Monday, November 10, 2014

No Matter How You Look At It

Consider the following events:

President Eisenhower severs diplomatic and consular relations with Cuba, as Fidel Castro announces that he is a Marxist-Leninist, and that Cuba would adopt socialism.

President Kennedy delivers the first ever live presidential news conference.

Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin becomes the first human in space.

The Bay of Pigs Invasion of Cuba begins (and ends, in shambles, two days later).

Astronaut Alan Shepard becomes the first American in space.

President Kennedy announces to Congress his goal to put a man on the moon before the end of the decade.

Construction of the Berlin Wall begins.

New York Yankee Roger Maris hits his 61st home run on the last game of the season, beating Babe Ruth’s 34-year-old record.

Neil Armstrong, at the time an experimental research test pilot, records a new world record speed piloting an X-15 rocket plane.

Joseph Heller publishes Catch-22.  

All of those events took place the same year the following people were born:

Barack Obama, Meg Ryan,  Lea Thompson, Dan Marino, George Clooney, the late Princess Diana, Michael J. Fox,  Eddie Murphy,  Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Heather Locklear, Nadia Comaneci, the late James Gandolfini, Dennis Rodman, Ralph Macchio, Forest Whitaker, Wayne Gretzky, Ricky Gervais, Toby Keith, Woody Harrelson, yours truly.

The year: 1961.  But honored as I am to share my birth year with such luminaries, I will choose to brag about this:  as Mad Magazine pointed out on it’s cover in March of that year,  1961 was the first “upside-up” year (the number looks the same upside down as it does right side up) since 1881.  The next one will be 6009.  So, all of my living 1961 brethren and I can say, with absolute certainty, that we are the only human beings currently alive that were born during an “upside-up” year.

And no one else will be able to say that for the next 3,995 years.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Bet

“OK, let’s go over the rules of our bet.  We each pick the species we think will last the longest.  We look in on the planet 100 million years from now.  If one of the species we picked is still around and the other isn’t, whoever picked the one that’s around wins.  If both species are gone, we figure out which one lasted longer, and whoever picked that one wins.  If both species are still around, we take a look in another 100 million years.”

“You’re on.  So, this time we’re using the third planet from that star in the Milky Way’s Orion arm, right?”

“Yeah.  That planet’s particularly interesting, since the species are so varied there.  There’s even a space-faring species, homo sapiens (Latin for “wise man”; a bit arrogant, don’t you think?)  They’ve done some exploration outside their planet, built habitats in planetary orbit, sent out probes, even landed on their moon a few times.  But they’ve only been around for about 200,000 years, and seem ill equipped for long term survival.  Mind you, there are animal species on that same planet that have been around for 580 million years!”

“I know.  I considered homo sapiens at first.  But after analyzing them a bit I agree with you.  They have no shot.  Even though their brain is relatively large, and in many cases species survival is correlated to brain size, in their specific case the size of their brain and their incrementally higher intelligence don’t compensate for their tendencies toward short-term thinking, aggressiveness and self-destruction.  Actually, it’s pretty amazing that they’ve lasted as long as they have.  They’ve come close to obliterating themselves on several occasions, but even if they don’t destroy themselves all at once, they are doing it gradually by making the planet inhospitable, at least to themselves.  It’s shocking how they continuously (and knowingly) take actions that reduce the ability of their own environment to support them, always thinking in the short term.  Homo sapiens is also a physically fragile species, not equipped to survive any external catastrophic event, should one of those occur.  There've been 5 of them in the last 450 million years.”  
“I know what you mean.  It’s difficult to understand their priorities.  The general well being of their species and its long-term survival are certainly not among them.  They kill each other for the most absurd reasons and are indifferent to the fact that so many of them live in deplorable conditions.  They seem to have evolved into a dead end.  They are intelligent enough to achieve limited space exploration, yet irrational enough to consistently allow short-term greed to trump long-term survival, both on an individual basis and in the collective.”

“Indeed.   Who knows, maybe in a few million years another species will evolve from homo sapiens that will use its intelligence in ways that will foster it’s long term survival.”

“If they make it that far!”

“Exactly.  So, let’s pick our species.  Which one would you like to bet on?”

“OK, I’m going with the Tardigrade.  It’s been around for 530 million years already, but, more importantly, it seems well equipped to survive almost any kind of planetary event, whether brought on by homo sapiens or external.”

“Good choice.  I’ll go with the Lingula, for similar reasons.  It’s also been around for a while, and survived various mass extinctions (like your Tardigrade).”

