Long Island afternoon

I decided to take my wife out to the North Fork to visit some vineyards and wineries. We are on Long Island for a few days and had a respite from the two boys (our eldest’s children) who were in a day camp until late afternoon. I had been to the wineries before, of course, and knew the way: go the far end of the Long Island Expressway, take the roads that branch north eastwards and there they are.

Alas as we got further and further along the LIE it became clear the traffic was not going to ease. I decided to get off and take back roads. Keep heading north and you inevitably bump into them. Or, I could have taken out my GPS which had fallen off the windshield due to the heat. I decided to wing it.

Long Island is a funny place (in many ways, only one of which am I going to mention here!) It lies at an odd angle, not exactly east/west and not exactly north/south. And yet, these four compass cardinal point references are used as if they lay directly along those wonderful imaginary lines of longitude and latitude. Couple this verbal quirkiness with the fact that roads in turn seldom flow directly and you have a recipe for compass confusion. State Highway 25 and its companion 25A are branded “north” and “south” but this labelling is either an intentional, cruel joke or a habit of the local compass quirkiness so ingrained in the spirit that it is no longer apparent.

On the floor of the Jeep somewhere was a Rand McNally Atlas of the USA. My wife, muttering something about my not using the GPS and stubbornness, scrambled to retrieve it from under the floor-mats and the extraneous junk and detritus, some formally edible, that lurks at all times in our vehicles, except for that rare moment right after vacuuming them at the car wash. On the map Long Island appeared like a small blob, but there was a slightly more detailed inset at the bottom of the page. Miraculously she located where we were. My instructions to my navigator were simple. “Find the water. Get me to Long Island Sound.” She successfully did so, no small miracle given the scale of the map she was using. With the clock inevitably ticking away and the moment of the boys’ return from camp drawing ever closer, we turned to keep the water on our right and spent a contented few hours meandering through the towns and villages of Long Island’s northern shore, stopping for coffee and a muffin in pretty (over pretty?) Stony Brook. Not a day at the wineries, but not bad. We got back in time to play with the boys and take them out to supper. Perfect day.

But, why hadn’t I simply re-stuck the GPS to the windshield and used it? I actually am a great fan of it, although the voice gets on my nerves from time to time, but it can be muted.  There is no real difference between the GPS and the Rand McNally after all, other than the degree of technical sophistication involved in the presentation of geographical facts. I think it had something to do with my years of sailing and being taught never to regard charts, GPS, radar and the like as anything more than “aids to navigation.” There was, for me, always something thrilling about getting back to harbor by wits and eyes alone. Finding my way yesterday by “finding the water” and keeping it to the right was a lesser experience of the same thing.

We all need to be able to do this. Not on the roads or on the water. In life. We have to be able to find our way when our chosen aids to navigation don’t work, aren’t available, or …. die. Some things don’t move; they don’t change. Long Island Sound, as it were, lies there where it lies and still will.

These things used to be called absolutes. That’s the thing about absolutes. They may fall out of fashion, they don’t sound glitzy, they seem to be useless in the world of the “latest and greatest,” they don’t plug in to the grid, they don’t download and are impervious to uploading. But they are there.

They are always there. To tell us where we are. That’s the first thing we need to know to get where we want to go. 

Just wondering

So let’s see:

Boku Haram remains on the rampage. Who are they again? Where do they do their raping and pillaging? Some African country?

Anti-Israel protests are flaring up all over the place, from Chicago to Paris, teetering on the edge of getting out of control? When do they cross the line from anti-Israel to anti-Jew to anti-Semitic?

Speaking of teetering on the edge of the line, Tony Dungy, former NFL coach and now widely respected pundit, has said that he would not have drafted openly gay player Michael Sam because he would not have wanted to deal with the publicity hassle surrounding him. Is this a coaching judgment or an anti-gay slur? Lots of folks are asking!

So a train (refrigerated) with the bodies from the Malaysian aircraft shot down over Ukraine has arrived … somewhere? The black boxes have been handed over? Wreckage, alas, is being removed by rebels before inspectors examine it. You bothered?

Hillary Clinton has made $12 million since resigning as Secretary of State. School teachers, cops, firemen and the like will have to work how many years to make that amount? It takes a village, of course.

