How The Hell Did This Happen?

IMG_5131Today we took a drive down Woodward Avenue, from Russell’s place in Pontiac all the way down to downtown Detroit.  It is a breath-taking trip that takes you deep into the dark and disturbing heart of urban decay.

Woodward is an eight-lane boulevard that rolls through tony suburbs like Bloomfield Hills and Birmingham.  At one point the road crosses over a highway and enters Detroit proper, and the landscape changes.

IMG_5177Countless structures along this major road are graffiti-covered, burnt-out, gutted, weed-grown, collapsing.  It is riveting and immensely powerful and jaw-dropping, all at the same time.  You can’t help but reflect on the loss of wealth and the loss of hope that accompanied this slow-moving, terrible disaster.

As the miles rolled by and the sad vistas passed, I had one simple thought:  “How the hell did this happen?”  Was it the hubris of the domestic auto industry?  Was it political corruption and incompetent local government?  Was it poorly conceived “urban renewal” projects that took money away from places where it could have made a difference?  Or was it just titanic economic forces that decreed that once-mighty and wealthy Detroit was due for a fall?

I’ll post more pictures about our journey down Woodward Avenue this afternoon and tonight.  But still I wonder:  “How the hell did this happen?”

Back Out

Yesterday morning I woke up in the accustomed 4:30 a.m. time frame, yawned with catlike pleasure, rolled over to get out of bed — and felt a hot, stabbing pain in my lower back.

It’s weird when you go abruptly from pain-free to painful.  It’s almost like being in a dream that suddenly turns into a nightmare.   You wonder what you did to suddenly make your spine and back muscles so uncooperative.  Was it a sudden twist as you rolled over to put your feet on the floor?  Was it some kind of unusual physical exertion the day before?

Whatever the reason, it’s your fault somehow, and you’ve just got to deal with it.  I’ve had back problems before, so the coping patterns are familiar.  You move gingerly hoping not to experience that crippling flash, and you walk in a slightly hunched over, zombie-like way, and you pray that whatever happened goes away without too much time or trouble.

It’s an incident that also is a helpful reminder.  Those of us who are lucky enough to have moderately good health can’t really appreciate what it is like to live with constant pain.  I’m grateful that this happens only once in a great while.


Public Sector Vs. Private Sector

You’ve got a new product that you want to roll out to the American public.  It’s hugely important, and hugely controversial.

You’re trying to appeal to young people.  You want them to sign up for your product.  You know that their participation is crucial if you want your product to be a success.

You also know that most of the people in your target demographic are tech-savvy folks.  If they are going to sign up, they are going to do so through a website.  After all, it’s how they buy music, and concert tickets, and other things that they want.  If your new venture is going to be successful, it’s essential that you have a website that is user-friendly.

So, who do you select to manage and supervise your roll out and website development?  A computer geek who has developed successful, accessible websites for google, Amazon, and other lucrative internet businesses?  A tech wizard who is intimately familiar with cutting-edge technology and user interface concepts?

Or, the ex-governor of Kansas?

Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore!

A Downtown Facade

IMG_5130Tonight we’re in Michigan, visiting Russell at Cranbrook.  We had dinner at Churchill’s in downtown Birmingham, a throwback place where everyone, Russell and me included, was smoking a stogie and enjoying our dinner.  The Birmingham downtown area is enlivened by the beautiful facade of the Birmingham Uptown theater — which demonstrates just how much a fantastic, colorful neon sign can add to a nighttime area. Let the weekend begin!

A Stray Jolt In The Moonlight

Kasey, Penny and I were at the edge of North of Woods at the beginning of our morning walk when my attention was drawn by sudden movement up ahead.  What the?  What appeared to be a dog loped into view and stood in a neighbor’s front yard, dimly visible in the moonlight.  Penny and Kasey both began straining at their leashes.  I waited, thinking the dog’s owner would come walking up behind — but no owner came. The dog was off the leash and on its own.

IMG_1211My heart began pounding and my mind began churning.  Could it be a coyote?  No, too big.  It was some kind of large dog that looked like a very skinny German or Belgian Shepherd, with upright ears and the familiar Shepherd head.  Although Kasey barked, the dog didn’t, and I remember the Philosopher King of the Fifth Floor saying once that the dogs that bite try to come upon you silently.  Could it be a stray that might attack, or even a rabid dog?  If so, what should I do?  I braced myself and considered the options.

I decided that standing still and holding back the dogs was the best option.  Pose no apparent threat, make no movement that might be misinterpreted, and let the dog make the first move.  After a few moments the dog began moving back and forth, then darted around us and disappeared into the darkness.  We moved forward, but every one of my civilization-dulled hunter-gatherer senses stayed on high alert to detect the dog’s return.

