The Champion Squirrel Chaser

I’ve written before about the dogs and squirrels at Schiller Park. The neighborhood dogs love to chase the squirrels, and the squirrels seem to enjoy taunting the dogs, which are never quite able to actually catch the squirrels.

With one notable exception: the little white dog above. This dog is the champion squirrel chaser at Schiller Park. She was made to chase squirrels in the same way Lamborghinis are designed to go from zero to 60 m.p.h. in ridiculously short amounts of time. The dog runs like the wind and takes corners and changes direction at top speed — tail wagging furiously all the while. The dog has energy to burn and never stops to take a breather. Squirrels expect the little white dog to be as slow and clumsy as other dogs, and are then surprised when she actually catches them and knocks them down. I’ve watched her send an astonished squirrel tumbling, and it is a sight to behold. (Fortunately, the squirrel was able to immediately regain its feet and dart up a nearby tree.)

Today the dog was at the park and I snapped the photo above — which is about the best picture you’re going to get, because the dog is basically a white furry blur at all times. I talked to her owner and asked if she could share what the dog eats, because I’d consider changing my diet to capture some of the never-ending energy that dog has. The woman laughed and said that the dog just loves to run and chase squirrels. “It’s her nature,” the woman explained.

It certainly is. Watching this little dog chase squirrels would be like watching Michelangelo paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, or watching Ernest Hemingway write The Sun Also Rises. You can’t help but stop and appreciate an artist working in her true medium.

Bottom Phishers

The IT Department at our firm periodically sends out notices about the latest email phishing scams that are making the rounds. “Phishing,” for those of you who are unfamiliar with the term, refers to the efforts of fraudsters to send out emails that purport to be legitimate — like, say, a notice from a reputable bank. The phishers hope to get you to click on a link that either allows them to inject malware into your computer system or asks you to provide personal information, like Social Security numbers or bank account information, that they can then use to defraud you.

In short, phishers are fraudulent scum.

But they are creative, and they make efforts to try to keep up with what is going on in the world. Yesterday, for example, the notice from our IT Department concerned a new phishing email that tried to get the recipient to click on a link that purported to provide information about COVID vaccine scheduling. Like many phishing efforts, this one was oddly phrased and not written in the King’s English and wouldn’t fool most people — but all it takes is a few credulous or concerned people clicking on the link and the fraudsters are off to the races.

As I read the notice from our IT folks, I wondered about what kind of low-life loser would try to take advantage of a global pandemic that has killed hundreds of thousands and the interest in being immunized in order to commit fraud and steal money from worried people. If phishers are low-life scum — and they are — then any phisher who would based a phishing effort on coronavirus vaccine distribution is the lowest of the low. You might call them the bottom phishers, which is apt because the fish that live at the bottom of the ocean are typically the ugliest fish of all.

Don’t be deceived by bottom phishers. If you get an email about a vaccine, don’t just click on a link — call your doctor instead.

All In Proportion

We’ve got a set of four white food containers, of varying sizes, on our kitchen counter. You could arrange them in varying ways — largest to smallest, smallest to largest, or at random, or you could even split up the set and put different containers in different locations on the countertop — but I prefer the containers grouped together in the largest to smallest set-up, going from left to right.

I like the sense of proportion that is presented when the containers are in the right order. In fact, I like is so much that I will make little adjustments to the arrangement if one container gets out of line, or the spaces between the containers varies too much. I prefer it when like things are arranged in logical, orderly fashion, and it bugs me when they aren’t.

I recognize that this makes it sound like I am fussy about certain things, but I’m not sure that fussy is quite the right word. I prefer to think, instead, that I just appreciate balance and symmetry. With objects on a kitchen counter, balance and symmetry can be achievable. With life in general and the world at large, it’s harder.

Dog Yawns

If you’ve been around dogs much, you know that they tend to yawn. In fact, they yawn a lot. Russell’s dog Betty, for example, is a ferocious yawner, with the all-out yawn frequently followed by a full-bodied stretch.

Why do dogs yawn — and for that matter, why do humans yawn? Just about every species yawns, and scientists don’t know exactly why. Yawns clearly happen in response to periods of boredom or fatigue, but they don’t seem to help resolve those conditions by, for example, energizing the yawner and equipping him or her to withstand more of a droning meeting. So why yawn in the first place? Yawns also can occur during times of stress or social conflict — for both humans and dogs. And once a yawn begins, you just can’t stop it, no matter how embarrassing yawning at that particular moment might be.

