Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The Concept of Noise

I am, and have always been, a seeker of solitude. It is a contradiction to nature itself, since the human ear is endlessly bombarded by sounds within its frequency range, to say nothing of the memory of past sounds rebounding inside our skulls. To provide more confusion to this premise, I love loud movies, the boisterous fervor of sporting events and music of all kinds. As I write, Glenn Gould is playing (and humming along to) the Goldberg Variations. It is not a simple thing to feel completely alone on this planet.

The concept of noise tracks me as I pursue some untraceable instant when sound simply disappears from existence. It envelops me like a persistent fog that started at the moment of creation, whether that be from the vibrating dust of the Big Bang or my mother’s screams upon my initial entry into the world. Either way, my ears have not rested for a moment, feeding my brain information that must be deciphered and interpreted, cataloged and indexed, forgotten and remembered. With each bit of aural data comes attached another element, a slight hissing of always there disturbance, a distorted echo of the constant madness inherent in sound. It is present in every screeching tire, trilling note and breaking glass, a restless unrest coursing to an interminable terminus. There is no escape, for it or us.

Even a silent pursuit such as reading yields a byproduct of noise. It is not written into the paragraph, or between its lines, but the impression of near-nothingness arrives with each word as if radiating from the white edges of the page. When we convert what we read into thoughts and ideas, the weight of its accompanying sound adds an unseen burden that we fail to properly account for in the process. It is difficult enough to plow through something such as this to then contend with rocks hidden beneath the row. We find ourselves stopping in the middle of a sentence, but why? The answer is that, no matter how peaceful the setting, we are distracted by the noise.

If I must live amidst the cacophony, perhaps it would be wise to attempt to unmask its source. A simple conversation across a table is filled with the extraneous – while the person speaks, our minds unlock from the stream of words and ponder about and beyond. He uses his hands a lot when he speaks …. Does he think I’m stupid …? I think I’ll have pasta for dinner. This is all so common and so distorting to the intended meaning that the message is often misallocated as useless information. The root cause is noise; noise in the setting, noise added during delivery (the hands, the perceived attitude) or after receipt (Yeah, pasta sounds good). Words are often merely adequate at describing our thoughts and feelings, but for most of us, it is all we have to work with. When the merely adequate is sabotaged by our inability to focus properly, then the intended idea becomes a misrepresented tangle.

It is said that no communication medium is as pure as radio. Unlike reading written works, we are relieved of the necessity to imagine tone or pace – the word is delivered in a complete, enunciated form. We get that with television and movies as well, along with the added burden of facial expression and body posture that demands further decoding. Radio is far from noiseless, but its noise is within a discernable range and of an obvious shape. We can account, and allow, for such distortion. Consider the impact of the War of the Worlds broadcast … compare Edward R. Murrow, our man in London, with Edward R. Murrow hosting Person-to-Person. Watch any of the current simulcast political pundits, and then simply listen. You will understand the difference when the added noise of the visual is removed.

The telephone is a radio, a form of communication that most closely approximates intimacy from a distance. The words travel directly into the holes in our heads, as if whispered in the dark from across a shared pillow. The truths are damning and the lies are sweet. There is no sentiment as unalterable and completely construed as that contained in a person’s voice. It is of a construction formed out of the air and shaped from within, benefitting from the lack of any visual cues. Like radio, the telephone’s noise is apparent and excusable. Like radio, its message is clear and unavoidable. Like radio, its expressions of love and hate are unremittingly stark. We are helplessly drawn to the sound and held captive by it.

As Glenn Gould continues to play and hum, the concept of the noise of existence plagues the baroque piano discourse, sticking to it in a layer of sonic film. The man is trying to speak to me through his fingers, using keyboard, hammer and strings. I’m not quite sure that what I am hearing is him or me … or everything else. In seeking some sense of quiet, should I shout out for silence and add my voice to the din? Or should I just sit here, put out the light and turn my ears inward?

