Monday, March 30, 2015

Disaster Selfies

There was a big gas explosion last week in the East Village neighborhood of New York.  The fire burned for hours.  Two people died.

Naturally, the first reaction of a bunch of nitwits was to take selfies at the scene.

The woman with the selfie stick in the photo below explained herself when people criticized her.
      "My intention was to point out how many people post selfies in inappropriate times and it backfired," she said.
      I'm not sure I believe her.

Below are two buffoons who actually posted their gleeful selfie on social media.

Here is another social media selfie posted by an Iowa woman who works for a political party.  (Perhaps that explains why she is tone-deaf to the nuance of making a tragic scene all about herself.) To be fair, she did apologize -- after her picture went viral and drew many expressions of outrage.  

Here is a television news worker grabbing a photo of himself at the same scene.

It's Not Just Us

Actually, Americans are not the only people who display bad manners in the selfie department.

Below are some pictures of Australians taking selfies last year during a 14-hour hostage crisis in Sidney.  Two people were killed, and a whole bunch of others took pictures of themselves.

Here is an amusing video of a selfie-shooting French policeman during the investigation of a terrorist siege of a Paris magazine office in which 12 people were killed.

And here is a happy teen letting her friends know that she is at a prison camp where 1.1 million people were exterminated.  Look at me! I'm at Auschwitz!  :-)


All these pictures are in very poor taste, of course.

But there is another, more basic critique of the selfie phenomenon.  It is that, in our eagerness to document our presence at interesting scenes or events or works of art, we sacrifice experiencing what we behold.  We do not pay attention to what we see.  We turn our backs on the interesting stuff and put our faces in the foreground. Ultimately, everything becomes about us, only about us.

The Cancer Biography

Several years ago, this book the history of cancer, was written and released by doctor/researcher Siddhartha Mukherjee.  I read it earlier this year and was, by turns, horrified, baffled, impressed, moved and hopeful.

Cancer occurs when some switch activates in the body, causing abnormal cells to multiply in one area or several or the blood system.  Cancer is the name for not just one disease but a variety of diseases, each with its own series of variations.

Early in the last century, cancer research began in earnest.  Attempted treatments included surgery, radiation and chemotherapy.  The clinicians meant well, of course, but author's descriptions of their efforts read like torture inflicted on desperately sick people.

If a mastectomy could eradicate a breast cancer, it was reasoned, maybe the further removal of all a woman's lymph nodes and tissue up to her neck would be even more effective.  If mustard gas, a chemical weapon deployed in World War I was deadly, maybe it could be coaxed to kill metastasizing cancer cells.

The researchers and the cancer patients were desperate and, more often than not, frustrated.

Congress began allocating research money in 1971 for a War on Cancer.  Research accelerated, but progress was fitful at best.  Here is a chemotherapy milestone report from about the middle of the book:

        "In 1985, the worst blow to oncology came from the discoveries of Harvard biologist
        John Cairns. By researching  state registries of cancer deaths, Cairns found that new
        oncological treatments saved 35,000 to 40,000 lives a year. Unfortunately, this was
        still less than five percent of cancer patients: More than 30 years after . . . initial
        research, only one in 20 patients had lived longer because of cancer treatment."

Still, the work continued.  Dogged researchers, each devoting years to one small piece of the huge puzzle puzzle -- a specific cancer, a cell process, genetic correlations -- gradually improved our understanding of how specific cancers arise and grow.

A high point in the book comes around the year 2000, when a new drug, Gleevec, proves effective in the treatment of CML, a pernicious and deadly leukemia.  The drug targeted an enzyme that allowed leukemia to grow.  Patients with hopeless diagnoses suddenly felt well again; their white blood cell counts returned to normal.

Reading about the CML victory after a long slog through many small accretive advancements makes the reader want to whoop for joy.  But then, after a period on Gleevec, many CML patients found that their cancer had mutated again and resumed its attack on their bodies.

