1000 Words: Home

This past March marked fifteen years since The Loved One and I packed our bags and left Chicago in the rearview mirror. I’d spent 51 years of my life living within the city’s limits, the only exceptions being when I resided in a couple of suburbs for fewer than six months, total.

I grew up on the Northwest Side, just across North Avenue from suburban Oak Park but even so, the gulf between Oak Park and Chicago kids was deep. We all dressed differently, spoke differently, and even ate differently. The Oak Parkers loved Wonder Bread; we Chicagoans ate Gonnella or, in my particular case, my mother’s homemade bread (which embarrassed me mightily as the OP kids looked at my lunch sandwiches with ill-disguised puzzlement and revulsion).

High Above The City.

Anyway, as soon as I was old enough, I moved deep into the city, first Lincoln Park, then Boys Town, Wrigleyville, Wicker Park, East Pilsen, and, at the end, Albany Park. I considered myself a Chicagoan through and through. I lived on pizza and Italian beef. I rode the el every day of my life. When I went on first dates, I took them to the top of the John Hancock Center, 95 stories above Michigan Avenue, for pre-dinner drinks at the Signature Room. And, natch, I lived and died with the Cubs. Mostly died.

I never dreamed I’d leave the place. Then The Loved One felt she might be more comfortable working in a smaller setting. She’d been toiling for a Michigan Avenue ad and marketing firm for a few years and had eventually become worn down by the insufferable pressure.

So, she scored a gig with a Louisville firm. It was smaller. There was less pressure. Her clients and colleagues less inclined to lean on her to happily slash the throats of…, well, anyone to get ahead. Me? I’d been freelance writing for 25 years by that time; I could continue to do so anywhere, armed with my cell phone and laptop. Louisville was as amenable as a workplace for me as Chicago (or so I thought). Love triumphed over urban loyalty.

It turned out, sadly, that almost immediately after we moved to the self-styled Gateway to the South, the world economy went bust. Not only that but I’d failed to take seriously enough the sea change in journalism and publishing that’d been brewing for a good 20 years already. Print newspapers and magazines were dying. The internet made it possible for everyone and his cat to write on bulletin boards, chat rooms, blogs, and social media. Fewer and fewer people were willing to pay a living wage to someone just to write words on paper when nine tenths of the nation’s population was doing it on their computer screens for free.

No matter. I loved the move. Even though I was about to leap from middle age to old man-ness I felt as though I were a kid again. Everything was fresh and new. I went from stultifying flatness to hilly beauty. Heck, mountains were mere hours away by car. And the people around me, to be sure, were different.

Barely a hundred miles out of Chicago, the day we drove our car and a loaded U-Haul down Interstate 65 toward Kentucky, we stopped at a tiny gas station/convenience store to fill up and score some road food. (I highly recommend Pringles for long drives — the rigid canister and the chips’ uniform hyperbolic paraboloid shape both lend themselves to noshing while attempting to keep a ton and a half of metal, rubber, and plastic in its lane at 79 mph.) Anyway, as we paid for our fuel and grub, the counter clerk asked us a question. It was, to be sure, uttered in a foreign language. “Huh?” I said.

She repeated.

“I’m sorry, what?”

She reiterated.

“Uh….” I turned to The Loved One and she shrugged. The woman, now alert to the fact that we were the foreigners, asked again, slowly and distinctly, “Y’all wanna sack with thay-at?”

Aha! I recognized a word or two. But why in heaven’s name would this woman ask us if we wanted a sack? Where we came from, a sack was some oversized, indestructible receptacle, usually burlap or at least heavy canvas, used for disposing of toxic or other disgusting substances or dead bodies. “A sack?” I said.

“Yay-ah,” she replied, pulling out a plastic bag.

“Oh, a bag,” I said. “Nah. No thanks.”

I’m sure she told her co-workers and her family, after we left, that strangers from some exotic land, Portugal or Chicago, had passed through.

We spent a couple of years in Louisville and then The Loved One grabbed at the opportunity to work for the Cook Group. I recall precisely when she told me the news.

The Loved One: “We’re moving to Bloomington.”

Me: (Silence.)

I had no idea where Bloomington was or even that it existed in the first place. I didn’t know it was the home of Indiana University. In fact, the only thing I knew about IU was its former basketball coach was one of the best in the history of the sport and a horse’s ass to boot. The town was 35 miles off the Interstate and as we drove west along SR 46 toward it, again in our car and a fully-packed U-Haul, we passed tumble-down shacks and spooky-looking mobile homes and stopped counting road kills because we’d run out of fingers and toes, I thought, “Where in the hell are we?”

“Honey, Where Are You Taking Me?”

It turns out this place is now home. It’s an anomaly, actually, a tiny island of blue in a red state that can be referred to as either the Mississippi or the Alabama of the North, depending on how antediluvian and regressive its legislature feels on any given day. Bloomington itself is so Democratic that Republicans more often than not don’t run for local office because, well, why bother when you’d be doing extremely well to garner vote totals in the double figures?

Not that Bloomington being monolithically Democratic makes the place any kind of liberal nirvana. State law in Indiana restricts county and city councils from doing much more, in terms of progressive politics, than issuing the occasional Black Lives Matter proclamation. I worked as a reporter for WFHB News for a few years, early on, and was struck by how Bloomington’s city council repeatedly issued stern letters calling for some outside state or country to cease and desist poisoning the planet or running roughshod over its citizenry. I imagined the governor, say, of Arkansas or the prime minister of Thailand tossing the letter in the wastebasket with nary a glance. But at least our hearts were in the right place.

Within my first six months here, I found my place at a table in Soma, the coffeehouse in the basement of an old mansion on Grant Street. There I met and formed tight friendships with professors, scientific researchers, engineers from the US Navy’s Crane facility, artists, lawyers, local politicians, guitarists, poets, entrepreneurs, restaurant servers, painters, and other oddballs. It came to me within months of my arrival that I’d found a real home for the first time in my life. I am, after all, nothing if not an oddball.