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Abstract Invention by Charlie Accetta is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

How to Live Without Health Insurance

When initially added to the rolls of the unemployed, I picked up the COBRA coverage from my former employer. It wasn’t a great plan, but with the federal subsidy, it cost less that $150.00 a month. I had to drop it recently, after the whole unemployment benefits issue became a political football and the subsidy expired. So, now I’m without any coverage, joining a host of others in a predicament similar to mine. We need to be careful, folks. Being destitute is one thing. Being destitute and at the mercy of the medical profession is another entirely.

Here are a few tips for keeping what little wealth you have left from the clutches of the healthcare money vacuum:

Don’t eat food– It’s a well-known fact that most gastrointestinal problems result from eating something. The only way to avoid stomach distress is to eliminate all solids from your diet. You can’t afford to eat out anymore, which is just as well when one considers that the people preparing and handling food in restaurants require reminding to wash their hands before leaving the bathroom. They need signs, for crying out loud, while half of them can’t even read English. Supermarket fare isn’t much safer. Forget chicken, pork and beef unless you’re suicidal. Even fresh fruit and vegetables pose a threat from pesticides and unsanitary handling and storage. Canned goods are also a bad idea, owing to the possibility of botulism. Stick to bullion and boiled water, with a lemon or lime on the side. Don’t worry; you have enough stored fat to keep things running until Obamacare kicks in. And remember to wash those hands!

Stay off the streets and sidewalks – You’re probably driving less now that you’re on the dole. Gas costs money, as does the normal wear and tear associated with pulling your car out of the driveway. God forbid you breakdown on the road; even a tire blowout presents a risk of injury, besides the added expense of repair. You’re better off walking, right? Wrong. Those people driving past you, distracted by cell phones and Blackberries, or with worry over possibly losing their jobs, constitute a major threat to your health. They’re not paying attention to the road that you’re walking along or across and nothing puts a body in traction quicker than an encounter with a wayward automobile. Sure, the movies frequently show guys walking away unscathed after getting rolled up a car roof, but that’s from the Wyle E. Coyote school of film. It doesn’t matter how carefully you proceed. If you’re not the Roadrunner, you’re potential road-kill. Stay in your house. If you must go out for supplies, take a route that minimizes your street presence. Make friends with a Native American and ask him to show you the sacred trails to the Seven-Eleven.

Don’t go to the bathroom – Most accidents occur in the home, and most of those inside the throne room. A tight space consisting of hard, wet surfaces equals enormous risk to the human skeleton. There’s also the risk of paper cuts from using that store brand TP, not to mention the danger of scalding hot water, if they haven’t turned that off yet. Use public parks to do your business (and take advantage of all the free pinecones) and forego bathing entirely for the duration of your employment exile. Licking yourself like a cat adds much-needed minerals missing from your altered diet and offers the added benefit of deterring those pesky neighbors from getting close enough to ask how the job hunt is going.

Stay away from hospitals – This should be a strict policy. No place is more dangerous, especially for a healthy visitor. For one thing, hospitals are full of sick people. You wouldn’t think to amble into the heart of a leper colony, but the only difference between that and a hospital is that the hospital offers a much wider variety of illnesses, most of which they can’t seem to cure. For those fans of irony, they appear to have a handle on leprosy. Another reason to stay away … my grandmother always used to say that a person went to the hospital to die. If that sounds a bit old-fashioned, I’ll amend it for modern ears: people go to the hospital to receive a death sentence. Just standing inside the space encourages depression, which creates a deleterious effect on physical health. Still another reason to stay out of hospitals is the possibility (however remote) of encountering an otherwise unoccupied physician. Doctors are kin to the hyena – they instinctively know how to find the weak individual and then gather in a white-coated pack to set upon that defenseless soul. Just give them the slightest hint of physiological dysfunction and, before you know it, you’ll find yourself trapped inside an MRI tunnel with the meter running.

