Weird News

Now for something completely different. We humans are an incredibly inventive species. By that I don’t mean we’re great at devising new machines or developing abstruse scientific theories about the universe. I’m talking about our amazing talent for getting ourselves into all sorts of trouble. The Darwin Awards pay tribute to the ability of humans to remove themselves permanently from the gene pool in ways that leave us in profound awe and deeply grateful we didn’t do anything that dumb.

Of course the Darwin Awards only acknowledge those whose actions lead to their premature demise. There are of course numerous incidents of humans performing acts of remarkable blithering idiocy, abominable dumbness and just plain unadulterated mallet-headedness without getting themselves killed in the process. The vast majority of these incidents go mercifully unnoticed but a few manage to make it into the news and leave us scratching our heads in wonder.

First place in my book goes to a nameless individual who made his way into the local news a few decades ago. The event took place in the White Mountain National Forest, in the area known as the Kancamagus Highway. The main draw of this particular strip of highway is the spectacular display of foliage color which occurs in the fall, attracting many tourists to view nature’s beauty. There’s no distracting tourist traps or other eye-sore businesses to mar the scenery. There are a few rest stops for those who need to answer Nature’s call. They are rustic affairs, resembling cabins with toilets that don’t flush but empty instead into cesspits that are cleaned out by a company hired to handle these matters (nice work if you can get it…).

The particular incident I have in mind occurred when a family of tourists was driving through admiring the foliage when their teenage daughter indicated she had to ‘go’. They pulled into the next rest stop where the young lady went into the women’s facility. As she was preparing to make use of the toilet, she happened to look down into it when lo and behold she saw a man was down inside the cesspit looking back up at her. Those of you with teenage daughters can no doubt imagine the reaction this got. The New Hampshire State police were summoned (not local cops as this is a state park) and sure enough there was indeed a real live man down inside the cesspit.

Now, here’s the thing. In order to get him out, they had to call the business that cleans out the pit as the door leading into it was still locked from the outside. Which of course means there was only one way he could have gotten into the cesspit. Yes…

At any rate once the fellow was extracted from the cesspit, the question naturally arose as to why he was down there in the first place. His story went something like this (my apologies to anyone reading this who happens to be gay). He wanted to use the facilities but had heard those salacious stories about men of a certain gender preference who liked to use rest stops for their romantic trysts. Not wanting to be accosted, he retreated to the presumed safety of the ladies rest room. While changing his clothing, he inadvertently dropped his wedding ring down the toilet so there was nothing for it, he just had to go after it. That was his story.

There were several problems with his account. For one thing when the cesspit company did a search, no ring turned up. When the police did a background check on this fellow, not only did they find he was not married, they also found he was already very well known to the Maine police having been nabbed by them on numerous occasions as a habitual window peeper. So in reality our toilet diver was a sex offender (albeit a minor one). So off to jail he went.

The local New Hampshire WMUR news station (actually our only news station) reported at some length on this story, mainly obsessing about how incredible filthy he was when they got him out and how the police had to put plastic coverings in the squad car to protect the seats (I imagine it was a while before they got the car aired out…). Mostly the reporters seemed to be just plain gobsmacked that anyone would do something like this just to get a peek at naked rear ends.

A more recent story popped up in the news that very nearly edged this one out. That involved a rather dim lady from Colebrook New Hampshire who with the assistance of some equally dim minions went out in the wee hours of the morning and dug up her father’s grave. Why did she do this? Well, she was searching for the ‘real will’ which she had come to believe was buried with him (along with a bottle of vodka). Happens all the time, right? Apparently she felt she didn’t get what she thought she should have gotten for an inheritance. So there just had to be a ‘real will’ somewhere and it must have been buried with dear old Dad. So that justified the night-time cemetery visit.