Wind farms at sea attract huge amounts of sea creatures which like the pillars attached to the seabed as “home.” These in turn are attracting vast numbers of seals. Just like the caribou are attracted to the heat of the elevated pipelines in the Arctic. Not all unintended consequences are bad.

Sports pundits have a new obsession. Will Tiger Woods ever win another major?

Rick Perry has ordered the National Guard to the Texas border? About time?

At the most radically basic level of democracy (my condo association Board meeting) it was proposed that we not uphold a certain by-law. Excuse me? As the Board is upholding the by-laws not what we are charged to do? If we don’t who will? President Obama, are you listening?

Have a good one today.

Dangerous Idiocy

Shooter McGavin was an idiot.

If the name means nothing to you, then you have missed Happy Gilmore, one of Adam Sandler’s all time super movies. (Like all his movies it’s nutty immaturity, improbable mayhem, shot through with some slapstick and not a small dose of insight into the power of compassion.) It tells the tale of a wannabe hockey player who cannot make it on the ice and is driven to professional golf in an attempt to win enough money to save his grandma from losing her house. On the golf tour the reigning star and assumed winner of every tournament is Shooter McGavin.

How to characterize Shooter? Arrogant, self-absorbed, smug, with a psychological horizon only marginally extending beyond the reach of his big toe. His nickname derives from his annoying habit of forming his hands into a pistol form and shooting at the ball as it disappears into the hole following a putt, then holding the “gun” to his lips and blowing away the (invisible) smoke. His golf prowess is not supported by a keen intellect. In one exchange in a club house bar, he tells Happy, “I eat pieces of shit like you for breakfast.” Happy’s immediate response? “You eat shit for breakfast?”  Shooter’s face reveals both the bewilderment of knowing something has gone wrong with his witticism and the confusion of having no clue how or why. Shooter’s idiocy is unattractive, despicable, and his defeat and humiliation at the film’s end nothing if not totally satisfying.

It’s fiction, of course, drawn in lines so grossly exaggerated that it amounts truly to an incarnated cartoon. Not so with another Shooter we have been reading about.

Igor Strelkov’s real name is Igor Girkin. Strelkov is his chosen name, as it were, his nom de guerre. He is the commander of the Donbass People’s Army paramilitary group, one of the pro-Russian organizations fighting in the east Urkraine. “Strelkov” means “shooter.” (See here.) Another narcissistic idot. Read this:

In a sick boast on social media, rebel leader Igor Strelkov bragged his paramilitaries had used a ground-to-air missile to shoot what he thought was a Ukrainian Air Force transport plane. Talking chillingly about the “bird falling”, he said: “We warned you do not fly in ‘our sky’.” In the tweet, Strelkov also boasted: “Bird fell near the mine, the residential sector was not disturbed. Civilians are not injured.” But later, when it became clear that it was a Malaysia Airlines jet that had come down with a huge loss of life, the tweet was deleted.

War is hell. We all know that. Mistakes happen. “SNAFU” was created to express a military norm, not some weirdly unusual occurrence. But ….

The Malaysian aircraft was flying at 33,000 feet. 

Strelkov “thought” it was a Ukrainian Air Force transport plane.

He “thought” so?????? Thought? On what basis was he thinking? He certainly could not see it. How on earth did he conclude it was what he thought other than by projecting his hopes, or fears, onto it?

What did he see? A radar blip? An exhaust trail in the sky following a small white dot?

His immediate response to “the bird falling” was to Tweet smug, self-congratulatory, boasts. Blowing the smoke off his gun barrel as his putt dropped. Idiot.

I have no axe to grind in the matter of internal Ukraine politics nor the struggle for “independence” of any group. But, this incident is so horrific and dismaying, that some observations have to be made, for the idiocy is more widespread that Igor the Shooter’s.

  • Why on earth was the aircraft’s flight plan not altered to take it around this conflict zone? Who made that decision? They should be held accountable.
  • How is it that incompetent, marginally trained, and homicidal thugs get armed with the latest and greatest weapons? Who supplies them and who pays for them? They should be held accountable.
  • Who designs these weapons anyhow? Where and who are the white-coated scientists responsible for the research on trajectories, fuel loads, explosive punch, and the like? They should be held accountable.

