Avoiding The Squirrel Distraction

Sometimes it’s hard to really figure out what is happening in the country.  During the glitz and glimmer of a presidential campaign, the American public, and most of the news media, is like a dog in a yard, sniffing this and that and always ready to be distracted when a squirrel goes capering by.  That’s why we focus, briefly, on stories that appear for a day and then vanish into the mists of time.

imageUnderneath that surface glitz and glimmer and the ginned-up controversies it produces, however, is the serious stuff.  It’s the stuff that harder to follow, and more boring to read.  It’s the stuff that the talking head pundits on the “news” shows don’t want to address, because they probably don’t understand it themselves and because it can’t be reduced to a funny one-liner or a clever tweet.  From time to time, though, a real journalist will tackle the serious stuff and produce an article that serious people really should read if they want to get even a glimpse of the challenges that our country is facing.

Mary Williams Walsh of the New York Times wrote one such article recently, about the American public pension system — and how its liabilities are legally, but chronically, underreported.  Told in the context of one tiny pension plan, for California’s Citrus Pest Control District No. 2, the article relates how public pension funds keep two sets of books — one that is officially reported, and one that reflects the “market value” of the pensions and that is kept hidden from the public eye.  The officially reported numbers paint a much rosier picture than the latter.

And that’s where the real problem lurks.  For California’s Citrus Pest Control District No. 2, which covers only six people, the official books showed a large surplus.  The market value books, however, showed that the pension plan in fact had a deficit — and when the plan decided to convert itself to a 401(k) plan, Calpers, the giant California public employee retirement system, required the pension to make a totally unexpected, and large, payment to satisfy the market value of its liabilities.

The different bookkeeping is all about how the pension funds discount their future payments to present value.  It’s the concept of the time value of money — that a dollar today, which can be invested and earn a rate of return, is worth more than a dollar 10 years from now.  Future payments, like those made by pension plans, always get discounted to their present value.  The key issue, though, is what interest rate you use to do the discounting.  Using smaller, more conservative rates will show a higher present value of future payments, whereas using a higher, more aggressive rate will produce a much lower present value — and perhaps even show a surplus.

In the case of the Citrus Pest Control District, the officially reported present value was calculated using the assumed annual rate of return on investments — which is 7.5 percent.  Using that discount rate showed the little pension had a large surplus.  Of course, anybody who does any investing knows that a constant, 7.5 annual percent rate of return achieved over the course of decades of pension payments would be a fantastic rate of return.  Anybody who lives through the down markets of 2008 and 2009 also knows that it’s just not a realistic, long-term assumption.

The upshot is that we’ve got a serious problem in this country with public pension funds that are terribly underfunded.  One of these days, someone is going to have to pay the piper, as Citrus Pest Control District No. 2 did.  But at the presidential debate next week, will anyone ask Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump about this important issue, which could bankrupt many of our local government entities — or will we get questions about pneumonia, hydration or whether it was wise to use the word “bomb” before knowing that a bomb was in fact used in the New York City dumpster bombings?

Look, a squirrel!

The Technology Of Fighting Terrorism

Officials say that Ahmad Khan Rahami, the suspect in the New York City dumpster bombing that occurred on Saturday night, was captured in part because of an array of security cameras.  Several cameras took footage of Rahami lurking near the site of the bombings, and the photos and a license plate reader allowed officials to track and eventually apprehend Rahami.  As part of the process, authorities also sent out an alert to NYC cell phone users identifying Rahami as the suspect and asking for help in finding and capturing him.

57e06ccb130000930639d159The security cameras that took pictures of Rahami are part of a system of 8,000 cameras in Manhattan.  Officials call it the “Ring of Steel.”  Footage from the cameras, which are both government and private owned, is fed into the Lower Manhattan Security Coordination Center, where it is monitored by police.  And the camera system apparently will only grow more extensive — New York is considering installing cameras in every street light, too.  There also are more than 200 license plate readers in New York City that can triangulate information with GPS systems to allow help officials track and capture suspect vehicles.

Other technology weapons deployed in the fight against terrorism in NYC include biological, chemical, and radiation sensors, “shot monitors” that detect gunfire, a system that collects alerts on suspicious packages or persons, and computer systems that analyze and organize the mass of information being received.

8,000 cameras already, and more on the way.  Real-time video feeds.  License plate readers.  Cell phone alerts.  Countless monitors.  GPS systems.  Vast computer data storage and analytic programs.  It’s the 21st century, folks, and we’ve got the high-tech law enforcement technology to prove it.  And don’t forget, too, that everyone you encounter on the streets has a device in their purse or pocket that will allow them to take a picture or video of anything interesting, too.

