Friday, February 27, 2015

Tight Jeans

Here are a couple of examples of new shapes in jeans from Spice Girl/fashion designer/soccer wifeVictoria Beckham.  For several years, she has been introducing alternatives to tight jeans.

Here is a 2012 idea -- tight jeans with flared hems.

And here is Ms. Beckham modeling her 2014 look -- very wide-legged jeans.

New Alternatives by Other Designers

I mean no disrespect to Ms. Beckham.  Hers is just one of many fashion houses that have been trying to pry young women out of tight pants, and especially tight jeans.  Here are some designer looks that were shown at fashion shows in recent years.

In 2013

Did you see any of these these in your neighborhood?  Me neither.  Ha ha ha ha ha.

In summer 2014, the trends were reeled in a bit, but the young women still weren't buying.  

Early this year, there was some capitulation -- a few thin-legged pants if not really tight ones.

A Report from California

Over many visits to southern California, I have noticed that young people there start the fashion trends that designers, and then the rest of us, adopt several fashion cycles later. 

When it comes to jeans, though, these young women have not changed their look:  The waistlines are higher than in the Britney Spears era, but otherwise, the jeans are tight.  

I was on a college campus last week, and I saw hundreds of young women.  Most were wearing tight jeans.  The next most popular looks were very short skirts and athletic-style knit leggings.  

I saw only one young woman in light, loose pants.  She looked great, but sweet young things (SYTs, my mother used to call them) generally look great, no matter what they wear.    

Here are some photos I took over the course of about 10 minutes:

Why oh why, I wondered, are these young women so attached to the tight-jean look?

Then I noticed what had caught the eye of the young man in the picture below.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Oops! Rethinking Cholesterol

The viziers of the American diet -- the federal Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee -- are poised to release new recommendations about what we should eat.  This group issues a new release every five years, and as usual, the new report will reveal that the experts have changed their minds about some things.

One is cholesterol.

Ever since 1961, the nutrition community has been warning Americans about cholesterol.  That year, the American Heart Association recommended reduced consumption of eggs to protect heart health.  The federal committee piled on, and, as recently as 2010, nutritionists were advising against "excess dietary cholesterol."

Now comes a new message:  Never mind.

According to the latest advisory from the experts, certain types of cholesterol -- saturated fat especially -- should be avoided.  But an egg at breakfast probably will not kill you.


The anti-cholesterol mania traces back about 100 years to Russia, where a researcher fed some rabbits a high-cholesterol diet for a month or two and found that the rabbits' arteries became clogged.  
Similar experiments with white rats and other mammals found no such result. 

Still, the experts reasoned, you cannot be too careful.  We all were told to avoid eggs, shrimp and just about every kind of fat, even the fat in avocados (which, it now turns out, actually works as a cholesterol buster).  Margarine was promoted as a healthier alternative to dairy butter, when, in fact, most margarine contained more trans fat (which is very bad, we learned later) than butter itself.  There are other examples.

It seems that some small subset of humans are sensitive to any amount of cholesterol while most of the rest of us are not. It may depend on whether you are more like a rabbit or more like a white rat.  Who knows?  At this time, scientists seem concerned particularly about people with diabetes.

You may have noticed, if your doctor orders regular blood tests, that the doctor these days is talking more about ratios of good cholesterol to bad cholesterol and not so much about your overall cholesterol level.  

If your doctor tells you that you have a problem with cholesterol, ask her what you should do. But, if she tells you your levels are fine, then go ahead -- scramble yourself an egg, or take a nice shrimp from the cocktail tray.

Walk on the wild side.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Western Ports Backup -- Was It Just One Guy?

A loaded truck leaves the Port of Long Beach Monday

After months of work slowdowns, ships began moving through West Coast ports (with the possible exception of Oakland) late Sunday.

The long event delayed the movement of billions of dollars of cargo across the Pacific.  Working through the backed-up shipments is expected to take at least three months, and possibly longer.

The reason for the slowdown was stalled progress in negotiations for a labor contract between the ILWU (International Longshore and Warehouse Union) and the PMA (Pacific Maritime Association.)  Port operators charged dockworkers with deliberately slowing production and union halls with failing to provide enough workers to process traffic.  By the end of the slowdown, the union said port operators were refusing to do any business on some days, including a three-day weekend when shifts on two of the days would be at premium pay.

Eventually the U.S. Labor Secretary and prominent politicians became concerned.  All remembered 2002, when a 10-day port shutdown cost the American economy an estimated billion dollars.  (Much more traffic goes through the west's 29 ports these days.)  Pressure was applied, and a deal was reached in time for the new week.

Was the Slowdown About Just One Guy?

Earlier in the weekend, I spoke with a man who has years of experience working in and observing a major port on the other side of the country.

"My initial reaction," he said, "was that the longshoremen were responsible for what happened out there.  In the East, you have problems with the mobs, but at least you can pay them off.  Those guys on the West Coast are tough."


There is some evidence that ILWU was willing to prolong the slowdown for months because of one man:  David Miller.

Miller is a former port clerk and ILWU member. The union nominated him for an arbitrator's job at the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach in 2002, a job he has held ever since.  He settles disputes between the union and the port, usually about compliance with terms of the labor contract.

The ILWU apparently believed that David Miller had gone over to the dark side.

Last week, the ILWU president wrote a letter saying the PMA was "retaining arbitrators who have openly engaged in conduct that clearly compromises their impartiality, including the development of close and personal relationships that affect decision-making."

Miller told the Associated Press last week that the written complaint was a reference to him.  Miller thinks that some decision of his -- he doesn't know which one -- upset someone in the union, and that person orchestrated a very broad and expensive retaliation.

A Los Angeles Congresswoman who backs the union said last week that ILWU leaders had told her Miller was "too close" to employers.

"A lot of my friends who are in the industry have called him personally and asked him to step down," she said, adding that Miller "doesn't think he has done anything wrong."

Terms of the new contract have not been released, but it will not be surprising if David Miller soon finds himself looking for another job.

In fact, the hiring and firing of arbitrators seems to have been the final and most contentious sticking point in almost 10 months of contract negotiations.

Unknown for now is whether the new contract includes ILWU language to allow it, or the PMA, to dismiss arbitrators unilaterally at the end of every contract period.  The PMA argued that this would allow for the firing of arbitrators who make unpopular decisions and would push arbitrators to make decisions based less on facts and more on their wish for continued employment.