It did no good for her to insist she had done this in a ‘respectful manner’ and her dad would have been ‘ok’ with this. The New Hampshire court system didn’t see it that way and, no surprise, she was sent to prison. These hijinks didn’t quite have the icky-poo quality of the guy in the toilet story but it did achieve a very close second place. However, the toilet diver may yet be shoved into second place as the grave-digging daughter has since gotten herself in trouble again. It’s becoming pretty apparent why Dad cut her out of the will. As it looks as if the story hasn’t fully played itself out, she may yet outdo herself and win top billing for weird news. Until someone comes along and tops even her….


Oh…My…God……

“The difference between stupidity and genius is that genius has its limits.” – Albert Einstein

Pitchforks and pine tar

One of the more common images brought up when people are said to be fed up with the establishment and starting to revolt is when the pitchforks come out along with the tar and feathers. This image harks back to a time when most people lived on farms and most stuff was made by hand.

Pitchforks are of course farming tools, used to lift or pitch stuff like leaves, hay and rubbish into barns, wagons or composters. The number of tines on the pitchfork can vary from three or four to as many as ten depending on what it is being used for.

   

This is the pitchfork my late father always used. As you can see, it has had a long hard life. I can remember him using this to turn over soil in the garden when I was very little. Given his parsimonious nature, it’s very likely he got it second hand so the fork is probably close to seventy years old. It’s a bit bent and has a fine patina of rust beginning to form on it, but it still has its uses. I use it mainly to stir around stuff in my composter. Since the metal part is cast iron and the handle solid wood, it’s a bit on the hefty side. Should I be inclined to join a revolt, I will probably opt to use one of the lighter cheapie versions sold at Home Depot or Walmart, just to save some wear and tear on my shoulders.

Tar and feathering has long been a popular method of publicly humiliating troublemakers and incompetent politicians, used in conjunction with riding them out of town on a rail (fencing rail, that is). Commonly associated with colonial America, it actually dates back to medieval times as a rough and ready way to deal out justice. It’s important to point out that the tar used for this is not roofing tar which is a petroleum derived product but is actually pine tar.

Pine tar has a long history of many uses, mainly as a preservative for wood and surprisingly a treatment for various skin ailments. It was a frequent ingredient in shampoos for dandruff and soaps for eczema. What makes it as useful as a medium for punishment is the fact that it is very sticky which anyone who has come in contact with pine pitch will know. This made it a good base for the feathers to be glued onto the unfortunate victim and no doubt made it nearly impossible to scrub off afterwards. You had to wait for it to wear off, compounding the humiliation.

Making pine tar, turpentine and similar substances requires a tree which produces resin. Conifers such as cedars, hemlocks, pines and cypresses are all good sources of resin. The Eastern White pine is the most common type around where I live. The majority that I see are second or third growth pines but there are a few more venerable specimens here and there. This one is located near the local high school. It looks to be well over 50 feet tall and is probably around 80 or 90 years old. As long as lightning, high winds or an ambitious logger doesn’t take trees like this out, they can live for many centuries.

White pines provide other useful products such as wood for dwellings, barns, fencing and were once highly valued for masts on sailing ships. As already noted, it has medicinal applications, not just for dandruff but for coughs, bronchitis, laryngitis and chest congestion. The needles are a good source of vitamin C when made into a tea. Even the inner bark is edible, though it may be an acquired taste given that it comes from wood.

They are useful enough so it is worth planting a small grove of them on the back forty (if you have the land that is.) As the production of petroleum declines, resinous conifers like the white pine will regain their value as sources of tar and turpentine. Early settlers routinely made their own and there are plenty of sources both online and in books giving instructions on how to make these products.

Still there’s no beating the old-fashioned entertainment value of tar and feathering your favorite rant-and-rave target. Up until now it looked as if the Orange One was headed for a slathering. However it appears that the governor of New Jersey has now overtaken him with an approval rating already down to 15 percent and a ‘Beachgate’ scandal that is bound to make his popularity tank even further. I have no doubt the POTUS will try to top him, though with what makes me shudder to think. How low will it all go before the tar and feathers finally come out? My recommendation is to stock up on popcorn and wait.

