Underneath The Bridges

The Scioto Mile path offers the walker a choice: you can take the high road, or you can take the low road. The high road pretty much sticks to street level. The low road, on the other hand, hugs the river, and leads you down on a winding path that runs beneath the various traffic and railroad bridges that span the river.

I prefer the low road, and the bridges are a big part of the reason why.

Street-level views of the world are fine, of course, but that’s what we get every day. To me, the engineering underworld of concrete spans and bridge abutments and rip rap is a nice change of pace. It is especially interesting on a cold, clear morning, where the sunshine plays with the concrete and metal and adds a new element to the views.

When we hear debate about infrastructure, bridges are a lot of what we’re talking about. To my unschooled eye, the downtown Columbus bridges over the river look to be in pretty good shape, with no apparent cracks or sags or exposed rebar. And they are interesting bridges, too, from a design standpoint. I doubt if the bridge designers focused overmuch on the underside views as opposed to the topside perspective, but the underside views are compelling nevertheless. Looking at the bridges from below helps you to understand how bridges work, and also leads to an appreciation of the artistry of sound engineering.

The Return Of Baghdad Bob

Many of us recall “Baghdad Bob,” the Information Minister for Iraq whose press briefings during the Iraq War in 2003, and confident declarations that the Iraqi forces were pulverizing the enemy, were laughably divorced from reality. Baghdad Bob’s willingness to lie to the press, even as invading tanks rolled past behind him, was so complete that the photo of him, above, has become one of the standard internet memes that is used whenever someone is trying to present reality in a way that is contradicted by the obvious truth.

Speaking of Baghdad Bob . . . how is the Russian media presenting the war in Ukraine and the protests that have sprung up in some parts of Russia?

Not surprisingly, it’s been a struggle, and the truth has been hard to find. The tone has been set at the top, where Vladimir Putin has tried to convince the Russian people and Ukrainian military forces that the Ukrainian government consists of a “gang of drug addicts and neo-Nazis.” And the Russian media has tried to play along and support the Putin regime by broadcasting patriotic programming and attacks on the Ukrainian leaders.

The problem for Russia is that its people have cell phones and computers and multiple ways of communicating without resort to the traditional media, and that decentralized, personal communication technology is changing the way war can be presented on the home front, just as it is changing how war is conducted on the battlefield. Patriotic programming and outright propaganda lose their force if you can flip on your cell phone and see video recorded or forwarded by your contacts of anti-war protests happening across the country and Russian police breaking up spontaneous demonstrations against the war.

Who knows? Maybe we’ll see footage of a Russian spokesman assuring the world that the Russian people are united in their support for Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, while in the background an anti-war protest marches through the streets–and a new “Moscow Mel” meme will be born.

War In The Internet Age

Like everyone else, I have been following the events unfolding in Ukraine, and hoping like crazy that the courageous Ukrainians continue to stand up against the Russians and make them pay for starting a brutal and totally unnecessary war. In the fog of war you never know what is actually happening, but it looks like the Ukrainians, and their President, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, are putting up a fierce fight–according to some reports, at least, much more fierce than Vladimir Putin and Moscow expected.

I’m also fascinated by the new issues that modern technology are introducing to the harsh realities of war. Two stories in particular are helping to illustrate how the internet is changing the paradigm in ways that Sun Tzu, von Clausewitz, General Lee, General Patton, and other experts on war could never have anticipated.

First, consider Ukraine’s President. He has been extraordinarily deft in using modern communications tools to rally his citizens and his troops, using his cell phone and other technology as a kind of tactical device. After the fighting began, President Zelenskiy made a broadcast, using his cell phone, in which he was posed in front of a notable landmark in Kyiv. In the screen shot above, Zelenskiy looks like a guy taking a selfie on a visit, but his broadcast had an important point: refuting Russian propaganda that he had fled the capital. Zelenskiy’s immediate, selfie response exposed the propaganda as fiction, undercutting Russian credibility (to the extent there was any) and fortifying the resolve of Ukrainians who saw with their own eyes that their leader was standing firm. Zelenskiy, who was an entertainer before becoming President, clearly has a command of modern technology and an intuitive understanding of how it can be used to his advantage. His videos make Zelenskiy look like the future and Putin look like a Cold War relic–which he really is.