 

1000 Words: Heroes? Villains? Or Just People.

I learned this morning that May is Teacher Appreciation Month. This makes me think about the weird polarization that afflicts our holy land. Every single issue, every idea, every political stance, every societal question, every goddamned thing that exists, it seems, demands that we take an intransigent position and view everybody who takes a contrary position as a horrible human being.

Now, how does Teacher Appreciation Month play into this? I’ve been getting the sense that there are now two poles in this country regarding those who do two different jobs — teachers and the police.

Drive down any country road in South Central Indiana and you’ll see countless blue American flags signifying undying support for the police. Some homes even display a blue light outside their front doors at night for the same reason. Then, when you get into more populated areas, you’ll see red yard signs trumpeting the homeowner’s support for public education and school teachers.

You’ll never, ever, see the same home displaying both signs.

A hell of a lot of people see the police and teachers not as two indispensable professions that, together, help make society run, but as enemies of our side.

Dig this meme I recall seeing recently: It read, Raise your sons to be men before his teachers raise them to be women. This from a Facebook ad, the likes of which I’ve been swamped with of late. I have no idea why but every scroll down my preferred social medium brings me ads from something called MAGAmerica or some similar staunchly Republican, right wing, crypto-fascist, the-nation’s-going-to-hell-before-our-very-eyes outfit. I must have inadvertently clicked on the wrong site at some time in the last couple of weeks and now I suffer. Clearly, these people see teachers as commie rats who are dead set on de-masculating our boys, transforming our girls into dykes, opening our borders to terrorists and Muslims and Mexicans, in favor of providing monthly checks for idlers to sit at home and do drugs and have more welfare babies.

That’s what we do in this third decade of the 21st Century. We put people into one of two boxes: those who are good and those who are evil. Teachers today, for a large swath of the American populace, are evil.

And if you buy into that, guaranteed, you believe with your whole heart and soul that the police are always right and good and just. They are heroes valiantly standing between us and unspeakable terror. They protect us at risk of life and limb from commie rats, de-masculated boys, dykes, terrorists, Muslims, Mexicans, doped up constantly copulating idlers, and, of course, teachers.

There was a time, in the memory of our oldest citizens, when police officers were simply people who lived down the block, mowed their lawns, read the papers, paid their bills, and complained about their taxes. Just like everybody else. Now they’re superheroes, mythic figures fending off evil, titans battling archvillains.

Funny thing is, a lot of people see teachers in a similar archetypal light. Teachers are Christ-like, selfless, infinitely loving souls who’d sever their own arms and legs just to get your kid to pass her third grade math quiz.

The pressure’s on all of us to pick a side, to sanctify, to canonize, for chrissakes. We can’t just admire teachers for their good works; we must elevate them to divinities. Same with those who aggrandize cops. That way, the world’ll know where we stand and if the world doesn’t get it the first time, why then we’ll have to raise the stakes, to resort to hyperbole.

And, believe me, I know all about hyperbole; I’m the world’s foremost authority on it.

Now don’t get me wrong. I admire teachers. I respect them. Their work is vital. Their sacrifices commendable beyond words.

That’s the truth for the majority of teachers, to be sure, but not all of them. I went to school on occasion many decades ago so I know there are good, even superlative teachers but there are also lousy teachers, teachers who phone it in, teachers who hate kids, teachers who do the minimum for their paychecks, teachers who have no business being teachers.

Teachers are human beings. That means there are great ones, there are awful ones, and there are countless ones in between. In reality, teachers live down the block, mow their lawns, read the papers, pay their bills, and complain about their taxes. Just like everybody else. Okay, they get their news online now, not from the papers, but you get the point.

Another yard sign I see a lot when The Loved One and I take our weekly Sunday drives reads, A Hero Lives Here. Sometimes the sign is for a teacher and other times for a nurse. In either case, it’s all so unseemly. You’re not supposed to call yourself a hero; somebody else is supposed to bestow the honor upon you. But in today’s America, there are heroes and villains, not just plain people trying to do a good job, often succeeding, sometimes failing. We put people on pedestals — even if we have to climb up on them ourselves — and consign others to the fires of hell.

It’s one way or the other and if you don’t agree with me then you’re a horrible human being.

 

Like Screaming Into My Pillow

I keep writing these long, involved posts for this global communications colossus and, when finished, keeping them as drafts rather than publishing them.

Why? I dunno.

I can’t figure out if it’s because I’m afraid my writing is bad, my reasoning is bad, or my self-esteem is bad. I suppose this is pretty much the dictionary definition of writer’s block. The only thing is, as I say, I’m writing like crazy. I’m just not putting it out there.

“Calvin & Hobbes” (Bill Watterson)

I’ll get to the bottom of this sooner or later. For all I know, I may eventually publish all the posts I’m holding in my Draft folder. If so, you won’t be blamed for saying, “Did he claim writer’s block? What is he, crazy?”

There are, by the way, 55 unpublished drafts in that folder as of this moment.

So maybe I’ve hit upon a brand new writer’s malady: posting block. Perhaps, when all is said and done, they’ll name the syndrome Glab Block. Or Big Mike’s Disorder.

Not exactly the kind of immortality I dreamed of when I started out in this writing racket.

1000 Words: Why Complain?

Before I get into today’s screed, I have to admit there’s little I can say or write that hasn’t already been said or written regarding the US Supreme Court’s impending decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. If you’ve read me in these precincts over the last ten years, you likely know precisely where I stand on the subject of abortion. I will, though, contribute this to the discourse: There are tons of people in this holy land who are scared to death of the reality that many, many, many American women in the 21st Century like to fuck.

Is that too coarse a concept for you? It doesn’t matter because it’s true.

Okay, that’s out of the way. Now let’s talk about the weather. A fellow on Chicago radio the other day said only one of the last 43 days had been sunny. The skies have been similarly blah down here in South Central Indiana.