Papal blunder or maneuver

Over the past several days there has been a moment of mild media hysteria over an alleged statement of Pope Francis that “2%” of the world’s priests are pedophiles. Referring to the scandal as the “leprosy” of the church, he also is said to have asserted that amongst the 8,000 or so who comprise the 2% are “bishops, archbishop, and cardinals.”

Note carefully the give-aways in that opening paragraph: “alleged” and “is said to have asserted.” Ever since the remarks were first reported in an Italian newspaper, La Republica, the Vatican has been engaged in what is charmingly referred to these days as “walking back” the statements as reported. Vatican spokesmen have pointed out that the reporter in question, Eugenio Scalfari, never takes notes and does not use a tape recorder and that the pope himself never reviewed the article prior to publication. Scalfari himself has stated that his interview style is “get an impression” of the interviewee and then “reproduce” comments in his own words. (See here for a summary of it all.)

Three points:

First, if Scalfari’s method is truly as loose as he states, then what I question is his use of quotation marks. Investigative journalism demands copious documentation in the form of notes and recordings. Only with such a substructure are quotations attributable. Even indirect speech is a risky form of expression lacking these. Scalfari’s method, well-known apparently to all including the Vatican, is simply irresponsible unless he wishes to be known as a mere gossip columnist or the author of fairy-tales. But this leads to ….

Second, what on earth, given the previous point, was Pope Francis doing talking to Scalfari at all, and especially about such an electrifying subject as the pedophilia scandal? What if the alleged comments were in fact made? If the kerfuffle reveals a lack of proper journalistic methods on Scalfari’s part, it also reveals a profound lack of acumen on the part of the pope. The clearer the Vatican makes its case about the former, the clearer also is the focus on the pope’s blunder. Unless, of course, it was not a blunder at all; unless it was a cleverly calculated maneuver to let it all partially and in a limited way (remember Nixon) hang out.  But, if this is the case explicit action against the guilty will have to follow. The maneuver will have to have been a prelude. Estimates are that less than 2,500 priests have been disciplined in the scandal. That leaves about 5,500 to go, of whom some are in the highest levels. The partial limited hang out explanation can only be justified by dramatic follow-up action against the guilty, those who covered up as well as those who actually committed the original offenses. This has been made very clear by David Clohessy, executive director of SNAP (the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests.) Without it, the total naïve blunder explanation is all that is left.

Third, the blunder explanation is not without its own serious implications, although not comparable to SNAP’s concerns. I wonder if there is a need to spell them out. Let me simply say that a blunder of this magnitude (if indeed it was a blunder) indicates a troubling lack of awareness. It is not unlike listening to actors speaking without scripts; too often pontificating (!) gibberish passing as wisdom, the only claim to worth being the fame of the one uttering the gibberish. A fame-created phenomenon is a blunder, or many blunders, waiting to happen. Fame is a controlling force not a force easily controlled.

Musings on the World Cup

Germany won. Everyone knows that by now. The world has already turned and moved on. It’s old news.

That’s the first thing to note. Our attention span betrays global attention deficit disorder. It takes an effort to recall last week’s headlines, let alone last year’s. I read this morning about the refloating of the Costa Concordia. Remember that? Over two years have passed since it smashed into those rocks in the Mediterranean. The captain (what was his name?) is still under trial. We read from time to time pieces from experts in childhood learning warning us about the impact of screen time on ability to focus, pay attention over a lengthy period of time. Childhood learning? Heavens, it’s not much different with adults.

My first musing then is simple: without focused attention in learning is wisdom possible and without wisdom can there be peace, justice, and prosperity?

Then there’s the matter of Lionel Messi being awarded the Golden Ball, the World Cup MVP, the best player in the tournament. His devastated face climbing the steps to receive this award after the final was a harsh study. I detected a look of utter embarrassment. Because he is so good he of all people knew that in the tournament he was far from good enough. In fact, despite the reality that he scored four of Argentina’s paltry total of eight goals in all their matches, his play was not at all what the crowds were looking for from him.  What were they looking for? Constant, consistent, genius. The repeating actualization of his potential. It wasn’t to be, for whatever reason. Personally (and this is a sporting judgment) I think his team pretty much was subpar and he was exhausted from a season in Europe with far too many games, in each of which the expectations on him are the same. But …. There he was, receiving the Golden Ball.