Second, consider the many reports that, as they invade, sex-starved Russian troops are using the Tinder apps on their cell phones to try to line up liaisons with Ukrainian women. And consider further the contentions by some that, knowing of the Russian practices, Ukrainian intelligence operatives are posing as women on Tinder and other social media apps to gather useful information on where the Russians are, how they are equipped, and where they are heading. Thanks to the lack of discipline of Russian troops and the anonymity of some social media apps, Ukrainians can collect real-time data about troop movements–the kind of information that is extraordinarily valuable in any war.

One admonition in the United States during World War II was: “loose lips sink ships.” The new saying might be “Tinder apps help lay traps.”

Whatever may happen here, war will never be the same.

The Shakespeare Project

Years ago I bought the Yale Shakespeare from Barnes & Noble, back in the days when people actually went to bookstores. Published in 1993, the book is a colossal, oversized, 1517-page, agate-typed tome that features every play, poem, and sonnet penned by the Bard (in whole or in part, with acknowledgement of disputed provenance), along with historical notes, footnotes, and short biography.

For years, I’ve been intending to read the book from beginning to end, but I’ve never quite gotten around to doing it. Now, armed with new glasses to help with the tiny typeface, equipped with a bright, well-lighted spot that is well-suited to careful reading, and bringing to bear the experience of additional years and some post-pandemic perspective, I’m ready to launch my own personal Shakespeare Project.

The Yale Shakespeare organizes the Bard’s awesome output into sections on “The Comedies,” “The Histories,” and “The Tragedies and the Poems.” Being a history buff, I’m going to start with “The Histories,” and read them in their historical sequence, rather than in the order in which Shakespearean scholars think they were written. I’ll start with Richard II and follow the story of British monarchs through to Henry VI, Part III, and then tackle King John and Henry VIII, which are basically standalone pieces, at the end. When I’m done with the histories I’ll decide whether to turn next to the comedies or the tragedies and the poems.

I’ll report on my progress and reactions as I go. Some of the plays will be familiar, from reading them in classes or seeing them performed, but most will be new to me. And I know very little about the sonnets and poems, so reading them will be a voyage of discovery, too.

A Toe-Curling Phishing Attempt

The other day I got a phishing email at work. No surprise there, everyone gets phishing email as a matter of course. But this email was especially insulting because it was clearly age-related, and suggested that the sender was specifically trying to target those of us who have been around the block a few times.

The phishing email purportedly advertised a “New Toenail Clipper.” That’s an immediate ageist tell: the youngsters out there, still possessed of the flexibility that accompanies the dew of youth, probably can trim their toenails with their teeth. A toenail clipper solicitation can only be aimed at the geriatric brigade.

And the email went on to make the intended target audience even more obvious, using phrases like “Do you have pain when trying to clip your nails because of arthritis or other problems?” and noting, in bold face type, that the advertised clipper would make trimming toenails “easy for everyone.” The clipper had an “ergonomic design,” the email said, that would make it “EASY and SIMPLE to clip toenails without painful pressure.” And the clipper even had a built-in light to help those with dim, failing eyesight make sure that they were cropping off a nail and not lopping off a toe itself. And to top it all off, the email offered the opportunity to get this miracle of modern toenail engineering for 57% off.

Why do I know this was a phishing attempt? Because I’ve never done any shopping that would elicit a toenail trimmer solicitation, no brand was mentioned, the email came from an email address that included the word “phamgiang,” and the big inducement was to get me to click on an unknown link. Other than those obvious clues, it was a pretty sophisticated phishing attempt, complete with color photos and without the misspellings you typically see in phishing efforts. The sender didn’t know, however, that this particular recipient would be offended, rather than enticed, by a blatant age-targeted email.

Still, it’s a good lesson: when it comes to phishing, you need to be on your toes.

Gas Prices

The other day we were out and about, and I noticed we were running low on gas. I stopped at a gas station to fill up and was shocked to see that gas prices were up to $3.39 a gallon. Admittedly, I don’t drive much since my commute became a walk, and it had been a while since I filled the tank. Still, $3.39 seemed like a pretty abrupt upward change in the price for unleaded regular.