And buy a pitchfork just in case.

The Trouble With Memory

Recently I was loading groceries into my car when a couple drove up and asked where they could find the Middle School. Perhaps because I was slightly distracted by my ambition to get my stuff home and tucked away, I cheerfully gave them directions to the local elementary school. It wasn’t until I drove up a hill near my home and spotted the local junior high that the little light bulb over my head finally flickered on. Oh, yes, junior high – middle school (derp!).

It was embarrassing enough that I had steered that poor couple wrong, but the incident also set off a chain of thought that people around my age (62 years) start obsessing about. Is this the early signs of Alzheimer’s? Probably not, but it’s hard not to have that worry pop up from time to time when minor faux pas like the above occur.

But how worried should we really be when memory failures happen? When you are young, memory failures happen but it’s easy to brush them off. Not so much as you begin aging or watch your parents age and witness the devastating effects of memory loss. My father played the piano and could perform a number of pieces pretty much from memory. However as he got past his seventies and into his eighties, an ominous change came over his playing. He would start off but then begin faltering. After hesitating, he would start the piece over again, sometimes several times in succession. Finally he quit playing altogether. Even with sheet music in front of him, he kept losing track of where he was.

True dementia involves significant deficits which interfere with your ability to function at work or at home. Not all dementias are Alzheimers. There are a variety of conditions which produce similar symptoms. Some are treatable. Others are not. Reading these lists can often be alarming but a simple rule of thumb to remember is this: if you forget where you laid your car keys, that’s plain absentmindedness. But if you have your car keys in hand and can’t remember what they are for, then you definitely have a problem.

In my father’s case, short term memory had taken a hit. Whether this was Alzheimers (he was never diagnosed) or the result of a series of small strokes, is hard to say but the terrible effects on his ability to recall musical pieces or follow sheet music like he used to, clearly showed. In my own case, failing to recall that ‘middle school’ meant the junior high, is more likely due to distraction than to cognitive decline.

So what to do? The Internet is filled with sites advising how to improve your memory and maintain it well into old age. Some of it is obvious snake oil but some sites offer common sense advice that most of us know but don’t always put into practice.

There are several things that stick out. The first is to stop multitasking. Let’s face it. We can’t give 100 percent of our attention to five things at the same time. If you want to do a task well or just keep track of things better, you have to cut back and focus your attention on one or two tasks at a time. You can devote more time to the tasks, do them better and not trip yourself up trying to keep track of too many things.

Another is simply getting enough sleep. It’s easy to underestimate how badly our mental functioning is affected when we don’t get enough sleep. Our ability to focus on tasks, think clearly and most important consolidate memories of events during the day take a major hit when we don’t get enough sleep.

A lot of things conspire to interfere with getting a restful sleep. Certain types of food and drink can interfere with a good night’s rest. Also exercising vigorously before bedtime can cause issues, revving our bodies up for more activity instead of winding down for the night. Bright light can interfere with the body’s sleep rhythms. The introduction of electric lights and later TV and computer screens have disturbed our natural sleep cycle which depends on a regular pattern of light followed by darkness. Outside lights such as street lights, neon lights, or even the headlights of cars passing by can all have a disruptive effect on our sleep.

Last but definitely not least is the importance of social contacts. Having friends, attending social functions (either family related or otherwise). Volunteering for community service or helping out with church or other functions all provide opportunities for interactions both social and physical. Scientists aren’t yet sure of the dynamics behind social interactions and how they reduce cognitive decline but there is clearly a correlation. Interacting with others requires using your brain for social skills. Exercise promotes better circulation for the brain. Volunteering creates a sense of purpose and feeling of achievement that your efforts can actually make a difference for others. Each feeds into the other and helps contribute to a healthier old age. Like a muscle, the brain just needs to be frequently exercised to stay in good shape. Use it or lose it!

So don’t fret about forgetting where the car keys are. Just be happy you can remember what they’re for!

