Thursday, January 29

"I can't do anything!" Chad Dukes delivers the Radio Rant of the Decade, and a look at Yukon Men's lessons about adulthood

Roaring or perhaps wailing of truth, pound-the-table funny, some middle-aged guy I never heard of before hosting at a radio station I never heard of before, recounting a horrifying day in his life when he discovered that just about the only thing he knew how to do was yap into a radio microphone.

He described in vivid detail that over the course of serial incidents earlier that day, he'd been forced to realize that to save his life he couldn't make the simplest household repairs, couldn't keep track of his important personal papers, didn't know anything about the insurance policy he paid into every month.  He wasn't even capable of keeping track of his bank card -- having lost it something like four times during the previous six months. 

"I can't do anything!  ... Looking down at my big gut and enormous man-boobs, I realized I can't take care of my body. I can't even take control of my own teeth ... I realized I have no skills!  I have no backup plan!" 
By backup plan he meant that if he lost his job in radio he wouldn't know how to do anything else except maybe get a job in retail sales.

When he got to the radio station that day he confessed his realizations to male coworkers and asked if they, too, ever felt they couldn't do anything.  The confessions tumbled out; one coworker said he actually knew how to change a tire but "... I can't point out more than three things in a car," and that he couldn't hook up a TV, couldn't spackle or put up drywall.

This, then, decided the host to put the same question to (male) members of his radio audience.  The phone lines lit up with men calling to confess the simple things they had no idea how to do.

One caller said, "What happened to us?  My dad could do all these things."

Someone pointed out that during the eras in the USA when 'shop' courses were routinely available in schools, at least boys learned how to build a table.

Another caller told the host that he should organize one of those retreats where men gather in the wilderness and dance and sing around a campfire to reaffirm their manliness, and discuss the problem of not knowing how to do anything. 

The host burst out that this wasn't a good idea because they'd all die when they had to search for water and build a campfire.
Of course there are many American men who do know how to build a campfire and can build a table and even an entire house. They even know how to read a compass.  And dedicated Survivalists have learned to build just about everything from scratch, repair just about anything, and know how to live off the land.  But the host was clearly speaking for many people, females as well as males, although he excluded women from the call-in segment, I think on grounds that men have high expectations regarding their ability to excel at survival.

The radio host's name is Chad Dukes and his show is called "Chad Dukes Versus the World".  The radio station call letters, at least here in the District of Columbia are WJFK (106.7 FM).  There is a podcast of the show's segment; I don't have the link but it would be worth your while to find it.  The show was aired on Friday, January 23 and the rant launched at about 5:40 PM ET.

Yukon Men

Dukes's rant reminded me of a reality show called "Yukon Men."  I watched the 2013 season; haven't checked to see if it's still on the air.  Yukon Men followed the fathers and sons in a few families in a native tribe in Alaska's Yukon that survives by hunting and fishing rather than farming.  One learns from the show that the Yukon wilderness is not only harsh, its weather is deadly tricky in that the onset of winter can happen earlier than expected and with no warning.

So there is a huge amount of lore that has to be transmitted from father to son about surviving in such an environment.  One of the show's lessons is that there's a big difference between doing it yourself and figuring it out for yourself.  Trying to wing it in the Yukon with winter closing in is an easy way to die.
The survival lore and its transmission are also the basis for the tribe's rite of passage for males. Before a son can marry and start his own family, he must live on his own in a house he's built and equipped under his father's tutelage -- and survive a winter in the house in a climate of steep subzero temperatures and heavy snows that can cut off help for months.
Chad Dukes recounted with wit and honesty the experience of confronting, all at once, one's vulnerabilities. Yet before we can increase our do it yourself survival skills, there has to be an understanding of the need for this.  The Yukon teaches such understanding every winter.  In the absence of such a graphic lesson, Chad Dukes hurtled through the busy hours of his adult life with no awareness of how vulnerable he was.

How to translate that observation into an action path?

The most poignant episode I saw in Yukon Men concerned a very young man from an urban environment in the "Lower 48" who went to the Yukon and sought out the tribe specifically to immerse himself in a more 'grounded' lifestyle. He went to work for one of the fathers in the tribe but it was quickly obvious he wasn't cut out for the work and that the father would have to fire him.

Yet I suspect the young man was trying to immerse himself not so much in a traditional tribal way of life as one where the rite of passage into adulthood was clear for him. Graduation from high school and college and even procuring an income are not clear enough.

In this era a sharp distinction should be made between the education to qualify a child for an income-producing job and the education that prepares a child for adulthood. 

So prospective parents need to hash out the necessary skills for adulthood, codify them, learn to teach them, and work out a rite of passage that demonstrates the child has learned the skills.

Some of the teaching can be done as a cooperative effort, but a striking aspect of "Yukon Men" is that while these men belong to a bona fide tribe, it was the individual father who was responsible for bringing his son across the bridge that separates childhood from adulthood.  (From the little shown about the females, it was the mother who was similarly responsible for the daughter.)