Such language also raises the possibility that, by dismissing an arbitrator at the end of an employment contract, either party could make selecting a new arbitrator an issue in the next contract negotiation.

ILWU Leverage

This was probably the last good year for the ILWU to hold strong to its positions.

Next year, when the enlarged Panama Canal reopens, port customers will have more options, such as shipping directly between the East Coast and Asia, avoiding the stop and transfer of goods on the West Coast.  This could have an effect on pricing, which may not favor ports in the west or better terms for dockworkers.

In addition, the union may have reached terms to allow it to keep its rich healthcare plan -- dubbed a Cadillac plan because of its price -- for five years without arguing with the PMA about who will pay the 40 percent tax ordered for such plans, an Affordable Care Act provision that is scheduled to go into effect in 2018.

Monday, February 23, 2015

The Oscars

I usually watch the Academy Awards show, and every year I wonder why.  It's exactly like a high school assembly where the cool kids give each other prizes and congratulate themselves for being high-minded and really, really cool.

This year I had seen most of the hot movies.  I was a little afraid that Boyhood, which I saw and didn't particularly enjoy, might complete a full sweep of all the year's Best Picture awards, but no. Boyhood was stopped at third, and Birdman won.

Together those two movies generated less box office than the late-year release of American Sniper, which also was nominated and whose actors, Bradley Cooper and Sienna Miller, were said to be pretty darn good.  There was some talk that American Sniper might win the biggest prize, Best Picture.

As soon as the presenter of the Best Picture award stepped on the stage to open the envelope, though, I knew the sniper film was toast.

The presenter was Sean Penn.

Penn is even more a man of the left than most people in Hollywood, which is saying something.  (He was a great buddy of late Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez, and he once recommended that any journalist who called Chavez a "dictator" should be put in prison.  That's pretty far out there, actually more totalitarian than leftist, but, still, it's an indication of how strongly he takes his political beliefs.)

Maybe Pricewaterhouse Coopers let the cat out of the bag early.  I don't know.  But I'm pretty sure Penn would have uttered loud curse words and stomped off in a rage rather than give an Oscar to Clint Eastwood for a film about an American serviceman fighting in Iraq.

As for Birdman, which did win, that's a well-made film.  The script and cinematography do a great job of creating claustrophobic tension in the backstage areas of a Broadway theater.  The acting is excellent.

But the story itself is a little weird.  It dips deep into magical realism -- which we're seeing a lot in film and literature these days -- to set up a conclusion that is satisfying mostly in a metaphorical sense.

This is my thinking only;  no doubt others will disagree.

Tomorrow:  Another big thing that happened yesterday.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Photos from Los Angeles and Long Beach ports

 Below is a link to a photographer's blog featuring aerial shots of the situation at the West Coast's largest port complex.  

The pictures are instructive in several ways -- They illustrate the backup of ships waiting to unload, the sheer size of containers ships these days and also the numbers of container trucks unable to unload or pick up freight at a port that isn't functioning.

Following the pictures are comments.  Many are the usual rants, but there are thoughtful ones as well, some indicating the breadth of the effects of the slowdown around the country.  Worth a look, I think.


Note:  The photographer, Mike P. Kelley, is selling high-quality prints of these pictures.  I would be remiss if I did not mention that.



Friday, February 20, 2015

West Coast Port Slowdown -- Stories

Yesterday I discussed the escalating slowdown in West Coast cargo shipping.

Afterward, I talked to some people whose businesses involve international trade.  Their reactions were much harsher than I expected.

Here is what I learned.


A Woman Who Sources Metals for Shipment to China

"The ports are always slow, but much worse now than I ever believed possible.  Loaded containers being returned to the ports wait in unmoving lines. We have space reserved for vessels that are stranded outside the ports for weeks.

"It is virtually impossible to get containers in and out of Oakland and Los Angeles.  As these containers wait and wait and wait, cash gets hopelessly tied up.

"Also, we are unable to schedule any export cargo out of Portland or Seattle/Tacoma, period, and are forced to truck loaded containers into Canada to sail from Vancouver.

"Here's the kicker: Much of the cargo that would normally would originate in Chicago, Memphis, St. Louis, etc. and sail on vessels from West Coast ports has been re-routed to East Coast ports, causing enormous congestion there too.

"During the last 3 months, I have probably spent 60 percent of my time managing freight issues, up from approximately five to 10 percent.

"I'm on the side of the carriers here."


A Fashion Company Executive

"I don't think there's any company in the country that is not feeling this right now.

"We're a good month behind, and every day it continues, we get another week behind.  Even if it ends tomorrow, the ports will be working this off for the rest of the year.

"It's looking like spring merchandise, which is supposed to be 'springish,' is not going to get to the floor.

"We don't see any reason to think this is going to end soon.  That's just our gut feel."

The executive did not discuss financial effects on his company, but a smaller fashion firm, Perry Ellis International, reported this week that the port problem had cost it $23 million in revenues last quarter, more than 10 percent of its sales.


Food Exports

It was reported recently that poultry producers are taking losses of $30 million weekly because of the unavailability of shipping or cold storage to preserve unshipped products.

Fruit suppliers, whose prepared crops usually take 18 to 22 days to reach foreign markets, are now facing delivery times of 40 to 55 days.  There cannot be much demand for rotting fruit. 

By December, McDonald's was facing not just a shortage of French fries, all of which it sources in the U.S, but a particular shortage in Japan, where it operates 3,200 restaurants.  Because no West Coast shipping could be obtained, the company sent 1,000 tons of frozen French fries by air to Japan.

McDonald's also shipped another 1,500 tons of French fries from East Coast ports.  Tokyo is 4,185 nautical miles from Seattle; the distance from New York is 14,937 nautical miles. 


The Owner of an Oregon Company

"The longshoremen have been slow-walking the work for months now.  Everything is delayed and unreliable, two weeks to a month past scheduled ETA for the last months.  Unknown delays right now, but clearly longer.  

"We've cancelled all back orders from Asian sources for raw materials, and we're looking at local alternatives for the time being.  We also get some case goods.  These are disrupted, too.