After we completed the Yantis Loop we returned to our North of Woods neighborhood, near the place of the dog’s sudden appearance, and my adrenalin surged again.  I scanned the darkened streets and held my breath as we passed through deep shadow, hoping that the dog would not lunge out at us from a hiding place in the gloom.  It didn’t.  Fortunately, the dog was gone.

It turned out to be a small incident among countless uneventful early morning walks, but it was a jolt nevertheless.  It felt good to close the front door behind us.

Mexican Clowns Issue Their Denial

Last Friday, at a party in Cabo San Lucas, a gunman disguised as a clown shot and killed a reputed drug lord.  In a hit that sounds like a set piece from a Quentin Tarantino film, the assassin wore a clown wig, red nose, and costume.

Mexican clowns reacted swiftly to the troubling incident.  At a clown convention this week in Mexico City, they denied that the gunman was a true clown.  A real member of the “clown profession,” they say, would have been easily identifiable by his costume, mask, and face paint.  (Apparently, it is a fundamental part of the professional clown code to always wear your known stage costume whenever you participate in a public criminal act.)  One of the attendees said he could swear on his mother’s grave that it wasn’t a clown.

I’m sure Mexico was reassured by the clown convention’s steadfast denial of any clown involvement in the shooting.  No doubt towns and villages throughout Mexico were unsettled by the thought that murderous bands of rogue clowns might be roaming the countryside, emerging by the dozens from tiny cars, ready to stomp people with their too-big shoes, blind victims with spritzes from a seltzer bottle, and then open fire after tying off a balloon animal.

Many people, myself included, think clowns are creepy and unfunny as it is.  It’s nice to know, at least, that they aren’t routinely out there gunning down people at children’s parties.

The First Snow Effect

I live in New Albany, Ohio, a suburb of Columbus.  It’s located in the Midwest.

We have seasons here.  For those of you who live at the North Pole or on the equator, a “season” is a period of relatively consistent, distinct weather.  There are four of them.  They follow each other in an endless cycle in which the temperature warms and cools, then warms and cools again, and again, and again.

IMG_5119One of those seasons is autumn.  It’s a season in which the temperature cools before autumn gives way to winter, when the seriously cold weather hits.

The different seasons feature different weather.  It’s likely to be wet in the early spring.  The summer months see pop-up thunderstorms and, occasionally, tornadoes.  And, as autumn progresses, we get a condition called “snow.” defines “snow” as “frozen precipitation in the form of white or translucent ice crystals in complex branched hexagonal form” that “usually appears clustered into snowflakes.”

In the Midwest, snow is inevitable.  It happens, repeatedly, every year.  Every human being beyond the toddler stage who has lived in Columbus for at least a year has seen snow and knows precisely what it is.  It is part of the circle of life, as predictable as a first-game loss for the Cleveland Browns.

So why, then, does the first day of autumn snowfall — like, say, this morning — cause the reasonably proficient drivers of Columbus to behave like slack-jawed rubber-neckers who’ve never seen white stuff fall from the heavens?  Why does it impel them to slow down to creeping speed on completely safe interstate highways?!?  Why does it always result in my normal 25-minute commute to become an hour-long, wheel-pounding, tooth-grinding ordeal?!?!?!?!?

Well, at least we’ve got that out of the way.

Line-Drawing And Violent Content

If you establish a social media site, and allow the world at large to join and post, you’re running a risk.  Some people will post pictures of kittens, old family photos, or corny but uplifting messages.  Others, however, may want to post other things — things that are disturbing.  So you establish a content policy — but where do you draw the line?  That’s an issue that Facebook is wrestling with these days.

IMG_5117Facebook has an extensive set of “community standards” that address topics like “nudity and pornography,” “violence and threats,” and “hate speech.”  One topic is “graphic content.”  As Facebook puts it, people use the site to share their experiences and thoughts about issues, some of which “involve graphic content that is of public interest or concern, such as human rights abuses or acts of terrorism.”  Facebook distinguishes between sharing such content for purposes of condemnation and sharing “to celebrate or glorify violence.”  Facebook asks users to share content “in a responsible manner” and warn the audience about any graphic video.  If Facebookers report that certain content violates the community standards, Facebook decides whether to remove it. 

The most recent controversy involves a video showing a woman being decapitated.  The British Prime Minister, David Cameron, and others criticized Facebook for not removing the video and for apparently loosening its standards on hyper-violent postings.  Facebook reacted to the criticism, removed the video after determining it improperly and irresponsibly glorifies violence, and issued a “fact check” statement to explain its new approach and its decision.  