This is very definitely a teaching responsibility as distinct from a provider one.  And while the tribe has communal responsibilities it is the parents who are tasked with bringing their children into adulthood. Mastery of particular survival skills is the visible symbol of a successful rite of passage.  But if mastery is divorced from the symbolism, knowing even all the world's survival skills won't necessarily create an adult. 


Wednesday, January 28

Rise of the New Vernacular

The years 2008 - 2010 saw Americans in large numbers ejected by the financial crisis from establishments that make up what's called mainstream society. This has happened before to one degree or another during severe economic downturns. But this time many Americans found very old paths or forged new ones for getting routine things done, paths that aren't part of the established systems, and didn't return to the establishments.  
I characterize this trend as the rise in the United States of what I term "the Vernacular" -- although as I explained years ago on this blog I didn't invent this use of the term, which is itself borrowed from architecture.

While it's hard to define a trend by making use of an unfamiliar term, I think it's important to distinguish the trend from the current American dialogue about "big government versus small government" -- a dialogue that forms much of the American Libertarian and Tea Party discourses and their debates with the two established political parties in the USA, and indeed much of the debate between the traditional American Left and Right.

The Vernacular isn't concerned with the size of government and it's not anti-government in an anarchist sense; it's not political. Nor is it anti-establishment although it develops and flourishes outside established orders. When I first wrote about the Vernacular for this blog, in the attempt to illustrate the concept at a glance I published photographs of weeds growing in cracks in paved-over surfaces -- highways and parking lots.

The Vernacular, a term originally borrowed from 'ad hoc' architecture (as distinct from planned architectural developments), refers to the Common Person working out his own ways of wending through the pervasive systems of state-directed society.  With architecture it's the Common Person putting up buildings that don't reflect government planned developments, or making use of planned urban spaces that weren't intended by the planners.

A famous example is homeless people using public park benches as beds, although the newer bench designs attempt to discourage this unplanned-for way of using the public benches.

While the Vernacular is traditionally associated with the poorest and least educated, the rise of the American Vernacular (and its non-American versions) in the closing years of the past decade is rooted in middle- and even the lower end of upper-income groups that are often college educated.

Another feature of the new Vernacular is its international character. This is made possible by globalized digital communication platforms -- cell phones and Internet. These can connect people around the world according to their needs rather than domestic political agendas and state planning.  And the fact that the 2008 financial crisis was a global phenomenon spurred people in far-flung parts of the world to take up Vernacular thinking and gave them common purpose with Americans in the same situations.  
An example of the globalized Vernacular in action is that an American with reasonably good credit can now raise a micro loan from an informal group of 'investors' in America or networked in several countries without having to go through the traditional banking establishment.

This fills a great need. The establishment banking system got to the point where it ignored the small borrower because processing small loans was considered too costly by the banks.  This forced the borrower to turn to high-interest credit cards or payday loan companies to raise a small loan.

The peer-to-peer way of banking, as it's been called, is revolutionizing how people with small funding needs can cheaply raise capital for very small business startups, etc. In this approach loan making is entirely circumventing the establishment. 

Another way to say this is that peer to peer banking opens up to everyone the micro loan concept, which previously had been limited to the world's poorest peoples.  And this kind of banking is being given a boost by the rise of Bitcoin, which also makes it possible to borrow very small amounts of money at a low interest rate. 

Peer to peer banking is just one aspect of the peer to peer way of doing things, which in essence cuts out the establishment's middlemen whether in finance, education, health care, and so on.

Is the New Vernacular a Political Movement?

The Vernacular as it exists today is too amorphous, too diffused, to be politicized.  So analogies are best found in fashion (and pop music) rather than political movements. For example the street attire of the poor or teenagers can eventually be noticed and reworked by high fashion designers, then again reworked by designers for mass retailers and mass produced.

The same process can happen with street music. What starts out as completely anti-establishment sounds gets picked up by a famous recording artist, then eventually reworked until it ends up as Muzak piped into shopping malls.

Fashion or music trends can be politicized to an extent, but only after they've gained wide acceptance in the society. 

In short, any attempt to politicize the new Vernacular would be trying to do things backward. And this is an evolutionary movement, not a revolutionary one -- or rather, by the time it's thought of as revolutionary, a new establishment has already evolved from it.

However, the evolution in this case is well underway; it's just that it's been happening largely under the radar of the mainstream media -- although ironically, the media do pick up news of innovations that arise from the Vernacular, such as Bitcoin, only without fitting them into a larger picture.

The larger picture is reminiscent of that great line in Jurassic Park:  Nature always finds a way.  When our establishments come to rule us, along comes some fool with a washboard and wazoo and starts making music.   


Tuesday, January 27

Reality vs Ideologies

I went to the Internet to find reports about Yemen's water crisis and came across Juan Cole's December 29 essay, Did Drought and Climate Change cause Middle Eastern States to Collapse in 2014?