Now, there are those who say what’s the use of complaining about the weather? Why clog up social media with posts moaning about rain, carping about the cold, and other harrumphs about something none of us can do a thing about?

And that’s all true, except there’s a necessary therapeutic benefit to belly-aching about two-and-a-half weeks straight of overcast days or a week’s-worth of dreary drizzle. This country — and, for all I know, the world — right now is in the midst of a deep malaise. This pandemic era in which we try to sleep at night while cognizant of a mean-spirited social polarization, the panic that the war in Ukraine may be a harbinger of an eventual nuclear conflagration, the realization that we’re frying our planet due to our addiction to fossil fuels, and any of a few dozen other threats, menaces, rational or irrational fears, and fantasized bogeymen has created within us a dread, an absence of hope, a mass depression, for pity’s sake.

We Should See Each Other Three Times A Week.

A recent study revealed Americans are having less sex than at any time in this century. Researchers are scratching their heads trying to figure out why. It doesn’t take a peer-reviewed, double-blind study conducted by Ivy League PhDs to get it: We don’t see much of a future right now. The world’s going to burn up, the political parties are going to war against each other, and who in the hell knows what virus is going to kill us next? Having sex is a celebration of the now — an indulgence in bliss — as well as a statement of belief in the future — we do it to have children or to express love for someone who just might become The One. Making love or simply having good old-fashioned casual sex is a luxury we can indulge in when we’re not terrified that the world’s coming crashing down all around us.

And that world, to be sure, seems indeed to be collapsing every which way we turn.

Hey, hon, whaddya say we head for the couch for some one-on-one?

Nah, I’m just not feeling it right now.

Yeah, y’know, neither do I now that I think about it.

We are, I’m certain, hip-deep in a global psychological depression. And when we in the Midwest see the sun about as often as an ivory-billed woodpecker, that depression can turn downright pathological.

Yeah, it’s true complaining about the weather fixes nothing. Yet venting about it gives us a degree, no matter how minuscule, of relief. If we whimper about, say, the end of Roe v. Wade, guaranteed there’ll be some kind of blowback, somebody somewhere is going to challenge us and gloat that at long last the Court is doing the right thing. If we whine about the Ukraine, somebody’s going to blame Joe Biden for it. If we sob about climate change and wildfires and disappearing ice shelves, somebody’s bound to say it’s all a hoax. If we howl about COVID, someone’s going compare mask mandates to the horrors of the Holocaust.

Everything’s a fight nowadays.

But should we gripe about the endless succession of grey days, at least everybody’s going to agree with us. And that company, that solidarity, helps us cope. The weather’s the only thing we can agree upon (save for those lunatics who think ice and frigid temps are wonderful — what in the hell’s wrong with those people?)

We need each other more than ever right now and maybe, just maybe, a month and a half of sunless afternoons is the only thing that’ll keep us from tearing each other’s throats out. That is, if we can resist tearing our own out.

Weather Woman

I’m weird in so many ways, so much so that sometimes I have to shake my own head in disbelief. An example: I just can’t watch podcasts. I find them an investment of time and attention that I simply don’t want to make. With written content, I can jump and skip and sift through the words to find places where I want to land. Not so with podcasts. I find myself at the mercy of the recording, waiting, often rolling my eyes, for stuff that will interest, entertain, or educate me.

Most people’d say podcasts are less demanding of the viewer’s investment than written text. But, of course, I’m not most people.

All this is preamble to today’s Pencil. I’ve discovered the coolest website called Lost Women of Science. Its tagline assures us it “tells the remarkable stories of forgotten women of science.” Perfect. Right up my alley. Only the site is comprised solely of podcasts. Dang, mang!

So, even though I’ve bookmarked the site I’ve never listened to any of the podcasts, for the reasons outlined above. But there’s always a way around things. I go to the site to become aware of whomever is being featured and then go to other sites where I can read about them. Like I said, I’m so weird that sometimes I shake my own head in disbelief.

Klára Dán von Neumann

That out of the way, allow me to tell you about Klára Dán von Neumann. You may have heard of her third husband, John von Neumann. He was the brilliant mathematician who worked on the Manhattan Project and who made countless contributions to the science of numbers including the fields of foundational mathematics, functional analysis, ergodic theory, group theory, lattice theory, representation theory, operator algebras, geometry, numerical analysis, quantum mechanics, hydrodynamics, nuclear physics, quantum statistical mechanics, game theory, general equilibrium theory, computing, linear programming, numerical meteorology, self-replicating machines, stochastic computing and statistics. Phew! Truth be told, I’m familiar with only a scant few of the aforementioned fields of inquiry. I know, for instance, what geometry is because I was forced to take it in high school. But stochastic computing? I think I may know how to pronounce the term. Maybe.

Anyway, Klára Dán was born to a rich Hungarian couple in 1911 and became a national figure skating champion in her early teens. She’d been married twice by the time she was 25 when she met John von Neumann. The two, both married, fell in love and divorced their respective spouses to be with each other. You have to figure that a brain on two legs like John von Neumann would need to be hitched up to someone with whom he could talk about things like ergodic theory. Klára filled the bill and then some.

Klára and John.

She was one of the first human beings to actually program computers. A lot of sources say she taught herself how to do this, needless to say because nobody else on Earth knew what the hell they were doing in the field. Klára had no formal training in mathematics other than the classes she’d taken in high school algebra and trigonometry. Yet her research and innovations in numbers and computers changed the world.

She and von Neumann moved to the United States just before the start of World War II. Both of them held positions at Princeton University until John moved to Los Alamos, New Mexico to work with Edward Teller and Stanislaw Ulam on what was then called “The Super” — what we now know as the hydrogen bomb. While von Neumann worked on developing a city-incinerating weapon, Klára remained at Princeton where she worked in the Office of Population Research. After the war, she joined her husband in New Mexico and programmed the first big electronic computers, MANIAC I and ENIAC. They were machines that filled warehouse-sized rooms, those being the days long before miniaturization, transistors, and microprocessors.

ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer)

Her own research resulted in far less mass-destruction than her husband’s. In fact, she was the first person to apply computer technology to meteorology. Don’t think her work merely meant we could plan our picnics the next day with more assurance than, say, our great-grandparents could. In-depth, computer-driven meteorology is today indispensable to farmers and food distributors, helping to feed hundreds of millions of people who might otherwise starve to death due to the vagaries of weather. Let’s go a step further and credit Klára Dán von Neumann with nudging humanity toward an understand that we’ve been frying the planet since the onset of the Industrial Revolution. If we do somehow stem global warming and its resultant climate weirding, forced migrations, disappearing bodies of water, worldwide crop failures, species disappearances, and other terrors we might thank Klára Dán von Neumann for working out the computer codes and systems that allowed us to quantify data from years past, to make accurate predictions about the future, and to understand we were killing ourselves before it actually happened.

Klára Dán von Neumann was one of many, many women who worked tirelessly and brilliantly on and in those first big computers. There were ENIAC programmers Jean Bartik, Betty Holberton, Kathleen Antonelli, Marlyn Meltzer, Ruth Teitelbaum, and Frances Spence. Joining them were statisticians Norma Gilbarg, Ellen-Kristine Eliassen, and Margaret Smagorinsky. But Klára’s accomplishments stood out.

While working at Princeton’s Office of Population Research, she’d taught herself any number of mathematical processes and systems that she would eventually employ in her programming work. “It was lots and lots of fun,” she told a science historian later. “I learned how to translate algebraic equations into numerical forms, which in turn then have to be put into machine language in the order in which the machine has to calculate it, either in sequence or going round and round, until it has finished with one part of the problem, and then go on some definite which-a-way, whatever seems to be right for it to do next…. The machine would have to be told the whole story, given all the instructions of what it was expected to do at once, and then be permitted to be on its own until it ran out of instructions.”

Here’s the process chart of ENIAC’s first successful weather forecast:

Me? I’m proud of myself when I can put two steps together to solve a problem.

Klára characterized her programming work as “very amusing” and like a “rather intricate jigsaw puzzle.”

In 1947, Klára Dán von Neumann became a key figure in a groundbreaking project to incorporate computers into the forecasting of weather. Working with meteorologists day and night at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds, where the ENIAC had been moved, Klára put in endless workdays for more than a month. She wrote, checked, and rechecked the codes and processes countless times. She oversaw and actually participated in creating more than 100,000 punch cards (remember, this is before magnetic tape storage). She lost 15 pounds during what her husband later described as “the siege in Aberdeen.” The end results were the first half-dozen computer weather forecasts, two 12-hour and four 24-hour outlooks. They were the first successful physics experiments done by computer.

Being a benighted time, the scientific paper on the project was credited only to the men who worked on it. Had the experiment been conducted today, Klára Dán von Neumann undoubtedly would be credited with co-authorship.

John von Neumann developed cancer caused by his work with radioactive materials in Los Alamos. He died in 1956. A couple of years later, Klára married an oceanographer and physicist and moved with him to California. On November 10, 1963, she got into her car at her home in La Jolla and drove down to the ocean. She walked into the water and was never seen again. Her death was ruled a suicide.

The information contained herein came from a 2017 article written by Sarah Witman for Smithsonian Magazine, the John von Neumann and Klára Dán von Neumann Papers in the Library of Congress, a 2017 piece in Forbes Magazine written by Marshall Shepherd, and a 2021 article written by Kate Ravilious in The Guardian. If you’re interested in the Lost Wome of Science five-part podcast on Klára Dán von Neumann, here’s the link.

1000 Words: Warped

Pollyannists in the early days of television predicted the new technology would raise the level of the general public’s intelligence immeasurably. Your granny and granddad would spend their evenings watching educational programs, learning about life and the world around them, visiting far-away lands vicariously, viewing “King Lear” or “Rigoletto,” taking in lectures on the atom, say, or Darwin’s theory.

Not The Real Housewives.

Instead, through the years we’ve vegged out on Milton Berle, “The Brady Bunch,” and “Real Housewives.”

It’s a quaint idea to think, at one time in our holy land’s history, some people actually had faith in the better angels of the American nature. Those Pollyannists understood that better angels was a metaphor whereas a significant percentage of our sisteren and brethren even today believe angels, winged supernatural entities, are actually flittering among us.

We Believe.

Far from upping the level of our intelligence, television as well as the movies have skewed how the average person views the world to the point that we’re not just uninformed and uneducated, we’re living in a fantasy world of funhouse mirrors and hallucinatory images.

I’d been thinking about this for many years. Then, in 2016, something happened that brought it all home to me. A man with no legislative experience; no international relations portfolio; no position papers; no writings on war, peace, the environment, poverty, public health, infrastructure, natural resources, energy, political asylum, scientific research, or organizational structure; and proudly possessing no wish or hope to delve into any of these topics was elected President of the United States of America. It was as if upon learning she had leukemia, a person stopped a passing pedestrian on a busy downtown sidewalk and said, Would you treat me for it?

After the election of the 45th President, I tried to come up with a handful of reasons how this turn of events came to be. The one that stood out for me, the inarguable top reason why a lunkhead was bestowed title of Leader of the Free World, was that he’d been a TV star. From 2004 through 2015, Donald Trump came into people’s living rooms playing a successful, bold, non-nonsense, fabulously effective business mogul. His NBC-TV program, “The Apprentice,” drew some 20 million viewers a night early in its run. The numbers dwindled a bit through the years, but even at its low, Trump’s show drew 7.6 million viewers.

Statesman.

That means a significant percentage of the American populace, having known nothing else about him, came to understand that Donald Trump was was the one man who could rescue us from the cesspool our land was turning into. Hell, Rick Perry and Ted Cruz and Chris Christie and Marco Rubio among the rest of his Republican primary rivals were senators and governors and the like, so they couldn’t be expected to fix what they’d helped create, for chrissakes. And Hillary Clinton, a senator, Secretary of State, and wife of a former president, similarly had waded in the mud up to her hips.

