Lame B-Day

Today is my birthday.  As birthdays go, it hasn’t been in the top 5 all-time.  I’m in NYC, and my flight home has been repeatedly — and incrementally– delayed.  Every half hour or so my phone buzzes and another delay is announced, always with “apologies for the inconvenience.”  I’m now looking at a departure time that is more than three hours after the scheduled time, and I’m wondering whether the next announcement will be an outright cancellation.

All in all, it’s not the best way to celebrate a birthday.  Fortunately, birthdays don’t mean that much to me.

Random Quotes Upon The Wall

When I got to my room at my hotel in NYC last night, I discovered it was one of those places that has random quotes printed on the walls.

In this case, it was the above quote attributed to Andy Warhol — although some contend it actually originated with Marshall McLuhan — helpfully placed right next to the bathroom.  For good measure, the mat on the desk has a quote attributed to John Steinbeck:  “People don’t take trips, trips take people.”  (This is a paraphrase of sorts of a line from Travels with Charley:  In Search of America that reads “We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.”)

What’s the point of quotes on the walls and on desk mats?  I’m guessing it’s supposed to convey a certain erudite edginess, like you’ve suddenly found yourself in some intellectual artist’s loft in Soho, rather than in a stodgy hotel.  But in my view, the wall quote places are really more alienating than the standard generic hotel room.  After all, I didn’t pick the quote — and in fact I don’t think I’d ever print any quote upon my wall, even if it were some deeply meaningful quote from the Gettysburg Address rather than a vapid observation about gullible art critics.  So when I wake up and see the quote on the wall, it immediately tells me that I’m in a strange room.  It doesn’t exactly convey a “make yourself at home” feeling.

Everybody seems to be big on quotes these days, although many of the quotes you see are actually fake.  It’s as if the message is that there’s no original thinking yet to be done, and we should just sigh with appreciation at the wisdom of the ancients — which is an approach I heartily disagree with.  But even if you are a big fan of quotes, what does a quote from Andy Warhol about art have to offer a weary traveler?  My guess is that Warhol himself would find the fact that his quote appears on a hotel room wall to be a hilarious commentary on the wannabe state of modern society.

That Growing Scent

This morning I took an early morning lap around Schiller Park — because I’ve been on the road, the first such lap in a while — and as I circumnavigated the park I couldn’t help but notice a distinct fragrance in the air.  

You might call it that growing scent.  It’s something you smell every spring — a heady mixture of mulch, fertilizer, damp soil, growing grass, buds, newly sprung leaves, and everything else that seems to be popping as the weather warms and the rain falls.  It’s spicy and earthy and a bit intoxicating, and very much welcome.

We didn’t have a bad winter this winter, but it’s always glorious when you detect that growing scent and know that spring has come.

Death By Overwork

Here’s an amazing fact:  Japan is, only now, looking to limit how much overtime employers can ask employees to work.  And, even more amazing, the first-ever proposal to limit overtime would set a cap at 100 hours per month.

p1010928Japan has long had a curious tradition of a slavish work ethic, with some employers measuring employee hours not by productivity — where Japanese workers trail Americans and others — but by raw hours worked, which the employers associate with qualities like loyalty and dedication.  So even though Japanese law has instituted a 40-hour work week, it is commonplace for workers to spend far more time than that at the office and on the job, with no governmental limit on how much “overtime” employees can be expected to put in.  The social pressure to commit to working crushing hours has even caused the Japanese to coin a word — karoshi — to refer to death from overwork.  Every year, hundreds of deaths from heart attacks, strokes, and suicides are attributed to karoshi, and a recent government survey determined that one in five Japanese companies have employees whose tendency to overwork puts them at risk.

It was a recent suicide, of a young employee of an advertising firm, that caused the Japanese government to propose the first-ever limitation on overtime.  But those who advocate true reform of the Japanese work culture scoff at a 100-hour-a-month limit as almost as outlandish as having no limit at all, because it means employers could routinely require employees to work more than 60 hours a week.  That’s ten hours a day, six days a week — not exactly the kind of restriction that is going to prevent people from suffering the mental and physical health effects of constant overwork.

The Japanese problem with karoshi is an example of how cultures can develop in radically different ways, imposing expectations that would be unimaginable elsewhere. How many countries and cultures have a problem with people routinely working themselves to an early grave?  And part of the problem is that there remain thousands of Japanese workers who accept the culture imperative to work like a dog and try to satisfy its demands, rather than just rejecting the unreasonable expectations and going somewhere where the work-life balance is a happier and healthier one.  You can impose government regulations, but at a certain level individuals have to stand up for themselves and act in their own best interests — cultural imperatives or not.