A great many things led to the collapse but yes, as I learned to my surprise in 2014, a year I dubbed, "Oh by the Way," towering over everything is reality in the form of water scarcity that when broken down into categories works out to the cumulative effects from some or all of following conditions:

> Mismanagement of water resources
> Lack of water conservation
> Bad agricultural practices
> Wasteful or excessive industrial practices
> Inadequate water infrastructures
> Existing water infrastructures in disrepair
> Desertification
> Desiccation
> Deforestation
> Diversion of waterways
> Dam building
> Skyrocketed human and farm animal populations
> Unsustainable urban expansion

Note the term "climate change" is nowhere on the list. This doesn't mean the climate isn't changing for the worse in some regions; e.g., getting hotter and drier from climatic conditions.  But the observation doesn't produce the kind of strategies that could stave off the direst and most immediate water crises.

How dire?  Well, Sana'a, the capital city of Yemen, has less than two years before it runs out of "economically viable water supplies," as a 2010 Guardian article put it, which is also when the country runs out of oil reserves. By 2010, other parts of Yemen were draining Sana'a's water basin at the staggering rate of 4 times the amount of replacement water in the basin.
How did the country get into such a pickle?  Dope. Specifically the commercial cultivation of a narcotic plant called qat that produces a high when chewed and slurps up huge amounts of irrigation water. As the Guardian put it, Yemenis are literally chewing themselves to death.

That's just Yemen.  The majority of Middle Eastern - North African nation-states are on track for extinction, at least as they exist today. There's too many people and livestock and too little water. But Yemen is a good case study because it's an ancient agricultural region, like Egypt.  Yet when you pile industry on top of agriculture, and pile on top ever-larger cities for burgeoning populations, you're using huge amounts of virtual water in addition to water for agriculture. At some point, a point that is now being reached by several countries in MENA, the way of life is no longer sustainable.

That's the case right here in the USA as well, in certain regions.  And in many other places in the world. So now everyone's in a mad dash to recalculate taking virtual water into account.
Yet what do you do, when your way of life has come to depend on exporting your precious water in the form of industrial output?  And when your cities slurp up ever greater amounts of virtual and actual water just to sustain their infrastructures?  And when NASA's amazing GRACE satellite system beams back exactly how much groundwater is left -- the amount being far less than anyone had imagined before?

So I'd advise American wonks to worry less about radical Islam, China's Communist Party, and Russia's designs on Ukraine and worry more about America's water supplies a decade down the line.  I'd also worry less right now about manmade climate change and worry more about manmade water scarcity.  And I urge ideologues of all persuasions to confront the fact that reality doesn't give a damn what you think.


The Toad Method vs Incomprehensible Government Language

From a recent column at WND by Dr Lee Hieb :
I have some experience in dealing with codes and [government phone] help lines. As a physician, not only do I confront the IRS yearly, but on a very personal and up front way we in private practice confront the Medicare/Medicaid codes. These codes flow over 150,000 pages – and that estimate was 10 years ago, before any of the Obamacare nightmare began to add to the volume.
Even when you get advice [from Medicare] it may be wrong. A GAO (Government Accountability Office) study done in 2002 reported that 85 percent of the time when advising a medical client, the Medicare customer service representative gave incorrect advice.

After this dismal report card the government set out to do corrective action, and by 2004 [found in a study that] 96 percent of the time the Medicare representative gave wrong information.

These were not surprise quizzes. The response center knew they were being tested, and, "The questions represented common, policy-oriented questions concerning the proper way to bill Medicare in order to obtain payment."

Surprisingly, the CMS [Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services] had some insight into the problem. As reported by Larry Huntoon, M.D., Ph.D. in the Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons 2004: Among other things, the GAO found that Medicare policies and regulations were so complex and confusing that neither Medicare CSRs [customer service representatives] nor CMS policy experts could understand them.

"CMS officials acknowledged that some policies contain complex language. In addition, they told us that the agency's goal of quickly publishing a policy that is technically correct may sometimes overshadow its effort to develop a clear and understandable document."

In other words, in some cases they purposely publish incomprehensible Medicare policies. Needless to say, in spite of understanding the root cause of the problem, the government took the exact opposite approach and kept going down the same distorted road of unreality by adding thousands and thousands more pages of incomprehensible regulations in the form of Obamacare.

I haven't found an accurate count, but given that the bill itself is 2,400 pages, I will be surprised if our Health and Human Service opus is anything short of 200,000 pages at this time. NO human being can possibly understand this, although they continue to apply the legal maxim that "ignorance of the law is no excuse."

Now there may be some hope on the horizon for [physicians] and you in dealing with this IRS debacle. Dr. Huntoon, a neurologist in private practice ... took the Medicare questions and phrased them so a toad could answer "yes" or "no" by jumping right or left.

The Toad Method yielded a 50 percent incorrect response rate -- considerably better than the 96 percent incorrect response rate of the Medicare representatives.

(Apparently, being able to read actually makes one less able to understand the nuances of government regulations.)

So, this April 15, if you sit for hours [on the phone] waiting for an IRS representative, or perhaps have talked with a representative but couldn't understand or didn't trust the answer, just go outside and grab a toad (probably a frog would work as well, since Dr. Huntoon didn't really control the experiment for species), and double check the answer with Mr. Toad.