No, a man who made billions of dollars, pushing, insisting, arm-twisting, never giving up was the man for us. We knew this because we watched his TV show. A TV show, I might add, he produced. He told us he was the man and we believed it.

“After sleeping,” reads 2021 article in US News and World Report, “Americans spen(d) most of their time watching television….” What we see on the television screen, and perhaps even more so on the movie screen, is life. The boundary between fiction and non-fiction, fantasy and rigorous observation, has been erased. If we’re constantly bombarded by self-aggrandizing images of a shady businessman, if we come to think that our nation’s courtrooms are presided over almost exclusively by black female judges (have you watched any TV since, say, 1981?), if we begin to believe only attractive, young, blonde women go missing (a CNN stock-in-trade chestnut that likely inspired Black Lives Matter), if we believe that baristas live in fabulous Manhattan lofts, it’s because we’re no longer living an authentic life, we’re no longer seeing reality, we’re just sitting at home watching TV (or going out to the movies) and taking that as the true picture of existence.

Life.

Here’s a recent example. HBO has released a limited series entitled “Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty.” It’s the purported story the championship run of the NBA’s Los Angeles franchise in the 1980s. Only it portrays Lakers general manager and Hall of Fame legend Jerry West as a mean drunk, Kareem Abdul Jabbar as an insensitive lout, and Magic Johnson as a cad who impregnates his wife’s friend. None of this is altogether true and HBO admits it. In a statement, the programmer said, “HBO has a long history of producing compelling content drawn from actual facts and events that are fictionalized in part for dramatic purposes. Winning Time is not a documentary and has not been presented as such.”

A True Story, Made Up.

In other words, even though this story is about real people, real events, and a real organization presented as an historical drama, don’t be fooled into thinking any of it is real.

A strict adherence to dictionary definitions might indicate the program is, basically, a lie. But, if HBO would have its way, lying is nothing more than dramatic license.

A few years ago, the movie “The Imitation Game,” sought to portray the life of brilliant mathematician and code-breaker Alan Turing. On of the key dramatic story points of the movie was the relationship between Turing and his boss, World War II British Commander Alexander Denniston. Acc’d’g to the movie, Denniston stood on his head to stymie Turing’s efforts to design a machine that would break the German code. Only Turing’s iron will and supreme confidence allowed him to overcome the petty, unimaginative Denniston. Problem was, that’s the precise opposite of what happened. Denniston, in reality, was Turing’s biggest supporter, a person who stuck his neck out to protect the controversial researcher when much of the British military and government would happily have seen him go away.

Now, someone whom history should remember as heroic for helping Turing break the Nazi code, is seen as a movie villain.

There is no more reality, only what we see on a screen. And we’re not the least bit smarter for it.

 

1000 Words: We’re All Junkies Now

John D. Rockefeller: Famed for Giving Dimes to Street Kids.

When I was a kid, whenever I wanted my mother to buy me anything that wasn’t a bare essential, she’d snort and call me either Rockefeller or King Farouk. John D. Rockefeller, of course, was the world’s richest man once, and Farouk was the flamboyantly wealthy Egyptian king in the mid-20th Century.

Ma had a problem with perspective. She couldn’t just say, “Sorry, Mike, I really can’t afford that Tonka dump truck just now. Maybe someday.” I could have understood that. What I couldn’t grasp was being compared to two of the wealthiest and most profligate spenders on Earth just because I wanted a toy.

Ma was, after all, a product of the Great Depression and World War II, and we spawn of that so-called Greatest Generation have heard all the stories they loved to tell about how hard they had it and how heroic they were in overcoming it all.

They were, more accurately, the Greatest Self-Congratulating Generation.

Anyway, were Ma still around to count her pennies, she’d drop dead upon learning that a telephone can now cost a thousand dollars and more.

I resisted getting a smartphone for the first few years of the technology’s existence. Then, around 2014 I figured I’d join the crowd since my insistence on holding on to my flip-phone was becoming, to friends and acquaintances, a potentially worrisome quirk.

It’s not that I’m averse to new technology. Hell, I was among the very first people to have a cell phone. I got one in 1997 when you weren’t even allowed to put down a cell number on an application. And, before that, I purchased one of the very first laptops four decades ago when they still weighed about as much as a small refrigerator.

But my philosophy long has been this: If I haven’t said to myself prior to the introduction of some new device, “Golly, if only someone would invent a… fill-in-the-blank,” then I don’t need the thing.

An Early Laptop.

I’m no Luddite, mind you. I recall walking down Michigan Avenue one day about 40 years ago, thinking, “Y’know, it’d be great if I could have a little portable phone that’d fit into my pocket. I wouldn’t have to miss any calls.” Around the same time, I dreamed of a portable super-typewriter I could carry in my backpack and would let me write wherever and whenever I wanted and that could hold all my rantings and whatever articles I was working on. A laptop, in other words.

And, yeah, I eventually did come around to buying a smartphone. That was about ten years ago. I had the thing for a few years and found it unwieldy, too easily marred or broken, and — most of all — way, way, way, way too addictive. So, in 2017, I walked into the Verizon store and asked for a flip phone. The clerk looked at me as if I’d asked to see his selection of hourglasses. He had to ask his manager if they still carried the things. The manager came out and asked me if I was sure. I assured him I was and he nodded, skeptically.

See, I’d never said to myself, Golly gee, if only I could be tethered to the internet every second of the day. If only I could remain in constant contact with every friend I’ve ever made and millions of others with whom I’m as yet unacquainted. If only it had all the music I’ve ever accumulated, every picture I’ve ever taken, every detail of my life, all electronically stored in an electronic cloud. If only I could have at my immediate beck and call the exact height of the Burj Khalifa, the population of the state of Nevada, the precise date and time Prince died, all on a device I can use while hurtling down the expressway at 72 miles per hour, eating dinner, or having sex.