Dinner Of Champions (Travelers Division)

Lately I’ve eaten a lot of dinners in airports.  It’s not a good thing.  Airport food has definitely improved over the years, but it’s still significantly burger/pizza/chicken-centric and often loaded with sodium, and eating a heavy, salty meal doesn’t exactly sit well when you immediately stumble onto a plane and then sit on your butt for hours.

So, I’ve started looking for these do-it-yourself yogurt/fruit/granola combos when I’m required to eat an airport dinner.  They seem reasonably light and reasonably fresh, they’re relatively low in calories and sodium, and they don’t leave you feeling like every ounce of moisture has been sucked from your mouth and a lead ball has been lodged in your stomach.

As airport dinners go, those are pretty high standards.

Base 10 Birthday

Later this week I’ll celebrate another birthday.  It will be one of those “decade” birthdays, where the first digit in your age moves up a notch and the last digit in your age cycles to zero again.

Let’s face it:  decade birthdays are somewhat annoying.  Just because our culture long ago settled on a “base 10” number system — presumably because the ancient Egyptians realized that we’ve got ten fingers on our hands, and chose to build mathematics around the concept of ten as the path of least resistance — doesn’t mean there should be any special significance to celebrating a birthday when your new age divided by ten produces a whole number rather than a fraction.  It’s just another year added to the ledger, and the turn of the calendar page doesn’t mean you should feel or act any different.

And yet, everybody treats the “decade” birthdays as if they are some hugely significant milestones.  Sure, 13 and 18 and 21 have their own special elements, but the decade birthdays can actually define you as a person.  Suddenly you’re “in your twenties” or “in your thirties,” and people expect you to behave in a certain way.  And as those decades creep upward, the age-related expectations tend to become even more fixed.

So I’ve got another decade birthday coming up.  So what?  The decimal system doesn’t define me.  In fact, I’m going to pretend that we’ve got a base 8 culture and ignore it.

Chicken Or Egg

This morning the news is all about the Cleveland “Facebook killer,” who filmed himself killing an elderly man who apparently was chosen randomly, bragged that he had killed a number of other people, and then broadcast the video footage on Facebook.  Police are currently looking for the killer.

screen_shot_2010_06_26_at_7-30-25_pmIt’s just the latest disturbing link between social media and people who commit bad acts.  How often recently have we read about people engaging in live social media broadcasts of beatings, or rapes, or suicides?  For many of us, Facebook and other social media outlets are all about keeping track of other people’s birthdays, kids, puppies, and meals, but for some sick segment of society, social media apparently is seen as a simple, immediately available opportunity to achieve notoriety and display their violent criminal activity to the world.

It raises the chicken or egg question:  what comes first, the impulse to engage in the bad acts, or the desire to be broadcast doing it?  If it weren’t possible to easily upload a video or stream a live broadcast on social media, would the crimes still have been committed, or is the ability to display video evidence of the bad acts to a presumed audience and obtain a few minutes of depraved fame the ultimate triggering factor?

There have always been predators in our midst; violent criminal acts have been part of human history since the dawn of time.  Still, for some people there seems to be some basic and grotesque connection between social media and wrongdoing, and we are left to wonder:  would the poor man murdered by the Cleveland killer still be alive if the social media outlets weren’t available to be misused?

The Detroiter At Buddy’s

Last night we had dinner at Buddy’s Pizza, a Detroit institution for decades and also home to rectangular, “Detroit-style” pizza.  Russell and I split a “Detroiter” — pizza loaded with meats and cheeses, with the cheese placed on top to maximize the meaty flavor and avoid charring the pepperoni.  

The Detroiter was fantastic.  That should come as no surprise, because Buddy’s is frequently identified as one of the very best pizza establishments in the U.S. of A.  The crust was perfection itself — light and crunchy, without the doughy gumminess you find in many “deep dish” pizzas — and the cheese on top approach really does enhance the flavor.  We also enjoyed a pitcher of Buddy’s beer, a very refreshing lager with hints of citrus that went well with the pizza.

I’m pretty sure there will be another trip to Buddy’s in my future.