If you are audited, you can always take a copy of Dr. Huntoon's research paper with you and maybe even the toad as a demonstration.
As Dr Hieb emphasized, and as everyone who has flunked an IRS audit or the correct Medicare code knows, American government agencies make no allowance for ignorance of the law, and this includes failure to comprehend the language of the law.  But to pound home the point here's a story from her same column:
Like the IRS codes, we little people may not be able to comprehend (or even read) the [Medicare] codes, but we are responsible for being in compliance with the codes or face penalties.  And, just like the tax code, these penalties include fines, fines with triple damages, seizure of assets and jail time.

A dentist who was charged with fraud under the Medicaid code spent nearly seven years in prison, including considerable time in solitary confinement. Finally, at the end of his ordeal, he was released – and the government could only show that the poor dentist had overcharged Medicaid by about $40.

Unfortunately, he is not alone. When you hear your doctor is being charged with Medicare fraud, most of the time what is called "fraud" is choosing the wrong code from 150+ pages of regulation.

To avoid the government thump, practitioners go to great lengths to "be in compliance" with the codes. I did not feel I could safely navigate the Medicare code waters alone in my office. I paid 10 percent of my income to a billing service that itself had 160 employees and hired specialists in Medicare and Medicaid.[...]
If 10 percent sounds steep, the billing service has to go through hell and high water to wring comprehensible answers from CMS and I suspect at least 7 percent of the fee is for hiring clairvoyants to plumb the answers for meaning.
Given the stiff penalties for failure to comprehend incomprehensible language, American medical and dental practitioners might want to consider demanding that as long as the codes they supply to Medicare are Toad Compliant they should be exempt from criminal charges and triple fines. They should take the demand all the way to the Supreme Court, if necessary.  And be sure to enter a toad into the court proceedings.


Two Screws

"For want of a nail the kingdom was lost."
-- from an old proverb

This writing started as a note to myself so I'm not certain about the date of the WTOP broadcast I mention in the second paragraph.  But my best guess is that it was January 18; in any event it was a few days after a smoke incident on Monday, January 12 in the subway system in Washington, DC that centered on the L'Enfant Plaza stop:

Just heard this at 1 PM on WTOP (the all-news radio station for the DMV -- District of Columbia and parts of Maryland and Virginia nearest the District):
When the emergency responders (fire and/or Metro employees) finally got to the trapped subway train, which was more than 40 minutes after thick black-orange smoke had filled the train cars, they ran into another problem.  The latches to open the emergency train doors from the outside weren't there.

Then the same responders found that the passengers trapped in the smoke-filled train couldn't open the emergency doors from the inside until two screws had been removed from the doors.  The report didn't say whether the screws were located inside or outside the train.
What's clear is that there's no mention of two screws and the need to remove them shown in the instructions posted in every train car for how passengers can open the emergency doors.

From the prominently displayed idiot-proofed written instructions and illustrations that accompany them, the process of opening the emergency exit doors from the inside is child's play.  Even the most panicked adult passenger could immediately comprehend how to open the doors from glancing at the large poster of instructions placed next to the emergency doors.
The missing outside door latches and the surprising existence of two screws are just one part of the mess involving Metro (the company that runs the subway trains), PEPCO (the electric company serving the subway system), the police, and the fire department.  A mess that cost one passenger her life and sent 85 passengers to emergency rooms, and most probably would have resulted in a train full of dead people if some passengers trapped on the train hadn't called 911 to report the situation and explain that several minutes had elapsed with no help arriving.

Reportedly, up until the passenger calls to 911, the fire and police departments had no idea how serious the situation was. They didn't know there were passengers trapped on a train in which smoke was being sucked in through air exchange vents. This, despite the fact that the billowing smoke had been noted by Metro almost as soon as it broke out in the L'Enfant Plaza station on the Yellow Line at approximately 3:15 PM -- must as the 'official' rush hour was getting underway in the nation's capital and throughout the Metro line.  (Because rush hour was just getting underway, if the smoke incident had started just a few moments later there would have been many more commuters trapped on the train.) 

Since I wrote the above, more of the story of what happened during the incident has been coming out, in dribs and drabs, from officials connected with various entities involved; e.g., fire department, Metro, etc. 
The incident is still under investigation -- a multi-agency investigation that could take a year before the final report is issued, according to one news report.  So exactly what happened, and who's to blame for what, is still shrouded in fog. But a couple days ago, I think it was, there was a news report on WTOP regarding an official announcement that investigators were currently looking at 10 lapses or issues that together led to the disaster and/or needed to be addressed to prevent another such disaster.

I note that the disaster wasn't the smoke incident itself, the cause of which is still being investigated -- although from an unconfirmed report it was due to electrical cable(s) falling on a section of the electrified 'third rail.'  The disaster was in the slow and muddled response to the breakout of the smoke. This led to scores of commuters being trapped on a smoke filled six- or eight-car train at L'Enfant Plaza for about 40 minutes before they were freed.

