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:


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.

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.


Sackcloth—the fashion that never goes out of style

My son is a meteorologist. I guess I need to get that fact out of the way.

Also this: I’ve had enough of Robert Kraft and all Kraftiana (except for the unrelated mac and cheese).

That concludes my meager but necessary preface, allowing me to continue without (too much) bias.

Yesterday I read a statement from the National Weather Service apologizing for blowing the forecast in the New York City area this past Tuesday. The prediction of twenty-plus inches of snow never materialized, leaving the area with six to ten. The subway system was shut down, as was Broadway. Probably the Staten Island Ferry and the Guggenheim—though I’d have to check to be sure. Apparently there were minimal casualties, this despite the slippery roads. No casualties—sometimes warnings help.

And all the New Yorkers and their sympathizers complaining about the so-called blown forecast should search their apparently inadequate memory banks to recall the last time the City faced the cleanup after a crippling snowstorm. In 2010, for instance,  just under two feet of snow fell in a December nor’easter, shutting down and isolating entire neighborhoods for days and rousing an endless skein of complaints. And not that it matters to people whose minds are made up, but this week’s forecast was hardly “blown.” We all saw that forecast map of Connecticut Monday evening that indicated 15 to 30 inches of snow would fall. The final range turned out to be a remarkably close 8 to 33. Anyway, for those who were deprived of their share of snow, remember, blown forecasts are easier to shovel out of—ask the people in Stonington. Or Marshfield.

Which brings me to Patriots’ owner Robert Kraft, who has, in this season of apologies, demanded one from the NFL when the investigation into his team’s doctoring of footballs is complete. I don’t know if he realizes it or if he cares, but (and I can say this as a Yankee fan) the Patriots are becoming the Yankees in terms of fans’ disaffection. They may not have been around long enough to develop generations and generations of despisers (The Yankees have had more than a century to build up their non-fan base with parents passing it on to children), but the Pats are making up for lost time. The players’ and coaches’ recent denials of any chicanery have been laughable though not unexpected, and most casual observers don’t care about the results of this so-called probe. But for the four-billion-dollar man to demand an apology from a league that seldom does its job and this time decides to? Ludicrous. Arrogant. Unnecessary.

Aplologies, then.

Just by way of comparison, Derek Jeter was successful 30% of the time and he’s a future Hall-of-Famer. Should he apologize for the 70% of at-bats when he didn’t get a hit? If so, then yes, let’s get that apology from NWS and demand that the NFL kiss Robert Kraft’s (Super Bowl) rings. But if we’re going to let Jeter slide, and Larry Bird (who missed half his shots) and John Elway (forty percent of whose passes hit the turf), and Rory Mcllroy (four strokes to reach the hole—after three that missed?) then maybe we should cut the meteorologists some slack too.

In a society as imperfect as ours, let’s not go around expecting an apology from everyone who declares we aren’t perfect.

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.



Here we come a-waffling

(This was on my website ( last week—it’ s reproduced here with some edits and additions.)

The recent murders at the Charlie Hebdo publishing site in Paris have sparked a good deal of controversy about satire and its functions. It has also provoked a lot of absurd comments—like “journalists should not be murdered for what they print.”

Good call there.

Unfortunately, that’s the easy part. A more important question is this: within what restrictions should responsible journalists operate? And this: is a newspaper like the New York Times wise or cowardly for opting not to reprint the latest Charlie Hebdo cartoons? First though, I thought it might be a good time to underscore the distinction between the two basic types of satire—Horacian and Juvenalian. It’s more of an academic distinction, I guess, but it is a distinction.

Horacian satire, so named after the Roman satirist Horace, is tolerant, amused, witty. It gently ridicules human foibles without anger or contempt. We’ve all read Huckleberry Finn and enjoyed Twain’s skewering of the mores of society. Yes, he was brutally honest, even indignant, but Twain generally attacked the conventions and not the individuals. Like all good Horacian satirists, he preferred to make us smile at how foolish we are than make us angry at the weaknesses or beliefs of others.

Juvenalian satire, however, is always on the attack, and though it may at times make us laugh, wit and humor constitute only a small part of it. The Juvenalian often addresses social evil through scorn, outrage, and ridicule. When we read William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, we don’t smile very much as we witness the savagery of human nature and the young boys’ willingness to turn away from goodness and compassion. (For contrast, Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 does make us laugh—just as television’s M*A*S*H did, even though the overriding theme comprises the horror and absurdity of war.)