Don’t get arrested – It is perfectly understandable that circumstances such as we are now facing might tempt a law-abiding citizen to embark on a criminal rampage. Don’t do it. Even experienced thieves get pinched. While the thought of three meals a day and a weekly shower, courtesy of the state, might seem an improvement over your current lot, consider these two things: the health horror described above regarding restaurants increases exponentially in a prison kitchen and the shower ritual is a group affair involving people with whom you wouldn’t share an elevator under normal conditions. It is true that prisoners are afforded medical care, but it is of the sparest kind and usually reserved for victims of the shiv.

I’m probably forgetting something. The key is to continue to survive in the face of adversity. The job market will recover eventually, even though the days seem to continue to dawn to dark skies. All things must pass. This, too, shall retreat into distant memory. Someday, our grandchildren will sit at our feet as we regale them with the stories of times without cable television or clean underwear, of Sunday dinners of chicken broth and a side of citrus. It’s our duty to remind them, as our grandparents reminded us with their stories of the Great Depression, that people are built to withstand anything that nature, or the Federal Reserve, can throw at them.

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Abstract Invention by Charlie Accetta is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Inception – Making False Reality Out of Dreams

There is an acknowledged structure in screenwriting, referred to as “the Paradigm” (apologies if I’m overusing the word lately, but it’s their word). Within this structure, plot and character development follow a pattern – in an order determined by Hollywood studios going back to the dawn of talkies – designed to create dramatic effect and keep the viewer engaged for the length of the picture. This is a truism of filmmaking, whether we’re examining the work of Akira Kurosawa, Ingmar Bergman, Walt Disney or Judd Apatow. It is manipulative just as any other method of communication might be, especially in fictional expressions of a particular form. Recognition of the manipulation at the time of its delivery is a matter of personal preference and conscious deliberation.

When viewing a particular genre of film, specifically science fiction with its built-in “what if” disclaimer, viewers are inclined to be less pejorative about the non-intuitive nature of the setting. The projected reality may not make complete sense, and the characters within may appear flat in comparison to their surroundings, but we subconsciously issue a license that allows the filmmaker some latitude in transporting us through it. The entire process doesn’t make sense when one reads it like this, which helps support the argument that film is unlike any other medium used for expressing the abstract notion of the idea.

Christopher Nolan created Inception out of an idea, constructing the film from an original concept, rather than adapting an existing work. This course has proven to be most effective in producing science fiction films, using 2001 – A Space Odyssey and The Matrix as immediate examples. Still, he faced the structured demands of the Paradigm and the binding constraints of Hollywood dogma in breathing life into his vision. Nolan’s concept revolves around the question, “What if we could insert ourselves into the dreams of others?” I’m certain that Spongebob Squarepants tried it once. However, Christopher Nolan represents a few steps up the evolutionary ladder from a sponge, inviting us to assume that his execution would include greater insights and fewer bubbles.

David Edelstein’s review in New York Magazine was one of a few slams that I read prior to seeing the film. His tone was unduly harsh (and judging by the attached reader comments, highly unpopular), but I understand the sentiment behind his words. I have a personal saying I use whenever faced with an unidentifiable logical breakdown: “There’s something wrong with the math.” Edelstein recognized something wrong within the formula, but he focused his attention primarily on the surface of the screen. Allow me to expand on your thoughts, David.

Flaw 1 – Motivation: Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), driven by the desire to see his children and the guilt he carries over the death of his wife, takes a tricky assignment and deadly risk. This is a major fail. The character moves freely throughout Europe and Asia, despite a murder charge in the United States. Are we dealing with a future without Interpol? Roman Polanski should be so lucky. If we presume that Cobb is a man with extraordinary skills of deception, he should figure out a way to get the kiddies on a plane for a quick visit. As for his psychological hand wringing over the dead wife, subsequent revelations make the whole guilt trip seem petty in comparison to the hell he derives from it. Moving on to the members of Cobb’s Inception Team, there is no reason outside of a dark theater for any of them, beyond mere greed, to participate in this operation. Because of the accelerated pace of the plot, not much time is left for Nolan to develop the secondary characters. All bow to the Paradigm.