Fortunately, the pace of progress has accelerated in the years since.  There are many reasons for hope.

The book is not an easy read, but its writer weaves the stories of driven researchers, ardent fundraisers and individual cancer patients into a narrative that explains the science behind each new problem and each new discovery.  It is a real achievement.

Tonight PBS will begin the broadcast of a three-part series based on the book and with the same title.  The filmmaker, Ken Burns, has turned out many fine documentaries.  Just about all of us have a family member or friend who has had cancer.  I think the program will be worth a look.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Teacher Effectiveness in New York

Yesterday, I spoke of the sad performance of public schools in New York City.

The chancellor of the system called the situation "unacceptable."  She said, “Our schools must be a place where students feel safe, supported, and engaged in learning – no matter their zip code or the challenges they may face at home.”

No one disagrees with her sentiment.  The question is how to achieve the goal she has set.

Here's a worst-case scenario in which the school district tried to do the right thing but was stymied.

A Bad Teacher

In February, the New York Post ran a sad story.  It described a city teacher who had received "unsatisfactory" performance ratings for six years in a row.  (This in a city where 96 percent of teachers are rated "effective" or better.)

The district moved to fire the teacher. After a 16-day hearing, the hearing officer conceded the teacher did not control her classroom, did a poor job of lesson planning and had a bad attendance record. (She was absent or late more than a third of the year.)

On the other hand, the hearing officer (selected jointly by the school district and the teachers union) did not conclude that the teacher did a poor job; rather, he said, she had not received enough coaching.

The Post article quoted testimony from an assistant principal's observation of the teacher's classroom in her sixth year on the job.  He described what he saw in the classroom as "chaos."

            “Students up out of their seats, at least one was running, another was demonstrating
     karate moves on the closet door and the majority of the students were not involved in
     anything instructional — an issue that has repeatedly plagued your tenure as a
     classroom teacher,” he wrote at the time.
             Three of her 6-year-olds were injured in a classroom melee that day, he added.
            Amid the “mayhem,” the assistant principal wrote, the teacher was “buried in a corner at
      a computer table” where she could not monitor all the kids.
            She said she was “re-sharpening pencils” that were too sharp — to prevent accidents.
      She claimed the students were “walking around the room working on word activities.”

If this was going on during on during a formal classroom observation, you have to wonder what was happening when the teacher was not being watched by an administrator.

Sadly, this was a first-grade teacher.  First grade is really important:  It is when students begin to read and make numerical calculations.  It is when they must learn, if they haven't in kindergarten, to pay attention in class and focus on their lessons. Every other school year builds on the first grade foundation.

If this teacher had classes of 20 first-grade students every year for six years, she basically threw a wrench into the school careers of 120 children.  It would be interesting to learn the reactions of second-grade teachers who inherited the students who had been in her classroom.

The teacher, still drawing her $84,500 salary, has been placed in a substitute teacher pool to minimize damage to students.  She also is suing the school district for discrimination.

If the school district cannot rid itself of this teacher, it is difficult to see how it can tackle the many other challenges to achieve  better results for its students.

The Rubber Room

Reading the Post article reminded me of another article  -- "The Rubber Room" by Steve Brill -- that ran in The New Yorker in 2008.  It described how the school district was keeping more than 600 staff members on the payroll but confined for each schoolday in "rubber rooms" where they did no work but, most important for the district, had no access to children.

These teachers had abused students sexually and physically, had abused drugs and alcohol to the point of incoherence in front of classrooms.  The New Yorker was unable to do the math, in two tries, but by my calculations, the rubber room employees accounted for 0.008 percent of the roughly 78,000 teachers in the system.

That the district was unable to get rid of such extreme bad apples was bad enough.  Worse, the article revealed, a full 1.8 percent of teachers -- more than 1,400 -- were classified as unsatisfactory, like the teacher described above, and were still working in classrooms.