"We've got two containers of expensive equipment waiting somewhere outside of Oakland for delivery and installation in Fresno.  This was due almost a month ago.  No betting on when it will be cleared for pick-up.  

"We've also got maybe six containers of product in limbo for the Port of Portland.

"Here in Portland, the container port has always been marginal.  It is 100 miles up the Columbia River for an extra two- or three-day turnaround.  The main customer of the port is Hanjin (a Korean shipper), with 80 percent of the container volume.  

"For the past several years, the Port of Portland has been paying Hanjin a $4 million to $6 million annual sweetener to continue calling on the port.  Despite this, there have been continuous problems with the longshoremen damaging equipment, halting work, causing all sorts of problems and delays for Hanjin.  A year or so ago, the ILWU (longshoremen) got into a battle with the IBEW (electricians union) over who should have the two existing jobs plugging in and watching refrigerated containers.  The dispute shut down the port and ultimately required the intervention of the governor to sort out.  

"This current dispute is the straw that broke the camel's back -- Hanjin just announced it will no longer stop in Portland.  The longshoremen working the container port are now out of their $150,000 jobs.  The last call will be in March.

"Obviously this means a loss of a lot of local work, but it's not necessarily as bad for us.  We'll ship into Tacoma and truck the goods down to Portland.  The trucking will cost $350 more, but the cost of getting a container to Tacoma is about $250 less than getting it to Portland. 

"If you ask me, the Pacific Maritime Association should've locked the workers out long ago.  The ILWU has gotten away with a non-strike -- shutting down operations while still getting paid!  I agree with those looking for a Reagan/PATCO type of solution."


News Reports

The West Coast ports story is a pretty big deal for businesses around the country, but it has not attracted much news coverage.  Today the New York Times reported on it, sort of, on the front of its Business section.

The theme was Chinese New Year and the frustration of merchants in New York's Chinatown who were unable to get traditional foods and products for the holiday. There were two large pictures from Chinatown and a smaller one of two ships at dock at the Port of Los Angeles.  

The headline said "New Year Delights, Still at Sea:  West Coast Port Dispute Disrupts a Holiday in America and China."  The article consisted of 24 paragraphs about the Chinatown situation and nine paragraphs about the port slowdown generally. 

In the news game, this is what is known as burying the lead.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

West Coast Port Slowdown

Cargo ships waiting for days to dock in LA.  Typically there are no wait times.

After nine months of negotiations, West Coast longshoremen and port operators have yet to reach a new contract.  More than half of goods imported to United States arrive at these 29 ports, and after several months of work slowdowns -- for which each side blames the other -- the flow of goods has been interrupted severely.

Some economists have estimated that the port action cost the U.S. one percent of GDP growth in the last quarter of 2014. The situation seems to have worsened considerably since the new year began.

The chart below suggests the effects are worse for exporters than importers, perhaps because many West Coast exports are perishable agricultural products.  Still, given the constant concern about American trade imbalances, this is another bit of unwelcome news.

Some data points:

     -- As of Wednesday, 32 tanker ships sat at anchor in the waters outside the Ports of Los Angeles
        and Long Beach.  There has been no count of shipping cancelled because of the port situation.

     -- At the Oakland port, which recorded year-over-year traffic increases every month in 2014,                 volume was down by 32 percent in January of 2015.

This week the U.S. Secretary of Labor has been visiting negotiators and politicians on the West Coast.  According to a spokesman, he told officials that "further delay risks hundreds of thousands of jobs and will cost American businesses hundreds of millions of dollars."

The Issues

The current slowdown has been gathering steam for months. The ILWU (International Longshore and Warehouse Union) says port operators are calling for fewer workers than are needed to process good through the port.  The PMA (Pacific Maritime Association) says union halls send only half the longshore workers who are requested.

Last weekend the PMA shut ports for the three-day President's Day Weekend.  Current longshore wages range from $35 an hour and up, and apparently include overtime pay for weekend shifts.  The operators seem to have been unwilling to shell out time-and-a-half to people who were working actively to clog the the processing of ships through ports.

In fact, the money issues have been settled in the negotiation, including reported worker raises of 14 percent over three years, and a 10 percent increase in the $80,000 pensions; health insurance copays are already $0.  (In 2013, ILWU benefits were reported to cost $33,400 per covered worker.)

These negotiations have been contentious before.  In 2002 negotiations hit a stalemate, and the PMA shut ports for 10 days.  The Bush administration invoked the Taft-Hartley Act against both parties and threatened to move the ILWU from supervision of the National Labor Relations Board to that of the Railway Labor Act, which would effectively ban strikes as against the national interest.

The threat was not acted upon, and a settlement was reached.  Another contract was negotiated in 2008 without serious conflict.  It is unlikely that the pro-labor Obama administration will put much pressure on ILWU in this year's round, and the options against port operators seem limited.

The final barrier to settlement seems to concern arbitrators, who decide contract issues between labor and port management.  Under current rules, it takes the joint agreement of the PMA and ILWU to fire an arbitrator.   The ILWU wants either side to be able to fire an arbitrator unilaterally.

Given the current level of discord, adopting such a policy would seem to ensure never-ending battles on the waterfront as both parties sought arbitrators sympathetic to their positions.

Next: Stories from the Slowdown

Most of us are used to near-seamless movement of goods back and forth across oceans.  But for people who arrange these transits, the current state of affairs is frustrating.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015


Recently, the Significant Other and I met friends for a drink at a local bar during happy hour.   The place was full, mostly of men in their 20s and 30s.  They all seemed to have ordered the same food from the happy hour menu: sliders.

The waiters carried out plate after plate of "short rib sliders." Virtually every young man had a nice plate of tiny sandwiches sitting next to his glass of craft beer.

Other menu items -- pizzas, salads, even cheese-stuffed dates wrapped in bacon -- were nowhere in evidence.  The evening was all about sliders.

Sliders in Recent History

I first became aware of sliders several years ago, when we visited a new steakhouse in the next town over.  The menu included "sliders," a term new to me, and I asked the waiter that it meant.

The waiter, a New Jersey native, explained, with a petulant roll of his eyes, that sliders were small hamburgers, served in groups of three. Then he walked away.  It's a Jersey thing.

During the evening, I observed the slider popularity.

All the men ordered plates of sliders as their first course.  All the women ordered sliders as their main course.  Sliders were selling like hotcakes.