Flaw 2 – The Saito Dream Sequences: The movie opens with the Saito dream (reappearing in its proper context at the climax), which is embedded within a higher-level dream that Cobb is using to audition his services to the Japanese executive. While I can follow the multiple levels of logic (Being a dream-within-a-dream, this is strictly of Saito’s creation, rather than a first-level mockup. Therefore, knowing of the dream’s existence allows Dom to later find Saito at the Limbo level and return him to the conscious world. Normally, Dom does not like going into environments with which he is familiar, but his wife no longer constitutes a threat at this point, allowing him new freedom.), it is obviously a convoluted circuit that requires multiple proofing. This is another outgrowth of the Paradigm; in order for Dom to save Saito at the end, he needs to know where Saito is. Nolan doesn’t understand that his construct flies over the heads of most of the viewing public. The accessibility of this key plot element is questionable.

Flaw 3 – The Bad Guys: Similar to the white blood cells in Fantastic Voyage, Nolan creates a dream defense mechanism from within … big guys with guns, protecting the dreamer from outside interference. Again, the Paradigm demands conflict and Nolan offers something entirely unreasonable to evolutionary purpose in order to satisfy the demand. He glosses over the process as some sort of industrial espionage counter-measure, but its nature as an implanted schema, combined with Dom’s own self-created saboteur that somehow manages to elude the same defenses, creates one more multi-layered logistical morass that defies simple explanation.

Given consideration to all of the above, the actual execution results in a very entertaining movie experience. I credit Nolan for thoroughly exercising his director chops and DiCaprio for working within his character throughout the film. The pacing permits only a couple of dead spots and the movie ending leaves things appropriately vague. My only recommendation, beyond seeing the film, is to commit to seeing it twice, allowing Nolan’s ideas to form fully before making a final judgment. I agree with Mr. Edelstein that the hype and praise surrounding this release is overdone and I’m willing to bet that after a second viewing, you’ll never want to see it again. Still, taken strictly as an exercise, Inception provides a cautionary example of the effect of the Paradigm on conceptual filmmaking.

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Abstract Invention by Charlie Accetta is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Driving Through Danger Zones

I honestly can’t say whether I’m a good driver. I have some skills, am well versed on the rules of the road that most other drivers flout, but I do confess to being a might heavy on the gas pedal and extremely hard on tires and clutches. Therefore, you can take the following with a large stalactite of salt.

I have cheated death a couple of times while behind the wheel. Once, an old Ford pickup blew through a red light as I headed left into its path. I tried to accelerate through the turn to allow clearance, but the idiot behind the wheel of the truck veered into my lane instead of staying in his own. My brand new Taurus was T-boned directly on the driver’s side pillar, but because I was moving circularly, most of the energy went into spinning the car 180 degrees and dropping it on someone’s front lawn. The force of the collision threw me over to the passenger side of the bench seat when the seatbelt failed, but my only injury was a minor cut on my index finger from a pebble of broken safety glass. Interestingly, the airbags never deployed. The insurance company refused to declare the car a total loss, so the bodywork, frame straightening and suspension rebuild ended up costing them over twelve thousand dollars for a car that cost me fourteen. That work led, indirectly, to the next hair-raiser.

There is a downhill run I love on North Country Road in Mount Sinai that bottoms out into a hard right curve in front of a local church. My usual move, when alone in the car, was to accelerate into the downhill portion, glide down the first two thirds, and then brake hard for a moment before accelerating through the curve. It’s more fun with a stick, but I made do, being a family man with a Taurus. One night, after working a little later than usual, I arrived at the crest of the hill. The conditions were cold and misty and the track a little slick, so I let up slightly on the downward push to allow some margin for skidding. Prior to this, I had experienced some recent wheel chatter on the front passenger side when braking, but it didn’t seem to affect handling. Two-thirds of the way down, I pressed on the brake and felt a snap that went clear through to the steering wheel. The brakes were responding poorly, the steering was gone completely and I was heading down into a blind curve with no way to turn into it.

