Posts Tagged ‘Fear’

Ebola and ISIS and the Psychology of Fear

October 14, 2014 Leave a comment


There’s nothing like a good, sensational Ebola scare. Sure, Americans have virtually zero chance of contracting the disease. But that doesn’t keep 40% of the public from calling it a serious or moderate health threat. ISIS scares the bejesus out of us too. Some 70% of Americans in a CNN poll says ISIS has the capability of attacking the United States, even though you’d be hard pressed to find a single military analyst who would agree with the notion they’re anything more than a regional threat.

Here, the facts- the things you are way more likely to die of than Ebola or ISIS:

Being in a car: 30,000 people die every year in car accidents. If that many people were killed every year by terrorism, we would have built a gigantic moat around the entire nation and invaded 73 more countries.   According to the National Safety Council, what are the odds of dying in a motor vehicle accident in the United States? It’s 1 in 112.

Odds of an American getting killed in a terrorist attack: 1 in 20 million (Washington Post). Odds of an American who has not traveled to western Africa getting Ebola? Virtually zero (

Being legally executed:  What are the odds you’ll be convicted of a felony and then be put to death?  Way more probable than getting Ebola.  The National Safety Council says there is a 1 in 96,203 chance you will die from legal execution.

The Flu: Though safer than driving in a car, 23,000 Americans die every year from the Flu. But- Oh My God…where can I get a vaccine for that? Anywhere and for free, if you have a health insurance card.

Falling Down: Yup- there’s a 1 in 152 chance you will die by falling down. About 2 million times the chance of getting killed in a terrorist act or by Ebola.

Unintentional poisoning by and exposure to noxious substances: Chances of dying this way are 1 in 119. Right up there with car accidents.

Intentional Self-harm: 1 in 103.

Chronic Lower Respiratory Disease: It’s the second largest killer in the country- there’s a 1 in 29 chance you will die of lung disease.

Heart Disease and Cancer: The #1 killers in America. One in 7 will die from heart disease or cancer.

In an excellent article in the New Yorker, James Surowiecki, summarizes the odd, but quite common psychology we all fall victim to:

At work here is the curiously divergent and inconsistent way most of us think about risk. As a myriad of studies have shown, we tend to underestimate the risk of common perils and overestimate the risk of novel events. We fret about dying in a terrorist attack or a plane crash, but don’t spend much time worrying about dying in a car accident. We pay more attention to the danger of Ebola than to the far more relevant danger of flu, or of obesity or heart disease. It’s as if, in certain circumstances, the more frequently something kills, the less anxiety-producing we find it.

Facts, are, indeed, stubborn things. Fear, however, is both stubborn and widespread.

Going Under the Knife with Equal Parts Grit and Fear

CT Scan of Garcia stomach

CT Scan of Garcia stomach

The following account includes details of human biology that could make normal people a little queasy.  It’s an honest account and, I might add, a therapeutic one for the author.

Last time somebody opened up my stomach and took a gander it was all quite spontaneous.  You see, the stomach is supposed to be a sterile environment.  But in my case last October, an undiagnosed ulcer perforated.   It was a mess.  Suffice to say I was en route to getting numerous rapid and intense infections that would make me, if left unattended- a dead man by morning.  But waking up that day not knowing I would later be taking an ambulance ride to the ER had its advantages.  At least I had no idea what was about to take place.

Now, some six months later, after an endoscopy performed to check on my progress from the perforated ulcer operation discovered- oops- a tumor- they’re going to open me up again.  Only this time I know exactly when; 8am, ET, Thursday, May 2nd, 2013.   They’ve blocked off 6 and half hours of operating room time to get a 1 to 2 centimeter superficial carcinoma out of my body and cure me.  I’m grateful for that.  It was caught early.  Stomach cancer is not curable in later stages. And, of course, to be on the safe side, cancer-fighting doctors are using an AK-47 to wipe out a gnat, so they’re also going to remove 60 to 70% of my stomach.

I am likely to be going from being an overweight former smoker, to being a perpetually slender and much healthier former smoker.   God works in mysterious ways.

But the knowing is not fun.  I am sentimentally enjoying meals I know I am not going to be having again for six months.  Even sipping from a water bottle is a luxury.  In less than 24 hours,  I will be lying in a Georgetown University hospital bed with a tube running from my nose into my stomach while an IV pushes saline solution, antibiotics and painkillers into my bloodstream.  No water or even crushed ice for at least 2 to 3 days.  You get nothing but a moist tooth brush type thing to keep your mouth sort of hydrated.  You know it’s bad when you start salivating at the mere thought of green Jell-O.  Forget solid food for 3 to 4 weeks.   Welcome to the wonderful world of nutritionists teaching you how to eat six small meals a day.

I generally have a very good attitude about these health things.  But only because I suspect I’m going to live to laugh about it.  I would not be this sanguine if the situation were dire.  Still, dark thoughts enter the mind from time to time.  Will this be the 5% of operations that have complications?  What happens if they mess up the anesthesia and you have a massive coronary or something?  Do you see the white light and the tunnel and everything if you’re knocked out on heavy drugs?  Who do I bitch to about a bad outcome if I’m, like, dead?  Will they get all of it so I can avoid post-operative chemotherapy?  What if it’s worse than they thought and I awake from the operation and they tell me the whole stomach or some other organ is gone?