I’ve never envisioned the day when such a device and its software would addict me as effectively as alcohol, heroin, or nicotine. Yep, researchers have determined that our dependence on smartphones is, indeed, an addiction. And the apps that pretty much every business in existence insist we download are crafted to reach us at a cellular, hormonal level. One study in the journal, Addictive Behaviors, indicates that smartphone usage produces brain restructuring disturbingly similar to that resulting from recreational hard drug use.

Flintstones Winston Cigarettes Ad.

A group of former Facebook and Apple workers four years ago revealed their ex-employers specifically designed software to addict users at an early age, just like cigarette manufacturers did a half century ago.

Smartphones have turned us away from trusting our own eyes and ears. A gorgeous sunset, the Grand Canyon, a NASA rocket launch, hell, even the cute-ness of our dogs, cats and kids can’t be enjoyed in the moment. They have to be stored on our smartphones. I saw the motorcade of former president Jimmy Carter pull up on Wabash Avenue one afternoon a few decades ago. Everybody stopped in their tracks, watched him get out, and walk into a bookstore. They applauded him respectfully and then went about their business. Now, of course, everybody’d be too busy trying to catch the moment on their smartphones rather than seeing it.

The thing is, I remember that moment with clarity. In my mind it’s as though Carter stepped out of that limousine just this morning. Were I too busy clicking a photo of it, perhaps my memory of it would be lost. Either that or never imprinted in the first place.

“Stop living an almost life,” Bill Maher said in a bit last August.

Trust Me, I Know What Bacon & Eggs Look Like.

People walk into a party and they immediately text their friends saying “Where are you? What are you doing?” They watch a guy hit a home run at the ballpark and instead of cheering, they’re clicking. They sit down to eat breakfast at a restaurant and they send the picture of it around the globe, as if the rest of us have never seen bacon and eggs before.

The here and the now are no more.

Smartphones are expensive and they’re vital drivers of our economy. Consumer capitalism being what it is, corporations have found new and creative ways for us to get hooked on their stuff. And Ma, were she still with us, would at last rightly be able to say, “Who do you think you are, King Farouk?”

Farouk of Egypt: He’d Have a Thousand Smartphones.

1000 Words: Recuse Yourself

[No video today, because…, well, I’m lazy. You’re gonna have to read; I hope you can bear it.]

Ginni Thomas

Ginni Thomas, previously known as a run-of-the-mill right wing ideologue, has recently revealed herself to be, in truth, a brainsick conspiracy theory trafficker and a danger to the republic. A lot of people are calling for her husband, US Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas — himself a rather nightmarish I’ve got mine and to hell with everybody else-ist — to recuse himself from any future potential cases regarding ex-President Donald Trump’s risible if it weren’t so petrifying January 6th insurrection. Ginni, you see, has bought into the Big Lie — that the 2020 national election was stolen by perpetrators unnamed using methods unspecified to jigger the vote counts in locales undisclosed.

The Justice’s bride sent a series of frenzied texts to Trump’s chief of staff Mark Meadows, urging the outgoing administration to overturn the vote results by means neither legal, constitutional, or for that matter honorable.

Ginni has a long history of political activism. She was active in her college Republican club and immediately after graduation went to work as a legislative assistant for a newly-elected Republican member of the US House of Representatives. Neither of those activities is — or should be — a deal killer but they reveal where her heart always has been. Later, as an attorney for the US Chamber of Commerce, she fought hard against the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993. Family and medical leave being perks enjoyed by the residents of more than 120 nations on this goddamned planet. In 2009, she founded a conservative advocacy nonprofit aligned with the Tea Party and in 2010 started Liberty Consulting, dedicated to helping utility companies deny climate change. She also worked hard to defeat equal pay legislation in Congress.

In the wake of the Capitol riot with the “Stop the Steal” canard spreading like malignant cells through the nation’s lymph system, she dreamed of this remedy:

[That the] Biden crime family & ballot co-conspirators (elected officials, bureaucrats, social media censorship mongers, fake stream media reporters, etc) are being arrested & detained for ballot fraud right now & over the coming days, & will be living in barges off GITMO to face military tribunals for sedition.

Phew! And I though I had a propensity for run-on sentences.

Anyway, she’s been a board member of the Council for National Policy, a group that pressured Republican legislators to appoint alternative members to the Electoral College, who, presumably, would put Trump back in office come Inauguration Day, 2021. And on the social medium that she’s so contemptuous of, she has consistently spread baseless “Stop the Steal” charges and even encouraged the Trumpists gathering in Washington, DC on the morning of the 6th.

Clearly, Ginni Thomas has an agenda. Traditionally, spouses of US Supreme Court justices have kept their noses clean when it comes to politics or any other issues that may or may not come before their wives’ and husbands’ Highest Court in the Land docket.

Married People.

The idea being, we want our Supremes not to be swayed by their bedmates’ pillow talk. And, as anybody who’s married knows, keeping one’s better half happy includes listening to them and, if even for appearance’s sake, indulging them.

Still, the Justice and his fellow Republicans recoil in horror at the notion of recusal. They’re trying to position the call as just more political gamesmanship. But it ain’t.

The Thomases swear they don’t talk about their respective businesses when in bed or over the dinner table. Their chitchat in the TV room, though, remains uncommented upon.

I dug up a precedent for Justice Thomas to declare himself out of any cases having to do with the election or the insurrection. Back in 1920, a couple of Italian-American anarchists named Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were accused of murdering two people during a payroll heist at a Massachusetts shoe factory. At the time, both anarchists and Italians were generally viewed as worse scourges than the recent worldwide flu epidemic or cancer or even the possibility of Prohibition. Many, many, many people back then were more than eager to believe that a couple of immigrant radicals were, in reality, bloodthirsty killers. Sacco and Vanzetti were swiftly found guilty and sentenced to death.

