A gun, an axe, and a shovel walk into a bar….

For all the gun enthusiasts who claim I’m always attacking them—something to make them feel better:

Here’s what the gun enthusiasts glean from that dialogue: “A gun is a tool; no better or no worse than any other tool: an axe, a shovel or anything. A gun is as good or as bad as the man using it. Remember that.”

I thought about the statement and did a search for famous axe-murderers. Well, there’s Lizzie Borden, though she was acquitted of the crime, so I’m not sure if she even counts. The other names aren’t that famous, and Jake Bird, the gold standard of axe murderers, claimed to have killed forty-four people as he hoboed about the countryside—and most of us have never even heard of him. He was hanged for one such crime in 1949. Nobody ever proved he had committed others. I guess the axe has failed miserably as a murder weapon.

Now shovel-murderers are even harder to find; in fact, despite Shane’s comments, screwdrivers and chisels are much more dangerous than shovels, and don’t even get me started on awls!

Shane was one of the all-time great films based on a pretty darn good book, but that doesn’t mean that what the actor (Alan Ladd) read from his script is any more meaningful than Kate Winslet’s assurance to Leonardo DiCaprio near the end of Titanic that she’ll never let go…which she did…about ten seconds later. Movies are great fun, but they’re movies; and all the gunnuts (I like it as one word) who want to quote Shane should not forget that he also says this:

“[T]here’s no living with…with a killing. There’s no going back from one. Right or wrong, it’s a brand.”

Which brings me, finally, to the following:

Gun show

If you’re reading my blog, you’re probably not at the firearm and knife show perusing the rifles, shotguns, and “fine militaria.” And if you’re not there, you might be interested in what I have planned for next year: the Shane Memorial (pretty sure he’s dead) Axe and Shovel Show. We can have it at Home Depot or Lowe’s or your local independent axe and shovel dealer.

Let me know if you’re interested.

Please: no awls.

Break out the asterisks

The cry among Patriot fans these days, faced with the very real probability that their team cheated their way to the NFL Championship, is that they didn’t need special footballs to beat the hapless Colts.

45-7, they claim. They could have used beachballs!

There may be an element of truth to that boast—New England was a heavy favorite going into that AFC championship game, and the Colts seemed to lag behind their opponents in every statistical category. Fans may have been surprised at the lopsidedness of the score, but nobody was terribly surprised that the Patriots won. I doubt if the Colts themselves were that shocked.

If that’s true, why would a team that seemed destined to win cheat to do so?

The answer is obvious: because they thought they could get away with it.

And why did the NFL postpone any investigation for two weeks until after Super Bowl had passed? That’s just as obvious: same answer.

Let’s face it, 2014-15 was not a stellar season for the National Football League. From Ray Rice to Adrian Peterson to Ray McDonald to the admission that maybe being smacked in the head over and over for ten years might just possibly destroy the brain—last year’s NFL season seemed a constant struggle between the actuality of the league and the public image it tried to convey. What better end to the contentious season than to have Tom Brady, football’s golden boy, lead his team to victory and put a stop to all the extraneous minutiae clogging up the sports pages? (I use the term “golden boy” intentionally—it was once used to describe Paul Hornung a few generations ago. Look up his fall from grace if you’d like.)

As for the fact that the game was a “blowout,” , let’s not forget that football, like basketball and hockey is timed—a team falling behind 17-7 at the half (as the Colts did) knows it has thirty minutes of football to recover. For contrast, a player could lose the first two sets of a five-set tennis match, maybe even the first five games of the third set, yet still win the match. Time doesn’t run out. Three times a baseball team has scored nine runs in its last at bat to win a game. Nobody kept an eye on the clock. But falling behind in football determines the pace and strategy of the second occurred.

Will this be a soon-forgotten blemish on the reputations of Brady and Belichick (already accused of previous chicanery) or will it be an ongoing stigma with which their names will always be associated? From what I’ve seen of Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, and Lance Armstrong, I would hold with the latter. And though football is not so statistics driven as possible, it may be time to open up a big bag of asterisks for Brady and the Pats.

A week ago the partisans of Fenway took Alex Rodriguez to task for sullying baseball’s good name, sending a deafening chorus of boos his way when he came to bat. I hope these strict moralists will greet Tom Brady with the same disapprobation and disdain when he takes the field this fall.

 

Missing persons

Last weekend Dean Smith, one of our greatest basketball coaches and educators, died at the age of 83. Tributes came from everywhere, many of them ending like this: he will be missed.