The Origin of Sliders

There are many people on the internet who take their hamburgers -- and sliders -- very seriously.  Most of these people are men.

The generally agreed-upon history of sliders is that they were invented in 1916 by the founder of the White Castle hamburger chain.  (Just think: Next year will be the Slider Centennial!)  Sliders sold for a nickel apiece.

According to the Kitchen Project blog, the definition broadened some years later.  I quote:

      "There is considerable evidence that 'slider' was a term used for a hamburger in the United
         States Navy, perhaps as early as the 1940s or 1950s.  The term 'slider' meant a greasy
         burger that slid in easily.  A 'slider with a lid' was a cheeseburger."

Now the term "slider" has reverted to its original definition.  It is discussed widely in culinary blogs, almost always by men.  The men have posted several recipes for slider patties and tiny buns.

My general take is that authentic sliders are steamed with chopped onion, but that is as far as I dare go.  People who want food preparation advice should not look to me, as my many relatives will attest.

Advice to Restaurateurs

The popularity of sliders seems to be a male thing, just as fast food seems to appeal mainly to young men such as those I observed the other night at the bar.

The McDonald's restaurant chain is going through a tough patch right now.  If it wants to regain its mojo, I recommend adding slider appetizers and slider entrees.  Or slider appetizers with great big hamburgers for the main course.  Pairing these items with beer would be a sure-win strategy.  

I'd buy stock in a company with a menu like that.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Bill Murray on Letterman, 1982

I know a lot of people watched the "Saturday Night Live 40th Year Anniversary" program that aired Sunday on NBC.

I did not watch late-night television in 1975 and so am not familiar with the full range of the program.

Fortunately, I did catch the first broadcast of "Late Night with David Letterman" in 1982, which featured Bill Murray, an early SNL regular.  It's got some old references -- Olivia Newton John, anyone? -- but it is still hilarious.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Can't Fix Stupid

"If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging."

This useful aphorism is attributed to Will Rogers, the cowboy philosopher of the last century. It gets quoted with some regularity.  

Three New Jersey men apparently had not heard the expression or, if they had, did not take it to heart.

This got them in trouble last week.

1)  Making traffic tickets worse.

There was a man who had several traffic tickets and did not want to deal with them.

He hit on what he must have believed was a clever scheme: He said the violations had been committed by his twin brother.  Then he claimed that he himself was blind and therefore could not drive -- his twin must be the one at fault.

Unfortunately, he does not have a twin brother.  And he is not blind.

The man used these stories, several times, to postpone court dates on the traffic tickets.

Police got tired of the nonsense.  They found his driver's license information and his fingerprints and matched them.  They established that he did not, in fact, have a twin brother.

Now, in addition to traffic citations, the man faces criminal charges:  hindering apprehension, false swearing and resisting arrest.  The consequences will include not just unpaid and overdue fines, but probably some time in jail.

This man is 58 years old.  Old enough, one would think, to know better.

2)  Getting DUIs that could have been avoided.

Unlike the previous story, this one involves two young clowns.

The first guy was driving home one night, drunk.  He ran through a stop sign and plowed his car into a guard rail.  Nobody saw him, and he was not ticketed.  All he had to do was go home, sober up and take his car to a body shop the next morning.

But no.

The guy called a friend, and they hatched what they must have thought was a smart plan:  to create a sheet of black ice on the roadway where the first guy's car had hit the guardrail.  (It was cold, below 0 degrees with wind chill, at this point.)  They reasoned that this would give the first guy an excuse for his accident, assuming the police ever chose to examine what caused the dent in the guard rail, very unlikely in any event.

The young men filled two five-gallon cans with water, put them in the friend's car, drove to the still-unnoticed accident scene and dumped the water on the street.  Apparently they did this several times.

At about 2:45 a.m., a patrol officer drove up.  He noticed the first guy crossing the intersection after throwing water on the street.  The cop stopped and went to talk to the second guy, who was sitting in the driver's seat of his idling car, shirtless (!), with the other can of water, partly full, inside.  He claimed he hadn't been driving.

The policeman deduced, probably from skid marks, what had happened in the earlier situation.  He also ascertained, not surprisingly, that both men were drunk.

The first young man now faces prosecution for driving while intoxicated, failure to stop at a stop sign, leaving the scene of an accident, failure to report an accident and creating a dangerous condition by purposely icing the intersection.

The second guy has been charged with driving while intoxicated.

The two of them presumably will be made to pay for the cost of spreading a half ton of salt on the then-slick roadway to make it safe.

It is unlikely that either of these young men would be facing charges of any kind if they hadn't cooked up their idiot plan.

Sadly, alcohol and good sense, like alcohol and driving, do not go together.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Fifty Shades of Criticism

Below is the preview of the new smash movie.  I'm sharing it with you, but I honestly can't recommend it.  It's actually pretty boring.  I just wanted an illustration.

Everyone knows by now that the book, Fifty Shades of Grey, and its two sequels have sold jillions of copies and inspired the film.  The story is a variation on the traditional chick-lit model.  The variation involves bondage and whips and other implements of torture.

So much for sexy underwear.

I am not a fan of the romance oeuvre, or at least any of the titles that came after Pride and Prejudice.
But there is fun to be had with Fifty Shades of Grey, and that is in reading reviews of the poorly written book and its apparently so-so movie version.

Literary and film critics love opportunities to review works like these, trotting out hilarious examples and silly riffs.  Below are bits of a few articles that I enjoyed.

1) Dave Barry reviewed the first book in the April 4, 2014 issue of Time magazine.

"I think I might be the only man who read this book. I did it sneakily, hiding the cover, especially when I was on an airplane, which actually is a good place to read this book because you have access to a barf bag. I say this because of the writing style, which is . . . OK, here’s one tiny sample of the writing style:

"'Did you give him our address?'
"'No, but stalking is one of his specialties,' I muse matter-of-factly.
Kate’s brow knits further."

"That’s right: This is the kind of a book where, instead of saying things, characters muse them, and they are somehow able to muse them matter-of-factly. And these matter-of-fact musings cause other characters’ brows—which of course were already knitted—to knit still further. The book is over five hundred pages long and the whole thing is written like that. If Jane Austen (another bestselling female British author) came back to life and read this book, she would kill herself."