Protesters in New York City.

Roars of protest arose among American progressives and many observers around the world. Celebrities voiced support for the two men. Songs were written and impassioned opinion pieces dashed off. Protesters gathered by the thousands in cities around the world. Strong evidence existed both for and against the two men, but the touch point was the mob mentality that swept the nation, the desire to bring the terrible sword of justice down on them. The fact that both men were avowed atheists also helped make them America’s favorite villains at the time. Some commentators even admitted that Sacco and Vanzetti might not have been the actual killers but nevertheless ought to be electrocuted because surely they’d done something rotten in their lives.

One of the people enraged by the whole affair was a woman named Alice Brandeis. She’d donated a large amount of money to the men’s defense fund and publicly called for justice for them. 

Sacco and Vanzetti’s defense attorneys had hoped to gain a stay of execution for them through an appeal to the US Supreme Court. Their hopes rested upon reaching either of the Court’s two progressive jurists, Oliver Wendell Holmes or Louis Brandeis.

The latter being Alice Brandeis’s husband. Justice Brandeis promptly recused himself from considering the defense attorneys’ appeal. To him, it was a simple decision; his wife was a participating party in the contretemps, therefore, he’d been tainted, merely by marital association.

Alice and Louis Brandeis and Family.

Sacco and Vanzetti were executed at midnight, August 22nd/23rd, 1927. Violent demonstrations broke out in several international cities and, subsequently, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts institution drastic court reforms to ensure wrongly convicted defendants could get retrials.

If you can’t see the parallels between the Brandeis and Thomas situations, then you just can’t see. Or don’t want to.

1000 Words: Dumb Luck

We’re living in real fear of the mushroom cloud again for the first time since the Soviet Union collapsed more than three decades ago.

That event signaled the end of the Cold War, the half-century-long standoff between the United States and the USSR with each side brandishing thousands of nuclear weapons and promising to incinerate the planet should the other side push its luck too far.

Following the Soviet collapse, people’s fears about a coming nuclear holocaust eased off. By the time the Millennial generation started becoming aware, few of them gave the merest thought to the dreaded mushroom cloud. Those of us alive in 1962 or 1985 lived in constant panic over the possibility that, at any moment, we’d witness, in the last fleeting second of their lives, the pikadon, Japanese for flash boom, the otherworldly brilliant white light and hellish concussion signaling the detonation of a nuclear bomb over a city.

But, for a tantalizing few years, we forgot about nuclear weapons.

Then, when Donald Trump was technically elected president in 2016 and immediately engaged in a verbal pissing match with the equally lunkheaded leader of North Korea, Kim Jung-un, nuclear dread became a thing again. It wasn’t as acute as it had been a few decades before, but people actually began thinking about the bomb. Now that Vladimir Putin, perhaps even loonier than either Trump or Kim (although it’s a real contest) has launched his invasion of the Ukraine, nuclear anxiety is again becoming foremost in our minds, especially after he reminded the globe that Russia might nuke the hell out of anyone who tried to stop his Ukrainian adventure. Nearly three-quarters of Americans now fear nuclear war may break out sooner rather than later, according to a late March Associated Press/National Opinion Research Centers poll.

But, again, during the thirty-year period after the USSR’s collpase, if anyone thought about nukes, it was the fear that, say, India and Pakistan might find themselves in a shootin’ war or that some terrorist gang might stumble upon an old Soviet bomb and use it to blackmail an entire nation. Even so, not too many people fretted over either possibility.

The problem is, a terrorist group may well have mined, refined and weaponized uranium, and built its own nuke as far back as the mid-1990s.

Oddly, there was a only brief but terrifying report in the New York Times back in 1997 about an unexplained seismic event in Australia a few years earlier. In the middle of the night on May 28th, 1993, seismographs around the world jumped and the very few people within hundreds of miles of a point in the Great Victoria Desert reported seeing a sky-filling flash followed by an earth-shaking rumble.

The blast — or whatever — was so big that scientists at first thought it had to have been a meteor or asteroid striking the Earth. But no evidence of such an event has ever been found. The Times report revealed that the Japanese doomsday cult, Aum Shinrikyo, had purchased a huge tract of land in the desert, had mined uranium, constructed a state of the art refining laboratory, and — here’s the kicker — had been joined by several nuclear scientists from the old Soviet Union.

Aum Shinrikyo, you may recall, was the gang that released the toxic nerve gas, sarin, into the Tokyo subway system in 1995, killing 14 people. It was merely the group’s latest attack at the time. Aum already had carried out assassinations and other less ambitious poison gas attacks in Japanese cities. Investigators determined that Aim Shinrikyo members hoped to trigger World War III, at the very least, or, believing in a predestined apocalypse, wanted to get the ball rolling on it.

Investigators also learned Aum already had tried to purchase a few Soviet nuclear weapons on the black market but had been unsuccessful.

The Great Victoria Desert blast force was estimated to be the equivalent of 2000 tons of TNT — two kilotons in nuke parlance. The nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima, for comparison, delivered the equivalent of 15 kilotons. So, if the desert blast really was a nuke, it would have been a baby. Some land-based thermonuclear weapons possessed by the United States and Russia today yield explosive forces in the megaton range — that’s a million tons of TNT.

So the putative Aum bomb — it’s never been proven it was a nuke — would have been a firecracker, albeit one that, had it been exploded over a city, would have killed tens of thousands of people in a…, well, a flash.

Suffice it to say that although the Great Victoria Desert incident remains a mystery, where there’s smoke there’s fire, and there was plenty of metaphorical smoke in the western Australia bush that May night in 1993.

Even if Aum Shinrikyo was only trying to develop new and creative uses for nerve gas to hasten the expected apocalypse, the fact that a cult of loons was mining uranium and recruiting nuclear engineers should terrify the bejesus out of us to this day. Aum Shinrikyo has been de-fanged in the years after the Tokyo sarin attack, but there surely exist in the world plenty of doomsday-ists and similar hoodlums hoping to put millions of us out of our misery.