But then I remember they have done about 3 bazillion tests on me so they have a pretty good idea of what they’re dealing with.  I have Dr. Waddah Al-Refaie, Surgeon-in-Chief (that’s his actual title) of the Vince Lombardi Cancer Center at Georgetown University performing the operation.  I also realize how fortunate I am to be alive in this day and time when there is so much knowledge about these terrible diseases that used to be death sentences.  Perhaps most importantly, I remember there are so many folks so worse off than me and my stupid stomach.

I have a health directive in place.  Finances are in order.  My peeps know who to call if stuff goes south.

To my many wonderful family, friends and co-workers with whom I have shared the cancer news in recent weeks and who have been so sweet and supportive- THANK YOU!   But just because it’s early stage cancer and an operation may cure me, doesn’t mean you can stop praying.  No siree.  Keep those going please.  Especially from 8am-2pm on Thursday, May 2nd.

Speaking of prayers- here’s an Irish joke somewhat appropriate for the occasion:

An Irishman is flustered not being able to find a parking space in a large mall’s parking lot.

“Lord,” he prays,” I can’t stand this. If you open a space up for me, I swear I’ll give up drinking me whiskey, and I promise to go to church every single Sunday.”

Suddenly, the clouds part and the sun shines on an empty parking spot. Without hesitation, the man says, “Never mind, found one!”

TSA Under Fire: What Took So Long?

November 13, 2010 Leave a comment

The growing discontent over full body scanners and intrusive pat-downs is evidence that the government has gone a step too far.  Frankly, I thought they had already gone overboard and have seriously wondered why people accepted the indignities they’ve been suffering for most of the past decade.

I’ve always thought the answer to airline safety was more Air Marshalls and psychological profiling.  Not racial profiling.  Psychological profiling.  This is where you monitor people unobtrusively for nervous or erratic behavior followed by simple questioning.  This taking-your-shoes-off routine has always been lame; reactive instead of proactive.  All because one guy (Richard Reid) tried to set his sneakers ablaze. 

What we’re seeing is the identical response, only this time to the would-be Christmas underwear bomber who accidently set his genitals ablaze.  I remember the jokes that were flying around shortly after that incident.  If massive, nationwide shoe-removal followed Richard Reid….yikes…what would happen now that someone tried to hide explosives in their underwear?

Welcome to the knee-jerk response.  Full body scanners are the virtual equivalent of the strip searches we all thought, jokingly, might follow the Christmas Underwear Bomber incident. Well, it’s actually happened.  They really are looking at our private parts now.  And if you refuse the scanner, now they’re touching them too with front-of-the-hand inspections that go all over the place.

With the massive Thanksgiving travel season upon us this has turned into a real nightmare for the TSA.  A Facebook-inspired nationwide protest is gearing up for November 24th in which passengers are being asked to refuse full-body scans.  Pilot unions are up in arms and their members are already being urged to refuse the scanners.

Ostensibly, one of the reasons for the repulsion to these incredibly expensive and intrusive machines is the small amounts of radiation that are emitted during each use.  But that’s not really why people are upset.  I think it’s a combination of things.  I think people are finally resenting being treated like potential terrorists when all they want to do is fly to a business meeting or to grandma’s house.  And now the “touchy” area of literally, physically or virtually inspecting our bodies.  It’s just become too much.

People used to be compliant.  They put up with ridiculous strategies like outlawing the transport of certain quantities of shampoo.  They accepted standing barefoot or in their stocking feet while TSA agents x-rayed their killer lap-tops. They did it for the greater good.  But it would seem the public has finally reached the point of being willing to put up with a little risk in exchange for basic human dignity. 

The exact quote from Benjamin Franklin, written sometime before February 17th, 1775 as part of his notes for a proposition to the Pennsylvania General Assembly was this:

They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.

People are finally beginning to tire of living in fear.

The Food Police- Publicity Hogs

This is bad for you

They have been dubbed the “Food Police.” And the media eat it up like a 1000 calorie Triple Whopper with Cheese. Every year, like clockwork, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) releases lists of evil foods and every year, the media lap dogs oblige with funny puns and B roll of fat Americans walking down the street.

While there is nothing intrinsically wrong with pointing out that fattening foods are bad for you- it’s also stating the obvious. Over and over and over and over and over and over.

For network and local TV and Radio, the CSPI is the gift that keeps on giving. It’s become as standard and hack worn as the stand-up in front of the salt dome before the season’s first snow storm; the stand-up on the boardwalk on Memorial Day weekend, the stand-up on the side of the highway at the big truck accident, the stand-up at the shopping mall on Black Friday.

Media outlets were tripping all over themselves this week, including network reporters for NBC and ABC, to breathlessly report the latest “evil food” report from the CSPI.