Once of the more interesting things about yawns is that, in certain species like humans and chimpanzees, yawns are contagious. A good yawn from someone in a room can set off a chain reaction of yawning, and people who are empathetic are most likely to yawn in response to the yawn of another. But research also indicates that a good yawn from a dog’s human friend can provoke a yawn in the dog. In short, contagious yawns happen between two distinct species. Scientists believe that this is another indication of the incredibly close emotional connection between people and dogs.

They don’t call dogs “man’s best friend” for nothing. So the next time you transmit a good yawn to your dog, enjoy that empathetic moment — and then take her for a walk, will you?

Money And Happiness

At some point in your life, a family member probably told you that “money can’t buy happiness.” And another family member might have added: “Yeah, but it sure can rent it for a while.” The relationship between money and happiness is a topic that people just can’t resist discussing — and one that researchers can’t resist studying.

The latest study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, used a technique called experience sampling to determine whether money influences feelings of well-being. The sampling asked people to repeatedly complete short surveys about their emotions, their feelings, and their satisfaction with life at random points during their days, through an app called “Track Your Happiness.” The study sought to measure overall satisfaction with life and how people feel in the moment, and assembled 1.7 million data points from more than 33,000 participants. The study then determined average levels of well-being for participants and compared them to income.

A well-known 2010 study of happiness and money determined that happiness does increase with earnings, but that money-related happiness plateaus at the $75,000 income level. The most recent study, in contrast, found no cut-off point. Instead, it concluded that all forms of well-being continue to increase as income rises. And, according to the lead researcher, the reason for the connection between money and happiness is that money gives people a sense of more control over their own lives and better choices about their lives. That shouldn’t surprise anyone. And it also shouldn’t come as a surprise that the study found that people who earn more work longer hours and feel stress about their work.

I’m confident this won’t be the last study of money and happiness, although I really wonder whether such an elusive connection can really be studied and quantified in a meaningful way. It makes sense that people with more money feel more control over their lives and have a sense of well-being simply because they know they can eat and have a roof over their heads and aren’t always lurching from one financial crisis to another, buffeted by forces beyond their control. But I also know people with lots of money who aren’t very happy, and people with modest incomes who lead rich, fulfilled lives. There doesn’t seem to be a cosmic formula, with money and happiness being two elements in the equation, that applies to everyone.

My Chopping Block

We’ve all been doing a lot of cooking at home during the last year or so, and I’m no exception. I’ve especially enjoyed making ramen noodle concoctions and stews, and experimenting with different flavors, seasonings, and ingredient combinations. I also like making those dishes because they typically involve some chopping and cutting.

Cutting and chopping are probably my favorite parts of the entire cooking process. For one thing, when it’s time to cut and chop I get to use my handcrafted, now well-scarred cutting board, which makes me feel like a real kitchen professional — even though I’m admittedly not an adroit chopper, and wouldn’t dream of doing the rapid-fire, fingers-at-risk chopping that you see on the cooking shows. For another, it’s just fun to get out a knife and experience the tactile sensations of dicing things up to whatever size you desire, then grandly sweeping them off the board into a simmering pot. Add some good music and you’ve got a nice little cooking experience going.

I particularly like the feel of cutting and chopping onions and potatoes. I’m not sure why, but during this continuing stay-at-home period attacking defenseless plant matter is especially enjoyable.

The Curse Of Obscenity

Yesterday was another frustrating day for Cleveland Browns fans. The Browns went on the road against a very good Kansas City Chiefs team, fought hard to overcome some bad breaks, and mounted a comeback that put them in position to win and make it to the AFC Championship game — but fell just short. Again. The hopes of Browns fans everywhere were raised, only to be dashed. Again.

As the final seconds ticked away, meaning that yet another season has passed without the Browns making it to their elusive first Super Bowl, I felt the frustration well up inside me, and I unleashed a colorful torrent of the crudest imaginable obscenity at the TV set. It was a brutal, uncontrolled, red-faced verbal tirade against the fickle fates and the capricious sports gods that surged out with a vehemence that surprised even me.

I hate it when this happens. It’s embarrassing, and I keep hoping as the decades roll by that I’ve matured to the point where I can rationally accept disappointments that occur in my corner of the sports world without hurling vulgar epithets or screaming like a lunatic, but yesterday shows I’ve still got a lot of work to do in that area. I sometimes wish I never learned about cussing. Knowing obscenities really is a kind of curse.

Temporary Alliances

The world of the sports fan is a world of temporary alliances. It’s like Europe of days gone by, when secret negotiations, confidential ententes, and treaties named after obscure towns could abruptly and unexpectedly tip the balance of power.

