But he didn't seem to be: he just partied hearty.

I don't know enough to say whether he's a sociopath; maybe he's just a Muslim fanatic like his brother. But any shred of sympathy I had for him evaporated upon hearing about his partying.

It will be interesting to see what his interrogators can glean before Dzhokhar lawyers up.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Stereotypes about male and female athletes

Brittney Griner, recently of Baylor and now of the WNBA, came out a couple days ago, and the media has fallen all over itself congratulating itself for not making a big deal about it.

I've read at least four articles to this effect in the past 24 hours.

I agree that it shouldn't be a big deal, though I'm not so sure the media should be quite so self-congratulatory: by making a big deal about the fact that they're not making a big deal, they are in effect making a big deal about it.

But what really throws me is the resentment the media seems to harbor about stereotypes about male and female athletes.

The NY Times article on the subject this morning was typical: Female Star Comes Out as Gay, and Sports World Shrugs.

The gist of the article was that while it was wonderful that Griner's coming out didn't seem to faze anyone, it is also reflective of a pernicious stereotype in the sports world, that female athletes are much more likely to be lesbians than male athletes are to be gay.

Patrick Burke, an advocate for LGBT athletes, was quoted as saying, "In sports right now there are two different stereotypes -- that there are no gay male athletes, and every female athlete is a lesbian."

No one in his right mind thinks that there are exactly zero gay male athletes and exactly zero female heterosexual athletes. So Burke is of course setting up a straw man with his statement.

But what Burke is trying to imply -- that the stereotype of male athletes being by and large straight and top female athletes being more likely to be lesbians is misguided -- is itself misguided.

Sports are, for the most part, a testosterone contest. He -- or she -- with the most testosterone wins. (Of course, it's more complicated than that, but there is a very strong correlation, which is why athletes take steroids.)

Away from muscle, testosterone is also correlated with a host of other characteristics, not all directly related to athletic ability. For instance, the shoulders to hips ratio, the depth of the voice, hairiness, and aggression. It's also highly correlated with sexuality.

So the best male athletes are often big, strong guys who are more likely to be accused of rape or of having multiple children out of wedlock than the average guy.

And the best female athletes are much more likely to be lesbians. This is neither good nor bad; it's just the way it is.

My guess is that most individual reporters realize this, even if collectively they all feel obliged to toe the politically correct line. Take a look at this Brittney Griner interview; you'll see -- and hear -- why no reporters were all that stunned when she came out.

Griner strikes me as a perfectly fine person. But both her athletic ability and her sexuality were in large part determined by her hormonal mix.

Stereotypes almost always exist for a reason -- because they're so often true, despite the media's constant attempts to deny biological reality.

The media's message, as always, is that our diversity is our strength -- but don't you dare point out that we're actually diverse in any meaningful way.


On Monday, the marathon bombing killed 3 and injured 170. On Thursday, the blast at the Texas fertilizer plant killed up to 15 people and injured 180. The parallel -- but slightly elevated -- number of casualties in Texas almost seemed to be trying, in a perverse twist of timing, to supersede the importance of those in Boston.

To the people affected, both tragedies hit equally hard. If you've lost a leg, that affects the rest of your life the same way, regardless of how you've lost it. And to the people who've lost loved ones, their mourning will be just as sorrowful either way, even if up in Boston the sadness will be mixed with anger.

(I've heard all sorts of calls "for prayers" for the victims of the Boston bombing; as yet, I've hear none for the victims of the Texas explosion, though they are suffering just as much.)

One of the tragedies involved the type of people that reader of the NY Times know: people who live in big cities and who run, or cheer for those who run, road races. And it involves a threat to such readers, since we all go to crowded places, and terrorism can strike anywhere. The other affects bunch of people living in a place Times readers would likely never go, 20 miles north of Waco, Texas.

One tragedy will add fuel to the national debate on immigration, and ethnic and religious profiling, and be talked about for months to come. The other, the media will soon forget.

I'm not even suggesting that it should be otherwise. The Boston bombing is far more of a human interest story: it involves human perfidy, and personal character, and touches on national policy.