The 2010 List

Am I missing something here? When you sit down to order at a restaurant do you not know that Cinnamon Cream Stacked & Stuffed Hotcakes just might contain a boatload of calories? Here are the latest indictments from the Food Police:

• Bob Evans’ Cinnamon Cream Stacked & Stuffed Hotcakes – 1,380 calories and 34 grams of saturated fat. Syrup adds another 200 calories for every four-tablespoon serving.
• California Pizza Kitchen’s Tostada Pizza with Grilled Steak – 1,680 calories, 32 grams of saturated fat, and more than 3,300 mg of sodium.
• California Pizza Kitchen’s Pesto Cream Penne – 1,350 calories, 49 grams of saturated fat, and 1,920 mg of sodium.
• Five Guys’ Bacon Cheeseburger – 920 calories and 30 grams of saturated fat. A large order of French fries at Five Guys adds 1,460 calories.
• P.F. Chang’s Double Pan-Fried Noodles Combo – 1,820 calories and 7,690 milligrams of sodium.
• The Cheesecake Factory’s Pasta Carbonara with Chicken – 2,500 calories and 85 grams of saturated fat.
• The Cheesecake Factory’s Chocolate Tower Truffle Cake – 1,670 calories and 48 grams of saturated fat.
• Outback’s New Zealand Lamb – 1,820 calories, 80 grams of saturated fat, and 2,600 mg of sodium.
• Chevys’ Crab & Shrimp Quesadilla – 1,790 calories, 63g of saturated fat, and 3,440 mg of sodium.


The CSPI and their media friends went after Red Lobster, Olive Garden, Applebee’s, Chili’s and (again) the Cheesecake Factory. Not that I would, for one moment, think there might be something fattening at a place called the Cheesecake Factory.

• Red Lobster Ultimate Fondue: This retro item is also making comebacks at Olive Garden, Uno Chicago Grill, and at a chain that sells nothing but fondues, The Melting Pot.
• Applebee’s Quesadilla Burger: Here Applebee’s inserts a bacon cheeseburger into a quesadilla. Two flour tortillas, two kinds of meat, two kinds of cheese, pico de gallo, lettuce, and a previously unknown condiment called Mexi-ranch sauce, plus fries, gives this monstrous marriage 1,820 calories, 46 grams of saturated fat, and 4,410 mg of sodium. \
• Chili’s Big Mouth Bites: This is four mini-bacon-cheeseburgers served on a plate with fries, onion strings, and jalapeno ranch dipping sauce.
• The Cheesecake Factory Chicken and Biscuits: Nutrition Action calls it “discomfort food.” If you wouldn’t eat an entire 8-piece bucket of KFC Original Recipe plus 5 biscuits, you shouldn’t order this.


Ah, the year we all freaked out about popcorn. The media headline spoon-fed by the CSPI was “Movie Theatre Popcorn: Threat or Menace.” The key finding- hang on to your hats- popcorn is really bad for you if you put a lot of butter on it.

Sorry to ruin the movie for you, but the Center for Science in the Public Interest visited a number of theaters in the three largest chains, Regal, AMC and Cinemark, and bought popcorn in various sizes for analysis by an independent lab. Then they issued a report on the results, which included phrases like “the Godzilla of snacks.” .

No- they are NOT sorry they ruined the movie for you. They are thrilled and excited that they ruined the movie for you. They wouldn’t have made their headlines and continued to justify their existence if they hadn’t ruined the movie for you.


Another banner year for the CSPI. They went on the attack against Ruby Tuesday’s, Uno Chicago Grill and- oh, lookie here- the Cheescake Factory.

You’ll notice the universal measurement of all evil- the McDonald’s Quarter-Pounder. “Like eating five quarter-pounders!” “Like eating 22 quarter-pounders!” They also use this technique of finding another food that has high caloric content and adding it to the standard Quarter-pounder bench-mark. They did it with popcorn in 2008; “like eating five quarter-pounders with 12 pads of butter!”

• Ruby Tuesday’s “Colossal Burger.” Equivalent to about five McDonald’s Quarter Pounders.
• Uno Chicago Grill’s “Pizza Skins.” “We start with our famous deep dish crust, add mozzarella and red bliss mashed potatoes, and top it off with crispy bacon, cheddar, and sour cream,” says the menu.
• Ruby Tuesday’s “Fresh Chicken & Broccoli Pasta.” Pity the poor diner who thinks this healthy sounding entrée is on the light side.
• Cheesecake Factory’s “Chris’ Outrageous Chocolate Cake.” It’s the equivalent of eating two Quarter Pounders plus a large fries—for dessert.

But the real headline in ’07 was the CSPI’s frontal assault on the evils of Chinese food. This was actually an updated version of their original much-publicized attack on Chinese food first released in 1993.

WASHINGTON—Popular Chinese restaurant meals can contain an entire day’s worth of sodium and some contain two days’ worth, according to a new analysis by the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest.


It’s not just food. They don’t like alcohol either. This was the year the CSPI criticized NASCAR for having beer sponsors. Isn’t that kind of like criticizing the Catholic Church for using communion wafers?

“Linking drinking with high-speed driving—in front of audiences that include millions of young people—is asking for trouble,” said CSPI alcohol policies director George A. Hacker.

