Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Fireworks are for Old Folks

I used to tell my friends I’d be the oldest living person at America’s Tri-Centennial Celebration. That would put me at 127 years old. Turns out I’m not as far off as it might have seemed back then.

At the recommendation of the Wall Street Journal, I completed a longevity calculator - four different ones, in fact; and they’re telling me I could live well into my 90’s. All of them.

I guess that’s good news.

What I’d really like to do is get my friends and family to run the numbers on themselves. See, I’m unsure how much fun it will be to reach 99.8 years, as one of the calculators predicts, if I am to be alone with my oatmeal.

Susan, my cat, is 21 years old. I think that’s about 300 in cat years. She moves in slo-mo now, carefully securing solid placement for one paw before lifting the next. Like a sloth.

Her life doesn’t seem so bad though. It’s just that her world has shrunk.

Gone are the days when she roamed our lot stalking squirrels and birds and bugs, tormenting our passive yellow lab, Ted, (whom she’s outlived by nine years), and romping through the house with her favorite leopard skin catnip mouse.

Now she has a meal, a poop, (in one of the multiple boxes strategically placed for her echolocation), and a day sunning on the deck, or napping on a heating pad. We can dream of such an existence.

And she’s virtually weightless.

OMG! Just the thought of becoming so tiny. Especially after being so…not tiny.

I want to be one of those surprising old women. The one who’s still writing, who college kids think is a kick. I don’t just want to say what I think; I want to think funny, incisive, no, piercing thoughts.

Yes, when folks are at their wits’ ends, casting about, wondering “what the heck?” suddenly, something I’ve said will pop into their heads and they’ll feel better. Lately, it’s been: When you’re going through hell, keep going.

I stole that of course. But I’m going to start recording all my clever insights, so by the time I’m 80, let’s say, or 85, I’ll have amassed a veritable panoply of pithy sayings.

The Anderson Cooper of the era, no, the Jon Stewart, will call me up for on-air interviews. Like when David Letterman calls his mom. You won’t see me; you’ll only hear my voice, bright and tinny. I’ll lampoon the newest president, poke fun at democrats and republicans, and make you laugh with my snappy wit. If you’re still alive, that is.

Of course I’ll be a dancer. I’ll be one of those tiny curved women who wear a leotard in front of a mirror, waving her spindly arms in the air, glorious. Feeling as if she looks good. Just like now when, on a rainy day, I play my “Just Dance” CD on the Wii and pretend I can keep up, pretend I rock. I still have the moves.

If I have to go to an old folks home, I’ll be the spark, the one the nurses won’t mind feeding. Maybe a high school girl will volunteer her time as a part of her senior project. She’ll sit with me and tell me about her boyfriend. I’ll make her blush, just as my grandma did me.

But in the short term I have to go to my husband, the man who helped me retire a year ago, and tell him I might live a long, long time --- longer than we expected. He’s already a little suspect of my earnings-free existence. I don’t know if we have 99.8 years’ worth of rent and Top Ramen. I might have to mow lawns to justify the added years.

He’s younger than I am - my husband. And since women typically outlive men, I’ve always thought it would average out and we would die more or less on the same day. I like the concept since it involves no sorrow. I’m already steeped in sorrow for those who’ve gone ahead. Not sure I could bear it if he up and decided to go before me.

He has better genes than I do, so the calculators are probably on his side. But I don’t want to go first.

I want to light a Roman candle at the Tri-Centennial.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Room Rates are High at the Gray Bar Hotel

Murderers fall into three categories as near as I can tell: Those who murder as a result of their insanity; those who murder in a fit of passion; and those who are fully sane, knowing precisely what they’re up to, and in the coldest and most dispassionate frame of mind, plot and scheme and murder believing they can get away with it.

None of these killers is deterred by the death penalty.

Crazy people don’t think ahead to the consequences of their deadly acts. Instead they listen to the voices. They remove the tin foil from their bonnets just long enough to tune in to the vibes of the “insider” who pinpoints their enemies. They are not discouraged by a chamber or a chair out of their radar’s range.

A fit of passion might seize an otherwise sane person. Perhaps, in a moment of extreme stress, he explodes outside his own control. That may be temporary insanity, (see above), or it may be rage at the overwhelming machine that controls him.

We can speculate as to the sources of this rage, but no matter; he is not, in that white-hot moment, dissuaded by a rational thought of what will happen to him if he kills. Engulfed by an incomprehensible internal firestorm, he lashes out and murders. The death penalty is impotent in that moment.