New York City must be the most photographed, monitored, analyzed place on Earth.  People who are concerned about the erosion of privacy — like me — can bemoan a future where innocent people are being routinely photographed, videotaped, and monitored by law enforcement as they go about their affairs, but whether we like it or not it’s the reality of the modern, terrorist-fighting world.  This time, the systems worked.

Beer Wars

A few months ago, the Ohio General Assembly passed legislation, signed by Governor John Kasich, to eliminate the alcohol limit on beer brewed in the Buckeye State.  A few weeks ago, local breweries were permitted to start selling the more high-octane suds to customers.  Breweries had been restricted to beer that was no more than 12 percent alcohol by volume.  Now, the sky’s the limit.

cookies-9Interestingly, the change was made to try to make Ohio more competitive in attracting craft breweries.  The beer business has been booming, and although Ohio already is home to many excellent breweries, lawmakers were worried that some companies were limiting their operations here because of the brewing restrictions.

When the bill was passed, its sponsors emphasized that the high-alcohol beer wasn’t designed for sale to people who wanted to chug, saying it was a “sipping beer” that was an “extension of an art form.”  According to press reports, one of the beers that is now brewed and available for sale is a triple oatmeal Russian imperial stout, which is 13.8 percent alcohol.

I like to have a beer now and then, and when I’m ordering at a brew pub I pay attention to the alcohol information about the available options.  My tastes tend toward lighter, lower alcohol beers, because I’m looking for refreshment and particular kinds of taste.

I don’t think I would even want to try a super dark beer that was 13.8 percent alcohol — which would really pack a punch.  It doesn’t sound like the kind of beer you’d drink while eating a cheeseburger.  But if eliminating the alcohol limit allows Ohio breweries to cater to people who do crave that kind of concoction, I’m all for it.

In Titletown

This morning finds us in the City of Champions — Cleveland.  UJ, Russell and I came up yesterday afternoon to watch an early edition of October baseball as the Tribe beat the Detroit Tigers, 1-0, in a brilliant display of bullpen management by manager Terry Francona.  It was a fantastic nail-biter that ended in triumph.  Then we walked to a nearby pub to learn that, thanks to a well-timed rain delay, we could watch the entirety of Ohio State’s epic beat down of Oklahoma.  

Today we’re going to swing by Octoberfest on Public Square, then it’s off to see if the Browns can resemble a professional football team against the Ravens.  Can we complete the Cleveland-Buckeyes trifecta?  Or will we learn, as Meat Loaf once sang, that two out of three ain’t bad?

Sully

We need a hero every now and then.  Chesley (“Sully”) Sullenberger, the pilot who somehow guided his damaged plane to a landing on the Hudson River on a cold day in January, 2009, allowing every one of the 155 passengers and crew on the plane to survive, is definitely one of those.

mv5bmjm5nje2mti1nf5bml5banbnxkftztgwnzuymjc3ote-_v1_ux477_cr00477268_al_Sully, directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Tom Hanks as the heroic pilot, tells the story of that fateful day . . . and a little bit more besides.  Interestingly, the focus of the movie isn’t on the “forced landing,” as Captain Sullenberger calls it, but on the aftermath, as Sully the man struggles to deal with sudden fame and the potential ramifications of a National Transportation Safety Board investigation of the incident.  For while the rest of America was celebrating Sully as a hero, the bureaucratic investigators were looking at whether he could have, and should have, gotten the plane back to LaGuardia or to another nearby airport.  If the investigation determined that Captain Sullenberger was at fault — a scenario the movie presents as a real possibility — he could lose his job when his family could ill afford it and also see that sudden celebrity turn to ashes in his mouth.