The train on which the commuters rode was also trapped. The conductor couldn't move the train forward out of the smoke-filled station, for reasons that aren't clear to me.  And he couldn't back the train out the station because the track was blocked from behind by other trains, which had been halted because of the smoke.
(There was an unconfirmed report a day or so after the incident that the conductor abandoned his train, which if confirmed would throw light on why the train didn't pull out of the station away from the worst of the smoke.)
The WTOP report didn't detail every one of the 10 issues but did mention one shocker: In response to the investigation thus far, Metro has made it procedure for a subway conductor to immediately shut off the air intake to a train in the event of a smoke incident.
Why in God's name the procedure was never before instituted by Metro is a mystery; it should be the first thing a conductor should do in those circumstances.  Because it wasn't done that day, poisonous thick smoke in the tunnel kept being sucked into the train cars on the trapped train. And as is now known, with no way for passengers on the train to open the emergency doors -- and with a delay of about 40 minutes before responders could get the doors opened.

By the way this wasn't simply smoke; it contained particles that once lodged in lungs can cause health problems for months and even years after the incident.

There were also complications with communications between various responding agencies, which created confusion.  One confusion was whether electricity to the third rail had been shut off in response to the smoke alarm. Reportedly the question delayed decisions about when to send firemen into the smoky tunnel to free passengers from the trapped train.  According to one early news report, without certain knowledge that power to the third rail had been shut off, those in charge decided it would be very dangerous to send firemen and other first responders into the smoke-filled subway tunnels.

If the report is confirmed I don't understand why the responders couldn't have simply walked on the side of the tunnels where the third rail isn't -- the rail is only on one side of the train cars.  Unless the tunnels intersect at angles and because of poor visibility due to the smoke the responders might have easily gotten confused about the location of the third rail.  In that event it's possible the delay in getting to the train was also due to authorities waiting for the thickest of the smoke to be dissipated by giant fans in the tunnels, which had been immediately turned on to clear the smoke.

As the mention of "ten" issues indicates, there are questions surrounding the incident in addition ones I've touched on.  And because there are so many agencies involved including the federal NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board), which investigates accidents on U.S. mass transport systems, the final report on the incident will probably be almost as many pages as the 911 Commission Report.

Yet when all the investigations are wrapped up and written up and all the finger-pointing in every direction is finished, the incident will amount to just one of those times when everything that could wrong did.

However, Metro (which also operates Washington, DC buses) has been plagued by safety issues on the subway system since at least as early as 2009.  Metro's long-running answer to complaints about the safety issues: We need more money and we need to have dedicated funds rather than sharing them with other agencies.

Of course mass casualty incidents that represent a confluence of missteps, mismanagement, and mishaps occur in every major city in the world.  I mention this one to a Pundita readership that is both national and international because the life-or-death gap between clear instructions and reality in the fire incident is worthy of everyone's note.

The emergency door exit system and instructions for using it were obviously given careful thought and surely garnered from best practices in subway systems in other cities. In light of this, there's no way subway passengers would be expected to remove two screws before they could exit through emergency doors. So the most likely explanation is that the screws were there to protect a panel on a train car during the crating, shipping, and uncrating processes, and that the screws were to be removed after the train cars were installed at their destination.

The same explanation is likely for the missing outside-door latches; it's a good guess they were to intended to be attached after the train cars had been uncrated and installed in order to protect them from damage during crating and shipping of the subway cars and/or while the car parts were being fitted together at their destination. 
In short it's unlikely this was a quality control problem arising at the factory; more likely this was an installation problem.  In any case the problem could have been caught at two levels:  inspection and drill.  If an inspection had failed, a drill in escaping from the cars would have caught that the emergency doors didn't work as expected.

So while there were a number of factors that caused a muddled response to a smoke incident, there was actually only one factor in play that nearly killed 85 people:  nowhere was it posted in the train when the last safety drill had occurred.

This is a world in which chances for human catastrophes multiply with the need to coordinate multiple agencies responsible for a mass system, a world in which the systems are increasingly complex.  In that mileu it's misplaced to put one's trust only in instructions; trust must also be placed in drills that routinely test the instructions.

Make no mistake, it was a close call. People who were freed from the train and able to talk spilled out a nightmarish story to reporters of passengers around them fainting, vomiting, and retching as the smoke overcame them.  The terrible irony is that just as the tunnels were being cleared of the worst of the smoke by giant fans, smoke was being pulled into the train cars, and with no way for the passengers to free themselves.  They had only moments left to live by the time they were rescued, and one wasn't able to hold out.

Sunday, January 11

The First SEALs and the unexpected in war

The podcast of John Batchelor's discussion last night with Patrick K. O'Donnell makes a great introduction to Patrick's latest book, First SEALs: The Untold Story of the Forging of America's Most Elite Unit.

John has a rare gift for talking about historic battles, and combat historian and documentarian Patrick K. O'Donnell has a rare gift for researching and writing about them.  So when those two get together to tell tales from one of Patrick's books, as they've done several times over the years, it's always a memorable night in radioland. 

And that's how, in the space of 24 hours, I went from the doldrums listening to war historian Bevin Alexander recount for John's radio audience the grim tale of Gen. Stonewall Jackson's trials serving inane commanders to laughter and awe, as I listened to exploits of the first SEALs -- not to be confused with the first Navy SEALs.
The first SEALs were a creation of Wild Bill Donovan and the OSS.  Of course it wasn't all fun and games but put together a team of incredibly reckless and brave mavericks, outfit them with newfangled frogmen suits, and send them off to fight a new kind of war, and what happens is a whale of an inspirational tale.