I wonder by whom. If it’s the maker of the statement, wouldn’t it be a lot more personal to say “I’ll miss him”? Doesn’t this sound more heartfelt? Simply saying that someone will be missed is to say nothing at all about the emotional state of the speaker, only that he’s betting on someone somewhere probably wishing that the deceased were not quite so deceased. That’s a pretty safe bet. I’m sure if you go through a catalog of the worst people in history, you will find someone who lamented their passing. Of course you will find many more who didn’t—maybe more still who celebrated it. “Ding Dong the Witch is Dead” comes to mind. There’s something genuine and personal about that song, something lost in a statement like “the witch will not be missed.”

We should feel bad when someone dies, not lay the responsibility on others.

Then again, if we’re so married to the passive voice, then let’s have some Valentine’s Day cards to match. How about: “Be my Valentine—you are loved“? Let’s see how that works out. And if that relationship progresses all the way to “Will you allow yourself to be married by me?” and the answer is yes, then I’ll admit that I was wrong. But until then “he will not be missed” will not be missed.

Human Error, Part I

A driver made a mistake.

That simple statement could save a great many investigators a great many hours of investigation relating to the recent Metro-North tragedy in Valhalla, New York.

A driver made a mistake.

You can put in signals, and signs, and gates, and flashing lights—still, occasionally a driver will make a mistake.

You can even blame the third rail which does seem grievously dangerous, but something that works well almost all the time may not have been the problem. What was the problem is the driver made a mistake.

That doesn’t mean we throw up our hands and say we can’t address the issue of human error. We can. We do. Those rumble strips on the sides of highways—who knows how many mistakes those have prevented over the years—how many weary drivers were jolted from an approaching nap by that annoying vibration.

We can’t operate the microwave with the door open just to feel the tingle.

We can’t open the elevator door between floors just to have a look.

We can’t open a window on an airplane because it feels stuffy.

We’re protected from our own idiocy all the time. Why shouldn’t we be protected from simple confusion?

This morning while I was on the treadmill I watched a TV show on my iPad. I don’t know how that works, but somehow the magical rays in the air allowed that to happen. How much easier would it be to put a little sensor in each railroad crossing gate that, as soon as that gate encounters an obstruction of any kind, signals the approaching train and automatically applies the emergency brake? How embarrassingly easy would it be to have a camera feed directly to a central location: CAR ON TRACK. EMERGENCY STOP. That took me about five seconds to type (the caps lock key slowed me down). That would have left another twenty-five seconds for the train to come to a stop had such a device been installed. Even more actually, because it would have been slowing down all that time.

We’re going to continue to make mistakes, and yes, that third rail doesn’t seem like the cleverest idea anyone’s ever thought of. And I don’t think we can ever eliminate human error and never obviate every impending disaster.

But we can probably do better.

Got Milk? Got Cash?

*****

From The N.Y. Times, February 3, 2015:

Coke is coming out with premium milk that has more protein and less sugar than regular. And the company is betting people will pay twice as much for it. The national introduction of the drink, Fairlife, over the next several weeks is one way that Coca-Cola, the world’s biggest beverage maker, is diversifying its offerings as Americans turn away from soft drinks. To make the drink, filters are used to separate the various components in milk. Then, more of the favorable components are added, while the less desirable ones are kept out. Fairlife says the drink is lactose-free and has 50 percent more protein, 30 percent more calcium and 50 percent less sugar than regular milk.

*****

It’s always good news when a company that has made a fortune selling something unhealthful turns around and sells us something slightly less unhealthful and doubles the price. Who wouldn’t crow about that? And just so you know that Fairlife isn’t Coca-cola’s first venture into other liquid areas, here’s a photo from their website of their current product line:

Coca-cola

Drink up.

You can also, if the spirit moves you, by a retro 10-can vending machine to dispense your Coke. It’s available at Wal-Mart for a mere $139.00.

http://www.walmart.com/ip/34157153?wmlspartner=wlpa&selectedSellerId=0&adid=22222222227022598550&wl0=&wl1=g&wl2=c&wl3=52521839711&wl4=&wl5=pla&wl6=84082895951&veh=sem

One person bought it and reviewed it. He gave it one star and praised it as a wonderful purchase. He apparently doesn’t understand the star system—perhaps too many sugary beverages have addled his brain. (How many horrible movies must he have seen?)