Sully is a well-made human interest story that packs a touching emotional punch.  The highlight of the film, of course, is the abrupt flight of US Airways Flight 1549, the bird strike that crippled the plane, and the quick and calm decisions of Captain Sullenberger and his co-pilot, and the flight attendants.  The depiction of the incident is absolutely convincing and astonishingly realistic, and a testament to just how far Hollywood special effects have come.   The viewer is on board, in the cockpit, and ultimately with the crew and passengers as the doomed plane begins to sink into the frigid river, water gushes in, and the survivors huddle on the plane’s wings and safety rafts hoping to be saved.  It’s a harrowing experience, even when we know that it will all turn out all right.

sully-trailer-810x540As the events unfold, you can’t help but identify with the desperate passengers who know that something is wrong and then hear the Captain say:  “This is the Captain.  Brace for impact.”  (Those are words I hope to never hear on my travels, no matter how calmly they might be spoken.)  But the passengers were in the hands of angels that day, because somehow the captain and crew kept them alive.  Sully later says, “we were just doing our jobs,” but we know that there is more to it than that, and he’s just been appealingly modest about having done something tremendous.  And equally uplifting are the immediate responses of the ferry boat captains, diving units, firefighters, and police officers who keep the passengers and crew of the sinking plane from drowning or dying from hypothermia.  There were many, many heroes on the Hudson that day.

Hanks is terrific as Sully, the man.  We feel his anguish as he is tormented by nightmares of what could have been, and we feel his surge of joy and pride when he is finally told that every one of the people on the plane under his charge survived.  He knows in his gut that he made the right decision, but it’s not clear that the administrative state will agree with him.  When the formal NTSB hearing finally occurs, and Sully’s years of experience allow him to show that the computer simulations and the human simulations are dead wrong, we know that he has saved the day once again — by keeping a true hero from being unjustly maligned and allowing his reputation to remain, as it were, unsullied.

I encourage everyone to go see this film.  And stay in your seats while the credits roll if you want to get an extra feel-good treat.

Hollywood On Gay

Gay Street is abuzz!  Trucks have rolled in, the street is crawling with production assistants, and the crucial porta potties have been delivered.  The word is that they will be filming scenes from a Bruce Willis movie here, and that maybe The Die Hard Star himself might show up.

Say, do you suppose they might need an extra to portray an old guy who walks to work every day?

Meanwhile, Back At The Shuffleboard Court . . . .

You have to wonder whether it ever bothers the people of Florida that everyone else in the country views it as an enclave for octogenarians.  No surprise there — Florida has the largest percentage of senior in the country, with almost one in five residents above the age of 65 and one county where more than half the residents fall into that category.

wvc_seniorgames_0920123Stories like this one, about a “shuffleboard rage” incident in St. Petersburg, aren’t going to help Florida’s retiree rep.  It reports that an 81-year-old guy was charged with battery after getting into a fight with another man during a shuffleboard tournament at a seniors center.  The feisty octogenarian reportedly punched the victim in the face and hit him with his shuffleboard cue, scratching the victim’s face.  Unfortunately, the article doesn’t report certain crucially important details, like what provoked the incident, and whether the two men were wearing colorful plaid Bermuda shorts hitched up to nipple height and support hose at the time of the altercation.

What would it be like to live in the Sunshine State, home to millions of slow-walking, bad-driving, loudly attired seniors wearing bulky hearing aids?  I think it would be strange and depressing to live in a place where there are so many older people relative to the rest of the country.  Now we learn that the state might be somewhat dangerous for the many shuffleboard fans among us, too.

News Flash: People Who Talk On Cell Phones While Walking Aren’t Cool

Lately I’ve seen more pedestrians walking and talking on their cell phones at the same time.  It bothers me.

It’s not the lack of politeness, necessarily.  Although it is impolite — imposing your side of your inevitably loud cell phone conversation on every hapless person who unfortunately happens to be within earshot — anyone who lives in the modern world has long since learned to endure thoughtless louts who can’t conform to basic social norms in more ways than we can count.

popupNo, what really bothers me is that people talking on their cell phones while walking always act like they think they’re the coolest thing ever.  They’re inevitably walking, the elbow of the arm holding the phone jutting out just so, with the smuggest imaginable look on their faces.  It’s as if they think that getting or making a phone call in a public place is somehow an affirmation that they stand alone at the center of the universe.  “Look at me!,” their demeanor screams, “I’m an incredibly important person!  And I’ve got friends, colleagues, and clients who want to talk to me even when I’m crossing the street in a busy downtown area!”

This must be a carryover from the early days of cell phones, when handhelds were rare and people were curious to see people talking on bulky wireless devices.  But those days ended during the Reagan Administration.  Now cell phones are like opinions and certain body parts — everybody has one.  The difference between the walking talkers and the rest of the world is that the walking talkers don’t have the decency to remove themselves from the public right-of-way, by sitting on a bench or standing off to the side while they complete their call.  Everyone else has the good sense and manners to not inflict their conversations on random passersby.  Unlike the walking talkers, everybody else has the instinct to not act like a churlish buffoon.