Cool. CSPI has an “alcohol policies director.” I’m inviting him to my next cocktail party. I’m sure he’s a wild one.


Notable for the sarcastic Happy Birthday message to McDonald’s on their 50th anniversary:

McDonald’s deserves a lot of the blame for having transformed the way America eats. We now eat quicker, and in what would have seemed like bizarre or impolite ways many years ago. (In our cars, for instance). What was once an occasional treat or convenience has morphed into a once-, twice-, or thrice-a-day indulgence.

Not only is the CSPI the enemy of calories and fat, but also “bizarre and impolite” ways of eating.


This was the year of the CSPI’s attack on Chipotle and their third assault on Mexican or Mexican-like food.

Among CSPI’s findings:
• Chipotle’s Chicken Burrito (with black beans, rice, cheese, and salsa) weighs in at nearly 1,000 calories and 12 grams of saturated fat.
• Chipotle’s Vegetarian Burrito (with black beans, rice, cheese, guacamole, and salsa) weighs over a pound and provides 1,120 calories and three-quarters of a day’s worth of saturated fat (14 grams).
• Chipotle’s Barbacoa Burrito (with shredded beef, pinto beans, rice, cheese, guacamole, sour cream, and salsa) hits nearly 1,300 calories and three-quarters of a day’s worth of saturated fat. That’s the equivalent of a Quarter Pounder, a large order of fries, and a large Coke.
• Chipotle’s Chicken Burrito Bols–burritos without the 340-calorie flour tortillas–are CSPI’s only recommended “Better Bites” at Chipotle. A Bol with chicken, black beans, lettuce, and salsa, has just 430 calories and four grams of saturated fat. Rice instead of lettuce adds about 200 calories.

Ah- notice the evil Barbacoa Burrito- as bad as a “Quarter-Pounder and a large order of fries and a coke.”

In 2003, the CSPI also attacked ice cream.

• Ben & Jerry’s empty Waffle Cone Dipped in Chocolate has 320 calories and a half a day’s worth of saturated fat—the equivalent of a half-pound rack of BBQ baby back ribs. Fill it with a regular scoop of Chunky Monkey Ice Cream and the cone becomes worse (820 calories and 30 grams of saturated fat) than a full one-pound rack of ribs.
• Cold Stone Creamery’s regular Mud Pie Mojo—a mixture of coffee ice cream, roasted almonds, fudge, Oreos, peanut butter, and whipped topping—is the equivalent of two Pizza Hut Personal Pan Pepperoni Pizzas (1,180 calories and 26 grams of saturated fat).
• Häagen-Dazs’ Mint Chip Dazzler is a portable sundae with three scoops of mint chip ice cream, hot fudge, Oreos, chocolate sprinkles, and whipped cream. Nutritionally, it’s like eating a T-bone steak, Caesar salad, and a baked potato with sour cream (1,270 calories and 38 grams of saturated fat).


This was the year of the CSPI major assault on all Fast Food chains but particularly Burger King.

• Burger King Old Fashioned Ice Cream Shake. It looks like an ordinary shake. But thanks to the ice cream, a medium (22 oz.) has 760 calories and 29 grams of heart-breaking fat (1 ½ days’ worth).
• Burger King Fries. Burger King’s French Fries are the worst. Period. A King Size order has 600 calories and 30 grams of fat, 16 of which are saturated plus trans fat.
• Burger King Hash Browns. This breakfast side order can ruin your diet for the entire day. A large order has 15 grams (three-quarters of a day’s worth) of saturated plus trans fat.
• Burger King Double Whopper with Cheese. A wider burger and a wider bun make a single Whopper worse than a Quarter Pounder with Cheese or a Big Mac. A second slab of beef brings the total to 1,150 calories and 33 grams of saturated plus trans fat.
• Value Meals. All Value Meals offer an economic incentive to stuff your gut, and Burger King’s are the worst. A Burger King Whopper Value Meal’s calories range from 1,300 to 1,800 depending on the size of the soft drink and the fries.


Oh…the tons of media publicity they got this year. This was the major assault on Mexican food. Most of the media had forgotten they had done their “evil Mexican food” pieces back in 1994, so they went back for a second helping.

One serving of nachos that deliver more than 1,300 calories and more than a day’s worth of fat, saturated fat, and sodium? In recognition of that nutritional train wreck, the Center Science in the Public Interest’s (CSPI) Nutrition Action Healthletter has named Taco Bell’s Mucho Grande Nachos its Food Porn of the Month for December. The Mucho Grande Nachos get their overload of fat and calories from the ground beef and melted cheese that smother deep-fried nacho chips. Nutrition Action says that the Mucho Grande Nachos “is the perfect food if you don’t mind ending up with mucho grande doctor bills … and a mucho grande posterior.

You’d have to salsa dance all night to burn off this nacho dish. Each ingredient on its own raises red flags — put them all together and you’ve got a world-class Food Porn,” said CSPI senior nutritionist Jayne Hurley. “Eating one order of Mucho Grande Nachos is like eating five Beef Tacos — plus an order of regular nachos. I don’t recommend eating either meal.


The new millennium saw the CSPI go after Greek food.