Clearing The Clutter

Now that the New Year has arrived, I like to do an inventory of all the stuff I have. Like many others I have accumulated a considerable stack of possessions over the years, in addition to the stuff my late parents left behind after they passed away. As they both lived through the Great Depression, it left them with a pack rat mentality, an urge to accumulate stuff as a hedge against the next set of hard times. As the ‘hard times’ never quite materialized for them, I wound up with quite a pile of, well, stuff.

Some of it was easy to get rid of. The bookshelf crammed with Readers Digest Condensed Books (my father’s) got shuffled off to the local recycling station, especially after I found out you can’t give those things away. Clothing that was purchased by both parents and stored away but never worn, went to the local church rummage sale (if it didn’t fit me, that is…).

My father was the worst offender when it came to saving anything. Glass jar after glass jar of old nails, screws, bolts, nuts, brackets and assorted bric-a-brac cluttered his work shop. A fair percentage of it had been sitting around so long it had begun corroding. Fortunately our recycling station can handle scrap metal, so that all went there as well. He saved every piece of scrap wood from old projects with the idea it could be applied to a future project. He was also a ham radio buff and saved any old tubes and attachments that might conceivably be useful.

 

These I know can be sold to avid collectors, so if I can ever get ambitious enough for that yard sale I’ve always wanted to do, they will be placed out, hopefully to be scooped up and out of my clutter pile and into someone else’s. The scrap wood was, needless to say, scrapped.

My mother also collected quite a pile, but her stuff was more useful to me. The old cast iron skillets she had were definitely keepers along with her stock pot, dishes and cutlery. Some of her old vintage jewelry I have kept as well. She avidly collected glass ware from antique shops, gift shops and local yard sales. Some of it I will keep for sentimental value but the rest of it will end up in the yard sale. She knitted quite a bit until arthritis stopped her. I have numerous yarn skeins as well as a few half-finished items (a sweater and afghan, I believe). If I ever take up knitting, that will go into my own stash of stuff.

This of course brings me to what I have collected. Needless to say, I have been strongly influenced by my parents. While I hadn’t been born until long after the Great Depression, the attitudes it fostered in them were transmitted to me. I’m not a string saver but I do love to read, so I have a ton of books. I was into collecting pewter fantasy figurines for a while, so I have several shelves full of those. I enjoy cross stitch and can’t resist the kits that various catalogs offer to me. I suspect I have enough projects accumulated that if I stopped buying anything right now, I will be kept busy until the day I die. Word puzzles, like acrostics and the like are enjoyable so I have a stack of puzzle magazines waiting for me to have time to go through them.

If that wasn’t enough, I like to draw and so have stacks of art books, art supplies and so forth. One thing for sure, I will never be bored! However, I think George Carlin pretty much said it all with his classic monologue on ‘stuff’. Our consumer culture with its emphasis on material wealth has caused us to go way over the top on accumulating stuff, even when we’re not really that greedy (or like to think we aren’t.)

So how to cut down on the clutter? Well, the Internet is full of suggestions on the best ways to clear out your excess possessions. Many advocate using the beginning of the year to start de-cluttering. Other recommend a specific date. MoneyMagpie suggests March 11, 2017 as the date. Apparently there is actually a National Clear Your Clutter Day. I’m not exactly sure who designated March as THE month to clean but it’s as good as any.

Getting rid of clothing that no longer fits or is out of style is easy enough. I deal with the monster stash of books by rereading old ones that I haven’t looked at in quite a while. I have found that my reading tastes have changed over the years which allows me to get rid of the books that no longer interest me. Duplicate books are rare but I do occasionally inadvertently buy one. Those go too of course. Recently a co-worker was hospitalized and sidelined for an extended period. A ‘Care Package’ basket was made up for him. I donated a years’ worth of the word puzzle magazines that I never seem to have time to get around to. If the yard sale ever comes off, I will get rid of a few of the knick-knacks I have accumulated as well.