It’s the right decision, of course — but it shouldn’t have been a hard decision to make in the first place.  There is a big difference between disturbing images of starving children that sharpen an appeal for contributions to a hunger relief charity and a video of a planned execution by beheading.  Line-drawing can be tough, but I would certainly draw the line so that videos showing real people actually being killed, tortured, or horribly injured are excluded, whether their accompanying text purportedly “condemns” such action or not.

The Origins Of “Glitch”

President Obama, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, and other members of the Obama Administration have often referred to the problems with the website as “glitches.”  It made me wonder:  what is the history of the word “glitch”?

Sometimes tracing the derivation of a word is difficult, but that apparently is not the case with “glitch.”  Several internet sources say the first recorded use of the word in English occurred in 1962, in the writing of Ohio native John Glenn.  Glenn wrote that the Mercury astronauts used the word “glitch” to describe “a spike or change in voltage in an electrical current.”  In the decades since, the use of the word has expanded beyond the electrical realm to apply to a number of technological snafus.

That’s all well and good — but why use “glitch” as opposed to some other combination of consonants and vowels?  Many people think it’s derived from Yiddish, where “glitsh” refers to a slippery area or skating ground.  It’s not too much of a stretch to think that a sudden dip in an electrical current might be seen as similar to a slip on ice.

Language is a fascinating, ever-changing thing.  Who would have thought, for example, that the Oxford dictionaries would include a word like “twerk” (particularly given its meaning)?  And who knows whether the repeated use of “glitch” in connection with the Affordable Care Act website issues will cause the accepted understanding of that term to change — to the point, for example, where describing something as a “glitch” provokes laughter and is perceived as a conscious attempt to downplay the significance of a serious problem?

Consumer Reports Meets

When Kish and I need to buy a car, a major appliance, or some other significant product, we typically consult Consumer Reports.  There we find objective evaluations of our potential purchases by knowledgeable analysts, written in plain English accessible to the non-gearheads and non-techies among us.

So, I was interested when Consumer Reports tackled the process of trying to use, the federal government’s health exchange website.  It makes sense when you think about it.  One of the primary goals of the Affordable Care Act is to get uninsured consumers to buy insurance, so why not have one of the country’s preeminent consumer publications take a look at the process from the consumer’s standpoint?

Unfortunately, the Consumer Reports review of the process isn’t very encouraging.  It notes that of the nearly 9.5 million people who apparently tried to register on in the first week of its operation, only 271,000 — about 1 in 35 — were successful.  The article then provides tips about how to increase your chances of successfully navigating the website, offered by a software pro who has taken a careful look.  (You can find the software pro’s blog, which addresses some of the problems he has found with the website, here.)  Among other issues, he finds the instructions “garbled” and “needlessly complicated,” advises that you should simply ignore error messages that do not match reality, recommends that you immediately try a new user name, password, and security questions if “anything at all doesn’t go right,” and suggests that you check your e-mailbox frequently for a confirmatory e-mail, because will time you out if you don’t respond promptly.  The software guy also notes that many people are experiencing problems because of a crucial design error on the website:  it loads “cookies” and other code onto user computers during the registration process that prove to be too large for to accept back.

Consumer Reports also recommends that potential users “[s]tay away from for at least another month if you can,” because “[h]opefully that will be long enough for its software vendors to clean up the mess they’ve made.”  This advice is particularly interesting, because Consumer Reports also believes that the best source of information about healthcare options for consumers who are looking to buy health insurance themselves is through the health insurance marketplace in their state and — if it could only be made to work.


The Halloween Balloon

IMG_5114Every year, Halloween seems to get bigger and bigger.  What used to be a holiday for little trick or treaters and some juvenile delinquents back in the ’60s has become a huge retail money-maker, with billions of dollars being spent each year on costumes, candy, and decorations.

On Saturday Kish and I were down in German Village with our Bahamian buddies, and there were costumed people everywhere you looked, even though Halloween and Beggars Night don’t officially arrive in Columbus until October 31.  Throngs of zombies, superheros, and cultural figures lurched from bar to bar in search of a good time.  Halloween has become a week-long excuse to party, dress up, and act out.

That’s all fine with me, so long as the little kids get their chance to go door-to-door for candy, and I can carve a few jack-o-lanterns to greet them on their way to our door.  When you think about it, Halloween is one of the few remaining times where parents let their kids out of the house to roam freely and ask complete strangers for food.  It’s good innocent fun, and I expect most adults remember it as such.  No wonder so many grown-ups like to dress up and relieve a little of that childhood Halloween magic!