Patrick combed through tens of thousands of documents and interviewed surviving members of the team to piece together the history of the first SEALs and bring the story to public light.  I should add that in addition to his work as an author he made it his life's mission to collect and document oral recollections of combat veterans; there are 4,000 of these archived on his website.

Ah! I see that Batchelor's war history offering for Saturday  is his conversation with Stephen Budiansky about about Budiansky's book, Blackett's War: The Men Who Defeated the Nazi U-Boats and Brought Science to the Art of Warfare.  I'll save listening to that one for another time.

Gee I'll bet Colonel John Boyd, The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War, would have loved the John Batchelor Show war histories. Stonewall Jackson would surely have been a regular listener also.  But what to say about the heights and depths of war fighting, both on display during Batchelor's Thursday and Friday shows?  I don't think I'll ever recover from learning on Thursday that the European prosecution of the First World War faithfully repeated the very worst mistakes of war planners during the Civil War.

Bevin Alexander observed that war is a mad enterprise. But how the madness plays out, whether the actors are foolish or wise, is what makes the history of warfare an endless fascination. 

Yet there is something else at work that makes the study of war important.  Perhaps the most profound observation ever made about warfare is from the German military strategist Helmuth von Moltke:  “No battle plan survives contact with the enemy.”

Of course the observation doesn't always hold true but I was reminded of it when Alexander described how Gen. Stonewall Jackson died.  He was killed by friendly fire -- a complete fluke.  The small party he was with during an inspection tour was mistaken in the dark and vision-hampering terrain for enemy infiltrators.  His own troops opened fire, and that was that.

Yet it so happens he was killed at just the time General Robert E. Lee had finally agreed to allow Jackson to fight a battle his way, that being the rational way.

If Jackson had lived, it's possible and even likely Lee would have allowed him to enact his plan for bringing the Union side to its knees and fairly fast, and in pretty bloodless fashion. 
In that event, from Alexander's digging into the war records, the Confederates could have rather easily won what today is still considered by most students of American history to be a war they couldn't have won.

Our daily lives are one unexpected event after another, but it's easy to overlook just how much the unexpected intervenes because very rarely do interventions in prosaic situations make history and entire epochs.  It's only in war that the unexpected can make its most striking statements. As such, war history is a lesson in humility, a crucially important lesson to learn and not forget.


Friday, January 9

Part 7, Shoot Yourself in the Foot Health Care: Let's play mad chemist with Over the Counter medications

I'll assume that a great many people who closely follow medical news are well aware that over the counter (OTC) painkillers can raise blood pressure; for those readers who missed the memo here is an article at MedicineNet, both written and edited by MDs, that details the risks.

The article underscores the danger of doctoring oneself with medications about which one knows nothing at all -- and often about which science knows little. 

We live in an era of cheap, nonprescription nostrums that take up rows of shelves in pharmacies and grocery stores.  I think the consumer's unconscious assumption is that anything so readily available and sold for many years is safe.  Maybe so, if taken for a very short period on rare occasion. But the tendency is to start routinely popping OTCs if there are chronic conditions that the person doesn't think require a doctor's attention.

The danger of this practice skyrockets when OTCs for different 'minor' conditions are routinely taken on a regular basis; e.g., pain, allergy, headache, stomach upset, sinus problem, etc.

Add to this the odd assumption that because it's a natural supplement it can't have a 'drug' reaction with OTC drugs -- although doctors have made their patients aware of some of the known negative interactions with certain natural substances and prescription drugs.

The assumption extends to creams and patches for pain relief.

But it's all chemicals, and chemistry is a long way from figuring out how all these chemicals, whether made in a lab or distilled from a natural source, interact in the human body -- and at what times of times of day and what amount, and whether the effects of the interactions are cumulative.

And in the end it's throwing darts blindfolded. This was graphically illustrated by the recent newsmaking horror story of the teenager who had a rare reaction to an antibiotic that was in effect burning her body from the inside out.  The odds of that happening are astronomical but there's no accounting for how the individual body reacts to medicines.   

This says nothing about dangerous interactions between medicinal drugs, both prescription and OTC, and the chemicals in food ingredients, both artificial and natural, and chemicals found inside the home and office.

What's the tiebreaker, given that OTCs can be a godsend in an emergency?  Maybe human nature's famous three-time rule can be applied here.  Three stomach upsets, or three bouts of stuffy nose, etc., within a reasonably short period of time and hie oneself to a physician to investigate what could be causing the condition.

Working against this common sense is widespread distrust today of establishment medicine, which has probably followed the same trajectory as distrust for big government. 

Of course medicine is a very imperfect art but modern medicine is bound up with very powerful chemicals that unlike the general run of government gaffes don't leave room for mistakes and do-overs.  From that view it's better to seek the help of a licensed medical practitioner than play mad chemist with one's body.  However, the great availability of OTCs has allowed many people to avoid taking this sensible approach.  Thus, yet another example of using the benefits of the modern era to shoot oneself in the foot.