In spite of our computerized culture, there is still a huge amount of paper documents that manage to accumulate in spite of our best efforts. Many of these are important but it isn’t always clear how long they should be kept. I came across a magazine article that helpfully listed what to keep and how long to keep it. As I prefer to do as little on line as possible, it has come in very useful.

1: Keep Forever
Birth and death certificates, adoption papers, health records, marriage certificates, divorce decrees and military discharge papers.

2: Keep for a limited time
Tax records – 7 years; Auto titles and registrations – as long as you own the car; Check registers and bank statements – 7 years; Loan papers – 7 years after the loan is paid off; Pay stubs – until W2 is confirmed by year end; Property deeds – as long as you own the property; Mortgage payments – 7 years after property is sold; Records to support tax return – 7 years.

3: Toss Immediately
Utility bills (once you’ve paid them of course)– unless used for tax deductions; Credit Card statements – unless they record deductible business expenses; Expired insurance policies – unless there is an outstanding claim; Warranties, manuals and receipts for items you no longer own.

Once you get started on this process, it’s rather overwhelming to see the amount of clutter you have but what a relief to get it out from underfoot. And what a surprise to discover how roomy your house or apartment really is!

Happy cleaning and Happy New Year!

The Law of Diminishing Returns or Why I don’t want my stove talking to me

Recently the place where I work instituted several changes. The first was a change to the time clock system, the reason being the old one had some problems so our business went shopping around for a new one. Long gone is the old fashioned punch clock where you inserted your paper time card and heard a satisfying ka-chunk indicating you had clocked in or out (I’m sure I’m dating myself here). That was deemed ‘inefficient’ and consigned to the dustbin of history eons ago. Now you swipe an employee badge in front of an electronic eye which duly records your swipe electronically (though they still call it ‘punching’ for some reason.) and stores the information in a database.

Well the new system goes a step further. Now you can go online and access your time and attendance records, view ‘punches’, put in for time off, etc. We could do this to some extent with the old system but the new one has so many bells and whistles that we workers were scheduled for an hour long (or so) class to show us how to access and make use of this wonderful new software. Needless to say a number of the workers who were not especially computer savvy were intimidated by the new system and needed help getting through the process of creating an account with user name and password. I overheard one male worker muttering under his breath about this ‘bull####’ and I found myself unable to disagree with him. We are able to access a PDF file telling how to use the new system on our internal intranet but were advised not to attempt to print it out as it was over 40 pages long. Huh?

The second change which came on the heels of the first has to do with our benefits package. Our business has always offered a generous benefits package which includes medical, dental and life insurance among other things. In previous years we would attend a benefits meeting where we would enroll in the benefits program (if we were new workers) or check off boxes on a sheet of paper listing what we already had for benefits and note if we were continuing with the same coverage or wanted to make changes. We would then pass in the piece of paper to the Human Resources office. Simple, right?

Well, now this process is now being transferred online and we ‘just’ sign on and do the same thing only electronically now. We could do this from the comfort of our home, on our ‘smart phones’ or sit down with the agents from the various agencies who would walk you through the process of enrollment. But again, more than a few of our workers were dismayed by the apparent complexity of what had formerly been a simple process. I was saddened to see how distressed one older woman was over the prospect and had to explain to her several times that the agents would help her through it. Unfortunately I couldn’t promise her it would be easy.

If it seems our love affair with computers and the Internet is getting out of hand, you are not alone. The demented drive to ‘wi-fi’ or otherwise computerize every widget and gadget in our lives is overwhelming many people with a tsunami of gimmicks and options that many are beginning to feel they neither need nor want. Has the old saying ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ been forgotten?

One example is automobiles and the spate of recalls that has been occurring in recent years. As often as not, it involves issues with the car’s software. Since when do cars need software? A car is just a tool that gets you from point A to point B. For years our automobiles did just that without the high tech paraphernalia that is now being crammed into every nook and cranny the vehicle has. You could certainly pimp it up if you wanted with rally stripes or custom paint jobs. But now there is BlueTooth, GPS and assorted attachments for hooking up your phone or ipod that all provide distracting entertainment as well as addled road directions apparently working under the assumption that you find driving terribly boring and can’t really read road maps anyway.

