Typical New American Story?

Contemporary American culture is full of characters who, often for a silly reason, get 15 minutes of fame — and then crash.  A man sitting in the front row during last week’s presidential debate/town-meeting, distinguished by his red sweater (which he wore because he split his suit pants earlier in the day), was cast in the corporatist media as the embodiment of the undecided U.S. voter.  His name is Ken Bone.  Eagerness to cash in on any fame is now an established American value, so  Mr. Bone set out to sell his own line of “Bone Zone” t-shirts and seek sponsorships, including something from Uber.  But in the closet of most flash-in-the-pan heroes is a catalogue of things from a less glamorous  past — and Bone is no exception.  Under a pseudonym, he has boasted on-line about his affection for nude photos of famous actresses and … ummm … pregnant women (he called the latter “beautiful human submarines” on a site called PreggoPorn).  He’s also admitted on-line to forging car insurance documents and to supporting a Florida vigilante’s murder of an African-American kid as “justified.”

The next step for every fallen one-day wonder is to apologize, and Bone did just that and — showing symptomatic tone-deafness — said he wished he “could do so directly” to one of the actresses he lusted over.  Typical.

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Bathrooms Matter

The Japanese Transportation Ministry’s coveted “Japan Toilet Award” encourages major highway managers to be creative and generous in providing facilities to the traveling public.  The New York Times last week had a feature about what the Nexco Central Nippon Expressway, which runs 200 rest stops, has done to win the award.  One stop near Mount Fiji, which gets about 25,000 visitors on a busy weekend, has 72 stalls in the ladies’ room, and the men’s room has 14 stalls and 32 urinals.  Each stall has a sensor, like parking spaces at some malls, that registers whether it’s in use — and flashes that info on an electronic board at the entrance.  They even differentiate whether the stalls have western-style sitting toilets or traditional-style squatting style.

The ratio of women’s to men’s facilities, for a society still saddled with a sexist image, is amazing.

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A penny saved …

The New York Times “Insider” column has uncovered another example of government being penny-wise and pound-foolish — as long as it’s what “the people” want.  It costs 1.43 cents to make a penny.  The federal government spent $39 million more than their face value to make pennies last year.  Except to use cents to trick us into thinking something is cheaper than it is — that is, that $4.99 is significantly less than $5 — people don’t use the coin any more.  But a poll in 2014 showed that 71 percent of respondents pick up pennies they see on the sidewalk, and 43 percent would be “disappointed” or “angry” if the government stopped making them.

You can do a lot with $39 million a year.  Would it help debate on this important issue if everyone knew that Canada and the EU stopped using their penny coins years ago.

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Five-Second Rule Rules!

Aaron E. Carroll, a professor of pediatrics at Indiana University School of Medicine, published an article last weekend debunking the debunkers who say that the five-second rule is bunk.  The opponents of this time-tested rule claim that food that falls on the floor is dangerous no matter how fast you pick it up.  They claim, essentially, that bacteria don’t wait around for five seconds before jumping onto the food and digging in.  Carroll says, however, that his kitchen floor isn’t that dirty — or at least not as dirty as many other surfaces that we don’t consider dangerous.  He cites the research of Charles Gerba, a professor at the University of Arizona, that kitchen floors are likely to harbor, on average, about 2.75 colonies per square inch of coliform bacteria, but the refrigerator handle and kitchen counter have, respectively, 5.37 and 5.75 colonies per square inch.  (FYI, toilet seats have 0.68 and flush handles have 34.65.)

If you’d ever eat food with your hands after touching a kitchen sponge, which can easily have up to 20 million colonies per square inch, you might have a seat (on the floor) and chow down.

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Did Yahoo care?

Reuters and the New York Times have reported that a secret court secretly asked Yahoo to secretly screen all users’ e-mail for digital “signatures” that reportedly could appear in the messages between potential terrorists.  Yahoo secretly complied and secretly sent all such e-mails (the quantity of which remains secret) to a secret office at the FBI.  (The NYT’s sources claim the collection has stopped.)  The judge who issued the secret order, claiming to have secret information, reportedly was convinced that the signatures were unique to one particular terrorist organization, the identity of which remains secret.  Reuters said that Yahoo “secretly built a custom software program to search all of its customers’ incoming e-mails for specific information [the alleged signatures] provided by U.S. intelligence officials.”  Yahoo claimed that it “narrowly interpret[s] every government request for user data to minimize disclosure.”  The story came to light two weeks after Yahoo revealed — after keeping it secret for months — that hackers stole the secret credentials of the service’s 500 million users.