For most football fans, on any given game day they will be strongly supporting (1) their favorite team, and (2) whichever random team happens to be playing their favorite team’s hated rival or most challenging future opponent.

Today will provide a good example of this reality. The Cleveland Browns will be taking the field versus the Kansas City Chiefs. I’m guessing that the viewership for the game in Buffalo, New York will be off the charts, with all of the Bills fans rooting hard for the Browns to somehow upset the highly favored Chiefs.

Why? Not because Cleveland and Buffalo are fellow cities on the shores of Lake Erie that once were linked by an eponymously named steamship line, as shown in the picture above. (And the ship that sailed Lake Erie between the two cities was called the SeaandBee. Get it?) No, it’s because the Buffalo Bills throttled the Baltimore Ravens yesterday and will play whichever team wins the Browns-Chiefs tilt. Buffalo fans have got to feel that the Bills have a better chance of beating the Browns than the awesome Chiefs, and if the Browns could prevail over Patrick Mahomes and his offensive fireworks show, the Bills would have a home game against the Browns in Buffalo — with a slot in the Super Bowl at stake.

Put those two considerations together, and you’re not likely to find a more ardent set of fans for the Cleveland Browns in today’s game than the good folks of Buffalo, New York. And if the Browns do somehow find a way to topple the mighty Chiefs, and will be traveling to Buffalo for the AFC championship game next weekend, Bills fans won’t have a second thought about immediately reversing allegiances and hating the Browns with a deadly, all-consuming passion.

Machiavelli would be proud.

Jar Psychology

Are you a jar person, or a non-jar person?

I’m guessing the jar people out there, at least, know well what I’m talking about here. The jar people realize there is intrinsic value in a good jar or other potentially useful former food container. When, say, a peanut butter jar has been emptied of its rich, peanutty goodness, they carefully put the jar and its lid in the dishwasher for cleaning and, when the cycle is done, take the jar and place it is the jar storage cabinet in the kitchen that already holds a random collection of old pasta jars, coffee cans, and plastic storage containers that used to carry lunch meat. Why do jar people do this? Because you never know when you might actually need a good jar, and you don’t want to get caught short.

The non-jar people find this thinking to be baffling and utterly alien. They routinely toss perfectly serviceable jars that have been emptied of their contents into the trash, and if you ask them why they would patiently explain that such jars have fully served their intended purposes. They might also ask, pointedly, whether we really need to keep a supply of jars around when no one can remember the last time we actually needed a jar for any purpose whatsoever. They reason that, if once in a blue moon a storage container is needed, they can just go out and buy one.

This kind of thinking makes the jar people shake their heads in dismay and think of the fable about the industrious ant and the cavalier grasshopper.

It’s just one of the many points of division in this great country of ours. The jar people and the non-jar people just can’t understand each other, and probably never will.

Recognizing “Financial Abuse”

Recently I ran across this article on “recognizing financial abuse.” A mother wrote to a financial advisor about her son’s circumstances, out of concern that the son was in a “financially abusive relationship.” It seems that the son’s fiancee manages the couple’s finances and controls their accounts, so that the son is dependent on the fiancee for “anything he wants, even spending money.” Mom worries that the fiancee is intentionally creating a dependency relationship — and the advisor says the Mom is “absolutely right to be concerned.” The article then goes on to discuss financial abuse and its warning signs.

There seems to be a pretty significant back story lurking behind the Mom’s inquiry about potential financial abuse. You can detect a whiff of a Mom who is pretty darned involved in her son’s life — to the point of knowing intimate details about how a couple is managing their private finances — and might, conceivably, have been an overprotective helicopter parent who resents the fiancee’s role for a lot of reasons. But laying that issue aside: when one person in a couple takes principal responsibility for their joint financial affairs, is it really a cause for concern about “financial abuse”?

In my experience, most couples make an allocation of responsibility for financial matters, just as they decide who will be responsible for different chores around the household. That makes perfectly good sense to me and doesn’t seem like a danger sign in any way. You don’t want two people writing checks, and it is a lot more efficient to have one person tracking the household budget. If the son who is the subject of the letter from the hovering mother isn’t incredibly responsible with his spending habits, it’s perfectly understandable that the fiancee might want to assume responsibility for money management and put him (and herself) on an allowance so they don’t have an issue with overspending and growing credit card debt. So long as the couple talks about the issues and reaches agreement on who is going to do what, it’s hard to see why their situation might be cause for concern.