Wi-Fi is adding to the technical bedlam with wireless connections for practically every object in our lives; televisions, stereos, hi-tech kid toys, phones, home security systems, thermostats and pretty much every appliance you possess. Articles bubble with enthusiasm over how this latest tech will ‘enhance’ our homes though they don’t bother to explain why we would even need this stuff in the first place. However CNET.COM in a review of several high-tech kitchen appliances did put a finger on an irritating issue with all of these gee-whiz devices. Not only do they not quite live up to their promise but they are pretty damned expensive.

This brings us to the issue of the Law of Diminishing Returns. The Law of Diminishing Returns is a term commonly used in economics. It states that if one input in the production of a commodity is increased while all other inputs are held fixed, a point will eventually be reached at which additions of the input yield progressively smaller, or diminishing, increases in output. Or to state it more simply, the more you spend on producing a commodity the less you get back in terms of output.

How is this possible? Look at it this way. Say a farmer waters his crop. So far so good. The crop grows nicely (with the help of a little dollop of fertilizer). Then he waters it more. Well, ok, but now the soil is getting a bit saturated but the plants are able to soak most of it up and the sun evaporates the rest. Then he waters it even more. Now the poor plants are swimming in a pool of more water than they can possibly handle and begin drowning (yes, plants can drown!). If the farmer doesn’t cut back on his watering, he’s not going to have any crop to speak of. More is not better.

John Michael Greer in his ArchDruid Report has covered this issue a number of times in his blog, particularly in his fictional depiction of a near future America that has broken up. The character in his story encounters another who points out to him that the law of diminishing returns applies to technology as well as to anything else. The young man has a difficult time accepting this possibility, raised as he was in a world which believes the more technology, the better. Apparently Mr. Greer touched a nerve with this segment of his story, judging from the comments it received.

As already noted, none of this high tech wizardry comes cheap. From the rare earths mined to create microcircuitry, to the energy and water gobbling data farms that house the vast quantities of information constituting the ‘Cloud’ and the continual updates to the software which supports all this, all of it costs money and quite a bit of it at that. Subsidies can mask some of this but in the end, we are the ones who pay for it all. If you want to know if it is all worth it, look at what the Law of Diminishing Returns states and ask yourself if the return you are getting is worth the time and money you invested in your wonderful gizmos.

Do you really need to integrate your fridge, air conditioner and stove through Wi-Fi? What real advantage is there in being able to pre-heat your oven from the grocery store? What’s to stop someone from hacking into your system and cranking up the thermostat to 90 plus degrees on a hot day just for giggles? Or hack into your talking stove so it texts suggestive remarks instead the current temperature of the oven? What happens if the data farm that handles all this information gets destroyed in a storm or earthquake and the backup doesn’t kick in?

The more we ‘improve’ our lifestyle, the more costly problems seem to crop up. The interconnectivity of every aspect of our life not only is convenient for us but also for those who do not mean us well. Recently a DOS attack occurred, interrupting Internet services for NetFlix, Twitter and Reddit. A few years ago Anthem Blue Cross suffered a massive data breach that exposed the personal information of nearly 80 million individuals, not the first firm to suffer such a data theft and certainly not the last. Now subscribers (myself among them) must perpetually monitor their credit reports for suspicious activity.

More and more we begin to see the Law of Diminishing Returns rearing up to bite us on the backside as the gleaming promise of computers and Internet connectivity gets transformed instead into a nightmarish snarl of hacks, web complexity, nonsensical updates and expensive kludgy workarounds. When will we realize that more tech fixes are not the answer but rather returning to simpler methods is what is needed to accomplish what we desire? Let’s just have a stove be a stove and a car just a car.

“Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius — and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction.” 

― Ernst F. Schumacher

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