2) Anthony Lane, a true champ, has read the book AND seen the movie.  He dishes on both in the Feb. 25 New Yorker.

"On the other hand, the film, by dint of its simple competence—being largely well acted, not too long, and sombrely photographed, by Seamus McGarvey—has to be better than the novel. It could hardly be worse. No new reader, however charitable, could open “Fifty Shades of Grey,” browse a few paragraphs, and reasonably conclude that the author was writing in her first language, or even her fourth. There are poignant moments when the plainest of physical actions is left dangling beyond the reach of her prose: “I slice another piece of venison, holding it against my mouth.” The global appeal of the novel has led some fans to hallow it as a classic, but, with all due respect, it is not to be confused with 'Madame Bovary.' Rather, 'Fifty Shades of Grey' is the kind of book that Madame Bovary would read. Yet we should not begrudge E. L. James her triumph, for she has, in her lumbering fashion, tapped into a truth that often eludes more elegant writers—that eternal disappointment, deep in the human heart, at the failure of our loved ones to acquire their own helipad."

3) Viv Groskop wrote this in the Feb. 15 Guardian.

"I fear that what you think of Fifty Shades of Grey may say more about you than it says about the movie itself. Personally, I was preoccupied throughout by one question: who cleans the Red Room of Pain (Mr Grey’s in-house dungeon)? It is extremely tidy, well-ordered and hygienic. Someone is doing an excellent job there. Let’s celebrate that person.

"This was just one of many practical questions raised by this strange, sometimes beautifully filmed, but deeply unsatisfying movie. There are far too many non sequiturs and narrative cul-de-sacs. How can Christian Grey’s life be so controlled and yet his mother is able to enter his house without ringing the doorbell? How did he find out that Ana works in the hardware store? Why, when he is the big, all-controlling boss man, does he let the chignon-wearing grey-suited automaton secretary ladies barge in on his “business meeting” (about butt plugs) with Ana?"

4) Peter Travers of Rolling Stone started his book/film critique thusly in the Feb. 11 edition.

 "I'm shocked — shocked, do you hear me?!? — that the film version of E.L. James' Fifty Shades of Grey is such a dull, decorous affair, about as erotic as an ad for Pottery Barn. Yeah, the book attracted 100 million readers in 52 languages. But the book sucked. I know there are three novels (Fifty Shades of Grey, Fifty Shades Darker, and Fifty Shades Freed),  but I only made it through the first one. Literary torture isn't my thing. But at least James suggested there might be something to learn from what connects a dominant and a submissive. (Only amateurs say 'sadist' and 'masochist.')

"Onscreen, directed by a slumming Sam Taylor-Johnson (Nowhere Man) from a sanitized script by Kelly Marcel, we have the story of a poor, virginal English major — one Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson). She finds the perfect man: Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), a 27-year-old,  techno-billionaire  hottie out to stop world hunger. Christian has a single flaw — he gets off by blindfolding Ana, tying her up in his Red Room of Pain, cuffing her to the wall and flogging her. What's a girl to do?

"According  to the romance-novel sympathies of this movie, the answer is: domesticate him into a normal guy who'll cuddle in the sack, charm her parents and do her bidding. Whoops! Now who's being the dominant?"

For more fun, check out the full reviews available on the publications' websites.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Conspiracy Theories: Flight 370

Who shot JFK?  What happened to Amelia Earhart?  Do we really know the truth about Area 51 in Roswell, New Mexico?

When it comes to conspiracy theories, there are two kinds of people:  People who accept them at face value, and people who like to poke holes in them.  I belong to group No. 2.

The Malaysian Jet

The official flight path, maybe.  Or maybe not.
Next month should see a bumper crop of new conspiracy theories to mark the first anniversary of the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370.

This was a serious event, not one for jest, but the mystery is so profound that it has provoked all manner of speculation as to where the airplane and its passengers, almost certainly dead, are today.

Most of the people who try to solve this mystery no doubt mean well, but many of their ideas are, unfortunately, pretty nutty.

Here's a theory I read recently:  Hijackers diverted the flight for the purpose of selling the airplane. The airplane might be worth as much as $40 million, which is a lot of money, but I see some problems:

       -- What do you do with the passengers?  Are you willing to kill 239 people for $40 million?

       -- Who is going to want to buy a used passenger plane with no maintenance records?

       -- Is Boeing going to be willing to sell spare parts for an airplane whose VIN number
          matches that of a hijacked jet?

       -- Even if your target market is a bunch of terrorists, are you going to trust them to send
           you a wire transfer of the money?  Wouldn't they just kill you and grab the keys?

See?  This thought may be interesting, but it leads nowhere.

A Recent Theory

The latest theory was floated at the end of 2014 by the former executive of a small French airline.  He thinks the American military blew up the plane and never admitted it.  

Here's his story, as reported in Britain's Independent newspaper:  The plane "may have been remotely hijacked by hackers."  A fire aboard the plane forced its crew to turn off all communication devices.  The fire consumed all the oxygen on the plane, killing everyone aboard but not damaging the shell of the craft or its remotely controlled navigation to Diego Garcia, an island with an American military facility.

The French guy suspects that the Americans detected a large non-communicating craft approaching the island and shot the plane down.

Here are my problems with this story:

      -- How did the hijackers get remote access to the innards of a huge airliner?

      -- How did a fire start on the plane, destroying the communications systems and killing the people but not affecting the navigation controls or the plane's structural elements?

      -- Why wouldn't the Americans admit shooting down a presumed hostile craft?  Remember, in the late 1980s, the American Navy mis-identified an Iranian passenger plane as an enemy fighter jet and shot it down.  The incident embarrassed the U.S., but it was not shushed up.  It was reported on the front pages of newspapers worldwide the next morning.

The French theorist said witnesses in the Maldives -- 650 miles away -- told him they saw a huge plane colored like the Malaysian jet flying at low altitude toward Diego Garcia.  There were reports, he said, that a fire extinguisher, possibly from the jet, washed ashore, but, like the witnesses, it was never found.

He also said he received an ominous warning from a British intelligence officer against "taking 'risks'" by looking into the fate of MH370.

Diego Garcia

Diego Garcia, remote and mysterious, figures in many conspiracy theories that involve Americans.

The island is home to 1,700 Navy forces who operate a deep-water port and two long jet runways and presumably do some intelligence gathering as well.