So here’s a news flash to the walking cell phoners — you’re not cool, you’re boorish.  Please recognize that, and if you can’t stop talking on your cell phone in public, at least have the decency to wipe that smug look off your face.

Another Email Fail

You’ve no doubt heard people lecture that you shouldn’t put anything in an email that you wouldn’t want to see published on the front page of the New York Times.  Colin Powell is the newest living proof of that statement.

rtr237zj-1024x682As, indeed, the New York Times and others have reported, Powell has confirmed that his emails were hacked and have been released to the world.  They’re pretty sensational reading, too, as a chatty Powell candidly expresses his opinions about Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Bill Clinton, Dick Cheney, and others.  Powell thinks Trump is a racist, an international pariah, and a national disgrace, he thinks Hillary Clinton is greedy, sleazy, possessed by unbridled ambition, and unfairly dragged him into her own email scandal, he thinks Bill Clinton is cheating on his wife with “bimbos,” and he thinks Cheney is an “idiot.”  Colin Powell apparently is something like “Mikey” in the old TV commercial for Life cereal:  he has disdain for everybody.

Powell’s comments are so pointed that the Washington Post has a story just about the “juiciest” comments in his hacked emails, and USA Today has a piece about the “top insults” in Powell’s emails.  I’m sure dinner parties inside the Beltway are buzzing with talk about Powell’s unvarnished views about the high and mighty.

I feel sorry for Powell, that his personal email was hacked, but I’m also amazed that he would share such candid views in emails, without appreciating that once you send an email, you totally lose control over it and have no way to prevent it from being shared, far and wide — or hacked.  I guess he’s not as sophisticated as I thought he would be.  And there’s no doubt, too, that the leaked emails will affect people’s perception of Powell, who has projected the image of being an above-the-fray, statesman-like national figure.  Now we see that he’s as gossipy as a high school kid and not above throwing around crude words for sexual relations.  The emails certainly contradict his carefully cultivated public image and suggest that under that placid demeanor seen on news shows there lurks a brimming volcano of acidic opinions about other national figures.

It’s a good lesson, though, for those of us whose emails aren’t going to make headlines like Powell’s did:  Think about whether you really want to have that email out in the world at large before you hit “send”!

The Grilled Meat Bond

Tonight, Kasey and I are bonding.  She likes meat cooked over a fire, and so do I.

Tonight, we are recreating the early days of the human-canine connection.  It probably started over a fire, eons ago.  I’m grilling a steak and some brats — okay, our ancestors probably didn’t have brats — and’s she’s waiting patiently, looking at me with those big, imploring eyes, hoping for a morsel.

It’s hard to resist those eyes, isn’t it?  Our ancestors probably felt the same way.

Running On Empty

Kish calls me the Uptight Traveler.  That means getting to the airport more than an hour before the departure time of any flight, making sure that we’ve got hotel reservations lined up rather than winging it when we’re on the road, and a host of other rules of thumb designed to avoid the last-minute activity that often can mess up your travel plans.

gas_gauge_emptyIt also means that, when driving, I pay careful attention to the fuel gauge.  When the needle moves below a quarter of a tank, I start to look for the nearest self-serve station.  And if I get in the car after someone else has been driving it and the fuel light comes on, it pretty much makes me break out in hives.

In more than 40 years of driving, I’ve never run out of gas.  I’m proud of that record, because I think running out of gas is one of the most avoidable self-inflicted wounds Americans can experience in our car-saturated culture.  I can’t imagine how I would be kicking myself if the engine stopped and I had to coast to the berm on a highway because I was trying to go one exit more after the light showed I was running on empty.

Other people, however, are different.  The devil-may-care sort think it’s fun and exciting to flirt with roadway disaster and tempt the sadistic highway gods that might throw a traffic jam in their path when the fuel gauge shows empty.  These fate-tempting risk-takers pooh-pooh the legitimate concerns of anyone who reacts to things like fuel gauges — even though that’s exactly why fuel gauges were created in the first place.

To those preening daredevils, I offer this handy chart from Road & Track that tells you, for the 50 most popular cars sold in America, how much gas is left in the tank when the fuel light comes on.  And I ask:  would you rather roll safely into a gas station to fill up with a reasonable amount of gas still in the tank, or run the risk that you might soon be trudging down a highway berm, gas can in hand, or leaning against your car calling the nearest towing service so you can be gouged for the price of a rescue run?