The other just goes into the "shit happens" category, soon to be forgotten by all but those directly affected.

But the fertilizer plant explosion did serve as a reminder -- however temporary -- that tragedy comes in all shapes and sizes, and from all directions.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The Boston Marathon bombing

Whenever an innocent person loses his life, or is seriously maimed, it is of course tragic. A life is a life, and it's hard to value one over another.

But somehow planting bombs at the finish line of a marathon seems particularly cruel.

Most of the hardcore runners I've known have been a relatively likable bunch. People whose big goal in life is to run 26 miles without stopping, or to do so faster than they have before, are a relatively innocent breed. Trying to kill them is almost like planting a bomb near a group of people building cabins for Habitat for Humanity: why them? (Okay, marathoning is an egotistical and not an altruistic pursuit, but still, this is not a group whose energies are spent hurting others.)

But it's not as if we can politely ask al Qaeda to next time please plant their bombs at a maximum security prison, preferably near the Death Row section.

The number of injured yesterday evidently far exceeded the number killed. And there have evidently been a lot of amputations. Again, that's obviously terrible for anyone, but somehow seems particularly so for those who love to run.

It also seems particularly cruel to place the bomb right at the finish line, where the runners are finishing their 26 miles. They were exhausted, and probably a little discombobulated. They were proud as well, but those who had just finished when the bomb went off had no chance to savor their accomplishment.

The people closest to the bomb were those cheering them on, in front of the hotel but behind the barricades lining the course. The last thing they -- or the runners -- were expecting was terrorism.

But of course that is precisely how terrorists succeed, by doing the unexpected.

So far the police have said they are detaining one "person of interest," a 20-year-old Saudi national, though there is evidently some question as to whether he is the actual culprit. Certainly nobody expected a bomb at the end of a 26 mile race.

If the 20-year-old is indeed the terrorist, all of these subtleties undoubtedly escaped him. He is probably just a dumb guy who was weaned on hatred for the Great Satan, and figured he was striking a blow for a good cause. The last thing on his mind was the types of individuals he would be killing.

Back in the Mideast, terrorists sometimes plant bombs at weddings and funerals, simply because they know lots of people will be gathered there.

That seems particularly cruel too.

Of course, all this is really beside the point. The real cruelty is robbing people of their lives and their limbs, no matter what the occasion is. And it's most tragic when a young person loses his life.

Martin Richard, the 8-year-old who was killed while cheering on the runners, has gotten a fair amount of publicity, as one would expect. He was evidently a normal, nice, innocent boy who loved to climb and ride his bicycle.

The 400 or so children estimated to have been killed by U.S. drones aimed at killing our enemies have gotten exactly zero publicity. (We don't even know their names, for the most part.) They are just referred to by our press as "collateral damage" -- even though most of them were probably just as cute and lovable as Martin Richard.

To their relatives and countrymen, of course, we are the terrorists.

It's hard to justify any war in which innocents like children -- or even 70-year-olds trying to finish a marathon -- are killed. Especially wars in which we achieved as little as we did in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Perhaps the best response to terrorist attacks is not with war or even with drones, but with payment in kind. Blast victims regularly lose their limbs and eyes in these attacks. Surgeons can do miraculous things with transplants these days. Perhaps it would be more appropriate to catch the individual terrorists, and then surgically harvest from them whatever their victims have lost, be that arms or leg or eyes, then try to transplant those onto their victims.

Maybe what we should have done after 9/11 was focus entirely on catching bin Laden and his henchmen, then let them settle their debts to the wounded this way.

This would spare the life of innocent Muslim children. And it would deliver to the guilty what they deserve. It sounds barbaric, but would come a lot closer to real (Old Testament) justice than what we have now. And it would discourage further terrorism of the sort we saw yesterday, even if it would not dissuade suicide bombers.

I know, we are theoretically a civilized nation, and civilized nations do not maim.