There is a steel guardrail mounted directly behind the curve, well placed for my unfolding dilemma. I found I could maneuver the car slightly with the brakes, which were favoring the driver’s side, by forcing the anti-lock system to kick in. The idea was to slide the car sideways through the curve and come to rest against the guardrail to avoid any head-on impact. The unknown factor lay with any oncoming traffic heading into the curve. Fortunately, my way was clear this time and I landed perfectly flat against the rail with no perceptible body damage. I found out later that the passenger-side tie rod had broken loose, thanks to a bolt and nut assembly improperly installed during the rebuild. Now, whenever I hear about a car suddenly going out of control, I recall that night and wonder how many people have died because of something so easily prevented. The fact is, soon after the Taurus came out of the shop, the chattering returned. I brought it back in and the mechanic added some Loctite to the bolt threads … problem solved.

That Taurus, the only automatic transmission-equipped car I have ever purchased, saved my life once and almost took it back the second time. When my marriage ended, I went back to manual transmissions, my need for control reinforced by experience on multiple levels. This leads us now into the next generation of drivers.

I have been trying to teach my daughter Sofia to drive my six-speed Civic SI. She’s not a confident driver, which is good, in a way, for an eighteen-year-old. I like the idea that she respects the enormity of responsibility attached to operating a car. I feel strongly that driving a manual transmission teaches drivers to pay better attention to the road, to the car, and to conditions that might affect a safe journey. Unfortunately, it’s turning into a battle of wills that I will ultimately lose. She already failed her first road test, after driving a predominance of automatics. I was hoping to convince her that, in overcoming the stick, she could overwhelm the automatic. The logic doesn’t seem to be working. I’ll hold my tongue, and my breath, as the next road test appointment approaches. I wish she would reconsider. I would much rather she struggle through some practice runs and look a little silly than see her alone on the road, unprepared to deal with what has happened to me.

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Abstract Invention by Charlie Accetta is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Independence Day, 2010

I recall seeing a revival of the musical 1776 on the stage of Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C., years after seeing the movie spun off from it. The live show failed to enthrall, bogged down by prancing choreography and severe recitation, along with my pedantic familiarity with the accepted history. I was also distracted by the Lincoln box looming over to my right, swathed in flags and black bunting, quietly threatening at any moment to unfurl and eject an armed actor from its mourning balcony. What I remember most about the show was the glare of the stage lighting. It gave the impression the signing of the Declaration of Independence took place on the sands of South Beach on a glorious afternoon, featuring men improperly dressed for the occasion. Then again, asking Benjamin Franklin to eschew knickers for a Speedo might push beyond the limits of avant-garde theater, let alone a national tour.

We are old enough as a nation to have collected a legion of  mythical heroes, complete with the immutable mind pictures and sounds of events not witnessed by anyone living presently. We can imagine Patrick Henry, standing before the assembled burgesses in Virginia and shouting the words, “Give me liberty or give me death.” We can picture Nathan Hale reverse-mounted on a bareback horse, his hands tied behind him and a coarse rope noose looped around his neck, informing his red-coated executioners that “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.” The beauty in these myths, as opposed to the ones carried forth from earlier ages, is in the unarguable fact some attributable someone recorded the moments for posterity around the time of their occurrence. Does this fact make the accounts any more accurate or unassailable than stories about a Minotaur or Mount Olympus? No, but why would anyone want to challenge the foundations of our national belief system?

We have evolved as a species with a talent for creating lies and exaggerations in order to describe our place in the universe. We apply the word “metaphorical” to the patently ridiculous. We excuse embellishment, couching it in terms such as “artistic license” or “dramatic effect.” My favorite sofa is “to the best of one’s recollection,” which implies one has had better recollections than the one currently in question. I prefer the term “bullshit” because of its all-purpose utility. History is full of bullshit for the simple reason that our daily lives reek of it. People find the truth uncomfortable and difficult to grip; a large, leaden ball of dangerous fact poised to drop onto otherwise unsuspecting toes. By comparison, a lie is as light as a faux feather, tickling egos and cushioning blows.