Statistics show that there has been a rise in gas prices in Ohio, which have risen again since my visit to the pump last week. You can see charts with records of Ohio gas prices here and here. The data shows a recent surge in prices, with fuel costs up by more than 4 percent week to week and more than 38 percent over the past year–which obviously is not a good trend. At the same time, however, the data shows that the current price for gas is below historic highs, which touched $4.00 a gallon in 2008 and 2011 and came close in 2014. It seems to be human nature to forget the prior high-price periods and fondly remember only the low-price days.

Still, the current trend of price increases is alarming, and the volatile situation caused by Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine isn’t going to help reduce gasoline prices, either. At some point, a continuing spike in prices will cause new sources of gas to come on line–that’s how the law of supply and demand works–and it may prompt the Biden Administration to change policies that many believe have contributed to price increases. Until that happens, though, we’ll have to ride out the surge, and the burden is going to fall primarily on people who have long commutes and have to use their cars a lot.

A sudden jump in gas prices isn’t something that people typically budget for, so it will cause belt-tightening and grousing. And if the Ukraine situation provokes further increases and takes prices to new heights above the $4.00 a gallon level, that might just be something that people actually remember going forward.

Two To Too Tutu

First thing yesterday morning Kish pointed out that it was 2/22/22, a “palindrome date.” (Or, if you live in a part of the world where the date precedes the month, the even more palindromic 22/2/22.) The fact that it fell on the second day of the week led some people to call it “Twosday.” And numerologists and those who are sensitive to the significance of this kind of thing contend that it was an auspicious day for reflection on relationships, good fortune, cosmic karma, Zen, and other highly spiritual things.

I therefore hope you all had a lucky, happy, spiritual, relationship-building Twosday.

My mind went in a slightly different direction, however, thinking instead of how the “two” sound, by itself, forms multiple words with totally different meaning. “Two” is a number. “To” connotes motion in a particular direction. “Too” reflects excessiveness (as in “eating too much”) and is also synonymous with “in addition.” And “tutu” is a specific kind of outfit for a female ballet dancer. No doubt the linguists among us could trace the distinct roots of each word to explain how they all developed with exactly the same sound.

Whatever their roots, I think there must be something that people particularly like about that “two” sound that would cause it to produce so many different standalone words. And it is not just true of English, either: in French, “tu” is the familiar form of “you.” Part of the attraction of yesterday’s palindrome must therefore simply lie in repeatedly making the “two” sound–which admittedly is pretty satisfying if you try it.

I also think that I am glad that I learned English as a kid growing up and assimilated all of the different “two” words as a matter of course, without giving it much thought. If you were someone who needed to learn English as a second language, trying to figure out what the person you were speaking to meant when they made the “two” sound might leave you flummoxed.

A Friendly Visit From “Hank The Tank”

South Lake Tahoe, California is, by all accounts, a beautiful community on the shores of bucolic Lake Tahoe, on the state line with Nevada in the Sierra Nevada mountains. You can imagine a happy homeowner sipping from a steaming mug of coffee in the morning, serenely contemplating the coming day in his Tahoe Keys neighborhood as the sunrise gilds the placid surface of the lake . . . when suddenly the peaceful scene is disturbed by the sounds of trash cans rattling and the alarmed homeowner notices that a massive, 500-pound black bear is snuffling around immediately outside the house, looking for a way in.

“Hank the Tank” has decided to drop by for a snack.

“Hank the Tank” is the name the folks in South Lake Tahoe have given to a huge black bear that has broken into dozens of local homes in search of food and is responsible for “152 reports of conflict behavior.” In the most recent reported invasion, Hank broke and then squeezed through a small window to get inside a home. The bear also has used his bulk to break down front doors and garage doors in search of food.

And that’s the problem. According to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, Hank is a “severely food-habituated bear,” which “means that the animal has lost its fear of people and is associating people with access to food.” When a bear has lost his fear of people and is perfectly content to break into houses for food, that doesn’t leave many good options. Wildlife officials are trying to trap the bear to stop the break-ins, and in the meantime they, and a local bear protection non-profit organization called the Bear League, are trying to find an animal sanctuary where Hank can be released. If they can’t find him a safe new home, euthanasia is the only other option.