Most people would place Charlie Hebdo in the second category. Some would say it’s out of bounds entirely. I hate to be a waffler, but I am one on this issue. First off I hold with those who say if you don’t like it, don’t read it (or watch it, or listen to it, etc.) But by the same token, are the publishers going after religion in general or have they centered their attacks on the founder? To me there’s a difference. Comedians have gotten plenty of mileage out of satirizing different faiths; to wit how many jokes (tasteful or not) have been made about Catholic priests and their sexual preferences this past decade? But very few have been made about the founder of Catholicism. Is Jesus off limits then? And if so, shouldn’t Mohammad be in the same category? And Martin Luther? And Buddha?

And the other matter is that innocent people died, and though I did not see the entire post-massacre edition of the magazine, I’m not aware of any regrets being expressed within its pages. I could be wrong—I hope so. No matter what, there will be blowback. After 9/11 there were was nothing but sympathy for the United States—every country seemed ready to come to our defense. And what did we do? We took that goodwill and used it to start a decade of wars: who loves us now? I expect similar results in France, especially when the world begins to read about the living conditions many Muslims face in the shadows of the big cities. ( see We’ve heard so many times this past week how these terrorists were French—lived and grew up in France. But there’s the France of the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower and there’s the France of the banlieues. They might as well be on different planets.

I’m waffling—sorry—but I will say this. Journalistically right or wrong, it would have been wise for Charlie Hebdo and all such publications to be just a bit circumspect for a while—to let the anger diminish a little. I know that sounds like censorship and capitulation; others might say it sounds like responsible journalism.

This is going to require a lot more waffling.

Use before 1/1/2050

The completion of the Keystone Pipeline will not be the end of the world—it will just speed it along a little bit.

No, really, it will.

But first a word about tailings, since nobody asked. Tailings are the sludge and slurry and leach and slime residue and refuse left over from mining processes. Actually it’s worse than I made it sound, filled with arsenic, cadmium, mercury, and a host of naturally occurring radioactive elements. Some of the additives include cyanide and hydrogen cyanide, sulfuric and sulfamic acids, and a lot of compounds that, were I to write them out, would leave no room to tell you how the end of the world is going to be speeded along.

Tailing lakes are crucial to the extraction of oil from the Alberta (Canada) oil sands. The process produces lakes of this sludge—not ponds or collection pools—lakes. So far they span 110 square miles and these companies are just getting started. These sludge festivals are visible from space—just like earth as of now.

An aside: on a crystalline summer day a few years back, my wife and I were lucky enough to see Bear Lake on the Utah-Idaho border. The azure surface stretched out as far as we could see, interrupted only by the occasional boater. It was breathtaking. I mention it because Bear Lake also covers 110 square miles. Just so you know. And were it nor Lake Champlain, those sludge lakes—when combined—would create the second largest lake in New England, only six square miles behind Moosehead Lake in Maine.

For some remarkable and disturbing photos, check this out:

And these sludge lakes leak—currently threatening the water supply of an an entire river basin in Alberta. And best of all (he said, because it wasn’t really best in any way) the oil they produce is…well, let’s put it this way: if I drive my 35 m.p.g. Honda Civic on “Alberta gasoline” and you drive your 15 m.p.g. V-8 Family Truckster on fuel from any other source, I will do twice the harm to the environment. Cramped as I am in my formerly efficient car, my carbon footprint will be several sizes larger than yours.

So here we are. The new Republican Keystone Congress (not to be confused with the Keystone Cops, despite obvious similarities) has already stated it will flex its muscles by authorizing the pipeline, and although the idiocy of it strains credulity, it’s probably going to happen. And Mr. Obama? Even though I voted for him…twice…I blame him. He’s had six years to make a bold move against big oil, big banks, big everything, and he’s hemmed and hawed and failed to make a decision every time. Now it’s probably too late, and for me at least, this pipeline fiasco will be his legacy. All his many accomplishments will be diminished because he will have allowed the single greatest threat to climate change to proceed while he looked the other way.

Nope, it’s not the end of the world. It just moves the expiration date up a little.

The lady doth protest not enough…nor doth the man.

