When The Arnold Comes To Town

It’s the weekend of the Arnold Sports Festival in Columbus, Ohio. Those of us who live in Columbus love the Arnold. It brings huge numbers of huge people to our town, where they spend money, have a fine time, and block out the sun whenever they walk past you.

The realization that this year’s Arnold is upon us moved me to verse:

The Arnold’s here! The Arnold’s here!
The event for which we’re down
We’re always happy in C-bus
When the Arnold comes to town.

In hotels, restaurants and gyms
You’ll see nary a frown
Our businesses love the weekend
When the Arnold comes to town.

The beefy guys and cut-up gals
Use so much oil they could drown
They’re orange and lubed and bulging
When the Arnold comes to town.

Then there’s the stud for whom it’s named
A man of great renown
He’s like our city’s mayor
When the Arnold comes to town.

And when it ends, in every sport,
A winner wears a crown
But we’re the real winner
When the Arnold comes to town.

Good luck to all of the Arnold contestants and their families. We’re glad you’re here, we know you’ll have a wonderful time, and we hope you’ll come back next year.

Fraud From The Boiler Room

This week a police operation in Great Britain and the EU resulted in arrests of more than 100 people who allegedly were involved in “boiler room” operations, where callers solicit investments in fraudulent financial schemes or sell stock that doesn’t exist. The SEC, too, routinely prosecutes people who are determined to be involved in boiler room schemes to swindle investors. Often these schemes bilk hapless seniors of their retirement funds.

I’ve received “boiler room” type calls. Typically the caller talks very fast with a New York accent (I’ve always assumed the accent is part of the job training, just like being an airline pilot requires that you speak with a certain folksiness), explains they are with an investment outfit you’ve never heard of, and then says they’ve got just one opportunity they want you to consider. There’s always some hook that makes the investment sound plausible and can be described in 30 seconds — development of oil sands, a company that’s about to be awarded a development contract in Qatar — and then the ask that you give them this one chance to show that they can make a huge return for you.

I always listen politely, because I watched Glengarry Glen Ross and felt sorry for the Jack Lemmon character, and then decline. If they start to get especially pushy and belligerent — and that’s not unusual — I just hang up. They’re wasting their time with me, because I would never dream of giving any of my hard-earned money to a complete stranger who calls out of the blue. However, some people do invest, to their eventual regret, which is why boiler room operations have been a staple of the fraudster arsenal for decades.

Many of the victims are senior citizens. Why are so many older people easier to scam? Research suggests that the elderly are more likely to open junk mail about get-rich-quick schemes and interact with cold callers, and that the aging brain is less able to appreciate risk. In short, they put themselves in a position to be hoodwinked, react positively to the promises of outlandish returns on their money, and lack the filters that would allow them to recognize the downside risk and danger that they are being defrauded.

If you’ve ever known an anguished and humiliated senior citizen who was taken advantage of by a boiler room operation, you know that there is a special level of hell reserved for crooks who prey on the elderly, rob them of their life savings, and leave them facing an impoverished retirement.

The Penny Chronicles

My name is Penny.

IMG_5929There is one thing I hate more than any other. It isn’t that stupid cat that comes right up to our front door. It isn’t the mean dog that growls at me when I walk past, either.

It’s this white thing. Boy, I hate this thing. Sometimes the Leader sticks it in my ear, and it squirts. It feels so weird in there! I just hate it, hate it, hate it.

So, I watch to see when the Leader brings out the white thing. Sometimes, when I am trying to get her to feed me early because I am hungry, or when the Leader isn’t paying attention to me and I am jumping up on her, the Leader will get the white thing. When she does, I head in the opposite direction. I’d rather wait to eat than have to feel the white squirty thing in my ear.

Sorry, Leader! You have to get up pretty early to outsmart Penny.

Scrutinizing The Habitable Zone

This week the NASA Kepler telescope team announced the discovery of another 715 “exoplanets” outside our solar system — all of which are in their own multi-planet solar systems. The announcement represents another giant leap forward in our understanding of other solar systems, and how commonplace multi-planet systems are.

The Kepler space telescope was focused on finding instances of “transits,” when light from a faraway sun drops slightly in brightness because a planet has crossed in front of the sun. The size of the variation in light allows scientists to calculate the size of the planet moving across the face of the sun. Most of the newly discovered planets — about 95 percent — are smaller than Neptune, which is four times the size of Earth. The size of the planets is of interest to scientists because it is believed that life is more likely on smaller planets than on Jupiter- and Saturn-like gas giants, with their enormous storms and atmospheres that feature crushing pressures.