Below is a map that shows the relative locations of Kuala Lumpur, where Flight 370 originated, and Diego Garcia.

Another Americans-Did-It Theory

 Last year, a blogger who affected to know a lot about spies, military procedures and Diego Garcia speculated that the CIA, Boeing and the American military redirected the flight -- also remotely -- to the island and covered it with a giant airplane tent.  Their purpose: to recover top-secret information that had been purloined and was being conveyed to Beijing, the flight's intended destination.

Poking holes in this story is like shooting fish in a barrel.

      -- What happened to the people on the jet?  Did the passengers arrive alive and return to their homes on the QT?  Did the Americans kill all those aboard the diverted plane?  Americans, even loyal service members, will not keep secrets like these.

      -- Why didn't the Americans ask Malaysian Airlines to remove the spies/documents/technology from the plane before it took off?  If we diverted every plane carrying China-bound national secrets, wouldn't this have happened many, many times before?

      -- And what's the deal with remote-controlled jets?  I got an RC helicopter as a holiday gift a few years back, and I couldn't even get the thing to fly across the driveway.

End Note

It's fun to poke holes in silly ideas, but the mystery remains.  And, when you have a big question, it's probably more likely to be solved if you have more people working on it, not fewer.  Even if some of the answers are less plausible than others.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Whose Problem Is Brian Williams?

Brian Williams

Here is a picture of Brian Williams.  He was a network news anchor with a big Q-score.  His title was "managing editor" of an evening news broadcast, but what was more important about him was his great hair.

True, he went out to "report" on news stories, but the really important thing was that people tuned into his show because he was handsome and spoke with an unoffensive accent.

In fact, Brian Williams the anchor did not do ANY actual reporting.

What he did was to go out with a team -- a producer who did the research and shaped the story and set up appropriate interviews, a camera person who arranged the shots, a makeup person who touched up his face and, probably, a wardrobe person who also made him look good.  Plus one or more persons who arranged his transportation, his deluxe lodging, and his limo to each "shoot."

What Brian Williams did was step out of his limo, read his lines and, sometimes, ask prepared questions of prepared witnesses.

For this he was paid dozens of millions of dollars a year.

I tried to find a photo of Brian Williams with a crew, but none seems to be available online.

Now it appears that Mr. Williams has made up stories that exaggerate his news-gathering experiences to enhance his reputation as a courageous reporter.  I sort of get it.  If I were paid dozens of millions of dollars annually because of my Q-score, I'd probably feel a little embarrassed about presenting myself as an actual journalist.

Thankfully, I have been spared this discomfort.

The Real Problem

That Mr. Williams lies about his dangerous news-gathering exploits is a weakness, no question.  But, perhaps worse, is the indictment of his employer.

Williams wasn't alone on that helicopter in Afghanistan.  He was surrounded by a crew who knew his outrageous claims were false.  They never said anything, even quietly, in the network office in New York, that might have headed off Williams' reach for relevance as well as wealth.

It's not surprising that Williams was busted, finally and not with heavy malice,  by the helicopter pilot who actually was at the controls of the bird that went down.  The pilot made much less money,  but he was part of an organization where there is no Williams-like wealth to be made but where the respect of one's fellows is primary.

I never have watched any network's evening news show.  I'm pretty sure I never will.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Another ISIS Casualty

Kayla Mueller

An irredeemably idealistic young Arizona woman, 25, has died while being held captive by the irredeemably irrational Islamic State.

Through its very efficient communications system, ISIS has conveyed images of Kayla Mueller's corpse to her family, who acknowledged yesterday that their daughter is gone.  

ISIS says the young woman died in a building that was bombed by the Jordanian air force.

I don't believe it.  It's way too convenient for the terrorists, a curious and crass attempt to claim the high ground.  By this rationale, the Islamic State is a victim.  Good luck with that.

Even if Ms. Mueller died in a bomb attack, which I doubt, the blame accrues to the Islamic State, which held her against her will in a war zone.

Ms. Mueller went to Syria in 2013 to help refugees and was captured soon afterward by ISIS, which pressed, as usual, for a cash ransom in negotiations that ended late last summer.  

It has been suggested that ISIS continued to hold her because it did not want to be seen staging the public execution of a woman.  Since its members don't appear to believe women have basic human rights, I don't get why killing one would be a problem for them.  Of course, logic has never been an ISIS strong suit.

Whatever happened, Kayla Mueller's blood is on its hands, just like that of James Foley, Steven Sotloff, David Haines, Herve Gourdel, Allan Henning, TV cameraman Raad al-Azzouri, Peter Kassig, Haruna Yukawa, Kenji Goto, Jordanian pilot Moaz al-Kassabah and untold thousands of unfortunate Syrians, Kurds, Iraqis and Egyptians.

If there is a just God, these people will suffer more than any of their victims.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Diagnosis through Art

There is an unusual hand condition called Dupuytren's contracture that affects an estimated 3 percent of white men over the age of 40, and a lesser number of somewhat older women.  It has a strong genetic correlation, and its effects vary by patient.

The essence of the condition is a tightening of the inside tissue, usually of the ring and/or baby fingers, that makes it more difficult over time to straighten the hand.  There are various treatments, the first a surgery devised by a French doctor, Baron Guillame Dupuytren, who described and named the disease in the early 19th century.

Dupuytren's in History

Not all medical symptoms are documented in careful notes preserved down the centuries.  So it was with Dupuytren's.  At some point, doctors began calling it the "papal benediction," based on its resemblance to historical depictions of European saints.

Below is a modern medical guide's illustration of the papal benediction, aka Dupuytren's disease, in its advanced stages:

There were no photographs in the years before the condition was described, and now many doctors and people with Dupuytren's look at the images that do remain -- mostly religious art -- and see it that it has a long history.  

It seems clear that artists were familiar with the condition and were depicting it long before it had a name.  Once you start looking, you see it everywhere.

A few examples are below:

St. Peter at St. Peter's Basilica, Rome

St. Nicholas at Melisende Psalter, Jerusalem

St. Patrick near Saul, Ireland

St. Francis of Assisi, from the workshop of Rubens

St. Sebastian, on the left, (with St. Appollonia right) by Bici di Neri

St. Benedict of Nursia by El Greco

St. James the Minor by El Greco


As genetically passed conditions go, Dupuytren's is not particularly scary.  It seems not to have inhibited the careers of playwright Samuel Beckett or Ronald Reagan.