But neither do they kill innocent children.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Custer's last stand

When I was in Oklahoma recently, I stopped for dinner at a tribal casino. I had to walk through the gaming floor to get to the restaurant, where I could still smell enough smoke to convince me to order takeout. But I was in there long enough to get a sense of the place. Most of the gamblers looked alcoholic, and none seemed fazed by the secondhand smoke they were inhaling, meaning that most of them were probably smokers themselves.

The gaming floor had a dead end, last stop feel to it. The only thing it lacked was that sign saying, "Abandon hope, all ye who enter here."

Whenever you see an ad for a casino, it tends to look something like this one, for the Seminole Hardrock in Hollywood, Florida:

Yes! Casinos are glamorous, fun places where babes like this like to hang out and have a blast winning lots of money! Let's go!

But it's almost a certainty you will never see a scene like this that isn't staged. First of all, the odds of three beautiful, well-dressed, perfectly made up models sitting next to each other in front of the slots are about as good as those of pulling the lever on a one-armed bandit and getting four sevens. Second, neither of the two models on the left has the euphoric I-just-hit-the-jackpot look of elation; nor do they have the glazed eyes that most people get after an hour or so of sitting in front of the slots. Both are simply wearing pleasant smiles, as if the photographer just told them to look happy.

Real convincing.

As I left I crossed paths in the parking lot with a cigarette-smoking, fifty-ish white guy who was tottering towards the casino. I sensed something vaguely dangerous about him, so looked closely at him as we neared each other. I had gotten that impression because he was giving me the once over. He actually swerved a bit to avoid me; I realized later he must have thought I was a Cherokee security guy connected to the casino.

I also realized that he was probably nowhere close to fifty, but just looked it, and that his addiction to gambling was probably almost as bad as his addiction to cigarettes and alcohol.

Despite his dissolute appearance, he wasn't that bad-looking; in another era, he might have been one of those handsome soldiers whose Daguerrotypes you'll occasionally see. He might even have been one of the soldiers who went down with Custer at Little Bighorn.

At least there he would have met a more honorable end.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Sociopath alert: Christian Gerhartsreiter

It shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone that the "fake Rockefeller" who was convicted of murder on Wednesday is a sociopath. But he's still worth discussing since he embodies so many facets of sociopathy.

Christian Gerhartsreiter was born in 1961 in Siegsdorf, West Germany. At age 17 he met an American couple, the Kelln's, and falsely claimed that they had invited him to visit them in California, using that claim to get permission to go to the U.S. Once here, he landed in Berlin Connecticut, finding a family, the Savio's, who allowed him to stay with him and register as an exchange student at Berlin H.S. He told the Savios that he came from a wealthy German family, starting a pattern of lying about his background that would continue until his conviction for murder.

Whenever you hear of someone who has adopted a completely new identity, that almost always spells sociopathy. And if he does it for criminal purposes -- especially if he invents a falsely glamorous background -- you can be sure of his sociopathy. For some reason, a normal background is never enough for this type of sociopath; he needs to present himself as "royalty."

(The surname of the woman who educated me about sociopathy when I was 25 was Hines. She told me -- among many other lies -- that her father had been born into the Heinz Ketchup family, but that he had changed his name because he had "wanted to make it on his own.")

The Savios soon tired of Gerhartsreiter and asked him to leave. But he had realized after a short time in this country that he wanted to become a citizen. After making his way to Wisconsin, he quickly found a 22-year-old woman, Amy Jersild Duhnke, to marry him. Duhnke later said that Gerhartreiter left her as soon as he had his green card, the day after the wedding.

In 1995, Gerhartsreiter married Sandra Boss, a Stanford and Harvard Business School graduate with a high-paying job at McKinsey & Co. By this time he was presenting himself as Clark Rockefeller, a scion of that illustrious clan. Boss eventually realized that Gerhartsreiter had been lying to her about a number of things, and asked for a divorce.

Perhaps the interesting question here is how a smart woman like Boss could be taken in by a less intelligent sociopath. The answer is simple: she hadn't had any experience with sociopaths before. No matter how smart you are, if you're unfamiliar with sociopaths, you just can't fathom the depth of their depravity, the complete indifference with which they regard other human beings.