WASHINGTON – The first-ever study of popular dishes from Greek restaurants shows that some entrées are among the most healthful foods available at any restaurant, while others are as bad for your heart as two McDonald’s Big Macs. The good news is that the chicken, lamb, or pork souvlaki (kebobs) are great choices — fairly low in fat and rich in vegetables,” said CSPI senior nutritionist Jayne Hurley, who conducted the study. “The heart-throbbingly bad news is the fat-filled moussaka and gyro.”

Ooops…somebody at the CSPI didn’t get the memo and compared Greek food to Big Macs instead of the time-honored Quarter-Pounder.

Those damn, greasy, good-for-nothing Mexicans. In their attitude and disdain for Mexican culture, the CSPI was 16 years ahead of the state of Arizona:

Rice, beans, and tortillas. What a foundation for a healthy cuisine.
So why were we scratching our cabezas as we looked at the results of our laboratory test of Mexican restaurant food?
• An order of Beef & Cheese Nachos with as much fat as ten glazed doughnuts at Dunkin’ Donuts.
• A Chicken Burrito dinner with 1 day’s worth of sodium.
• A Chile Relleno dinner with as much saturated fat as 27 slices of bacon!
Only one of the dishes we tested – chicken fajitas – was decent enough to recommend … if you order it without the beans, sour cream, and guacamole. That was the good news. The sad part was that, unlike Chinese or Italian restaurant food, it’s tough to make Mexican better.

Hey CSPI- Take your cabezas and put ‘em up your culo.

In 1994…the CSPI also announced its disgust for all Italian food:

The next time you reach for the dinner menu at your favorite Italian eatery, consider this:
Order Fettuccine Alfredo and you stuff your arteries with as much saturated fat as three pints of Breyer’s Butter Almond ice cream. Have Eggplant Parmigiana and you might as well devour five egg rolls. Eat an order of Fried Calamari as an appetizer and you down more cholesterol than a four-egg omelet.


If this post seems excessive; don’t blame me. Blame the Center for Science in the Public Interest and their obsessive goody-two-shoes sermonizing of the obvious year after year. Fattening food is bad for you…fattening food is bad for you!

We know.

But after awhile, watching the predictable annual media orgies over the CSPI’s latest round of manufactured outrage over this food or that food- this caution from someone who has researched this CSPI publicity machine; and I’ll put it in big bold letters:

Caution Caution Caution

Continual exposure to the CSPI’s press releases and news conferences can lead to the same amount of indigestion produced by consuming 37 Quarter Pounders with 75 pads of butter placed inside a two-ton pastry shell filled with 4,700 pounds of whipped cream over 20 layers of gyro meat.

A Nervous Wednesday for Caps Fans

Ok, I don’t really believe in Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny or the Tooth Fairy but I do believe in the Washington Capitals. God- please- this once- could you not be a dream-killer?

No #1 Stanley Cup seed has ever lost an opening round series to a #8 seed after going up 3 games to 1. But the Caps have a chance to make that dubious piece of history Wednesday at the Verizon Center and they know it. Stung by complacency in Game 5 and one the best performances by any goalie ever in Game 6…we will soon know what the Caps are made of.

I am gloriously, dangerously and deeply emotionally invested in this damn thing. Granted, not as much as my season-ticket holding friends who were actually there to see the 2-1 Game 5 debacle when the Caps could have ended it all; who have followed every amazing twist and turn of a regular season that ended with Washington as the best team in all of hockey.

But the Caps are part of my neighborhood and I can’t help it. I live a block from Verizon Center and I’ve seen the red madness out in the streets of Chinatown before and after every home game. I hear the horns honking after an inspiring victory like Game 2 against Montreal when the Caps rallied to win a 5-4 nail-biter in overtime. And whether I get into the arena or not, I will be out in the streets for the joyous, delirious celebration when the boys hoist the ultimate prize above their heads.

Because I cannot accept the possibility that it could all come crashing down in one sad, pitiful moment Wednesday night; because it would make me wonder what the hell the regular season is for, and therefore, why even watch or care at all- I must believe they will pull this off.

Not only that, but I must believe that if they do win game 7 Wednesday- they have a real chance to go all the way. Here’s the theory, expressed by Brian McNally of the Washington Examiner:

…win that seventh game and no one remembers a thing. The panic subsides — for a few days at least. Jaroslav Halak can’t follow you to Philadelphia. You don’t have to go back to Bell Centre and its legion of screaming fanatics. It’s a new series and a 0-0 start and sometimes the relief of that allows a team to loosen up and make a run at a championship.

Right? Doesn’t that make sense? I have to believe. They will win. Otherwise, on Thursday morning when I wake up, Santa Claus will have been shot at point-blank range by an armed bandit, the Easter Bunny’s head will be hanging on some hunter’s wall and the Tooth Fairy will be serving 10 to 20 for a narcotics conviction. What’s left of my innocence will be gone.


March Madness is upon us, people! It’s off to the races and the biggest annual time-suck since you last filled out your own tax forms. I don’t know how much productivity is lost in the American workplace and really, I don’t care. This is important stuff.