The video below suggests it can be treated successfully even for a major classical pianist.

Grandma's Celebrity Gossip

The latest report from our popular, California-based columnist

Twenty years ago or so, Adele, myself and the two Sylvias used to have lunch at that place on Melrose with the wooden benches. They thought it was fun, like sitting at a picnic table.

Me, I thought it was more like a prison camp. I brought my own cushions.

Anyway, the hostess was a nice girl named Francesca. A bit of a zhlub and a noshnik, she was always with the Jenny Craig jokes. Us she called her blue-haired ladies.

I nearly plotzed when I  found out that not only did she drop dead, but she was the daughter of Conrad Hilton and Zsa Zsa Gabor. Who knew?

Her father, one of the richest men in the world, left her a measly $100,000 in his will. Had I known he was such a schnorrer, I would have tipped better.

Zsa Zsa is 97 and hasn’t spoken a word in 20 years -- not since she klopped the Beverly Hills cop. In bed she’s laid up, the arestant of that husband of hers, Prince Frederic von Shmuck (von Anhalt). Prince-Schmince. In Austria, if you fill out a form and send them a check for $150, anybody can get a title. What, you never heard of Prince Matchabelli or Duke Ellington?

My Grandson Ronnie and his wife Shelby took me and their two kids, Leah and the other one, to see “Wicked” at the Pantages. It’s a musical based on “The Wizard of Oz,” but with lousier songs. Oy, so noisy it was, worse than those tchepping Muppets.

Outside were the usual no-goodniks roaming the boulevard dressed like Batman, Spider-Man, Michael Jackson, and other cartoony characters. Having his picture taken with them was Adam Sandler. Him I never liked with the smutty movies. I told Ronnie to ask him if he was any relation to George Sandler of the department stores, but instead, he told him I was a big fan of “Water Boy”-- a movie I never in my life saw.

Then Adam Sandler took a picture of me and him with his camera. He said he would post it on the Tweety Pie, but Ronnie said, so far, he hasn’t seen it.

Go figure.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Oregon: The Governor's Record

Kitzhaber in Context

I spoke yesterday of Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber, a Democrat now receiving a fair amount of scrutiny on ethics issues.

These concerns no doubt cut into his vote total in deep blue Oregon, but he still managed a comfortable 49-46 percent re-election victory last November.

Kitzhaber is now serving his fourth term. He was elected twice and governed from 1995 - 2003, then term-limited out; he returned to office in elections in 2010 and 2014.

As such, the governor has had more influence on the state than any other person for the last 20 years.

This is unfortunate because, in several ways, Oregon is not doing well.  I cite one recent issue and two long-term ones.

The Healthcare Website

Oregon's Affordable Care Act rollout was the biggest flop in the country.  The state allocated $240 million to Oracle America to devise its state program.  When the result proved completely unworkable, Oregon joined the federal site.

The state blamed Oracle, a huge and well-regarded tech corporation.  Oracle said Oregon had launched a "smear campaign" and defended its work.

Oracle claims Oregon insisted that the website construction be built on a "time and materials" basis, with micromanagement and repeated change orders frustrating the project.  An Oracle representative said this:

     "That decision was akin to to an individual with no construction experience undertaking
     to manage the processes of designing and building a massive multi-use downtown
     skyscraper without an architect or general contractor."

In fact, Gov. Kitzhaber is a medical doctor.  Even after the website debacle, his 2014 campaign received hefty donations from apparently every healthcare association and group in the state.

Oregon now is paying Deloitte Consulting $35 million to "transition" Oregon to adoption of another state's functional healthcare website.

Weak School Performance

Last month, Education Week released state school rankings.  Oregon's results were embarrassing.

Oregon was ranked 40th in K-12 achievement, just behind Arkansas.

Washington, just north of Oregon, fared much better, ranking ninth.  The states have similar school budgets and similar demographics.

Additionally, Oregon had the fourth lowest high school graduation rate in the country, and the worst graduation rate for white students.

Another survey revealed that 24 percent of Oregon students in grades four through eight missed three or more days of school each month, or 15 percent of the school year.  Not surprisingly, those students were a year behind their peers in reading fluency.

While most states spent the last 10 years making gains on the National Assessment of Educational Process, Oregon's performance stayed flat.

State writers say that the problem seems to be that Oregon's average income and average adult education levels are lower than those in Washington.

So it's the economy's fault, not the state's schools.

State Economy

Gov. Kitzhaber doesn't seem to be concerned about Oregon's economy, however.

On the plus side, he noted recently that Oregon just crossed an important line:  The state now has 2,000 more employed residents than it had in 2007, just before the Great Recession.

On the minus side, there are 234,000 more adults living in Oregon than there were in 2007.  Labor-force participation has dropped from 64 percent then to 60.3 percent now.  The official unemployment rate is the sixth highest among American states.

(One factor may offset the labor force participation rate somewhat.  Oregon has a growing elderly population consisting of retiring  Baby Boomers and -- contrary to the spin about edgy, cool Gen-Y kids moving to Portland -- a lot of senior citizens relocating to the state.)

On the plus side, employment was picking up at an increasing rate in Oregon at the end of last year.

On the minus side, the average wage in the state dropped 3 cents per hour between 2013 and 2014.  Half the new jobs were in retail stores and at government agencies.

These numbers do not suggest economic dynamism.

Where Are the Republicans?

Other deep blue states -- California and Massachusetts and New York, for example -- have elected Republican governors within the last 25 years.  Not Oregon.  Its slow economy, the governor's unseemly ethical problem and shockingly bad school results would make good campaign issues in other states.

But Oregon's GOP couldn't make the sale with the state's voters.

In November, Oregon's voter turnout was very high, nearly 70 percent.  In contrast to a trend of Republican victories across the nation, Oregon re-elected its governor for a historic fourth term, and also re-elected a "vulnerable" Democratic U.S. senator, who won by a crushing 19 points.  The Democratic majority in the state senate also was enlarged.

Voters clearly were following issues.  They approved a measure to legalize marijuana.  Then, over the opposition of the governor and the re-elected senator, they repealed, by 2 to 1,  a 2013 law allowing drivers' licenses for undocumented immigrants.