How the Confederacy could have easily won the Civil War

Acclaimed military historian Bevin Alexander's deconstruction of the worst mistakes of Civil War commanders on both sides is almost unbearable to contemplate. The horror is mitigated only by his account of the towering intelligence and rationality of Confederate General Thomas Jonathan "Stonewall" Jackson, as told in Alexander's 2014 book, Such Troops As These: The Genius and Leadership of Confederate General Stonewall Jackson.
For an introduction and summary of the worst mistakes listen to the podcast of Alexander's discussion on the John Batchelor Show last night.
Doubly shattering is that the same mistakes made in fighting the Civil War -- mistakes repeated ad nauseam by both sides -- were then repeated in the First World War.  Nothing, absolutely nothing at all, had been learned by the Europeans from the American Civil War, and so the first 'great war' was also a slaughterhouse. 

Yet as Alexander explains, these weren't so much mistakes as a traditional European aristocratic way of war fighting transplanted to America -- a tradition that refused to bend to timeless rules of war.

Americans who despair at the U.S. prosecution of the Vietnam, Korean, and Afghan wars will find Bevin Alexander's discussion with John Batchelor to be a Hair of the Dog experience: if you think those modern American wars were crazily run, wait'll you learn in some detail what Jackson had to put up with.

It's not exactly cheering to know the story but it does tend to put many things in context.


Thursday, January 8

John Batchelor's Prep Show for a Year of the Whirlwind

Up until the last segment, which is mostly about space travel, John Batchelor's Monday night into Tuesday morning radio show (Jan 5-6) lays down the markers for macro issues that will be very important, both domestically and internationally, as 2015 unfolds.  So if you're looking to be well prepared for the coming year of news events you can't do better than the podcast of the show.
Now was it shorting other important issues that for this prep session John gave Stephen F. Cohen an entire hour out of the four-hour show to talk about Russian-Ukrainian issues?

(Actually it's not a full hour because the podcast omits station news and commercial breaks.)

As you will note as the discussion progresses, it's about far more than two countries. And with the possible exception of a few academics laboring in obscurity in Washington, there is no American analyst who comes close to Steve's grasp of Russian matters and ones that branch from it.  This includes the situation with the European Union and in particular Germany, as it applies to EU relations with Russia and Ukraine -- and the United States.

And Batchelor himself is a great analyst of those parts of the world; in fact there's no other person in the U.S. media who can match his grasp.  So when those two analysts talk to each other, it is always an education.

To top it off, Steve Cohen has high-level contacts, so he's not only an academic historian doing analysis; he's also providing information, intelligence -- choice intelligence. 
I should add that at no time does Batchelor say it's a Year of Whirlwind. I'm saying it; that's my view of what's coming down the pike.  If I'm right, this will be a bad year for Washington to attempt to correct what has been disastrous U.S. policy regarding the Russian-Ukrainian situation. 

I'll also add that I'm not in complete agreement with Larry Kudlow and Steve Moore's pretty rosy economic forecast, which along with a Barron's analyst they provide in the first hour of the Mon-Tue Batchelor show.  (The Barron's guy is a little more restrained in his prediction.)  This doesn't mean their observations aren't valuable; on the contrary they summarize issues that could well dominate the thinking of financial analysts this year.  But if it's a year in which the whirlwind rules, predictions must be very short term because Murphy's Law tends to kick in when the wind springs up from every direction at the same time.

All right; here's the link to the podcast page for Batchelor's show, where you can find all the Mon-Tue segments, but I'm also highlighting the podcast to Steve Cohen's discussion . If you can find time to listen to nothing else from the show, I give this one top billing.

Finally, for the foreseeable future my focus this year, as it was for more than half of last year, will be on personal issues that apply to the entire American society, as my "Shoot Yourself in the Foot Health Care" series indicated.  This doesn't mean I'm not paying attention to macro issues. But I take advantage of John Batchelor's show, which watches the world so I don't have to spend every free moment doing so.

This doesn't mean I agree with every analyst on his show or every opinion Batchelor expresses. It means I'd be looking a gift horse in the mouth in the attempt to do a tenth as well at what Batchelor does superbly every night as a matter of course.  This country is very lucky to have his show, as I've mentioned before.  My mentioning this again now is my New Year's gift to you

Tune in on occasion.  And check the daily schedule (published near the end of every show) and catch up with podcasts. 

Wednesday, January 7

The neuropathology of smart phone use is damn scary

Slowly it's been emerging that the human brain and the most beloved possession of modern peoples don't mix and can't ever mix. It turns out that smart phone use is even worse an addiction than say, crack cocaine, because it's bound up with a critically important survival impulse. 

John Batchelor's January 5 interview with Pulitzer Prize journalist Matt Richtel eases into the bad news with Matt's highly dramatic summary of his latest book, A Deadly Wandering: A Tale of Tragedy and Redemption in the Age of Attention, but eventually gets down to the brass tacks of the neuropathology.

Here's the podcast of the interview.

As to what we're going to do about the problem, darned if I know.  But for starters the pathology needs to be better understood by the public before anything can be done. Many people don't believe the warnings because they don't know the science behind them. So unsurprisingly laws banning phone use while driving have made little to no difference in preventing people from using their communication devices on the road; you'll learn why in detail from Matt's discussion -- although distracted driving is only one aspect of the problem.   