We all tend to assume that other people are like us, and we can't imagine getting any satisfaction from lying about our backgrounds or accomplishments -- so we can't imagine other people getting satisfaction from such lies either. If most of us lied about these things, we'd feel uneasy about it. A sociopath feels no such qualms. It's not until you've met and gotten to know someone like that that you realize they actually exist.

It doesn't matter if you have a higher IQ than them. Smart people who've had no experience with sociopaths are simply no match for conscienceless liars. When it comes down to book smarts vs. street smarts, the latter usually triumphs.

A quick working definition of street smarts: recognizing dishonesty when you see it.

(Another aspect of sociopathy that Gerhartsreiter embodies is that they come in all shapes and sizes and colors. Nobody would ever pick the meek-looking fellow pictured above to be a murderer.)

After Boss and Gerhartsreiter got divorced, Boss was awarded custody of their child, with Gerhartsreiter agreeing to three supervised visits a year. Shortly after this he abducted their child; he was caught by police in Baltimore, Maryland. Although his defense team tried an insanity plea, the jury didn't buy it and he was sentenced to five years.

During his incarceration Gerhartsreiter was charged with the 1985 killing of Jonathan Sohus, a man from San Marino, California, whose guest house he lived in for a while. (Sohus's wife disappeared too, but her body was never found.) This past Wednesday Gerhartsreiter was convicted.

It didn't help his case that by this point his con game was well known.

Gerhartsreiter wasn't a serial killer since he got no sexual kick from murdering people. The Sohus's were simply a couple he preferred dead, so he killed them with absolutely no compunction.

If you meet someone who tells tall tales about his background, you can be pretty sure he's a sociopath. And if he is, you can be sure he cares about your well being as much as Gerhartsreiter cared about the Sohus's.

(One final point: note the thin lips. I know it makes no sense, and I realize it makes me sound crazy to even point it out, but it's something I keep seeing over and over again with sociopathic Caucasians. I've noticed it with the sociopaths I've known personally as well.)

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Swedish films

Saw The Girl Who Played With Fire for the second time a few nights ago. As good as I remembered, but it made me wonder about the differences between Swedish and American cinema.

The primary difference, I think, is that most Swedish actors look as if they just got out of bed, after having slept in their clothes. In their movies Swedes drink lots of coffee and alcohol, and constantly smoke. The Swedish actors, for the most part, look as if that's what they do in real life as well.

Not to mention that the lighting is not always cheekbone-friendly. Swedish directors seem to have more control, Swedish actors less.

American actors are usually clean-shaven, stylishly (or at least flatteringly) dressed, and look as if they work out constantly. Some have even obviously taken steroids.

And the actors are always shown in their best light: gauzy shots for actresses of a certain age, side- or three-quarter-lighting for everyone else. The make up is always perfect. Take Angelina Jolie, for instance: even in her action scenes, she never has a hair out of place.

The Swedes obviously go for a real people, cinema verite look. Even their blockbusters have the look of documentaries. The Swedish Bikini Team was a creation of Hollywood, not Stockholm. Most of the actresses in Swedish movies look more as if they are on the Swedish Junkie Team.

Hollywood strives for sex appeal, no matter how ersatz. Their number one (through number ten) casting rule is that the audience must either want to look like, or go to bed with, the stars.

Oh, the Swedish plots seem to be better, from the little I've seen.

But the primary difference is the actors' appearance.

Crisis in baseball

The NY Times, publisher of all the propaganda that's fit to print, ran a large article in its sports section today titled, "Looking Into the Decline in African-American Players."

Evidently American-born blacks now only count for 8.5% of professional baseball players, although blacks comprise roughly 12% of the overall population. This number is down from a high of 19% in 1986, a decline the Times describes as "staggering."

This fact is "increasingly troubling to major league officials."

Baseball commissioner Bud Selig has put together a 17-member diversity committee to try to redress this grievous injustice.

Meanwhile, blacks comprise over 60% of the players in the NFL, and over 80% in the NBA.