Finally, we have the calculating killer. Too smart. Smarter, at least in his own estimation, than all those around him. Smarter, so he believes, better prepared, and more thorough than law enforcement, stealthier than forensic science. Morals are no issue for this mind. His goal to free himself of a perceived hindrance drives him. He will not be entangled by any legal means of achieving his goal as this could deprive him of his possessions. Think Scott Peterson.

No penalty will deter such a person, one who believes himself invincible and superior to all.

Enter our economic recession and California Assemblyperson Loni Hancock with a proposal to scrap the death penalty. It’s accompanied by the not-so-new news that in California we can save $184 million dollars a year, a year!, by replacing death penalty sentences with life-with-no-chance-of-parole sentences. Presumably the numbers are similar in other death penalty states.

I’ve never seen an item-by-item break down explaining why it’s so much more expensive to house a death penalty inmate than a life-without-parole inmate, though I’m sure someone somewhere could explain it to someone else’s satisfaction. Is his cell more secure? Doubtful. Were there competitive bids? That seems doubtful too.

Nevertheless, if we accept the statement of potential savings, and the failure of the death penalty to deter murderers, we face a challenge to our system and our sensibilities.

Include the fact that since 1978, fully thirty-three years ago, we have executed only 13 inmates. Seven hundred more remain on death row. I don’t know the average age of a murderer, but an actuarial table might suggest that the death penalty equates to life without parole in about 98% of the cases. At $184 million, those 700 are housed at nearly $263K per year each.

Could it be that delays in carrying out the death penalty figure into the twisted mindset of a potential murderer? Evil people think in evil ways. Maybe they figure, “Why not? They’ll never get around to killing me anyway.”

But before we dispose of the needle, we must address the need for retribution. Death penalty laws, at least in part, grew out of the human impulse toward revenge. Murderers kill and in turn should be killed.

We relate to the outrage of Mark Klaas speaking about the man who raped and killed his daughter, whom we all anguished for, Polly. “He was sentenced to die according to California law. And now someone has drafted a law to spare his life!?”

Could you be satisfied with a solid life sentence in such a case? How about for $184 million?

If $184 million funneled away from death row inmates every year, and instead went into our schools and our infrastructure every year, could we bear knowing that those killers lived on for all their days in fear and degradation in the cold gray hellholes we’ve built for them?

What is the price of retribution? What is its value?

Can we set aside revenge? It’s cheaper to “care for” a murderer than it is to kill him --- maybe more cost effective for our souls too.

Or we can all go broke and blind.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Can Pfc. Bradley Manning Have It Both Ways?

I’ve been wondering about Pfc. Bradley Manning, the Army intelligence analyst accused of passing hundreds of thousands of military and State Department documents to WikiLeaks.

It can’t be good news for him that we rarely hear a peep about his status. It’s peculiar that a person has to look for news of the case that created such a colossal commotion just a few months ago.

It’s almost as if the US Government, and the mainstream media, “disappeared” him.

But of course we’ve had vital news items draw our attention and energy: Schwarzenegger’s baby-gate. Gingrich’s vacation-gate. And a favorite: Weiner’s wiener-gate. With such noteworthy and historically relevant events at the forefront, it’s a wonder newspapers have any column inches available for all the wars and financial quagmires we’re slogging through, let alone a follow-up on Pfc. Manning.

Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks, released a statement saying no one around the globe has come to harm because of the information Manning and he released. Maybe that’s the real story and it’s just not juicy enough to get a headline.

The courts will decide if Pfc. Manning meets the standards to be considered a true and honest whistleblower.

A legitimate whistleblower has several attributes, follows certain protocol, and has noble goals for taking such radical actions. We don’t yet know if Manning rises to those standards.

A true, red-blooded whistleblower has an altruistic intent: to right a wrong, to assist the weak in their battle against the government (or corporate) machine, to protect the defenseless, to alert the public to fraud or large-scale waste.

Did Pvt. Manning have a particular piece of wrongdoing on his mind to correct? He seems to have released a flood of information about a myriad of topics in a rush of emotion. There are multiple pellets to chase down from his scattergun.

The material he turned over to WikiLeaks is so wide ranging as to defy categorization. If he wanted us to know that government and military operations are ugly and deceptive, OK, but it’s old news. That diplomats are diplomatic to your face and tacky behind your back? Got it.

According to Justice Department spokesman Matthew Miller, avenues are available for whistleblowers to report wrongdoing, even in classified matters, “and we encourage people to use them. But people cannot make unilateral decisions to publicly release information that jeopardizes national security. When that happens, the government has an obligation to act.”