By the time the interview ended I was questioning whether the problem should even be termed an addiciton.  It seems more a compulsion, which I don't think is quite the same as addiciton, and which isn't under conscious control.  The compulsion is grounded in a very necessary survival impulse that's hardwired into our brains.  Yet if we don't get control of a compulsion to use portable (and wearable!) digital communication devices, the entire human race will soon find itself in the deadly position of those ancient Greek mariners who were enthralled by the songs of Sirens.


Monday, January 5

The Basketball Game

Here's the link to OVGuide's video copy of CNBC's hour-long investigative report, Crackberry'd: The Truth About Information Overload, first aired January 4, 2011.  The centerpiece of the report is a very short video of a basketball game practice session that was designed as a psycho-epistemological test.  The viewer is given a simple counting task while watching the practice.  Then after the test ends the tape is played at a slightly slower speed to show the viewer what he missed.  The revelation is so astounding it can be a life changer.

If this is your first encounter I'd strongly recommend that you take the test cold, as part of watching the CNBC report. But for people who like to read the last page of a mystery novel first, here is a YouTube video of just the experiment with accompanying text that gives away the plot -- although providing the viewer with some advance idea of what's actually happening during the basketball game might make no difference to the test.

The test was used by CNBC to demonstrate that the human brain is not wired to multitask. It was also used by a defense attorney in a murder trial to challenge eyewitness testimony; jurists later explained that it was mostly on the strength of the test that they turned in a not guilty verdict. 

The question I ask is whether the test is indeed a fair demonstration of the brain's difficulty with splitting its attention, or whether human attentiveness has degenerated -- or a combination of the two factors.

I was reminded of the basketball game recently when I explained to a repairman a problem with a washing machine. I was struck by the 'attitude of listening' that came over his face and manifested in his eyes. He was giving my words his full attention.  I realized I wouldn't have to repeat my explanation or any part of it -- repetition being such a common feature of modern life that it's done unthinkingly.

So notable was this demonstration of fully focused attention that I had to restrain myself from asking the man, who had a Mexican accent, whether he was from rural Mexico.  I'm now sorry I didn't bring the conversation around to the topic of exactly where he hailed from. In my travels I'd noted that villagers in remote regions had concentrative powers that seemed extraordinary by modern standards, powers accompanied by feats of memory that are also considered extraordinary. 

I have wondered many times if these extraordinary mental powers are the way all humans were before literacy, although not all the villagers I encountered were illiterate -- and certainly the Mexican repairman wasn't illiterate.

George Gurdjieff made a huge issue about the poor attention span of modernized peoples; one might say it was the 'chief feature' of his teachings. He made these observations long before the advent of digital attention distracters.  He even concocted his own test of attention that greatly predated the one represented by the basketball game. 

His three-part book, Beelzebub's Tales to His Grandson or An Objectively Impartial Criticism of the Life of Man contains sentences that are paragraphs long -- some as long as an entire page -- and filled with made-up words of several syllables that are a hodgepodge of Russian/Central Asian languages, English, etc.

My first experience with trying to read Beelzebub's Tales was that I fell asleep after struggling to mentally process a few sentences, or was unable to remember a word I'd read by the time I got to the end of a page. At one point I contemplated standing on my head while reading, in hopes the additional blood supply to the brain would help my concentration.

Finally I blurted angrily, "I will not be beaten by words on a page. I can do this."  I then turned the book upside down and forced myself to read and reread a page in that manner until out of sheer desperation, it seemed, my brain entered a realm of greatly heightened concentration -- a supreme effort that was physically exhausting.

Beelzebub's Tales wasn't Mr Gurdjieff's only test to back his argument that modern peoples had such a limited attention span they were literal sleepwalkers. I'm not sure he proved his argument that the limited attention represents an actual stage of sleep.  But at the least, the disciples who had the mental grit and stamina to endure the physical training he put them through were living demonstrations that with supreme efforts humans can accomplish feats of concentration that to all appearances are superhuman.

Would trained attention produce a human brain better suited to the modern era and the demands of multitasking?  I think that's a dangerous question given the very low character of modern peoples, which is marked by a maniacal overestimation of their intelligence. 

Granted, the mania is not new. Old world history and parables are littered with tales of people who developed supernormal powers along with an inflated view of their intelligence but whose character was so bad they quickly brought themselves down.  It's the story of the mythic fall of Atlantis.

In any case the last we need in an era of rampant bad character and puffy heads is millions of idiots with the concentrative powers of a god.  And so I venture the human race is slated, at least for now, to struggle along with quite average concentrative powers.

Yet nowhere is it written that our attention must be dashed into so many shards by blind misuse of modern technologies that our mental and physical health are harmed and we're a serious danger or inconvenience to others.  That is the great lesson of Crackberry'd and the basketball game.

My New Year's wish is that you and I will be guided by the lesson in 2015.

I am slowing down as much as I can. I am listening as carefully as I can. I am focusing on one task at a time as much as I can.  And, taking a page from Mr Gurdjieff's teachings, I am struggling to keep remembering my aim to think more about where my attention is at any time.