The article linked above notes — correctly, of course — that “financial abuse” can be a form of domestic abuse, and that people need to be wary of things like forged checks, “secret” credit cards, using money to manipulate, intimidate, or interfere with or control a person’s job or lifestyle. And clearly, people need to be sensitive to financial abuse of the elderly and fraudsters emptying accounts that credulous seniors carefully funded over their lifetimes. But those circumstances seem pretty far removed from one member of a couple simply taking charge of finances and trying to make sure that they stick to their budget. And there is a danger, too, in defining potential “financial abuse” so broadly that it sweeps in entirely innocent and rational allocations of household responsibilities. That’s not only going to embolden nosy Moms, it’s also going to make it less likely that people recognize the signs of true financial abuse.

GM’s New Logo

In case you hadn’t noticed, General Motors has redone its logo. It’s still got the letters G and M in it, of course, but instead of the proud, stolid capital letters, the G and the M are presented in lower case form.

Corporations apparently believe that consumers spend huge amounts of time carefully studying corporate logos and brands, reacting to each little feature. In this case, the newest General Motors logo is supposed to show that the company is moving toward electric cars. That’s why the new logo colors include “electric blue,” and the white spaces within the lower case m are supposed to make consumers think of an electric plug. (I would have totally missed that one.) I’m sure the rounded circle and the underline of the m also are supposed to have some deep meaning, too, but I’ve got no idea what.

I would guess that GM, like many companies, spent a lot of money on consultants and spent a lot of time deciding whether to go to the new logo — which, as the article linked above indicates, is getting decidedly mixed reviews. The thing that strikes me most about the new logo is the decision to go from capital letters to lower case. The straightforward capital letters, without stating the full company name, were instantly recognizable as the mark of a corporate colossus whose interests were once equated with the interests of America itself, but those days are long gone. Now, in the years after taxpayers had to bail out the company from some really bad corporate decisions, GM is a shrunken shell of its former self, and with the new logo it’s formally become the e.e. cummings of the American corporate world by going to the understated, meek, and frankly somewhat pathetic lower case mode.

That’s what the new logo conveys to me, but that message is probably not what the consultants and branding experts and logo designers and General Motors management intended.

Counting Down The Moons

Obviously, the Earth’s Moon is pretty great, as moons go. For the broad sweep of human history, this beacon of our night sky has inspired lovers and songwriters and literature, encouraged early humans to develop calendars and create the science of astronomy, influenced the tides of our oceans, and provided a bright light to help illuminate the dark night and early morning hours. For a dead, lifeless celestial body that is pockmarked with craters, that’s a pretty impressive list of achievements.

To the folks at Popular Mechanics, though, our Moon isn’t at the top of the lunar heap. When they decided to sit down and rank the more than 150 moons in the solar system — including ones you’ve probably never heard of, like Epithemius and Janus, which share the same orbit around Saturn, Dactyl, a moon that actually orbits an asteroid rather than a planet, and Mimas, which looks uncomfortably like the Death Star from Star Wars — our Moon didn’t fare very well. In fact, the Moon barely cracks the top ten, coming in at number 8. The Popular Mechanics crew concludes that it’s just not as interesting from a scientific standpoint, or as charismatic, as other moons. In fact, you get the sense from the comments reported in the article that the number 8 slot is actually kind of a pity ranking, given just because the Moon is our moon and we give it a capital M. The Old Man in the Moon has got to be disappointed.

The Moon came in behind Iapetus, Ganymede, Europa, Triton, Enceladus, Io, and the top-rated moon, Titan, which also orbits Saturn. These bodies all have features the Moon lacks, like liquid oceans, actual atmospheres made up of exotic combinations of chemicals, volcanic activity, bright colors, or the possibility of alien life.

OK, I get it: but has anyone ever actually written a song about Enceladus, or Titan?

The Lab Leak Scenario

It’s been about a year since the coronavirus started to spread in earnest and unleash its wrath on an unwitting world. Since that time, tens of millions of people have been infected, countless more have died, and therefore the focus understandably has been on fighting a desperate, rear-guard action to try to minimize the spread and effects of COVID-19. But . . . will we ever know, for sure, the origins of the virus and how it came to shut down the world?

Initially, many people thought that the virus had its roots in a “wet market” in Wuhan, China, where a virus that previously was limited to animals somehow made a leap to humans. Increasingly, however, people are exploring the alternative “lab leak” scenario. That hypothesis posits that the virus had its roots in a naturally occurring condition among animals, but than was modified and bioengineered and made even more infectious in a medical laboratory — in this case, a lab somewhere in Wuhan.