Four of the newfound planets are less than 2.5 times the radius of Earth and orbit their suns in the so-called “habitable zone,” where water could be free flowing without being boiled away or frozen forever. The term “habitable zone” may be a misnomer, because we just don’t know yet whether life of some kind exists on, say, Jupiter’s moon Europa — and we won’t know for sure without actually exploring there. We do know, however, that life exists in the “habitable zone” in our solar system, and therefore it makes sense to try to determine whether life might exist in a planet in a similar position in its solar system. All of this effort, of course, is ultimately geared toward trying to make a truly game-changing discovery of some other intelligent life form in the universe.

If you grow weary of the tribal mire of domestic and global human affairs, where progress is rare and and halting and the same disputes and controversies will seemingly never end, you would do well to consider the extraordinary advances in science and technology that we have witnessed in the last few decades. The discoveries of the Kepler telescope team say a lot — all of it good — about what humans are capable of achieving.

Holocaust Survivors

Richard has a fine story in the Post-Gazette about a meeting of Pittsburgh-area survivors of the Holocaust. We can’t imagine what they’ve been through, but it’s heartwarming to know that they meet, remember, and worry about whether that especially unforgivable, murderous chapter in the sordid history of the human race can happen again.

Reading Richard’s story reminded me of the first time I focused on the fact that I met a Holocaust survivor. I was traveling through Europe and encountered a vivacious older woman, probably in her 50s, with flaming red hair and an outgoing personality. We were talking, she shifted in her seat and moved her arms, and a crude numerical tattoo that I hadn’t noticed before was exposed. I looked at it and realized what it was, and she saw that I had seen it and decided to tell her story.

Her name was Bella and she was from Poland, she said. When she was young, the Nazis came and took her family away. She never saw her father and brothers again. She was separated from her mother, and she and her sister lived in one of the Nazi death camps. Her sister died, but somehow she survived. When the war ended and she was miraculously freed, she found that her entire family had been killed — but she felt it was essential that she live on. She related her story in a flat voice, and you could tell that she lived with those horrible ghosts and memories, but there was a definite steeliness to this woman who had endured so much.

Talking to her, I felt embarrassed and ashamed to be a member of the race that could commit such a monstrous act. I also was uplifted, however, by her positive attitude and by her view that, by surviving and going on, she was spitting in the eye of Hitler and the Nazis and their idiotic notions of an Aryan “master race.” There is still much to be learned from victims of the Holocaust.

How Fat Are Our Kids?

This week a federal study reported that the obesity rate for American kids between 2 and 5 years of age fell 43% in a decade. The study, undertaken by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and to be published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, indicates that obesity during that age group has declined from 14 percent in 2004 to 8 percent in 2012.

Not surprisingly, there’s disagreement about what might have caused the decline. Some argue that federal programs, including the availability of food stamps and the women, infants, and children assistance program and federal nutrition guidelines, other national efforts such as First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” initiative, and pressure on food companies to stop targeting ads to young children are responsible for the decline. Others question whether there really was an “obesity epidemic” in the first place and are skeptical that federal programs had anything to do with the decline reflected in the CDC study.

I don’t have a dog in that fight. My question is more fundamental — why are people celebrating the finding that “only” 8 percent of little kids are obese? That seems like a pretty damning figure to me. How does a two-or three-year-old become obese, except by the inattention of their parents? Most two- and three-year-olds I know aren’t out shopping for themselves. Don’t their parents know how to say no?

The Fireballs And Their Trophy

When I was a kid UJ and I bowled in a youth league at Riviera Lanes in Akron, Ohio. It was a 16-team league of 12 and 13-year-old boys. Our team was called the Fireballs, which we thought was a pretty cool name. It was a more innocent time then, and we were oblivious to the connotations that more mature people might assign to our team’s moniker.

It was a handicap league that bowled on Saturday mornings during the school year. Every week you bowled a three-game set against another team and earned points for each team victory in each game. It was fun, but we were, at bottom, competitive adolescent boys who really wanted to win. We would follow our team in the standings and watch our individual handicaps move up and down based on each week’s performance.

To our mild surprise, our team was pretty good. We weren’t the best team by a long shot, but we soon were among the top five teams in the league and we stayed there as the season wore on. Winning a trophy at the end of the season became a realistic possibility. In those days, trophies weren’t simply handed out to every participant. You had to earn them, and in our league only the top three teams got one. Ending up in at least third place became our goal.

Finally, we got to the match that would decide whether we would get that coveted trophy. I felt pressure like I’d never felt it before — not in a spelling bee, not in a school play, not messing around playing baseball in our neighborhood. A real trophy was on the line! And bowlers are up there all by themselves, with no referees or teammates to blame. I remember standing in the approach area, hoping desperately that I wouldn’t throw a gutter ball, miss an easy spare, or trip and do a humiliating face plant. We all felt that pressure, yet we were somehow able to get up there, win the match, and finish in third place.

It made us feel good about ourselves, and when we received our trophies — small pedestals less than a foot high, with a gold bowler on top and a third-place plaque at the bottom — it was sweet. I took it home and put it in a prominent place on the dresser in the room UJ and I shared.