It appears that the bear’s visits may be a bit of a self-inflicted wound for the Tahoe Keys area that has been Hank’s favorite destination. The neighborhood bans the use of “bear boxes”–free-standing garbage can enclosures that are supposed to be bear-resistant–because they are “unsightly.” The Bear League says that Hank goes to Tahoe Keys because he gets rewarded with garbage in unsecured garages. If there is any positive in this unfortunate situation, it may be that Hank’s visits have caused the homeowners’ association to change the policy and allow “bear boxes,” which may allow this scenario to be avoided in the future.

As between “bear boxes”–“unsightly” though they might be–and a live, 500-pound bear that has lost its fear of people, I’d go with a “bear box” every time.

A Tale Of Two Markets

In downtown Columbus, there is a tale of two real estate markets.

The residential real estate market is going strong, with solid leasing rates, rehabs underway, and more new buildings going up. The downtown area residential market has a good mix of condominiums, in both town home and multi-family unit styles, and apartments ranging from low-cost “mini” units to more spacious multi-bedroom offerings. According to an article in the Columbus Dispatch last year, the residential population in downtown Columbus has tripled over the last two decades.

The commercial real estate market, on the other hand, appears to be struggling. The pandemic and the days of civic unrest in the summer of 2020 clearly had an impact, as a number of brick-and-mortar street-level businesses closed their doors, permanently. Many of the new planned “mixed use” developments have ended up with a decidedly one-sided “mix,” with residential units being occupied while storefronts are going unleased.

That’s why the recent opening of the Accent wine shop in the Citizen’s building at the corner of Gay and High streets is a good sign. Operated by the proprietors of Veritas, the fine dining restaurant around the corner, Accent offers a nice selection of different wines and regular tastings. Interestingly, the wines are organized by their taste characteristics–like “crisp,” as you can see through the window in the photo above–rather than by the region, which seems to be the norm. This is helpful for folks like me who aren’t very knowledgeable about the subtle nuances of, say, California wines and instead are focused more on flavor.

Commercial real estate and residential real estate have a kind of “chicken-and-egg” relationship; historically, strength in residential real estate tends to lift the leasing rates for commercial real estate. The curveball thrown by the modern economy is the internet marketplace that doesn’t require retailers to have a nearby physical presence. Some kinds of retailers may never return, but others–restaurants, bars, wine shops, pharmacies, grocers, and other businesses that attract impulse visitors or shoppers looking for particular items–are still needed to cater to the growing residential population. It stands to reason that more people moving downtown will encourage more businesses, like the Accent wine shop, to try their luck in Columbus’ core.

Morning On The Mile

This morning I took a walk along the Scioto Mile, heading down Gay Street and then turning right and heading north along the river. The path winds past the federal courthouse, under railroads bridges, and by the high-rise condos of the Arena District. You need to be sure to stick to the pavement and not venture onto the lawns, which are Canadian goose dropping zones. When you reach the confluence of the Scioto and Olentangy rivers and cross the bridge at that point, you get a nice view of downtown Columbus looking back up the river, as shown below.

Columbus Parks and Recreation has worked hard to try to make the riverfront more accessible and interesting. That effort will become increasingly important as more people move to the downtown area and the development of the long-neglected Franklinton area continues. Having parkland and walking and biking trails is a key part of the urban living experience.

Casual Disobedience

I spent a lot of time in downtown Columbus today. Columbus is one of those cities where a mask mandate imposed by the Mayor has been in effect for months–since September 2021 and the early days of the Delta variant, in fact. (Who out there even remembers the dreaded days of the Delta variant? It seems like ancient history, doesn’t it?)

But today, the mask mandate was largely ignored. Many of the people I saw in downtown buildings weren’t masked up. And what was striking was the casualness of it all. People weren’t loud and proud about their de-masking or, so far as I could tell, consciously trying to make a political statement by walking inside buildings with a mask-free face. Instead, it was an utterly unceremonious thing–as if the maskless just decided that they had had enough, and weren’t going to go along with the mask requirements any more.

People in Columbus have been talking about when the Mayor is going to lift the mandate and allow residents to enter buildings without masks–which has been the rule in most of the surrounding suburbs and in many other Ohio cities. If I were the Mayor, and had been in downtown Columbus today, I would be thinking about lifting the edict sooner rather than later. It doesn’t do any good to issue directives if they are going to be casually ignored, and it seems pretty clear that that is what is happening here. Trying to keep the mask mandate in place when people are routinely ignoring it is fighting a losing battle–and what politician wants to do that?