“OK, bet’s on.  By the way, it seems like the humans agree with us.  One of their websites lists the Tardigrade and Lingula as species number 1 and 2, respectively, as most likely to “survive the apocalypse”.  Of course, they foolishly list themselves as number 3, so that brings their credibility into serious question.”

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

And Here's to You

You will probably never understand how much joy you bring to the lives of so many, or what a pleasure it is to simply be in your company.  But I do.  So please allow me to, for a change, serve you.  This word cocktail.

Upon seeing me you smile with your eyes as well as your mouth.  You are warm, and kind, and genuinely interested in the goings on of my life.  Although deep down I know that you have the same type of arms-length yet somehow intimate relationship with dozens, perhaps hundreds, of others, my disbelief is easily suspended and I feel like what you and I share is special, and unique.  You make me feel like I’m the only one.

Your craft is difficult and requires considerable mental acuity and skill, yet you handle it with such finesse and aplomb it seems effortless.  I love to watch you seamlessly blend the technical and social aspects of your job, not letting either interfere with the other but, on the contrary, combining the two into an elegant, alluring dance.  You handle everything that’s thrown at you with the grace of a soft-handed infielder.  You know what the right thing to do is in every situation, and you do it.  Every time.

When asked by a reporter why he always played hard, Joe DiMaggio said, "There is always some kid who may be seeing me for the first or last time, I owe him my best."  You go one better than Joltin’ Joe.  You feel you owe everyone your best all the time.  You don’t let the crassly unreasonable, the shockingly stingy, or the lecherously offensive faze you.  You laugh them all off.  Your sunny disposition is immutable.  You light up the room with your smile.  You make the room comfortable with your presence.

“And here's to you, Mrs. Robinson”, Simon and Garfunkel said, “Jesus loves you more than you will know.”  Well, here’s to you, my amazing neighborhood bartender.  Your fortunate guests love you more than you will know.  

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Bullying the Wrong Bully

This post on Google + was widely celebrated.  The post’s author, Chris Blasko, is an IT Administrator who received a typical unwanted telemarketing call.  Blasko proceeded to use his considerable IT skills (as well as his guile)  to convince the hapless telemarketer on the line that he (Blasko) worked for the IT department of the telemarketing company and intercepted the call in order to fix a problem with the telemarketer’s phone.  Blasko then walked the telemarketer through a procedure which ostensibly would resolve the “issue,” but instead reset the phone to factory condition, rendering it useless until reconfigured by the telemarketing company’s real IT department.

Blasko, on the aforementioned post:

That's right. I made a telemarketer unwittingly factory reset his phone which means he will be unable to make anymore [sic] calls until someone is able to reconfigure his phone and that will take at least an hour or longer if they can't do it right away!

Most people commenting on the post lauded Blasko’s actions, as did many others who linked to the post on their blogs.  People are so fed up with telemarketers and their sleazy tactics that to put one of them out of commission, even for a short while, feels like a satisfying victory of some sort; a “Revenge of the Nerds” moment.  I had a different impression.

No doubt, telemarketing is despicable in general, and the techniques employed by many telemarketing companies are repulsive.  Here’s the thing though.  I don’t think anyone actually enjoys being a telemarketer.  The evil is in the boardrooms of companies that design misleading telemarketing strategies that prey on the gullible or uninformed, not in the person who, due to circumstances we are not privy to, decided to take a job at one of these companies, probably as a last resort or out of desperation.

Blasko’s post may initially feel like an example of the bullied overcoming the bully, but that is simply not the case.  The true bullies, the people who call the shots at the telemarketing company, were unaffected.  The telemarketer who Blasko tricked into unwittingly resetting his phone is actually much more of a victim than Blasko.  If we are annoyed and exasperated from receiving a few calls like these every day, imagine how it must feel to be the guy (or gal) that makes those calls, non-stop, for 8-hour shifts day after day.  And, thanks to Blasko, on top of all that this guy now has to make an embarrassing call to his own IT department.  Who knows, maybe the idle time caused by the reset will have an impact on his livelihood, or could even cost him his job.

I don’t blame Blasko one bit for feeling frustrated with telemarketers, and I’m sure he felt that putting this one out of commission for a while was the only way he could somehow “get back” at these people who invade our privacy and try to scam us out of our hard earned money.  However, unfortunately all Blasko accomplished was to make some unfortunate guy’s already awful day just a bit more awful.  

I don’t know Chris Blasko, but I have no reason to believe he is anything but a kind and decent guy.  And judging from my own experiences when being rude to telemarketers, I’m sure the initial joy Blasko felt after the phone call was quickly replaced by guilt and empathy toward the docile telemarketer who so obediently followed his instructions.