In December of last year, Rolling Stone published a readers’ poll of the greatest protest songs of all time. All such lists are highly subjective, but since we all like lists, here it is:

1. Bob Dylan, “Masters of War”

2. Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, “Ohio”

3. Buffalo Springfield, “For What It’s Worth”

4. Bob Dylan, “The Times They Are A-Changin'”

5. Barry McGuire, “Eve of Destruction”

6. Rage Against the Machine, “Killing in the Name”

7. Bob Dylan, “Blowin’ in the Wind”

8. Creedence Clearwater Revival, “Fortunate Son”

9  Bob Dylan, “Hurricane”

10 Country Joe and the Fish, “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag”

You can also read the magazine’s take on it here:

A couple of observations:

•The “newest” song is # 6—twenty-two years ago!

•One of them, “Hurricane” centers on the wrongful incarceration of Rubin Carter (he died a free man last April) while another, “Ohio” focuses on the deaths of four college students shot by National Guardsmen at Kent State University in 1970. All the others deal with major social issues—the Viet Nam War, segregation and discrimination, even (in #8) the ability of the wealthy to flout the rules.

•The “newest” song is twenty years old.

Oh, did I say that already?

And that’s the problem—today’s songwriters just don’t seem interested in that kind of involvement, or maybe there’s more money to be made in songs that espouse middle-American values. (It wasn’t the politically committed Bono who performed at the hockey game in D.C. on New Year’s day—it was Lee Greenwood who was, as always, proud to be an American.) Yes, there are exceptions. My wife and I are enduring Jackson Browne fans—he’s still chopping away at social and political issues, but he’s from the seventies…and his audience are getting near their seventies too. They’re not the ones to make the changes.

Now I should say this—the Rolling Stone article may be skewed. I don’t know how that magazine sits with people born after 1970. But even given that, I still say that the protest song and the protest singer of the sixties and seventies had a tremendous influence on our society. They weren’t afraid to take chances, to foment trouble, to (as the Eagles sang in “Sad Café”)  “sing right out loud, the things we could not say.”

I have no argument with entertainment like “Call Me Maybe” and “Happy,” and I think Taylor Swift is very talented and Lady Gaga is as good as anyone who ever performed on any stage anywhere, but there are social injustices crying out for a voice to sing them—and fix them, from fracking to billionaire tax breaks to poverty to to the systemic abuse of minorities. A song like “Home” (which is hard not to like) contains this line “Don’t pay no mind to the demons/They fill you with fear.” Like fracking, billionaire tax breaks, etc.?

It would be gratifying if, the next time Rolling Stone commissions a reader’s poll on great protest songs, at least one of them came from this century. Peaceful protests and Internet screeds aren’t doing it. Maybe music will.


Being missed

The tragic murder of the two police officers in New York City last week gave rise to many speeches and laments.

Rightly so.

I just wish we could voice those laments better than we do, and maybe we can begin by pulling back a bit on the expression “he (or they) will be missed.”

It’s not that the words aren’t true, it’s just that putting it in those terms distances us from the tragedy.

Yes, there are unknown quantities of people who will miss them: their families, their friends, their colleagues, the people whom in their careers they had protected or were yet to protect. Officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu will be missed by hundreds, maybe thousands of people, but I still prefer to hear a person say I’ll miss them. I like the first-person.

I know the following is not a good analogy, but I’ll make it anyway: When Robin Williams died a few months back, I said I would miss his comedy—that knack he had for seeming out of control when in fact he was far from it. I didn’t say his comedy would be missed, not because it wasn’t true, but because that removes me from the equation entirely. There’s no first-person pronoun there—no I, no me. There’s no emotion. No ownership. It’s equivalent to some slapdash Facebook “like.” Very often it means nothing.

When someone dies, we miss him or her. We can assume that others will also, but that’s not important. Forty years ago I lost an uncle. Eleven years ago my best friend. My parents are gone and so are several colleagues and friends. I miss them all, and even though I don’t miss them all in the same way, I’d rather sound too personal than say they are missed.

And when I die, please don’t say “he’ll be missed” unless you’re ready to come up with a complete list of who (if anyone) will be doing the missing. I don’t think I’ll be listening, but just in case—I wouldn’t want to miss out.

Suckered In

Recently Ben Stein, self-styled American icon and bon vivant, spoke out against the political correctness of the term “Happy Holidays. Because he issued this “hard-hitting” editorial on Fox News, I paid about as much attention to it as I would an issuance from MSNBC. I figure, let the two networks cancel each other off and listen to NPR.

But I was suckered in this time reading all the Facebook comments. I should have stopped—and I did—but it was already too late: I’d already read “You’re my hero, Ben Stein.”