The Gilded Age

We’ve started watching The Gilded Age, a new HBO drama about New York City in the 1880s. The show is a prototypical period drama about an era when fortunes were being made and spent, the gap between the lifestyles of the poor and the wealthy became an immense gulf, the wealthy wore elaborate outfits (and changed multiple times a day) and adopted elaborate manners, and some people, at least, cared deeply and passionately about high society pecking orders and codes of conduct.

The series focuses on the households of the Van Rhijns and the Russells, who just happen to live across the street from each other in one of New York’s toniest neighborhoods. The Van Rhijns are old money and old New York, with all of the uber-snobbishness that attends that status, whereas the Russells are new money–lots and lots of new money, in fact–and have built an enormous mansion and happily engage in ostentatious displays of super-wealth, just to get some attention. In short, the Russells desperately want to be accepted into New York society, and at least some of the Van Rhijns are equally desperate to prevent that from ever happening.

As with any period drama, a lot of what’s interesting about the show relates to the setting and the recreation of the attire and practices of the era. The creators of The Gilded Age have done a meticulous job in that regard; the “production value” of the series is obvious, and the show is worth watching just for the ladies’ elaborate hats. But the incessant social scheming is entertaining, too, as is the upstairs-downstairs interaction between and among servants and served. Throw in overt insider trading in the unregulated post-Civil War era and business activities designed specifically to crush rivals and leave them ruined and destitute, and you’ve got a winner in my book.

Carrie Coon (an Ohio native who we first saw in The Leftovers) deftly plays Bertha Russell, who will do whatever it takes to claw her way into the highest levels of society, and Christine Baranski is delightfully snooty and formidable as Agnes Van Rhijn, the matriarch of the Van Rhijn contingent. The kids in each household act as a kind of buffer between that irresistible force and immovable object. My favorite characters so far are George Russell, played by Morgan Spector, the railroad baron who is good-humored home but implacably ruthless as the head of the Russell Trust Company, and Denee Benton as Peggy Scott, shown in the photo above, a smart and sensible young woman who has the talent and ambition to be a successful writer but will have to overcome the racism and sexism of her time to do it.

It’s hard to imagine there was a time when people cared so much about social conventions and family lineage, but one of the joys of period pieces is catching a glimpse of those long-ago worlds during their heyday. The Gilded Age does an excellent, and entertaining, job of recreating the era that gave the show its name.

Tchotchke Recycling

“Tchotchke” is a Yiddish word that refers to small decorative items and random bric-a-brac found in homes. Look on your shelves and in your cupboards and in the boxes in your basement, and you’ll find tchotchkes galore.

The problem with tchotchkes is that they tend to . . . accumulate. Consider, for example, the number of flower vases that might be found in your home. You start with the solid foundation of vases you received from parents, and then add the vases that came with past birthday or Valentine’s Day arrangements–vases that you just couldn’t quite bring yourself to dispose of, and decided to keep, just in case–and you soon find yourself in a position where you open a cupboard in search of something and find it packed with more vases than you could possibly use, even if you had the world’s most prolific flower garden and were hosting a high tea for the Queen of England. The clear path of least resistance at that point is to shake your head in bemused wonderment, close the cupboard door, and promptly forget about the random vase collection until the next time you stumble across it.

That is the life cycle of any tchotchke, be it a flower vase or a porcelain pig or an ornamental box of indefinite purpose. Once a tchotchke crosses the threshold of a home, it typically achieves a kind of inanimate immortality. It might gather dust or be stashed in a box, but it will remain firmly embedded in the household unless and until someone decides that enough is enough and it is time to address the proliferation of vases and other constituent members of the household tchotchke assembly. But where do you dispose of flower vases? It makes you suspect that the vases you got from your parents way back when might not have been a simple generous gesture after all, but instead were part of their own effort to de-tchotchkify.

This week, we’re engaged in a full-scale tchotchke recycling effort. We’re hoping to find homes for the flower vases and other items in our random assortment of tchotchkes. Surely, somewhere out there, people are yearning for vases that could kick-start their own vase collection?