My humble suggestion: next time, Chris, just hang up the phone.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Hostile Media

Clay Waters, of, referring to the New York Times’ coverage of the situation in Gaza:

The paper's coverage of the ongoing situation has been marked by intense anti-Israel bias in tone and labeling, and a false moral equivalence between the behavior of "extremist" Israelis and merely "militant" Palestinian terrorists.

Steve Lendman, of, referring to the New York Times:

NYT pro-Israeli bias is palpable. It's longstanding. It's distorted and one-sided. It blames Palestinians for Israeli crimes.

Obviously neither Mr. Waters nor Mr. Lendman is an objective observer.  Both are biased, and therefore susceptible to the hostile media effect.  Wikipedia:

The hostile media effect, originally deemed the hostile media phenomenon and sometimes called hostile media perception, is a perceptual theory of mass communication that refers to the finding that people with strong biases toward an issue (partisans) perceive media coverage as biased against their opinions, regardless of the reality.

Those who express concern over media bias believe that people’s opinions will be swayed in nefarious ways by the supposed slanted reporting.  The evidence, though, clearly shows that, at least in the U.S., public opinion regarding Israel and the Palestinians has changed very little over the past five years. has a fascinating collection of surveys on the subject from reputable sources.  Among their findings:

- According to a series of Pew Research Center surveys, in the dispute between Israel and the Palestinians, sympathy toward Israel has hovered between 48% and 53% of respondents from 2009 to 2014, while sympathy toward the Palestinians has fluctuated between 11% and 16%.   (The balance of respondents were either sympathetic to neither, or unsure.)  The differences in the numbers from different time periods are close to the polls’ margins of error, suggesting that the actual figures for the entire population are even more constant than those indicated by the surveys.

- A series of CNN / ORC polls taken from 2006 to 2013 indicate that an average of 80.5% of Americans consider Israel to be either “an ally of the U.S.” or “friendly to the U.S.”  The high was 82% in 2006 and the low 79% in 2013.  The difference between the high and the low is exactly the poll’s margin of error.

- A plurality of Americans, most recently 45%, believe that President Obama is striking the right balance, i.e. he is not favoring either Israel or the Palestinians too much.  However, twice as many of those who believe he favors one side too much believe he favors the Palestinians as believe he favors Israel.  (This from another Pew Research Center series of surveys.)  The numbers are remarkably consistent over the five years covered by the surveys.

Given a topic as contentious as the Middle East, the hostile media effect assures that most observers will consider the media biased against their position.  Yet the same contentiousness suggests that few opinions will be swayed, as the polls clearly bear out.  No doubt, many media outlets are biased one way or another, and reporting is often plagued by the oversimplification of nuanced issues and sensationalism.  But as long as freedom of speech is guaranteed and people have access to content from all outlets and their differing points of view, they will have the opportunity to sift through the morass of information, arrive at their own conclusions, and find the objective reporting and thoughtful analysis that are also out there.  That is, of course, if they choose to do so.

Friday, July 4, 2014

The Salt of the Earth

During the eighth inning of a game against the Philadelphia Phillies last June 26th, Miami Marlins catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia trotted out to the mound to confer with his pitcher, A.J. Ramos.  No big deal, right?  Except, it was.  Here’s the rest of the story.

Tony Gwynn, who died on June 16th at age 54, is considered one of the best hitters in baseball history.  During his 20-year career with the San Diego Padres he won eight batting titles, was a 15-time All-Star and won seven Silver Slugger and five Gold Glove Awards.  His lifetime batting average, .338, is the highest of any player who began his career after World War II.  Gwynn was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2007, his first year of eligibility.

Far more than “just” a legendary ballplayer, Gwynn was known as a true gentleman.  Modest and unassuming, “what you hoped Tony Gwynn was like, he was like” said Keith Olbermann in this touching video eulogy.  Please watch it, I’ll wait.

OK, you’re back.  So on Thursday June 26th, Tony Gwynn, Jr., who plays for the Phillies, was sent in to pinch hit against the Marlins in what would be his first plate appearance since his father’s death ten days before.  As Gwynn stepped into the batter’s box, Saltalamacchia expressed his sympathies.  “Sorry for your loss,” said Saltalamacchia.  “Thank you, Salty,” replied Gwynn, and, as he settled in, the Citizens Bank Park crowd began to applaud.  The cheers grew louder and people started to stand.   Saltalamacchia, in a demonstration of thoughtfulness and class worthy of Gwynn’s father, trotted out to the mound, not to discuss strategy with Ramos, but to both allow the ovation to run its full course and step away from Gwynn so that the moment would be Gwynn’s, and Gwynn’s alone.