The Aleppo Moment

The talk about Hillary Clinton’s health episode has knocked Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson and his interview gaffe off the front pages.  He must be grateful for that.

If you’ve seen the footage of Johnson’s interview last week on MSNBC, you know it was a painful moment.  Johnson is asked what he would do about Aleppo, and he stares blankly at the interviewer and then asks “And what is Aleppo?”  The interviewer says, “you’re kidding,” and then explains that Aleppo is in Syria.  Of course, for years Aleppo has been a focus of the ongoing fighting in that war-torn country.

aleppoThe footage is tough to watch, because you can almost see Johnson’s brain desperately spinning and trying to come up with an answer — but he can’t call up anything.  Johnson later explained that, at the moment, his mind was stuck on thinking that “Aleppo” was an acronym for something — he just couldn’t remember what.  After getting some air time on a national network, being asked questions that indicate he is being taken seriously as a viable candidate, and having a chance to reach voters who might actually consider voting for a third party in this unfortunate presidential contest, sheepishly asking “And what is Aleppo?” must have been as embarrassing as it gets for a politician.

It’s tough for the third party candidates in America.  It’s rare for them to be taken seriously, and rarer still for them to have any kind of impact on the race, because as Election Day nears and the reality of the polls sinks in, their supporters start wondering if they are wasting their votes.  For that reason, the margin of error for third party candidates is awfully small.  Whereas the major party candidates can survive a number of blunders — as Donald Trump’s amazingly resilient poll numbers indicate — when a bad gaffe like Gary Johnson’s Aleppo moment happens to a third-party candidate, it can be enough to quash their chances forever.

I’ve heard more people talking about the Libertarian candidate and the Green Party candidate this year than ever before, and some polls were showing Johnson was reaching the high single digits — putting him within striking distance of a showing sufficient to give him a podium at a presidential debate, which is the Holy Grail for third-party candidates.  Johnson says his “Aleppo day” might actually end up working in his favor, by increasing his name recognition and raising awareness of his candidacy.

Perhaps . . . but experience teaches it was more likely the death knell, and the moment when Johnson became the butt of a future Saturday Night Live skit.  As Johnson sat their under the TV lights, desperately struggling to think of what Aleppo was, he may have crossed the line into irrelevancy.

A Debilitating Penchant For Secrecy

By now most of us have seen the video footage of Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton apparently collapsing in the arms of staff and Secret Service agents and being dragged into a van after an abrupt exit from a 9/11 ceremony.  After first saying that Clinton was simply “overheated,” her campaign later released a statement from her doctor that, three days earlier, Clinton had been diagnosed with pneumonia.  The problem at the 9/11 ceremony, the doctor said, was that Clinton became dehydrated.

Having pneumonia certainly doesn’t disqualify a person from being President.  We’ve had Presidents who have dealt with lots of illnesses over the years, and pneumonia is a treatable condition thanks to the miracle of modern medicine.

clinton_11092016_kl-00_00_06_15-still002-largeStill, I think the pneumonia incident is a problem for the Clinton campaign, because it once again suggests that Americans aren’t getting the whole story.  Clinton has been dogged by coughing fits that have produced lots of chatter about her health — chatter that her campaign has tried to downplay as the feverish imaginings of right-wing nuts.  Now she experiences a public health episode and has to be physically supported and lifted into a van, and the campaign first tries to downplay the incident.  Then, when the story starts to really take hold, the campaign discloses that days earlier Clinton had learned she had pneumonia.  You have to wonder whether her real condition would have been disclosed but for the fact that someone took a video that showed Clinton’s apparent collapse — a video that would make any fair-minded person wonder about her health.

This pneumonia incident is just one more example of the Clinton approach to bad news, whether it’s the investigation of her email practices, her fundraising speeches to Wall Street fat cats, or other issues.  The first reaction is to deny, deny, deny, attack the messenger, and hope that friends in the media and the political world will cooperate in quashing the story.  The facts ultimately come out in dribs and drabs, and you never feel like you get the whole truth.

Trust and credibility are important characteristics of a presidential candidate. Voters want to believe that the candidate of their choice is open, above board, and a person of integrity.  The Clinton penchant for secrecy and denial is antithetical to that kind of belief.  It’s one of the reasons why Clinton isn’t pulling away from Donald Trump, despite his many flaws. With the pneumonia incident we’ve just been reminded of her credibility issues in a very public, visible, undeniable way.  It will be interesting to see how the voters react.