P.J. O’Rourke And Shaping A Sense Of Humor

I was very saddened to read of the death of P.J. O’Rourke yesterday, at age 74. O’Rourke was a native Ohioan who had a long and successful career as a writer, commentator, and satirist who, by the end of his career, often approached issues from a perspective on the right side of the political spectrum–so much so that his New York Times obituary describes him as a “conservative political satirist.” That’s a pretty hilarious description for those of us who first encountered P.J. O’Rourke in the early 1970s. In those days, O’Rourke was an editor, writer, and principal creative force for the National Lampoon magazine, which made its name by ridiculing just about everything in American society.

I owe a debt of gratitude to P.J. O’Rourke and Doug Kenney, his cohort at the National Lampoon, because reading that magazine helped to shape my sense of humor and world view, too. And if there was one single publication that was more influential than any other in that regard, it was the Lampoon‘s legendary high school yearbook parody, the cover of which appears above. Supposedly the 1964 yearbook for C. Estes Kefauver High School in mythical Dacron, Ohio–and specifically, the copy owned by student Larry Kroger, with handwritten notes by Larry and his high school chums–the parody was a hysterical, pitch-perfect blast directed at everything pretentious and silly and weird about the super-heated, fishbowl world of high school life in small-town Ohio. Every page of the faux yearbook, from the student organization and sports team pages to the student photo pages to the principal’s message to the photos of faculties and staff, was laugh out loud funny and had the ring of truth that makes for the best satire. It was, in short, the work of a comedic genius.

The National Lampoon high school yearbook parody was published in 1974, when I was in the middle of my high school years. I devoured and loved it then and loved it again years later, when I bought an anniversary edition. After reading the yearbook for the Kefauver Kangaroos, I would never look at my own little high school world–or the world at large, for that matter–in quite the same, super-serious way again. Throw the National Lampoon yearbook parody, the Three Stooges shorts, Bugs Bunny cartoons, MAD magazine from the late ’60s and early ’70s, Jim Bouton’s Ball Four and any book or article by Hunter S. Thompson, and Blazing Saddles and early Saturday Night Live broadcasts and Richard Pryor and Cheech and Chong records into a blender, mix well, and you’d produce something like my adult (well, supposedly “adult”) sense of humor.

Thanks to P.J. O’Rourke and Doug Kenney for that. I didn’t really follow O’Rourke in his later years, but I really didn’t need to: he long ago had his impact.

Sad Ads

Super Bowl LVI featured a close, hard-fought game, some officiating controversies to spice up discussions of the result, and a halftime show that some generations, at least, argue was the best of all time. But forget those ancillary items for a minute, and let’s focus on the important things: what about the commercials?

Traditionally, the Super Bowl is when Madison Avenue rolls out its best, and often funniest, stuff, and the vast viewing audience watches the game expecting to get a laugh or two during the breaks in the action. The commercials also typically give us a peek into what’s going on in American society at the time. Usually the prevailing zeitgeist involves drinking beer, Coke, or Pepsi, eating fast food, driving a car, working in an office, and some kind of leisure activity. The best Super Bowl commercials, from the Mean Joe Greene and kid Coke commercial to the Larry Bird-Michael Jordan game of “horse” to the hard-charging office linebacker, are the memorable stuff of TV legend.

So what does this year’s crop of Super Bowl commercials tell us about modern America? Evidently it’s a land of cryptocurrency, electric car charging stations, and electronic gizmos in your house. And, sadly, it’s not a very funny place, either. I may have missed one during a bathroom break, but I can’t remember any commercial that actually provoked a laugh, or even a mild chuckle, and many didn’t even try.

In my view the absolute nadir was reached with the commercial that consisted entirely of a floating QR code on the TV screen. I expect that some ad types would argue that the QR code spot was the edgy stuff of marketing genius, specifically designed to appeal to the young people who always have their phones at hand, ready to scan, and to make the commercial an interactive effort. For many of us who despise the sprouting of QR codes everywhere, though, it was nothing but a soulless irritant. Is this really what Super Bowl ads have come to and what the future holds for those of us who remember Spuds Mackenzie?

Maybe, as we (hopefully) near the end of a pandemic, it’s too much to expect some legitimately funny stuff during Super Bowl commercial breaks, but it also seems that right now is when we could use a laugh the most. The Super Bowl ads didn’t deliver.