As yet, no one has seen fit to address those disproportionalities, which are far more skewed.

(My feeling: if blacks are better at certain sports, which they plainly are, they should occupy disproportionate numbers of positions in those sports; but that same logic should apply to other fields of employment as well. Let merit prevail.)

The whole thing is reminiscent of the way it is considered a crisis when the NYFD has only 3% black employees (in a city which is 25% black), yet no one thinks twice about the NY Department of Corrections' 60% black employees.

Something is very, very rotten in the state of Denmark.

No one comes out of jail a liberal

The previous post, about the ethnic purity of gangs, brings to mind a parallel phenomenon: how a stint in prison affects peoples' attitudes towards race.

Prison life, like gang life, tends to be more as it was in the caveman days: raw and elemental. Danger lurks around every corner.

(There's a funny line in the Elmore Leonard book, Road Dogs, in which somebody describes the hero, Jack Foley, as being smart, but not like the other guys who are supposed to have high IQ's in prison. Someone asks, what happens to those guys? "Oh, they're the ones who have to give the other guys blow jobs.")

In prison, if some hulking, tattooed lifer calls you a sissy and demands a blow job, and you tell him no, he's not going to reply, "Yeah, okay, if you're not in the mood, that's fine. And I apologize for calling you a sissy."

In prison, it's all about who is the biggest and baddest, and who has the strongest allies. Fairness has nothing to do with it. So inmates turn wherever they can for protection.

Inmates seem to know that there's one group they can rely on for protection, and that is their kin. (Races are nothing but extended kinship groups.)

And this is true of every ethnic group there is.

After a stint in a medium security jail or worse, virtually everybody seems to come out feeling more closely attuned to their own ethnicity. Blacks come out as Black Muslims. Whites come out as members of the Aryan Brotherhood. Hispanics often join either the Mexican Mafia or Nuestra Familia.

And these feelings seem to stick. People get tattoos -- permanent markers -- signifying their ethnic/gang affiliation.

There is also the phenomenon of people reconnecting with their childhood religions in jail. Charles Colson becoming a born again Christian while in jail for his Watergate crimes. Ivan Boesky became a Talmudic scholar while in prison for insider trading. Taking up one's childhood religion is not quite the same as joining an ethnic gang, it's probably more of a there-are-no-atheists-in-foxholes type of phenomenon.

But reconnecting with one's roots -- whether ethnic, or religious, or both -- does seem to happen quite frequently in prison. Nobody ever comes out saying, we have to be nicer to that other ethnic group. They come out hardened and less naive.

Perhaps there's a lesson to be learned about human nature. When you're in a dangerous situation, where do you turn?

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Why not force gangs to integrate?

When the Augusta golf club was still all-white a few years back, it became a national story. When the NYFD didn't have a proportionate number of black firefighters, a judge's order rectified the situation. If a private corporation hasn't hired enough minorities, the Department of Justice will come calling. If a college isn't fully committed to diversity, an outcry will ensue.

But there is one class of organization in this country which remain stubbornly monochromatic, yet no one raises a stink about it.

It's high time we brought the benefits of diversity to gangs.

So far both the Mexican Mafia and Nuestra Familia have remained obstinately Hispanic. MS-13 is even more exclusive: it allows only Salvadorans, not even other Hispanics.

The Crips and Bloods have remained entirely black. Neither group has made the slightest attempt to foster diversity among their ranks. It's high time they practiced a little affirmative action of their own. (That sounds like a cause Eric Holder can get behind: forcibly integrating the Crips and Bloods. Where's the Justice Department when you need them?)

The same goes for the Aryan Brotherhood. Why complain about Silicon Valley having only 3 or 4% black workers when the Brotherhood has 0%? Do they not understand that our diversity is our strength?

Or how about the traditional Italian Mafia -- what's with all this old-fashioned stuff about how it's easier to become a made man if you're Sicilian? That sounds suspiciously like discrimination.

The Chinese tongs are -- to the best of my knowledge -- similarly discriminatory. Can't they find any blacks or Hispanics to hire? Or even Japanese?