Of course, as a society we must make it our official policy to discourage such dishonest behavior. It is a sin to bear false witness. It is a crime to perjure oneself. It is unethical to misrepresent. We preach the tenets of honesty and wink, simultaneously. Is it not a little ironic that we lie about being liars, and what does that say about the accepted history surrounding our nation? I suppose it depends on the audience, since the art of the lie is in its shifting colors and adjustable frame. Young George Washington chopping down a cherry tree, and then confessing to his father that he “couldn’t tell a lie,” is a wonderful fable for second-graders. I’ve heard adults swear in an unwavering faith that it was true, and maybe it is. We can’t confirm the truth of the story, but it would be remarkable that a story about not telling a lie is a lie in itself.

We prize the concept of direct testimony. An eyewitness account usually trumps a deck of conflicting circumstantial evidence presented at trial. Hearsay is rarely admissible in court because of its nature as a filtered version of the truth. Yet, history is replete with hearsay and second-hand reporting. Even more important are the elements of historical events omitted from the record for any number of reasons, including national security and personal reputation. From time to time, the historical record is subject to revision due to some new unearthed factoid or the posthumous release of his or her private correspondence. At what point do we step back and question the entirety of that historical record?

Revisionism as currently practiced is clearly a further example of the bullshit principle at work. There is an interest vested somewhere in a claim to correct historical inaccuracy, whether it’s national pride, personal vindication or a simple thumbing of one’s nose at a collection of scholarly peers. There exists no place mark in the chronicle of humanity that guarantees us a thorough and unbiased telling of a particular moment in time or of all the people enveloped within that moment. Everything we think we know is subject to debate, and a mostly poor debate at that, considering the uneven reliability of the collective human almanac.

If we accept that everything we already know is, at best, of questionable veracity and if we can convince ourselves that everything new offered to us through the news media or that we see and hear over the airwaves comes without any factual warranty, we’re ahead of the game, finally. Perhaps we can categorize information based on the depth and breadth of its sources, ultimately declaring as confirmed truths maybe 1 % of what we thought we knew, with the remaining 99 % deemed apocryphal. First-person accounts without sufficient corroboration may live on as a version of the truth, rather than the whole of it. If one treats the telling of Ben Franklin’s kite flying experiment in the same manner as the story of Icarus flying too close to the Sun, we remain aware of the nature of the scientific principles involved and lose nothing, except our innocence. What we gain is something that’s been in dispute for exactly two hundred and thirty-four years: our independence.

Freedom of thought is not truly free unless we can remove the bonds that constrain new ideas. The bonds of assumption, convention and accepted truths are products of our collective history, rather than of personal experience. If history is flawed, it makes sense that our ability to comprehend present-day issues is defective. By changing our definition of Truth to something so narrow and well formed it leaves no doubt of universal acceptance, we can label everything else, rightfully, as bullshit. There is nothing wrong in accepting that the signing of the Declaration of Independence took place in Philadelphia in July, in the year 1776. There should be nothing wrong in imagining Benjamin Franklin attending the event dressed in anticipation of a cooling dip in the Delaware River.

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Abstract Invention by Charlie Accetta is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Spy Next Door

When the cops come around and take a local resident into custody, it’s pretty standard to hear the neighbors chatting with members of the media, voicing surprise and offering words of support for the party under arrest. Yesterday, in towns and villages just like yours, this very scene played out in multiple instances as the FBI closed out a long investigation of a Russian-sponsored infiltration into the heart of middle class America.