Planting Season

Yesterday we spent some time over at the urban farm, where it’s planting season.  So far this year Emily and Russell have planted a number of black currant and raspberry bushes to join the apple trees and strawberry plants that remain from last year, and there’s a new beehive where the bees are busily doing their thing.  You could say things are buzzing at the farm.

It was a fine day, clear and not too warm, so we tried to put it to good use.  Russell and I spent most of our time shoveling dark, steaming topsoil from a huge mound into the back of his pickup truck, then transferring it onto the rows to be available for even more planting.  Thanks to the squatting, lifting, and twisting, I felt like I’d spent a few hard hours at the gym — except the farm effort also helped to produce two more furrows that are ready to go and made a noticeable dent in the topsoil pile.

Not surprisingly, I slept pretty well last night.

Automatic Soap Dispensers And Self-Driving Cars

There are some of those automatic soap dispensers in bathrooms at the firm.  We’ve also got automatic faucets.  Both are supposed to be triggered by waving your hand underneath.  The idea is to take the messy, germy human element out of the equation, and let sensors and machines do the job neatly and cleanly.

But here’s the problem — the machines are not very precise.  Sure, for the most part they dispense the dollop of soap or the stream of water when you place your hands underneath.  But 9 times out of 10 another injection of soap occurs after you’ve moved on to the water side, and vice versa.  So, a lot of soap and water seems to get wasted.

And it’s not just the automatic soap and water dispensers at the firm, either.  How often have you found yourself at the movie theater, or the airport, or some other public place, flapping your hands like a magician having a seizure in hopes that the balky machinery will dispense soap, or water, or a tiny section of paper towel that never is sufficient to fully dry your hands?  Typically, they’re not working correctly, are they?

So when I hear about the technological wonders of self-driving cars, and then read about how one of the prototypes had one mishap or another, I nod inwardly and think:  “No surprise there.  They’re just like those stupid soap dispensers.”

I’m probably not going to be in the market for a self-driving car anytime soon.

The Warm Seas of Enceladus

It’s becoming increasingly clear that there is alien life out there, in our solar system and beyond.  To the extent that people still cling to the geocentric notion that Earth is the only planet in the universe capable of supporting life, it’s time to think again.

enceladusThe latest indicator of that reality came yesterday, when NASA announced that its Cassini spacecraft had found promising signs that alien life may exist on Enceladus, one of the moons orbiting Saturn.  Cassini flew through a plume that was spraying out of the icy shell covering Enceladus and detected molecular hydrogen.  That’s a big deal because molecular hydrogen is created by interaction between warm water and rock, and along with carbon dioxide is the kind of food that early, microbial life forms can thrive on.  Scientists believe that life on Earth may have started in the same kind of environment surrounding the deep geothermal vents in our oceans — and if life started here, why shouldn’t it also occur in the same environment elsewhere?

Does that mean that there is, in fact, some form of life already existing on Enceladus?  Not necessarily, because the large amount of molecular hydrogen and carbon dioxide detected by the Cassini spacecraft suggests that there isn’t much, if any, bacteria or microbial life on Enceladus actually consuming the food — a fact that doesn’t surprise scientists, because they think Enceladus is relatively young and it takes a long time for life to emerge.

But equally intriguing is that NASA also announced that the Hubble telescope found evidence of similar plumes on Europa, a much older moon orbiting Jupiter.  Because Europa has apparently been around for billions of years longer than Enceladus, the combination of molecular hydrogen, carbon dioxide, and time might have allowed life to gain a foothold there.  It’s something we’re going to have to explore.

The Inevitable Post-Election Tell-Alls

It’s been six months since the last presidential election, which means it’s time for those tell-all books about the campaign to start coming out.  The first one that I’ve read about is called Shattered:  Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign.

hillary_abcAs if often the case, the publishers of the books try to gin up interest by releasing supposedly tantalizing details about incidents that occurred during the campaign.  In the case of Shattered, the incidents involve a phone call in which Hillary and Bill Clinton both unloaded on the campaign staff, and the prep sessions for one of the debates with Bernie Sanders in which Hillary Clinton got mad and made one of her preparers stand up and answer questions while she critiqued him.  The underlying message of both incidents was:  Hillary Clinton was angry that she wasn’t doing better and just couldn’t recognize that the problem was due to her personal failures, rather than failures by her staff.