Why doesn't some ambitious DA who wants to make his name file suit?

Of course, the very idea is ridiculous. These are criminal organizations. And although they can pay well for those at the top, they file no tax returns, are not officially incorporated, and offer no health plans. Plus, no members of other races have thus far applied to these gangs.

On the other hand, many legitimate businesses have started off as criminal enterprises, so to join these gangs might be to effectively get in on the ground floor. And even if they don't go legit, there is always money to be made from shakedowns, drug running, and prostitution.

So by depriving other races of membership, doesn't this prevent equality of opportunity?

If the Justice Department were to bring a class action suit, it would certainly go a long way towards dismantling the gangs. Imagine how well these gangs would function if each were forced to hire a diversity officer, and the dominant group were forced to attend sensitivity training seminars? Imagine how hamstrung the gangs would be if minority gang members were encouraged to bring suit if they felt they were slighted in any way, or denied promotions they deserved?

Management would have to spend an inordinate amount of energy fighting such suits, and would have fewer resources left for their core businesses.

Honestly, I can't think of a better way to destroy the gangs.

Monday, April 8, 2013

The drive back

The drive back from California to Connecticut had a few points of interest.

I can now confirm from personal observation that the Bonneville Salt Flats are indeed flat, and do seem to be made of salt. (How can salt be faster than tarmac?) In their honor I revved my car up a little past 80 mph as I went by. (The speed limit in the western states tends to be 75, so I wasn't breaking the law by that much.)

The highway there goes on, absolutely straight, for about 30 miles, without a single bend, rise, or dip. The Flats are located right next to the Great Salt Lake, which makes sense. (They are the remains of Lake Bonneville from the Pleistocene Era.) After you drive for a while, they seem awfully bleak, especially since absolutely nothing can grow on that desolate land.

The only surprise is that they didn't put an Indian reservation there.

I strolled around Salt Lake City briefly, hoping to catch a revealing glimpse of Mormon culture. Like maybe some Latter Day Saints rushing up to proselytize me. Or perhaps a gentleman out for a morning stroll with his six wives. But no, nothing like that. People were a little bit friendlier than I'm used to, and perfect strangers would give me a cheery "Good morning."

But that's always a culture shock for anyone from the greater NY area.

In Utah and Colorado, you see a lot of scenery of the kind they used to show in the old Westerns. There are a lot of the high cliffs where you'd see the Apaches or Comanches suddenly appear, to let the white guys know they were dead meat. (It always seemed to me as if it would take them an awfully long time to get down from those cliffs, in which time you could easily make your escape.)

In Utah, you'll also see the Colorado River a few times, at points where it would more fittingly be described as the Colorado Stream. Hard to believe that little thing carved the Grand Canyon.

Along the highway you also see a lot of what can only be described as one horse towns. What are the lives of their residents like? How tired must they get of their few neighbors?

The St. Louis Arch is right next to the highway. Like Mt. Rushmore, it looks much smaller in person than you'd expect from the photographs.

At the East St. Louis turnoff, I saw a sign for "Barack Obama Boulevard." It occurred to me that the various streets which take that name in the future might become like all the various Martin Luther King Boulevards, which, as Chris Rock once pointed out, are named after a man of peace but seem to be where much of the violence in any big city takes place.

I took the exit, on the theory that I ought not to criticize the denizens of such places without a firsthand look. The city is every bit as rundown as advertised. There are rubble-strewn vacant lots and the main commercial thoroughfare has a lot of advertisements for "checks cashed" and "bail bondsman." The whole place had the feel of a Skid Row. I've always been of the opinion that people create their environments, and not the other way around. But I have to admit, it would be hard to grow up in a place like that without it leaving its mark.

When I'm driving along the highway, and see a sign for a local inn (which is not part of a chain), I always wonder, is this another Bates Motel? Will it feature Procrustes' bed? Will it be like that place in Hostel? Have I seen too many movies?

When you're tired, especially when it's already dark, you want the easy familiarity of a Days Inn, or a Comfort Inn. Or, in my case, a Motel 6. Which I guess is why the chains have become so ubiquitous.