There is no evidence – which we’ve been allowed to see anyway – that Manning followed the procedures set out in the Intelligence Community Whistleblower Protection Act, which provides these methods for employees to bring malefactions to light without compromising security. But, neither can we be sure he acted unilaterally.

Did he speak to his superiors about the egregious infractions wearing on his conscience? If he were thwarted there, did he attempt to draw the attention of his congressman? Again, we haven’t been allowed to know.

Is Manning a true whistleblower, a hero who put himself at risk for the benefit of others, or the “conflicted” young man, “prone to emotional outbursts and impassioned by his beliefs,” profiled in the Washington Post?

With the dearth of information, we cannot know for sure. This is ominous for him, and perhaps for others who hold dark secrets and wish to bring them to light.

It is ominous for us as well. Is our government so insecure that it must squelch anyone who dares challenge its mode of operating?

The conditions under which Manning was detained at a marine base in Quantico, Va., and the resignation of Former State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley after criticizing the Defense Department’s treatment of Manning, do not bolster confidence in the government’s stance.

That Manning was moved to a medium-security prison in Leavenworth, Kansas, after President Obama assured us “the terms of his confinement [in Quantico] are appropriate and are meeting our basic standards” makes us uneasy.

Did Pfc. Manning attempt to dodge the consequences of his actions by remaining anonymous? The Wall Street Journal says an honest whistleblower, with the courage of his convictions, engages in classic civil disobedience, breaking a law openly, specifically to call attention to that wrongful law. He accepts the consequences of his actions by doing so publicly.

Democracy thrives on the truth and transparency. We must have it. Therefore, the impact of the release may outweigh the circumstance. The ends may justify the means.

Otherwise, he only blew the whistle on himself.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Big Brother is a Pimple-Faced Geek

We’ve come a long way from Black Bear #32.

Remember him from the grainy video of a campsite after dark in Yosemite National Park? Focused and following his nose, oblivious to the fact that he’s sporting a giant numbered ear tag; he’s breaking the back window of a camper’s Corolla and climbing in to steal his Twinkies.

Surveillance technology was #32’s downfall. That hapless beast, already identified, had his fate sealed - a swift relocation to the nether regions of the park. No more s’mores for you!

The first time-stamped video we reviewed at my school after the district installed security equipment showed a student in the 300 wing looking intently into the camera, his nose growing larger as he moved closer and closer. Slowly he reached up to stick a Post-It note on the lens, supposing this would prevent us from knowing who turned over all the trash cans in that wing.

You might expect we’ve become more tuned-in to the ubiquitous eyes upon us, but consider the laptop thief you may have seen on the news this week. He didn’t realize he’d stolen a device with an internal camera and software called “Hidden” that documented his actions and tracked his movements.

With the software’s help, the laptop’s rightful owner chronicled the thief’s daily routines, mundane and pathetic as they were, not in fuzzy “is that the guy?” ATM video, but in unmistakable full color clarity.

When the police couldn’t prioritize the crime, the incensed victim ran a series of captioned still shots on his blog, taken by the very laptop stolen from him, showing the thief in various compromising situations: Curled into the fetal position on his couch, with the title – “Guy sleeping on the couch next to my MacBook;” With a fixed gaze sitting just right of center frame – “Guy staring deliriously into my MacBook;” and best of all, the perpetrator shirtless and in bed – “I don’t want to know what this guy’s doing in bed with my MacBook.”

Just like single-minded Black Bear #32, and a clueless high school sophomore, the reality show led to the thief’s apprehension and arrest.

Stop light cameras keep us under the eye of Big Ticket Brother if we practice the California rolling stop instead of the full and complete stop “The Law” requires. Tollbooth cameras and now even carpool lane cameras rat us out if we try to save a few bucks or a few minutes just this once.

And now, perhaps the most sinister new development of all, Facebook has completed a "silent roll out" of their new facial recognition software. Here’s how it works: You attend your niece’s Christening and appear in photos posted on the proud parent’s wall. Your sister “tags” you by clicking on your face and entering your name, which is listed in the picture’s caption. Lovely, wholesome family fare. No harm in that.

But now, Facebook stores a digital record of your face in its giant databank in the sky. And, whenever your likeness appears again, on anyone’s page in any setting at any time, Facebook recognizes it and says to the poster of your photo, “Look, it’s YOU! Want to tag YOU in this photo?”