Every year, I come up with some new fangled, bizzaro formula for predicting the winners. I am, actually, a total spreadsheet nerd and I can spend hours on this stuff analyzing and sorting. I have had mixed success. I’m usually in the top 5 in my office pools.

I almost perished from a bitter, awful, horrendous and deeply sad disappointment in 2008. I had picked Memphis to win it all. Nobody ever thought friggin’ Memphis would win the National Championship. And there they were- beating Kansas by 9 points with 2 minutes to play. I had this. I could taste the $400 pot. Regrettably, the Memphis boys had a significant weakness. Free throws. Coming down the stretch, they couldn’t hit the broadside of a barn. I had not factored in their horrific FT%. Aaaauuurgh. I know the Memphis players and the larger Memphis community were crushed. But so was I. Big-time.

Last year, I correctly picked North Carolina to win the title, but my other Final 4 were off so, again, close, but no cigar.

This year, I have discovered that there are many, many people out there on the World Wide Web, smarter and nerdier than I. They have applied their mathematics degrees to the greater societal good and have used logarithms, Pythagorean theorems and good old common sense to come up with their sets of predictions. And so I have researched them thoroughly and selected the analysis I thought was the most complete and I’m going with their rankings which were made before the tournament field was set.

I will not tell you what system I am using, ok? Find your own! I will tell you this:
The system is cool and I believe, accurate enough, that it honed in on a number of 1st round upsets that include five teams seeded 9th-12th. I do have three top-seeds getting to the Final 4…but also a #4-seed. It all has the ring of truth to it. If there are alternate realities out there, I KNOW this is one of them. I am just hoping the cosmic dice select this particular reality, because, I’m telling you people, I’m feeling it this year.

Here are the 1st round upsets:

#9 Northern Iowa over UNLV
#9 FSU over Gonzaga
#10 St.Mary’s over Richmond
#11 Old Dominion over Notre Dame
#12 Utah State over Texas A&M

My Final 4: Kansas, Duke, Syracuse & Wisconsin

National Champion: Duke. Very few teams entering the tournament as the #1 seed actually win it all. But if Duke pulls it off in 2010 it will be their 3rd time. They do it approximately every ten years. Check it out.

Cabbies On Phones

Returned to Manhattan for the weekend and found out Mayor Bloomberg and the Taxi Commission have started cracking down hard on cabbies and their cell phones. No hands-free or blue-tooth either. There’s a $200 fine for a first offense, some kind of reeducation camp for a second offense plus license suspension and permanent loss of license on a third offense.

Along the way to researching this little post, I found out there is a lot of hostility toward cabbies out there. I ran into a taxi-passenger blog in which the writer talked about how virulently horrible it is that taxi drivers talk on the phone all the time, and besides, they often “talk in a foreign language.”

I personally have never minded cabbies talking on the phone, much less hands-free. I’ve never had a near-miss in a cab or ever seen them get lost or miss my stop because they were distracted. But it is an angry public; convinced they are at death’s door when a taxi-driver is chatting on a blue-tooth. And they are encouraged to turn cabbies in. Mayor Bloomberg gives you a phone number to call on the little TV/credit-card set-up where you can also get news updates from the local TV station while you’re in the back seat. Frankly, I’d rather hear a guy talking Ethiopian to his girlfriend than have to listen to yet another local TV newscast, but, apparently, that’s just me.

I’ve had some really great conversations with cabbies through the years and have documented some of those chats on this very web site.  I’ve never viewed them as antiseptic chauffeurs. They have lots of great stories and each one is like a fascinating character study. But increasingly, in New York anyway, the city seems to be trying to do everything possible to keep cabbies and passengers apart. They raised the height of the glass separating driver from passenger. They put in those god-awful TV’s in the back seats.

Ironically, if these people who hate cab drivers so much would bother talking to them- guess what? They wouldn’t be on the phone because they’d be talking to you! Oh, but then conversation is probably a deadly distraction too.

I suppose it’s a lot safer, technically, that cabbies are now supposed to be silent mutes ferrying human cargo from point A to point B. Somewhere along the way, though, it seems to me we’re losing some of our humanity.

Terrorism: The Need to Stay a Step Ahead

I read three articles related to this terrorism business yesterday that, pieced together, offer the following perspective: This is a typically asymmetric conflict; the bad guys are nimble and adaptive; we are slow, plodding and tend to fight yesterday’s wars. Both sides have had their share of victories and failures but it is has become quite obvious that any sense this “war” was in a lull was pure illusion.

Probably the most ominous of these articles is an excellent piece by William Saletan at Slate that points out that the recent incident in which an Al Qaeda double-agent detonated a bomb, killing seven CIA officers during a meeting at a military base near the Afghanistan/Pakistan border, was insidiously clever. It was an attack on the folks who had been running the highly successful predator missions. These drone attacks have been so effective that it’s reported Al Qaeda operatives have been fleeing from the countryside and into Pakistani cities on the theory the U.S. would never send predators over highly populated urban centers.