The FBI placed ten people under arrest Sunday, with one other (at this writing) still at large. Trained by the Russian intelligence service, the SVR, and mostly placed in pairs as couples beginning in the mid-Nineties, their mission appears to be both vague and ambitious — to develop relationships with the influential and the knowledgeable, to obtain information regarding the CIA, US nuclear policy, relations with foreign powers, etc., and to recruit high-level government employees. Funny, I get most of that from the internet without all the fuss and muss of trying to corral a bunch of Russians set loose in our giant Disneyland.

The big question in all of this isn’t why the Russians did this. Vladimir Putin, the Russian Prime Minister at the time and a former KGB chief, has a natural affinity for undercover operations. Our why is his why not? Nor is it why the Justice Department, through two full administrations, allowed these people to operate (albeit under strict surveillance) in our country. It’s likely, over time, that the Russians became aware of our counter-intelligence activity, in a case of, we know that you know that we know…. The question is, why do it now? The official line given is that a prompt shutdown of the whole operation was due to one of the group scheduling a permanent return to Russia. Hmm … That sounds just a bit fishy. I have a better explanation.

Recently, the Obama administration has used the State Department to reestablish a dialog with Moscow, culminating with a recent visit by Russian President Medvedev to meet with the President. The timing of the arrests, along with the blaring publicity accompanying them, appears orchestrated to chill relations between the two countries. Consider that the charges are money laundering (for bringing in the payroll and expense money from South America), living under a false identity, and “belonging” to a spy ring. There appears to be no evidence suggesting that any of these spies were effective at doing their jobs. There appears to be no benefit to the US, strategically, to drop the hammer now.

So, who does benefit? For that, we need to flip the question around and decide who might feel threatened by closer ties between Russia and the United States. There’s always China, Inc. The economic expansion on the mainland is subject to many variables, some within the power of China’s leadership to control, such as relations with Taiwan (which have never been better) or the exchange rate of the Renminbi. What they can’t control is the availability of those natural resources necessary to sustain the expansion. Russia, along with Australia, is a key supplier of iron ore. Russia remains the primary source for nickel. While South Africa supplies the bulk of the world’s chromium, Russia is also a major producer. Access to these elements is a key to China’s continued growth. Any threat, in the form of state-sponsored boycott or slowdown of delivery, could be catastrophic. A Russian-US alliance represents a formidable wall in the path to China’s economic domination.

If you don’t like China, there’s always the European Union to consider. EU members, especially Germany and the former Soviet satellites, view any Russian partnership as a threat. For such an alliance to include Uncle Sam, the degree of hysteria mounts. There is no more powerful grouping, in terms of weaponry, than that of those Cold War adversaries. Together, they could easily hold the entire world hostage. For a Europe that’s known the devastation of total war, the mere possibility of facing such power is cause for nightmares. It would be in the European interest to short circuit any broad understanding in a Russo-American pact.

So, that spy next door, trimming the rhododendrons and driving the kids to school, is nothing compared to the operatives working within our own government, on behalf of China or the EU, to affect policy change through fiat. Hell, it’s just as likely that those spies grew to love America and might deign to lift a finger in anger against us; our bigger worry should be those real Americans lurking in the shadows of our most solid upright pillars. As the nosy neighbor tells the inquiring reporter – “I never, in my wildest imaginings, thought they could be against us.” The truth is, anyone can be against us. Keep your eyes open.

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Abstract Invention by Charlie Accetta is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

Friday, June 25, 2010

We Regret to Inform You That Your Cream Cheese Has Expired

Supermarket shopping is a death-defying process. No, I’m not referring to the busloads of codgers cramming the aisles and barring all escape routes from a bakery department blaze. Nor do I consider as any big deal the risks involving the salmonella rinse featured in the processing of those bagged salads. I’ve developed immunity to the army of the living dead and to Mexican-borne diseases, the latter to the point where I could drink Tijuana Springs water, if anybody had the nerve to market it. I’m talking about the dangers lurking in the dairy section.

I’m no biologist. I don’t know what the exact health effects are for consuming milk-based products that are beyond shelf life. It can’t be a good thing. Spoilage is a concern for us, for the very reason that we don’t know what the consequences are. There must be a reason, beyond the risk of fouling the interior of the refrigerator, for putting dates on dairy products. I’ll assume that it’s safety-related, which brings us to our story.