Second musing: a reward for potential is not at all the same as a reward for accomplishment. Look at Iraq. The US had the potential to win the war there, but events are demonstrating that this was far from accomplished. It just isn’t the same thing.

Finally, there is the matter of gender. Yes, gender! International futbol teams have nicknames or other shorthand verbal references: Argentina is the Albiceleste, Mexico El Tri, etc. Germany’s is Die Mannschaft. Mannschaft is an interesting word in German usage, restricted to sporting units and nautical crews. There are other words for other types of team units, e.g. a business team or research team. But, the futbol team is Die Mannschaft. And were they ever precisely that. A team! The team of the tournament. Argentina’s hopes pinned to the genius of one player were reduced to naïve wishful thinking.

Every pupil of elementary German language is taught der, die, das, the definite article in its three genders, masculine feminine and neuter. The article must agree with its noun in number and gender. Mannschaft is feminine; hence, Die Mannschaft.

Gender is almost entirely absent in contemporary English. Hence the word, “gender,” is misused. A characteristic of nouns, it has come to be used to refer to biological sexuality. “Gender Studies” in the curriculum refers to male, female, and other forms of sexual preferences and expression. The word “transgender” is found, as though since the German futbol team is comprised of male players it ought to be called Der Mannschaft or since a wife is female she should be Die not Das Frau.

My third musing is not about sexual preferences! It concerns language. And, it is simply this:

I think I detect an increasing imprecision in discourse. Words are used without regard to their meaning; sentences are constructed without regard to their function in the thought; meaning is conveyed by impressionistic innuendo more than verbal expression. There is a lot of discourse going on, but not enough dialogue. That’s not good.

Of swans and Brazil

Even the casual fan of futbol/football/soccer (ugh) and also the uncaring observer of life, must be aware of the devastating defeat inflicted upon Brazil by Germany yesterday in the first semi-final of the World Cup. A 7 – 1 defeat of any team is horrendous, unimaginable, rare, but such a defeat of Brazil, the legendary five-time winners of the cup on their home soil was beyond prediction and defied comprehension. The Brazil mystique and braggadocio could not stand the onslaught of skill, determination, and ruthless efficiency of Germany.

One commentator I read described it as “a black swan event.” 

Nassim Taleb’s black swan theory, in my judgment, is a bit more subtle and complex to allow for a simple application to a staggering and surprising sporting event. I once heard a professional gambler say that in team sports it is always wise to bet for the underdog if the odds are greater than 3 – 1 against. (Hmmmm …. I also remember Churchill’s advice. There are two times never to gamble; when you can’t afford to and when you can.) The ground for this was his belief that the complexity of a team (so many bodies, minds, wills, attitudes, and the like) made for radical unpredictability and however superior and apparently better suited for victory one team may seem over another “anything can happen and the unusual is more likely.” In his view, therefore, black swans are a good bet  …. in team sports! $100 bet that Germany would beat Brazil yesterday by 6 goals would have fetched a mighty return.

The paradoxical lesson: always expect the totally unexpected.

But maybe another swan analogy is probably more appropriate for what transpired yesterday. It is said that before they die swans (white ones for sure) sing, for the only time in their lives. I have no idea if this is actually true, but the “swan song” has become a marker of beauty and courage, sorrow and joy, in the moments of life’s ending. The swan song is a hymn of farewell, longing, and gratitude. This may not be what Dylan Thomas had in mind in his call for us to “rage, rage against the dying of the light,” but I am of the view that there is quite enough raging going on prior to life’s last moment’s that a little touch of the swan song would go a long way towards balancing things out.

The sober lesson: all things, however beautiful and rare, come to an end

Still another analogy: the swan dive. While this is an actual form of an actual dive into actual water, it has come to mean so much more (some unmentionable here!) The meaning it has accrued most broadly is of a public, “splashy,” dramatic total failure of expectation and effort. Brazil yesterday.

The bitter lesson: pretense is a shallow veneer for accomplishment.