The attack took advantage of the weakness of the predator program- its necessary dependence on fresh, actionable intelligence that is used to ascertain the location of high-ranking enemy targets. It’s reported the assailant was claiming to have sensitive and immediate information on the whereabouts of Ayman al-Zawahiri, Al Qaeda’s #2 leader. He got in to the military base without even being searched because he was a trusted spy. As Saletan points out, the predator technology may have revolutionized modern warfare and given us a powerful tool in the fight against terrorism, but it’s still run by humans and that’s where they hit us- at the people who piece together the intelligence that provides the strategic map for where these drones attack.

In the New York Post, Ralph Peters writes that terrorists are outthinking us, and he too points to the clever and effective ruthlessness of the attack on the C.I.A. agents. He argues it’s part of three major tactics that are being used that have been tragically successful; the employment of suicide bombers, the deployment of improvised explosive devices (IED’s) and perhaps most importantly, the campaign to destroy the trust between U.S. forces and “locals,”- the lynch pin to our ultimate exit strategies in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Peters concludes the bad guys are totally ruthless- we are not.

Finally, there is this piece from the WCBS-TV website on the ridiculous incident at Newark’s Liberty airport Sunday night in which absolute mayhem ensued when a single individual walked into the terminal through an exit and couldn’t be located. That created a breech of the secured area of the airport, forced a massive re-screening of all passengers and ended up creating huge delays and frustrated crowds that were reported to have numbered as high as 10,000. A similar incident with the same results occurred a few years ago at Atlanta’s Hartsfield airport when a passenger who left a camera on a plane, returned through an exit to try and retrieve it. It boggles the mind that there are no simple physical barriers at these exit points. Just one more item in the growing to-do list for improving the systems we thought we had put in place to protect us.

The picture that emerges is not pretty. Terrorists are adapting to the changing landscape of warfare, continue to revisit their previous failed attempts while we forget the lessons learned (as in failed shoe-bomber, Richard Reid), and meantime, bungling government agencies like TSA do things like accidentally publishing details of their security measures on the web and being inattentive in protecting security perimeters at airports.

And let’s hope somebody in government is working on items that aren’t the current rage for discussion on Cable TV- the equivalent of fighting yesterday’s war. While we labor to fix airport security, put the right people on terror watch lists, and redouble our efforts to recruit spies we can trust, let’s keep our fingers crossed that somebody is also working on things like securing our ports and docks and sensitive targets like nuclear power plants.

It would be unspeakably tragic if, while we are running around putting our fingers into the latest leak in the dike, the bad guys decide to hit us with something totally unexpected that would dwarf anything we’ve ever seen before.

Fear of Flying

December 28, 2009 Leave a comment

I suppose there’s a reason why clichés exist- there’s truth to them. Here are two that seem appropriate as we start this first week after Christmas: 1) Even when they fail, terrorists win and 2) We have to be successful every time, they just have to be successful once.

Yeah, I’ll admit it- I’m a little spooked. It struck a nerve; the near-disaster that was averted only when a faulty detonator prevented a bomb from taking out 278 passengers aboard a plane headed for Detroit from Amsterdam on Christmas Day. I know 40 thousand people die every year in car accidents in the United States so, technically, the automobile is a bigger killer than terrorism.

But stuff like this becomes personal when your kid arrives from Atlanta for Christmas week and all is right with the world. Five days later he flies back from New York’s La Guardia airport and- just like that- we now have to get to the terminal an hour earlier with a freshly renewed specter of terrorism in the back of our minds.

And I’m frustrated at the workings of a seemingly incompetent bureaucracy. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s own father had warned U.S. officials of his son’s increasing radicalization and associations. That’s how he got on a terror list data base to begin with. Why wasn’t that also good enough to get him on a no-fly list? Why, exactly, was he issued a U.S. entry visa?

I heard Homeland security chief, Janet Napolitano tell ABC News’ Jake Tapper on Sunday: “The system has worked really very, very smoothly.” She lauded the passengers and crew for their actions. What? Passengers putting out a fire and subduing a man who just tried to set off a bomb, are an integral part of “the system?” I’m really glad the passengers did what they did, but I do believe their mission on that flight was to sleep, eat some pretzels and get home, not wrestle some maniac to the floor who wanted to kill them.

Napolitano also said on ABC’s This Week that there are no indications the screening in Amsterdam was not properly done. She has since pulled back from that statement. Clearly, somebody messed up. This fellow got on board an aircraft with pentaerythritol (PETN), the very same plastic explosive material al-Qaeda operative Richard C. Reid used in 2001 when he tried to destroy a U.S.-bound airliner by igniting a homemade bomb in his shoe.

As for terrorists failing and still winning- Richard Reid, of course, was an abysmally failed terrorist, but his legacy lives on with every shoe we’ve had to remove at airport security screening for the past eight years. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab apparently had these explosives sewn into his underwear. I can only imagine what his legacy will be on the traveling public. Is it too much to ask for airport screening that works and is effective- that’s minimally smart and profiles people and behavior instead of profiling their luggage? It seems to work for Israel’s El Al airlines just fine.

I hate that I’m even slightly spooked as I take my son to the airport. I’m frustrated that these deranged losers can affect our lives in so many ways, large and small. I’m not proud that in feeling these things, I’ve let these guys win even a miniscule victory by stoking my own, mostly irrational, fears for my family and friends.