I enjoyed the Theodore White Making of the President books way back when, and Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing:  On the Campaign Trail ’72 remains one of my all-time favorite books, but I’ve long since stopped reading the “insider” accounts that now come out after every election.  I haven’t read one in decades because the lack of loyalty inherent in the form of the book makes me sick to my stomach.  Professional staffers provide juicy tidbits as part of an overall information campaign to cover their own butts, make themselves look good, and position themselves to get hired and do it all over again in the next campaign cycle.  The losing candidate always gets torn down, while the wise, far-sighted staff that the candidate was supposedly stubbornly ignoring get elevated.

So, Hillary Clinton was frustrated that she wasn’t doing better, and from time to time lashed out at her staff when voting results or polling weren’t favorable?  Gee . . . is anybody really surprised that a person who is seeking the presidency — and who saw her election as an historic opportunity to shatter a very visible “glass ceiling” for American women — from time to time had that reaction?  When you’re on the griddle for months, 24/7, as presidential candidates are, of course there are going to be times when fatigue and frustration leave you not at your finest, and when the results aren’t going as you hoped, the effects of that fatigue and frustration will inevitably be compounded.

So Hillary Clinton lost her temper, and she and Bill Clinton administered an occasional tongue-lashing.  So what?  She lost.  Can’t we just let it be, without having rat-like staffers heaping scorn on the losing candidate with anecdotes carefully pitched to make themselves look good?  If I were a potential presidential candidate, I would never hire somebody whom I suspected was the source of leaks in one of these tell-alls.  Loyalty is an important quality when you are working for a politician, and people who leak stories to promote themselves are finks who simply can’t be trusted.

A Spokesperson For The Ages

Normally, you would think that a public official would pick a spokesperson based on that person’s ability to shape and convey positive and persuasive messages that advanced the public official’s agenda.  And when the “public official” in question is the President of the United States, whose every move is put under a microscope, you would think the careful messaging requirement would be even more essential.

So how in the world did Sean Spicer end up as the White House press secretary?

trumpSpicer’s comment yesterday that suggested that Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad was in some ways worse than Adolf Hitler, because “You know, you had someone as despicable as Hitler who didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons,” is unforgivably ignorant — because, of course, Hitler did use poison gas to kill millions of Jews during the Holocaust.  Children are taught that fact during their world history classes, and the national Holocaust Museum is only a mile or so away from the White House.  How can you be the press secretary for the President of the United States and not be aware of the fact of Hitler’s poison gas executions and avoid making a comment that suggests that you are a know-nothing fool?

Spicer later apologized, but the entire incident raises questions about Spicer and his staff.  Spicer’s abrasive style clearly rubs the press the wrong way, and it has been hilariously lampooned by Melissa McCarthy on Saturday Night Live.  There’s nothing wrong with having a combative press secretary if that is the President’s way of sending a message to the media, although Spicer often seems over the top for my tastes.  But you can’t have a press secretary whose behavior and comments make him the story that distracts from, and undercuts, the President’s goals.  Don’t Spicer and his staff prepare for his press conferences, and carefully consider the arguments he is going to present before he goes before the country and makes them?  If so, how could his staff not recognize the fundamental, underlying idiocy of his comparison of Assad and Hitler?  And if they don’t vet his arguments, and Spicer just “wings it,” then he’s an incompetent whose instincts are obviously ill-suited for the job, and it’s just a matter of time before he makes another thoughtless and stupid comment that sets off another firestorm or provokes an unintended international incident.

Either way, Spicer should be replaced as press secretary.  President Trump might like his two-fisted way of dealing with the press that Trump seems to hold in contempt, but he’s got to realize that Spicer is a huge liability who is just going to step into it again, and again, and again, and make the Trump Administration as a whole look like amateur hour.   That’s not the kind of messaging you want from your press secretary.

O’Hare After Dark

I’m here in O’Hare Airport tonight, waiting to catch a late flight home.  So far, at least, no one has assaulted me or tried to bodily remove me from a seat — but my adventure is not yet over.


There’s definitely a surreal quality to O’Hare after dark.  It’s an enormous facility, designed to accommodate huge throngs of passengers, so when night comes and the crowds have seriously thinned out, the solitary traveler is almost overwhelmed by the vast spaces.  There was a guy playing a solitary saxophone at the end of the walkway leading to Concourse 3, and his echoing notes perfectly captured the kind of lonely feeling that is created when you’re traveling alone, through oppressively large, impersonal spaces that make you feel swallowed up and almost nonexistent.

There’s no better advertisement for the pleasures of “home” than O’Hare after dark.