Oregon's Republicans may be the most bungling bunch of politicians in the country today.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Is Something Rotten in the State of Oregon?

For decades now, Oregon has been regarded as one of those good-government states, not afflicted with the cronyism and corruption of, say, Louisiana or New York or New Jersey.

It may be that the worm has turned.

This week, Oregon's largest newspaper called for the resignation of the governor, John Kitzhaber, who was re-elected last year.

The issue is the governor's fiancee, whom Kitzhaber describes as Oregon's first lady.

There are her petty problems -- the first lady's use of an unauthorized state pass to park her car for free in downtown Portland; her sham marriage for money some years ago to an undocumented immigrant seeking a green card; her helping a former boyfriend buy property for an illegal marijuana farm. Also her under-reporting of taxable income.

What seems to have upset the Oregonian, though, is the first lady's repeated instances of trading on her position to get consulting jobs with agencies and companies doing business with the state.  To quote the editorial:

     "To recite every reported instance in which (Cylvia) Hayes, ostensibly under Kitzhaber's
      watchful eye, has used public resources, including public employee time and her 'first
      lady' title, in pursuit of professional gain would require far more space than we have here
      and, besides, repeat what most readers already know. Suffice it to say there's a pattern,
      and the person who bears the responsibility for allowing it to form and persist is
      Kitzhaber, who should known better. After all, as he pointed out during Friday's press
      conference, he's been serving in public office on and off since the 1970s."

The newspaper, which was beaten, several times, on the story by a scrappy Portland weekly, endorsed Kitzhaber for re-election last year.  Now it has changed its mind.

Oregonian reporters recently uncovered collusion between the first lady and volunteers in Kitzhaber's 2010 campaign.  The volunteers found work for her with "groups interested in Oregon policy" and then were given jobs in the governor's administration.

The paper's editorial said the governor had accomplished much in the state, but concluded:

      "He is now less a governor than a source of unending distraction. He can no longer lead
       Oregon effectively and should resign. His constituents deserve better."

For his part, the governor insists that he isn't going anywhere.

Tomorrow:  Oregon Missteps

Friday, February 6, 2015

Oakland Schools

Teachers in Oakland, Calif., have been working without a contract since 2013.  Negotiations are continuing every two weeks, and it is said the two sides are near a settlement.

So I was surprised to read the other day that teachers in 15 Oakland schools are conducting an industrial-style, work-to-rules slowdown.

Elementary and middle-school teachers are leaving their schools as soon as the bell rings, 6.75 hours after they arrive.  High school teachers are staying a little longer, for seven hours.

The teachers' union claims it did not initiate the work slowdowns.  Such decisions, it said, are taken by individual school faculties.

There is a word for this kind of behavior:  unprofessional.

Teachers will have their jobs, plus back pay, once a contract is signed.  But children only get one shot at first grade.  Teachers who fail to give their best efforts to students are committing educational malpractice.

Contract Negotiations

Here are the basic elements of Oakland's latest offer to its teachers:  a 10 percent raise over the next 18 months, plus another 1.5 percent if expected state funding increases arrive.  The district also has agreed to the union's request to reduce class size at the K-3 levels from 30 to 24 students.

The union says it wants raises of 14 percent to 17 percent and caps on special education class sizes.

The teachers say their pay -- which averages $55,000 --  is low for the area.   The administration says it pays much more for benefits -- $13,750 per year -- than other districts in the area.

The district wants to be able to pay teachers to work extended hours or days at struggling schools.

When teacher openings arise, the district wants schools to select new hires.  The union wants the jobs filled based solely on seniority.

And why wouldn't they?  According the district's own evaluations, 94 percent of its teachers are "highly qualified."

If only the results matched the numbers.

Oakland Unified School District

Oakland lies just across the bay from San Francisco.  It has a bifurcated population:  a small group of relatively wealthy people, mostly white, who live in the eastern hills above the city, and a much larger, much poorer, heavily minority population in the flats below.

The bifurcation also is evident in district results.  The schools in the heights are well regarded, and the ones in the flats struggle with the usual inner-city problems.

In 2012, the district's graduation rate was 62.6 percent.  Of those graduates, only 42.3 percent met state standards (grade C or above) for college readiness.

Ten years ago, the district was so broke and badly managed that the state took it over and ran it for five years, possibly to little effect.  Oakland is said still to be heavy on bureaucracy, but there have been many initiatives aimed at groups of students -- African-American males, students from non-English-speaking families, the more than 10 percent of students who are chronically absent  -- who need more help.  More than 10,000 students of the district's 47,000+ enrollment attend district-authorized charter schools.

New Superintendent

One ray of hope in Oakland is its new superintendent, who took the job in 2014.  He is a son of a hard-working African-American single mother, and his life story resonates, particularly with poor families.

In interviews, he asserts that schools "can't ask young people to adapt to the way we want to teach them.  We must teach them in a way that is conducive to how they learn."  He often quotes an education professor who once told him, "If they didn't learn it, you didn't teach it."

He seems to mean what he says.  His early actions included cutting administrative staff and redirecting money to teaching.

Still, the new superintendent is young, 42, and this is his first job leading a school district.  Previously, as a principal, he turned around a tough high school in Denver, and he later served as an assistant superintendent in that larger district.   But Oakland is a great big challenge, and he has his work cut out for him.

Back to the Teachers

An article in the San Francisco paper this week quoted several people in Oakland.

A first-grade teacher who leaves her building within 10 minutes of each day's closing bell:
"It's really hard not doing what I want to do.  Kids from last year or the years before are stopping and wanting to chat.  It's hard to cut that off and leave it behind."  She said she normally would work two or three more hours each day and also several hours weekly at home, but the district's offer isn't good enough.  Teachers at her school also want the seniority rights issue taken off the table.

The superintendent:  "The talks at the table have been very open and straightforward and collegial.  To have actions outside the table that don't align with that and suggest that we aren't interested in supporting our teachers isn't accurate."

A school board member: "The teachers are organizing the parents.  Parents are somehow under the impression that we haven't made any kind of offer, that we're stonewalling the teachers.  That is just not true."

A parent:  "I do support (the teachers), but I'm a professional and I don't get paid for all the hours I work.  Work it out.  I don't think you need to do it at the expense of my child."

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Disease on the Seas