Assuming that the intelligence community’s claim is accurate that the hostile group’s e-mails carry a unique digital signature — which would reflect pretty amateurish tradecraft by the terrorists — the broad nature of the request to Yahoo seems unfair.  A case can be made for searching the e-mails of particular people, with a court order, but it’s quite different to be forced to run a filter on ALL e-mails in order to find the infinitesimally miniscule number of bad guys.  Yahoo’s expedient compliance — its failure to reject such a broad request — hurt its credibility and Americans’ privacy.

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Difficult Times

Spanish thinker José Ortega y Gassett wrote a lot about “mass man.”  In Rebelión de las Masas, he said:

“The mass crushes beneath it everything that is different, that is excellent, individual, qualified, and select. Anybody who is not like everybody, who does not think like everybody, runs the risk of being eliminated. And it is clear that this “everybody” is not “everybody.” “Everybody” was normally the complex unity of the mass and the divergent, specialized elite groups. Nowadays, “everybody” is the mass alone.”

But his most compelling and most important message is that when political, economic and social elites shirk the responsibilities they have as elites — that is, when elites behave like masses — that’s when society unravels.  When elites put themselves above all others, above law, above the values (including religious values) they want everyone else to live by, the damage is progressive and extremely difficult to reverse.

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Our information is unimpeachable

The Supreme Court ruled yesterday that the federal government has the right to refuse to explain to rejected visa applicants why they’ve been refused visas.  The specific case involved a naturalized U.S. citizen from Afghanistan and her Afghan husband, whom she wanted to bring to the United States to immigrate.  He was denied because of unspecified concerns related to terrorism, but the government refused to explain those concerns or allow an appeal or anything.  Five justices said the government has no responsibility to provide any information or explanation.  Four said the wife deserved an explanation.  In other words, the five have such confidence in U.S. information that they reject the thought of it ever being challenged by applicants.

The thought that government bureaucrats, without having to explain themselves and without being subject to challenge, can make such momentous decisions about people’s lives is quite amazing.

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Firing Americans

Hardly a week goes by that we don’t see reports on American companies’ efforts to take advantage of cheap foreign labor — usually abroad but also in the United States.  The U.S. government’s H-1B visa program provides 85,000 visas a year to foreigners with skills that American workers supposedly don’t have (but who work for a small fraction of the pay).  Disney World just laid off a couple hundred American workers to make way for cheaper replacements from India.  South California Edison, a power utility, did the same thing to 450 workers.  Neither company even bothered to try to argue that the American workers lacked the necessary skills.  The U.S. government has done nothing to investigate and stop such practices, while it spends billions to keep out and kick out low-wage workers.  It just keeps issuing the visas.

No surprise that legislation to require companies importing this labor to demonstrate a good-faith effort to hire Americans first can’t pass.

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Is anyone watching?

A retired Army lieutenant colonel receiving millions in U.S. federal contracts has engaged in bizarre, abusive acts — and the money just keeps on coming.  The government has given the company of the officer, John Hagmann, more than $10 million since he retired in 2000 to train soldiers and medical personnel how to treat battlefield wounds.  He hasn’t just used live, wounded pigs to simulate combat injuries — bad enough.  He gave his trainees drugs and liquor and then instructed them to perform medical procedures on one another, according to an investigation by the Virginia Board of Medicine.  Among the exercises students did while under the influence was inserting catheters into the genitals of their classmates.  Two students were subjected to “penile nerve block procedures,” and other were put through “shock labs,” during which Hagmann withdrew their blood, monitored them for shock, and then put the blood back in them. The officer claimed he was doing nothing out of the ordinary and that “absolutely no ‘sexual gratification’ was involved.”

Is there no adult supervision?

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Sort of depressing

An article in Slate about an FDA advisory board’s vote in favor of “viagra for women” probed whether the drug would be for women’s bodies or for their minds.  The piece points out that the pill’s purpose is to create desire, not just act upon it, and it underscores the trickiness of the task because of the skyrocketing use of anti-depressants.  According to the journal Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics, one in 10 Americans now takes an antidepressant medication; among women in their 40s and 50s, the figure is one in four.

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