And here’s the scary part: the people who are articulating the lab leak scenario do not believe that COVID-19 was intentionally designed to function as some kind of biological weapon. Instead, they believe it was created and enhanced in infectiousness and virulence as part of routine, ongoing experimentation with viruses — and that, through negligence and inadvertence, it somehow got out of the controlled environment and began its destructive rampage across the globe. In short, they believe medical researchers throughout the world have been engaging in incredibly risky behavior with incredibly risky viruses, and through someone’s mistake or carelessness, we’re now all paying the piper. If that hypothesis is what actually happened, this wasn’t some naturally occurring phenomenon, but a self-inflicted wound that didn’t have to happen in the first place.

A New York magazine piece, The Lab Leak Hypothesis, does a good job of explaining this scenario for the creation of COVID-19 and establishing why it seems plausible. It turns out that, for years now, scientists and medical researchers have been tinkering with viruses and modifying them in an effort to make them more deadly and more easily transmitted, for the putative purpose of trying to prevent the spread of viruses and designing vaccines or other treatments. And, in publications in the scientific community, some people have sounded the alarm bells and predicted that, one of these days, one of those bioengineered viruses would escape. That may be precisely what happened here.

Reading the New York article, I found myself thinking: didn’t anyone involved in funding or supervising or performing this kind of incredibly risky research ever read The Stand, Stephen King’s novel about a bioengineered disease that decimated the world? And didn’t the scientists who were engaging in this research have a bit of humility about their capabilities, and question whether they should be playing God with viruses that could potentially sweep across the world?

We may never know exactly how COVID-19 came toravage the world. It’s unlikely that, if the lab leak scenario is true, someone will step up and admit that they opened the door to allow a global pandemic to escape. But Congress and the incoming Biden Administration can take a good, hard look at precisely what kind of risky research is being performed, at taxpayer expense or otherwise, and consider whether that research should be shut down entirely, or subject to much more rigorous controls than currently exist. We may not learn from whence the coronavirus came, but we can take the lab leak scenario seriously, and try to prevent a human-engineered disease from killing unwitting victims, smashing our economies, and throwing millions of people out of work in the future.

The Power Of Positive Thinking (II)

Tonight the Ohio State University Buckeyes play the Alabama Crimson Tide in the College Football Playoff National Championship Game. If you paid attention to the pundits, or the Las Vegas oddsmakers, you would conclude that Ohio State has no realistic chance in this game. In fact, some of the talking heads are saying that Alabama is so unstoppable, so overwhelming, and so unbeatable that the Buckeyes will have to play a perfect game just to avoid getting humiliatingly blown off the field.

Medieval historians might say that the game tonight is as much of an apparent mismatch as the Battle of Agincourt. Fought in 1415, during the 100 Years’ War, the Battle of Agincourt pitted a tiny English army against a much larger host of French knights in a battle fought on the French army’s home turf. If ESPN had existed in those days, the commentators would all have predicted that the Franch would overwhelm the outmanned English. But King Henry V had a weapon on his side: a positive attitude. As Shakespeare envisioned it, rather than despairing in the face of the overwhelming Franch force on the eve of battle, Henry told his gallant group of men that they should feel lucky to be at that spot in that moment. Henry’s stirring speech famously concludes with this passage:

This day is call’d the feast of Crispian.
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam’d,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say “To-morrow is Saint Crispian.”
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say “These wounds I had on Crispin’s day.”
Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember, with advantages,
What feats he did that day. Then shall our names,
Familiar in his mouth as household words—
Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and TalbotSalisbury and Gloucester
Be in their flowing cups freshly rememb’red.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be rememberèd—
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

Henry was right. Against all odds, the English won a decisive victory at the Battle of Agincourt, using the power of positive thinking — and, not incidentally, a new weapon, the English longbow — to crush the haughty, overconfident French and rout their army.

If the English could do it, so can the Buckeyes. No foe is unbeatable, and no ESPN commentator is infallible.

What do you say, Buckeye Nation? Let’s stay positive and root like crazy for the Men of the Scarlet and Gray to stand toe-to-toe with Alabama and win this game!

The Power Of Positive Thinking

Born A Buckeye

During football season, the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, only a short distance away from Ohio Stadium on the Ohio State University campus, has a tradition of swaddling newborn babies born at the facility in scarlet wraps that cheer on the hometown Buckeyes before big games. This year, in the days since Ohio State topped Clemson to advance to the College Football Playoff National Championship Game, the infants have been sporting messages that urge the Buckeyes to beat the Alabama Crimson Tide.

The scarlet swaddling is a good way to make sure that these newest members of Buckeye Nation get off to the right start in their sports fandom and gives their parents a great keepsake — and who can disagree with the message? Go Bucks! Roll the Tide!