As for Fairlife, the new super-milk, well first off, if you’re reading this, you shouldn’t be drinking it. Milk is for babies—it’s a concentrated food that helps them grow fast. Adults don’t want to grow fast, the obesity rate in this country notwithstanding. But it’s a losing battle to fight the National Dairy Council who claims that milk “– whether white or flavored – plays a vital role within the school meal in helping children meet needs for critical nutrients of concern as identified in the Dietary Guidelines.” The Council has the lobbyists to back it up—all I have is a quart of Silk…and my knowledge that the nutrients in milk comes from the plants that cows eat and that we could also eat those plants and eliminate the middle…cow.

Still, I wish Coca-Cola only the best in this new corporate maneuver. It’s bound to succeed, and if you think that people can’t be charged twice as much for something they don’t need anyway, stop by a Starbucks sometime.

 

Here we come a-waffling, Part II

Like everyone else who believes that having access to the Internet makes him smart, I have a lot of opinions. Some of them, of course, make no sense. Those are the ones I try to keep to myself, only letting them roam free when someone makes the mistake of asking me.

I can get away with that: I’m not running for president.

But in a speech in Manitoba yesterday, Hillary Clinton, who IS running for president said that since the debate over the Keystone XL pipeline has not been resolved she would not comment on it. “We have differences,” Ms. Clinton said, “and you won’t get me to talk about Keystone because I have steadily made clear that I’m not going to express an opinion.”

In the absence of her opinion, let me give you mine: she has to form an opinion and she has to express it. Now.

It’s not as if any new facts need to be gathered. We all know (warning: opinion ahead) that this project could easily become the single most ecologically disastrous event of the still-early 21st century, both in terms of carbon emissions and the rape of the Alberta landscape. That’s my opinion, and since I plan to vote in the next presidential election, I’d like to know the opinion of the frontrunner.

Her assertion that “you won’t get me to talk about it” does not exactly inspire confidence. Instead she sounds very much like just another indecisive politician waiting to see which way the wind blows. Of course she doesn’t want to alienate millions of people (many of them members of her own Democratic party) by coming down on one side of a controversial issue, but she’s going to do that on a daily basis throughout the election cycle. Some people are not going to like things that she says: since that fact is undoubtedly true, coming out and exposing Keystone XL for the disaster that it is might be good practice.

Granted, the 2016 presidential election is 600 some-odd days away, but I need more than this brand of “taking the fifth” from a candidate who, it appears, plans to run and hopes to win.

 

 

$400,000 to burn

Buried in the seamy tale of the UConn music department—included almost as an afterthought—were the salaries of these two accused vis-à-vis their current status. David Woods, the former dean of the School of Fine Arts, who is apparently still a professor in good standing currently receives a salary of $237,547. He is the man alleged to have ignored years of formal and informal complaints against Robert Miller, his department member who we now know was behaving in a reprehensible manner for what appears to be decades. Miller, currently on administrative leave and barred from campus, is receiving a salary of $140,907.

If this weren’t so tragic, it would almost be funny. Here’s a university whose tuition rises every year—which has recently stated openly the desire for more out-of-state students because they would pay more—frittering away close to $400,000 a year (or this year anyway) on two employees, one of whom has allegedly harmed students directly, and the other who has harmed them, it appears, by omission. I understand that there are contracts that need to be honored—that unless formal charges are brought against Miller (or less likely against Woods) they cannot summarily be drummed out of Storrs penniless and debased. What I don’t understand is why an individual music professor—even one at a large university—deserves twice the salary of a high school music teacher whose responsibilities are possibly more diverse.

Most high schools—even larger ones—have fewer than five music teachers, and very often have but two—one for instruments and one for voices. The instrumental teacher becomes ex officio the orchestra leader, the band leader, the marching band leader, and probably the supplier of music for every assembly, event, and theater production in the academic year. And since the likelihood of the school having a music librarian is nil, he’s that too. And he teaches.  The voice instructor handles everything that involves singlng, from the holiday concert to the graduation exercises and every National Anthem in between. He’s at everyone’s beck and call. And he teaches. I’d be willing to bet that Robert Miller has never had that number of responsibilities in any given year; instead they are probably spread out among fifty staff members in the music program at UConn. Most of these instructors are undoubtedly performing their jobs at a high level but not earning anywhere near $140,000 a year. Half that. Less.

Centering this discussion on UConn is unfair: every major university must have its share of staff members turning a blind eye and men and women who exploit and abuse their roles as instructors. And harping on salaries can sound cynical, for it’s very likely that real harm has been done here—done to a lot of young people over a long period of time. (And before anyone reminds me that the acts were consensual, let’s remember that the word loses its meaning when one of the so-called participants holds a position of authority over the other.) In the end there’s that $400,000 which could be put to better use—maybe to set up a fund to counsel the victims who, now that the story has broken, may very well appear in greater numbers. 