Truck drivers are usually the best drivers on the highway. They almost never go over the speed limit, always signal lane changes, and are generally courteous. Actually, once you get away from the New York area, most drivers of any vehicles are good. I didn't see a single truly bad driver until I arrived back in the NYC area. In the short time it took to cross the Bronx, I encountered four dangerously aggressive ones.

East of the Mississippi, the scenery is generally pretty boring. Thank goodness for books on CD. I got two Elmore Leonards and a David Sedaris for the return trip. The Leonards (Road Dogs and Raylan Givens) were, as always, great.

The Sedaris book was When You Are Engulfed in Flames. Sedaris's arch, bitchy, and often self-deprecating humor works well on paper. But he was the only author who actually read his own book, and his whiny alto-tenor seemed a little like overkill. A gay literary voice is somehow less enjoyable when delivered by a literal gay voice.

As beautiful as some of the western scenery was, only about 1% of the trip looked like this:

The other 99% looked mostly like this:

(Okay, so I'm not a great photographer; you still get the idea.)

But even the beautiful scenery can only take your breath away for about two or three minutes. After that, any kind of scenery gets sort of boring: how long can you look at the same mountain?

Otherwise, they could have extended that initial scene in Avatar when the hero first sees that cool forest for the entire movie. After a while, you want dialogue, action, and drama.

That's why a drive across the country is so boring: it lacks a plot.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Highway 395

This weekend I took Highway 395 north from Los Angeles, up the east side of the Sierra Nevadas. I had expected to see alpine scenery like that in The Sound of Music. I hadn't realized that it was all just high desert. On the eastern side of the mountains it seems to be mostly just huge piles of boulders and rockfall. It looks more like a moonscape than any of those sylvan glades where Julie Andrews frolicked.

It's all magnificent in its own way, but the coloration goes from brown to white (at the snow line) with hardly any green in between. I had thought that by April 1st there might be signs of spring at the lower elevations, but there aren't any that I can see, and many of the roads are still closed. Which I guess makes me the April Fool.

I tried to take a hike near June Lake, but lost the trail after a while and ended up on a steep slope where I slipped a few times. Had it been any steeper, I would have kept falling. Much of the scenery actually reminded me of that bleak valley where James Bond's ancestral home was located in Skyfall.

I saw Mono Lake as well. It has three times the salt content of the ocean, and looks it. The lake, and the surrounding landscape, have a weirdly dead look. That effect is amplified by the stiff winds coming off the mountains. It would be a good place to film a movie about a post-Apocalyptic future. Anyway, I can now cross the lake off the bucket list, along with Highway 395, which I'd always wanted to see.

I'm now on Interstate 80 in northern Nevada, which advertises itself as the loneliest stretch of highway in America. This is not false advertising. What northern Nevada seems to have a whole lot of is nothing.

I made it as far as Winnemucca yesterday evening, a town with two legal brothels. So, I guess the highway isn't all that lonely. (No thanks.)

One thing I realized early on Saturday was that "Indian reservation" often translates as "trailer park in the middle of the desert." (Not a tepee in sight.)

The Indians really did get the worst land after the white man finished speaking with his forked tongue. There's no water in sight, and the land is completely non-arable.

The only thing that grows there are casinos. The casinos must be profitable, though, because there seem to be a lot of them. Many of them have Indian-themed names. I walked into one, and walked out almost as quickly because of all the secondhand smoke. But I was in there long enough to see that there was as much evidence of Native American culture there as in those trailers they now live in.

It's sad. The only evidence of a way of life which existed as recently as 150 years ago is in the museums that white people build to show that culture. The Indians must have been fairly intelligent to have spread and survived all over the Americas, and to have made it through the harsh winters in North America. But they don't seem to be motivated to use that intelligence now to study hard and advance in today's America.

The Indians now seem to mostly either work at menial jobs or hang out in their trailers and drink firewater in the desert.

If I lived there, I'd probably do the same. There's not a whole lot else to do in the desert.

Other than shoot craps, I guess.