But at least now I know how it works. Next time I put my kid on an airplane, or board one myself- turns out he and I and our fellow passengers are a primary line of defense in a system that works so “very, very smoothly.”

(Note: On NBC’s Today Show this morning, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, completely reversed her comments on ABC’ s This Week and specifically stated “Our system did not work in this instance. Nobody is happy or satisfied with that. An extensive review is underway.” The President has also decided to address the nation later today about the incident.)

Climategate & Politics- A View From the Radical Middle

December 8, 2009 4 comments

I am so sad about this; how everything is politicized these days- by all sides. It seems we can no longer have an honest scientific debate about much of anything and especially something as important as climate change. This Climategate business is disturbing on a number of levels.

Climategate: The Two Sides

“Climategate” is about pro global-warming-theory scientists allegedly manipulating data to corroborate their conclusions. Somebody hacked into the Hadley Climactic Research Unit at Britain’s University of East Anglia and found about a couple of thousand e-mails and files that indicate there may have been cherry-picking of temperature information to create a graph that shows a runaway warming trend in the late 20th century. The e-mails also show discussion among researchers that indicate the data is not there right now to support global warming theories. One of the e-mails between scientists contains stuff like this: “Where the heck is global warming?… The fact is that we can’t account for the lack of warming at the moment and it is a travesty that we can’t.” To get the full blown argument from the political right on this Climategate business, here is a good overview from Robert Tracinski. He calls this possibly the greatest scandal of all time.

From the political left, there are arguments that the hacking of these e-mails is part of a well-funded effort on the part of vested interests who want to maintain the profitable oil- and coal-based energy status quo. The pro global-warming-theory faction says the contents of these e-mails have themselves been cherry-picked and find it highly suspicious that though the hack of the British research center occurred over a month ago, it all conveniently came to light right on the eve of the global climate summit in Copenhagen that started this week. There is even an allegation that there have been attempts to hack into other climate research centers around the world in a coordinated effort to discredit the global warming movement. To read about this argument, Richard Graves writes about it at He calls this possibly the greatest scandal of all time.

Forget the Graphs and Charts

I approach this from the radical middle. This is not about global WARMING. It is about global climate CHANGE. Long-term temperature trends are not knowable on a month to month or year to year basis. You could have decades-long aberrations that counter the long haul trends. The effects of human-made carbon emissions are complicated and not as simplistic as higher temperatures. Who knows how the ecosystem will play out? Maybe it gets warmer in some places and cooler in others. But I do know this- and it has nothing to do with charts and graphs. The polar ice cap is melting. The environment is changing. Cameras and satellites are documenting it.

From This is the polar ice cap- above 1979, below in 2003.

From the Associated Press last September:

The National Snow and Ice Data Center at the University of Colorado announced Thursday that Arctic sea ice for 2009 shrunk to its third lowest level since satellite measurements began in 1979. The record low was set in 2007 and ice last year melted to the second lowest level on record.


Here are Walrus gathering by the thousands on the arctic shoreline.

According to the Associated Press on 9/17/09:

Walrus cannot swim indefinitely and historically have used sea ice as a platform for diving in the Bering and Chukchi seas for clams and other food on the ocean floor.
In recent years, however, sea ice has receded far beyond the outer continental shelf, forcing walruses to choose between riding the ice over waters too deep to reach clams or onto shore.


From an article from the Sunday Times of London four years ago, when it first started becoming evident what was happening to the Arctic ice shelf:

SCIENTISTS have for the first time found evidence that polar bears are drowning because climate change is melting the Arctic ice shelf.
The researchers were startled to find bears having to swim up to 60 miles across open sea to find food. They are being forced into the long voyages because the ice floes from which they feed are melting, becoming smaller and drifting farther apart. Although polar bears are strong swimmers, they are adapted for swimming close to the shore. Their sea journeys leave them them vulnerable to exhaustion, hypothermia or being swamped by waves.

Human or Nature? Does it Matter?

But what is causing this? Is it human? Is it just part of a cycle of earth changes that has been going on regularly over the millennia? The earth has been around for about 4.5 billion years. Along the way there have been hundreds of ice ages and warming trends, even before humans walked the earth- much less built factories and power plants. But we humans are a force on the planet now. The massive destruction of the earth’s rain forests is an established fact. Because of human caused pollution, there are days when people in the largest cities in Mexico and China and India have to stay indoors. Massive amounts of brown smog can be visible in satellite photos.

I would argue that taking measures to reduce the impact on the planet of both industry and development are necessary even if we are also undergoing cyclical changes that have nothing to do with human beings. Reducing carbon emissions results in cleaner air to breath. Putting a limit on deforestation maintains the ecological equilibrium. Setting aside arguments about climate change, there are good political and national security reasons to lessen our dependence on foreign oil.

I sincerely hope there are not sinister actions afoot funded by vested energy interests. And I sincerely hope there is no cooking of the numbers to prove a theory about what is causing climate change on our planet. Can’t we just accept that changes are happening and that we humans can play a positive role in making our air breathable, our water drinkable, our land habitable….whether climate change is caused by us or not?