Yikes! Hero?

So, in order to prove I could be as big an idiot as the next guy, I commented. The last thing Ben Stein said that made any sense was “Bueller…Bueller…” and that was 28 years ago. I thought that was pretty funny. But of course my comment begot a personal response. One word: liberal.

Now it so happens that I am one, and if this person thought he was insulting me, he accomplished the opposite: my political perspective has nothing to do with being liberal, but more to do with why we as a people don’t know anything. For instance:

Unarmed people are being killed in the streets by law enforcement officials.

•We just commemorated the second anniversary of the Sandy Hook shootings by recognizing the fact that gun permit requests have risen since then.

•Tens of thousands of Americans were forced to work on Thanksgiving.

•Millions of Americans are paid minimum wage.

•The Walton family has as much wealth as the bottom 40% of Americans—combined.

•The new budget allows wealthy political contributors  to donate ten-times what they could before. Still think your vote counts?

•Taliban extremists murdered 148 people this week, most of them children.

If Ben Stein had chosen to rail about one of these issues—even if his opinion differed from mine—I’d say, fine. But to make a “tough stand” on something meaningless distracts us from what we should be following. Right now there are more people concerned about the demise of “Merry Christmas” than there are those worried about (1) more Eric Garners and Michael Browns in our future and (2) the fact that more then forty per cent of Americans will have a very unmerry Christmas and a very unhappy holiday.

Here’s something we all know: wishing someone a Merry Christmas does not ensure one. The words we choose to express our wishes to someone do not compel that person to honor them. Many times I’ve been told to have a nice day and yet didn’t have one. I think Merry Christmas works pretty much the same way. Still, if you want to anoint Ben Stein your hero, it’s your choice. But if I can say Happy Holidays and, in so doing, cover Hanukkah (and its variant spellings), Kwanzaa, Three Kings Day, New Year’s (day and eve), Milad un Nabi, and oh yes, Christmas, where’s the harm? And if someone wishes me a Merry Christmas and I respond that I don’t celebrate it, then that’s on me—not the wisher.

Either way, there are more important topics to address as the year ebbs than the ramblings of an entertainer whose principal claim to fame was one line in a good movie twenty-eight years ago. And that goes for me too, but as I say, I was suckered in.





Keep the guv out of prison

Federal prosecutors want John Rowland imprisoned for 36 to 47 months. Among most observers, eighteen months seems to be a more reasoned approach. But unlike last time he was convicted, I don’t want the guv to go to jail. I just want him to shut up.

I want him to stop turning a profit with schemes like a radio talk show on which he was able to promote his cockamamie ideas and support his like-minded candidates and make even more money hiring himself in all sorts of clandestine positions. And I want him to shut up. Not in prison—home will do.

According to the Department of Corrections website, the average daily cost of incarceration in Connecticut is approximately $95.16 per inmate. That means that Rowland’s eighteen months in prison will cost us $51,000. The cost of supervising an appropriate offender in the community, would come out to about $15,000. Let’s spend the fifteen large and spend the remainder on something worthwhile. It’s the holidays—buy some kids some presents—supply a food bank—$36,000 could make the holidays a lot happier for a lot of people.

For me too—but he would have to shut up.

I don’t want to see him treated like some war veteran when he appears in public. (It’ll still happen in Waterbury, but I’ll give him that one.) I don’t want him serving as a political advisor or a campaign chairman or anything that comes close to world affairs, up to and including engaging in a game of Risk.

His pension? Let him keep it. His house? belongings? Ditto. But he must shut up.

And after the holidays, in January of 2015, I want U.S. District Judge Janet Bond Arterton to say something like this:

“John Rowland, you have been found guilty of a plethora of crimes by which you fed your own coffers and used your influence illegally. But no biggie. If you shut up from now on, you can go home. Also, no rebuttal. No third chances. No talk show. No appeals. No appearances at political fund raisers or party conventions. And no ventriloquism to circumvent the court’s sentence. (I know you’ve already considered that possibility.) You may go.”

Addendum: I note that Chris Donovan, fresh from his own somewhat indirect brush with political ethics is back in the news too, going after Hobby Lobby. I don’t disagree with his opinion, but coming off that whole influence-peddling accusation and his recent demise, he might be better served in joining Mr. Rowland inside the cone of silence, at least for a bit. Of course given the state of politics these days—with the billions being infused into the system by special interests— it might get really crowded in there pretty fast.