Quantifying artistry

What I don’t now about winter sports could fill a container ship, but I do know this: there was something amazing about the ice dancing of Meryl Davis and Charlie White last Monday, something that differentiated them from all the other couples. If I knew all the terms, I’d include them, but as I said, I don’t. I would venture to say that most people who watch the skating events are a lot like me—we can appreciate the beauty and the grace, but we don’t always know why. Because of that our praise is generally reduced to comments like “They were really really good,” while we wait for the results and hope they corroborate our opinions.

On Thursday, in something called the long program—I have some idea how it received that name—Russian figure skater Adelina Sotnikova outpointed the favorite, Yuna Kim of South Korean. The Russian went first, her program breathtaking in its energy, athleticism, and risk. The crowd of course was raucous, rooting for one of its own, and after the performance littered the ice with bouquets purchased for just that use. (Emerson would have wept, but that’s a complaint for another time.) When the Russian skater’s results were announced. and even more so with the announcement of Yuna Kim’s, the place erupted. (In other circumstances I’d say exploded, but with all the worries about security, that may not be the best choice of words) As for my reaction, just remember the container ship.

Immediately there was controversy: Had Yuna Kim fallen victim to home-judging? Had Adelina Sotnikova been the recipient of audience-motivated largesse? On Friday the experts spoke, the consensus being that Sotnikova had accessorized her program with so many leaps and spins that her point total became insurmountable, this despite any lack of artistry. (This failing the experts ascribed to her youth.) Not a fix then, just numbers.

Earlier this month when Seattle beat Denver in the Super Bowl, Seattle had many more points. That’s how they won. Maybe a more apt analogy would be Olympic hockey where the teams from Canada seem able to score more goals. I’m fine with both those situations: in competitive team sports  winners and losers must be defined by totals. But in figure skating, I come down on the side of artistry. Yuna Kim was elegant, graceful, and evocative—every gesture told us something. Adelina Sotnikova was athletic. Yuna Kim was the NBA player weaving through defenders and driving the baseline for a reverse layup, then quietly racing downcourt without contact; Adelina Sotnikova was the winner in the slam dunk contest, rattling the backboard and amassing the oohs and aahs. Yuna Kim belongs in the same conversation (and on the same podium) as Meryl Davis and Charlie White; Adelina Sotnikova doesn’t—not yet.

…but it isn’t news…

It’s hard to decide what’s more annoying—this winter’s weather or the reaction by our local news outlets. Here in the central Connecticut area the ratings war has always been fought by Channels 3 and 30. Downstate we have that New Haven news which, no matter how “capital city” they try to be, most of us will always associate with that place nobody wants to drive to…or in. And of course there’s the early news which gets the jump on everyone else and provides a slew of good field reporters, but they’ll always be the other other news, behind the other news. So there’s 3 and 30, and the battle over who can be more annoying rages.

The Channel 3 detractors will fall back on the inanity of naming winter storms—something that station has done for around four decades. Admittedly it only became excruciating when the Weather Channel began the same practice, but it’s always been annoying, especially when we consider that the weather is an adjunct of the news (even though this winter it seems to be the news.) But as news it doesn’t need a cute name—or any name. We don’t go hanging labels on news items unless they are self-generated: 9/11, Pearl Harbor, Columbine. We don’t, apparently, feel the need to label a robbery at the local convenience store Criminal Act Sally or a house fire Conflagration Steve, even though there may have been eighteen previous conflagrations. At least we don’t feel the need…yet.

Channel 30’s critics need look no further than See It-Share It—a device by which unskilled photographers with little sense of newsworthiness snap pictures of dogs with snowy coats or children with…uh…snowy coats and submit them as news, thereby relieving the station of its responsibility to provide actual news while verifying something we already knew: we don’t really have to know anything so long we can smile at our animal friends or our offspring. See It-Share It is pretty much the opposite of news and very much the opposite of what a television news department should be doing. I suppose blurring the lines between Facebook and local news is financially beneficial; after all, the ratings for social media will always outstrip those of a local TV outlet. And it’s certainly thrifty—why hire someone when you can employ the willing public for free.

Every day we hear of newsprint dying, of the written word residing in a kind of limbo, of nobody under the age of thirty bothering to read a paper. If that’s true, then it’s just as likely that our ignorance of world affairs today is still in its rudimentary stage—twenty, thirty years from now, imagine how little we can know. We have this mistaken idea that we’re informed because we’re always connected, but we’re connected to nothing more than storms named after cities and Golden Retrieves in snow drifts. Maybe it’s time to disconnect and pick up a newspaper.