Let’s say you go down to Fisherman’s Wharf to scout out some dinner. A tourist lines up his wife and child in front of the crab pots and snaps a picture of them and YOU in the background. No biggy, he doesn’t know you anyway. His family back in Amarillo will only wish you hadn’t cluttered the scene.

But what if you’re playing hooky from work? Or bending your elbow with buddies at the bar instead of attending your mother-in-law’s Sunday dinner? White lies exposed, and shenanigans fair game, we can no longer be certain everything stays in Vegas.

There’s no reclaiming lost privacy. We slid past the bottom of the slope sometime shortly after the manager at 7-11 put up the fish-eyed mirror to watch over the corn nuts on his snack aisle.

Sure, we can opt out of Facebook’s facial recognition “service,” now that they’ve told us they opted us in.

But don’t kid yourself, Mark Zuckerberg, and God knows who else, is watching.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Too Much Information at the Dinner Table

I guess I’m glad Performance Food Group of Richmond, Virginia, can trace the origins of my T-bone steak from the tip of the tines of my fork all the way back to the exact heifer that gave her all for my dining experience. It’s a good thing, right?

Yes, says PFG. It will pay off in multiple ways: DNA traceability of beef boosts consumer confidence. It ups the value of the meal.

Let’s just cast an eye on the details.

Restaurateurs commenting in the recent Associated Press article about DNA tracking of beef from kibbutz to kitchen, as the case may be, say the process is a “security factor” for the guest as well as the chef. Diners can indulge at the table with assurance that Bossy came from a happy home on a range pinpoint-able on Google maps.

Did Farmer Phil treat Bossy with kindness and feed her well? Did she win blue ribbons at the County Fair? We’ll know. Family photos? Well, probably not, but now it could happen.
This could convert a person to vegetarianism. Trace the filet at my lips back to the ranch and even the precise animal it came from? I don’t want to be that well acquainted with the origins of my meals.

My cousin Terry back in Oklahoma raised steers, showed them at the Tulsa State Fair, and then swallowed them medium rare with new potatoes. I followed instructions on my annual vacations in the country, never naming the big-eyed beasts. But I talked to them, communed with them, made psychic connections. And when the fair left town, I went hungry while Terry chomped on #42.

I know I’m a hypocrite in this. I can eat the steak but I can’t kill the cow. Chicken? Yummy. But gone are the days when I had to sit on an overturned bushel basket with a hen flopping around underneath after my sadistic uncle swung the bird by its neck. I’m not sure why that didn’t put me off poultry long ago.

When I was a kid my family lived in the Middle East for a while. We had a houseboy, Majid. I loved Majid. Among other things, he helped me care for my pet rabbit, Fluffy (of course). Fluffy had bunny babies, providing great fun for my brother and me.

But, next thing I knew, we sat the dinner table and I found out, mid-bite, mid-chew --- Hey this is pretty good what is it? Majid fileted and deep-fried Fluffy! But it didn’t put this Okie off eating rabbit. Just my rabbit. For me, DNA tracing runs the risk of bringing the donor too close to the donee.

The benefit of “upping the value” of a meal sounds like doublespeak for raising the price of dinner. And sure enough, part of the market research backing the implementation of DNA tracking showed consumers will pay $2 or $3 dollars more for the same cut of beef if the proprietor adds various “pleasers” to its descriptors on the menu.

What’s a “pleaser,” you ask? Words and graphics added to menus to draw diners’ attention to a higher quality of meat, for example. Yeah, we’ll pay for that. But I suggest going light on the graphics. What can you show us anyway, a dairy cow’s double helix?

Another pleaser - our waitperson can now educate us as to our bovine friend’s ante-mortem diet. Better intake equates to better output. Sure, we Okies can joke about Nebraska’s corn-fed beef, but that’s when we’re talking about their football team. This is serious. This is chow.

With DNA traceable beef, the chef’s assurances come in the form of the first wave of malpractice insurance for purveyors of fine food. Another “pleaser” for the menu at Buffalo Bob’s Barbeque and Waterin’ Hole: “Guaranteed: No mad cows in this joint!”

Which brings us to the true benefit of this newest of technologies: DNA tracing cuts the time needed to track recalled meats. If E-coli breaks out, in hours instead of days or weeks, DNA tracing can identify the multiple sources of meat used in a 10-pound box of ground beef, for example, which may include up to 1000 animals.

Too much detail? Yeah, for me too. But more and more we want and need to know the information is available to someone whose job it is to look out for us at Sizzlin’ Sirloin.

So you go, Performance Food Group! ‘Cause I don’t wanna know.