In late April 2010, I was shopping at Waldbaum’s in Centereach. When one is unemployed, going after sale items becomes more important than ever. A particular brand of cream cheese was on special. I grabbed one, turned it over to check the date and saw that only a few days of shelf life remained. There was a store clerk arranging things in an adjacent refrigerator bin and I walked over to him. My intent was strictly informational, just a heads up that Mister Cream Cheese was ready to push up daisies. When I informed him of the situation, he took the container from me and said the following:

“That’s okay, somebody will buy it.” With that, he returned the container to the shelf and I laughed.

I guess I didn’t expect that level of crass honesty. I don’t know why not, since I’m an acknowledged king of the form. In my own defense, I do draw the line at poisoning customers. Amazed, I took my fresher version of the product, went home and reported the incident to corporate headquarters. I received a reply a day or two later, Case Number 540363-A, informing me that they took such reports seriously and would address the issue at the appropriate level. I didn’t expect, nor did I receive, a follow-up report regarding any corrective action taken. I haven’t shopped at the Centereach store since.

Moving ahead to today – another Waldbaum’s, the one in Selden, and yet another cream cheese event. This time, it wasn’t a case of the product nearing its demise. No, this time the date read “May 21, 2010.” In neither case was I looking for expired goods; I just happened to pick the one. Another store clerk loomed and I greeted him with the bad news of a package left to rot, or worse. His reply:

“It was an accident.” It came out so quickly, I’m convinced it was a rehearsed line. I wasn’t having any of it. I told him it doesn’t meet the definition of an accident, especially since it’s happened to me so recently. Neglect isn’t an accident; it’s a failure to apply a level of care equal to the responsibility attached. It was like talking to a stuffed animal.

We have our corrective action, for what little it’s worth. Someone at corporate likely decided that the best course would be to stay the course and have employees plea ignorance and apologize when caught. Otherwise, sell off the existing stock and let dates be damned. I’m challenging anybody in the legal department at A & P Corporate to produce a timely, clearly worded and properly executed procedure to prevent what amounts to a major violation of local and state health codes.

Warning – this is my bailiwick. I may not be working now, but when I was, I inspired fear as a quality assurance auditor. I don’t fall for word tricks or trip over circular flowchart logic. I know when things don’t work and I know why they don’t, and root causes usually lay with executive personnel. Clearly, I’ve just given a good reason to keep me out of the employment stream, boat rocker that I am.

You may ask where the aforementioned governmental bodies charged with enforcing health codes are hiding. I don’t know and I don’t care. This is strictly a “buyers beware” issue. I check the dates. Unfortunately, those fossils shuffling around the produce department and jamming the aisles may assume (wrongly) that someone is protecting their interests. I guess we can ascribe this as a method for thinning the herd, but its coming to light won’t play well for the AARP radical set and could lead to boycotts. This issue demands some sort of address.

There is, of course, a fix for this. Add product lot numbers to the barcode SKU. It probably won’t happen, but think of the possibilities. Supermarkets are tracking shopping habits, offering discounts only when scanning a personalized shopper card during checkout. They know what I’m buying and when I’m buying it. With the added lot information, the opportunities for customer-specific offerings are endless. It’s not limited to dairy and other limited shelf life items, either.

Sure, that can of chili is dated out to the 22nd century (and guaranteed to survive a nuclear blast), but there does come a time when the larder needs to be rotated, just as much in our pantries as in the markets where we shop. An e-mail or postal reminder, with a coupon attached, of the need to replace or restock a food item will generate additional sales for the supermarket. While we’re there, we might pick up some milk and eggs, or even cream cheese. In the meantime, I’ll sit back and wait for the court order to show-cause why this post should remain up. I’ll invite the judge to meet at a local Waldbaum’s and watch me show some cause.

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Abstract Invention by Charlie Accetta is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.