Why hasn’t it happened yet? Why, when they had the chance, did the United States and the Soviet Union refrain from frying the planet? Why, for that matter, haven’t any of the purported nuclear states — the US, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, China, India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea — pressed the button as yet?

A pollyanna might suggest that the threat of existential annihilation has prevented world leaders, presumably sane, from ending it all. But what if one of those nine nuclear states comes to be headed by a psychopath? And what if one or more of them happens to be in power as we speak?

Equally as terrifying, how lucky are we that no doomsday cult or wild-eyed terrorist organization has, as yet, accumulated enough money, materials, and maniacs to wipe a city off the face of the Earth?

How long will our luck hold out?

1000 Words: A Blow For The Oscars

I’ve always been baffled by the attention people lavish on the Oscars. For me, the Academy Awards ceremony ranks up there with the British Royal Family and the Westminster Dog Show. I just don’t get it.

Then again, I’m obsessed with the fortunes of a bunch of guys in pinstriped pajamas trying to hit a little ball with a long wooden bat. So who am I to judge?

Last night’s Oscars actually made headlines for a reason other than some young star’s side-boob or an aging actor’s scold on the latest injustice. Will Smith, who didn’t know it at the moment but would in short order be named Best Actor, smacked with an open hand or slugged with a close fist — I couldn’t tell which — comedian Chris Rock.

It ranks up there with other ad-libbed acts on Oscar night through the years, including Sasheen Littlefeather standing in for Marlon Brando, the streaker who ran past David Niven, and the time the presenter announced the wrong Best Picture winner.

Anyway, Rock joked that Jada Pinkett Smith’s next movie should be GI Jane II. It got a chuckle because in the original GI Jane, Demi Moore had her head shaved. The joke being Pinkett Smith, recently revealed to be suffering from alopecia, likely won’t have to be shaved for the role.

It was a tiny bit risky, making light of her medical condition. Still, it’d be forgotten almost before the chuckling had died down but Smith strode on stage and whacked Rock. As he marched back to his seat, he announced, loudly, “Keep my wife’s name out of your fucking mouth!”

It may be the first time anybody ever clouted anybody else at the Oscars. I’m willing to bet there’ve been some thumbs thrown at one or another of the booze- and cocaine-fueled after-parties, but during the proceedings, I doubt it. Again I don’t know because, again, I don’t care.

The incident is big news this AM. People are gleefully expounding on it around the world. Editorialists are trying to Make Sense of It All. Opinionators are wondering What It All Means.

Let’s take a look at it through a variety of lenses.

Perhaps the first thing to consider is as yet we have no idea what Pinkett Smith thinks of the whole thing. She did not mount that stage and clock Rock. It was her husband. Many people find humor to be a healthy way of dealing with whatever malady has befallen them. I spent about six months making jokes about my cancer back in 2016. That, of course, doesn’t mean everybody enjoys a good guffaw when it comes to, say, a recent diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis. But, again, we don’t know what Pinkett Smith’s views are.

We do know that the gag incensed Will Smith enough to resort to violence. And the funny thing is, many of the folks who’ve been decrying American society’s recent decent into violence (really, not a new development, after all, but…, y’know) have endorsed Smith’s slug. Or whack. Or whatever.

One social media poster I know wrote: “Chris Rock got what he deserved. Making jokes about a person’s disease is crossing that fine line between humor & inappropriate.”

Another poster wrote: “I spent years, as a volunteer & professional, involved w issues of domestic and other forms of violence… and Smith’s violent behavior is normalized every.single.day across the globe.”

Pinkett Smith’s kid, Jaden, tweeted: “And that’s how we do it.” Whatever it is and whoever we are.

It turns out Rock has made jokes about the Pinkett Smiths before. Back in 2016, they boycotted the Oscars over the Academy’s historic pushing of black actors and filmmakers toward the back of the bus. Will Smith the previous year had starred in the movie, Concussion, and many believed the Academy’s snub of him for the Best Actor nomination was yet another example of Hollywood’s apartheid. Rock, 2016 Oscars host, cracked: “Jada boycotting the Oscars is like me boycotting Rihanna’s panties. I wasn’t invited.”

Pinkett Smith took it in apparent good humor. Appropriate since, that’s what it was all about. “Hey look,” she told reporters afterward, “it comes with the territory.”

Pinkett Smith, after all, like everybody in the hall, makes her living standing before millions of people, essentially shouting, “Hey, look at me.” And she certainly hasn’t kept her alopecia a secret, so Rock wasn’t betraying any confidences.

And, again, we still have no idea what she thinks of the crack at this time.

But we know her man was moved to fisticuffs. Lawyers might tell us what Will Smith did to Chris Rock last night constitutes criminal assault and battery.

“He should have been arrested,” wrote Clemmie Moodie, the entertainment columnist for The Sun.

Moodie, I should point out, is a white woman. This is relevant because Will Smith is a black man. How might she have reacted if the swinger was white? How might the fallout have differed had Smith instead been, say, Tom Hanks? We’ve come a long way, baby, and overt racism is frowned upon in this day and age — cryptic references and dog whistles are preferred now — but the idea of a black man driven angry enough to start swinging still scares the bejesus out of way too many white people.

And too many women remain, even in these “enlightened” times, scared to death of too many men. Spousal and domestic abuse continues to be a dangerous epidemic around the world. The guys most likely to beat the hell out of their female mates seem to see their women as…, well, their women. One woman wrote on social media: “I am also stunned how many people are saying they would ‘stand up for their woman’ in the same way…. Violence in the name of protecting a woman is OK? Does it get more patriarchal than this?”

For all we know, Jada Pinkett Smith might have been mortified by her husband’s impulsive reaction. Thus far, there’ve been many ways to look at this incident. The only way we haven’t considered is Jada Pinkett Smith’s way.

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