Saltalamacchia had the sensitivity and presence of mind to transcend the contrivance of the baseball game and act not as an opposing player, but as a caring fellow human being.  Neither Tony Gwynn, Jr. nor anyone else at Citizens Bank Park that day will ever forget the outpouring of sympathy for Gwynn’s loss and respect and admiration for his father that Saltalamacchia’s gesture allowed.

Salty could hit a walk-off grand slam in game seven of the World Series, and it would not warm my heart nearly as much as his simple act of kindness did on June 26th.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Lyrical Regression

I feel sorry for my son, who is, inexplicably, a hip-hop fan.  Because I grew up with song lyrics that were simple declarations of love, like these:

Can't get enough of your love, babe.


Love to love you baby.


Love is you
You and me
Love is knowing
we can be.

And other lyrics that reflected humility, humanity and respect, like these:

It don’t matter to me
If you take up with someone who’s better than me
‘Cause your happiness is all I want.


What I feel, I can't say
But my love is there for you anytime of day
But if it's not love that you need
Then I'll try my best to make everything succeed

Tell me, what is my life without your love
Tell me, who am I without you, by my side.


When you're weary, feeling small,
When tears are in your eyes, I will dry them all;
I'm on your side. When times get rough
And friends just can't be found,
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down.

My son, on the other hand, has this:

Put molly all in her champagne
She ain’t even know it
I took her home and I enjoyed that
She ain’t even know it.

I had love and respect.  He has the glorification of rape.

He also has this:

Bout to put rims on my skateboard wheels
Beat that pussy up like Emmett Till.

Emmett Till was an African-American boy who was savagely beaten and murdered in Mississippi at the age of 14 after reportedly flirting with a white woman.  So, not only are Lil Wayne’s lyrics shockingly misogynistic, they are in unimaginable bad taste.

And this:

My dick hard as a motherfucker
You don’t what?
Tell that shit to another sucker.

How romantic.

The controversial lyrics I grew up with were more like clever guessing games: Does Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds stand for LSD?  Is Van Morrison referencing heroin in “Brown Eyed Girl”? Is Rosie, in the Jackson Browne song of the same name, Rosie Palm (the character’s masturbatory hand)? And the lyrics of many songs of the era lend themselves to thorough analysis, like “Hotel California”, “Fire and Rain”, “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “American Pie” among many others.  

Instead, my son has:

Yeah, long as my bitches love me (yeah, yeah)
I could give a fuck about no hater, long as my bitches love me.


I’m ’bout to dust some cops off
cop killer, better you than me
cop killer, fawk police brutality.


A young nigga on the warpath
And when I’m finished, it’s gonna be a bloodbath
Of cops, dying in L.A.


Fawk money
I don’t rap for dead presidents
I’d rather see the president dead
It’s never been said
But I set precedents and the standards.

Impressive standards, Mr. Mathers.

Do the blatant misogyny, unabashed sexism and glorification of senseless violence in today’s hip-hop lyrics represent simply the latest chapter in the constant evolution of our culture?  Can they be compared to other aspects of music that were initially deemed unacceptable but later became mainstream, such as Elvis’ hip movements and song titles like “Let’s Spend the Night Together”?

No. Absolutely not.  Quite the contrary.

The acceptance of more overt sexuality in both song lyrics and dance movements is progressive in nature and liberating to both artists and consumers.  It reflects the increasing openness and honesty with which we deal with each other, and it lowers the barriers between what we are really thinking and what we are able to comfortably express.  No question, our society is progressing, as is evidenced by our finally coming to our collective senses with regard to issues like same-sex marriage and the legalization of marijuana.  

Today’s hip-hop lyrics fly in the face of such progress, and represent a disturbing regression.  The objectification of women has no place anywhere, but is particularly offensive when expressed by artists who are supposed to inhabit the leading edge of their craft, and especially disturbing when featured in songs that are actually successful.  Lyrics like these:

Bitches ain’t shit but hoes and tricks
Lick on these nuts and suck the dick.


It’s damn near four in the morning, ain’t shit to discuss
Til you ask which dick do you suck.

should make us cringe, the same way that the racism in “42” does, or the sexism in “Mad Men”, or just seeing a confederate flag anywhere.  But the lyrics should make us cringe much more.  Embarrassing as our past may be, at least it is our past.  We can look back on it, realize how horrible our actions were at the time, and at least take solace from our subsequent progress.

These song lyrics are not part of our past.  They are our present.  And based on the demographic that celebrates them, they could, disturbingly, become our future.

Where’s the solace there?