The article explored why these unsatisfactory teachers had not been released.  In conversations with a hearings officer, the officer said he was unaware of any hearing that had resulted in the actual firing of a teacher for incompetence.

The New Yorker article cited a Brookings Institution study of the Los Angeles schools, another troubled district.  The study concluded that "having a top quartile teacher rather than a bottom quartile teacher four years in a row would be enough to close the black-white (test) score gap."

A district employee affirmed the point.  "If you look at the upper quartile (of teachers) and the lower quartile, you know that these people are not interchangeable."

The message was plain: Teachers are really, really essential.  Strong teachers have a critical, positive effect on student learning.  Getting such teachers into classrooms is the single best thing a school district can do to for its students.

New York School Improvements

Much has changed in New York education since the Rubber Room story ran.  Many more charter schools have opened; not all are great, but the ones that fail are closed.  Parents are asked to name the schools they want their children to attend, listing several schools in their order of preference.

The school district has tightened up on pre-tenure teacher evaluations, deferring what used to be automatic tenure awards in many cases.  Teachers passed over for tenure after the traditional three-year period now may face deferrals for an additional year or two; many of these teachers do not receive tenure.

This has a limited effect, however.  As the school district loses students to charters and private schools, enrollment has declined and, with it, the need for new teachers.

And, still, 96 percent of teachers are ranked effective or highly effective, which may be hard to justify in a district with as many problems as New York's recent results demonstrate.

Worse, the four percent of teachers who are ranked less than effective remain with the district.  Like the teacher described at the top of the post, they almost certainly limit their students' progress.

The simple fact of an incompetent teacher's being kept on, year after year, is an indictment of the district and, too, of a teachers union that claims to represent professional workers but then goes to the wall to defend teachers whose unworthy performance damages all teachers' reputations and subverts the best interests of children.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

School Effectiveness in New York

A Sad Record

A New York paper, the Daily News, recently published city students' scores on recent reading and math tests.  The paper found the numbers "shocking, depressing and damning."

Some data points:

    -- "Just 29 percent of students in the nation’s largest public school system scored at the appropriate grade level on state reading tests. . . . Only one in three city students meets state standards in math."

    -- Nearly 284,000 kids attended public schools last year where less than one student in five could read at their own grade level.

    -- In 2014, in three city schools, not a single third-grader passed the state math test. In 11 schools, not a single third-grader passed in reading.  In another 89 schools, not one African-American or Hispanic third-grade student was reading or doing math at grade level.

The New Test

Perhaps these results should be taken with a grain of salt.  They are the second year's results from the new Common Core tests, which are said to be more difficult than previous ones.

Many people nationwide are upset with "high-stakes testing" that require teachers to "teach to the test."

I don't think that is the problem here. The scores are for third-grade reading and math, basic subjects.  No rejiggering of curriculums should be necessary to prepare for tests that measure primary-grade reading ability and fluency with early arithmetic skills.

But let's be generous even so:  Let's say that the new standards are so harsh that the school district has twice as many students performing at grade level as succeeded on the new test.   The results still would be discouraging:  only 58 percent of third graders reading at grade level; only 142,000 students in schools where less than 20 percent of students read at grade level, and only 44 or 45 schools with ZERO minority third graders doing grade-level work in either math or reading.

I wouldn't enroll a child of mine in such a school district.  But I have options.  Poor people in New York generally do not have options.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Lipstick: A Fashion Evolution

As it is with all fashion, the only constant is change.  Here is what I have observed about lipstick over the last 15 or 20 years.

In the early part of the period, young women, the most avid fashion followers, often wore lipstick and outlined their lips with lip pencil, which was coming into style.  Typically the lip pencil outline was in a darker color than the lipstick.  This struck me as a rather strange look, but it sure was popular.

Then, for a period of years, the natural look came back into vogue.  If women used pencils to outline their lips, the pencil matched the lip color, which was mostly subdued.  Lip glosses, again in realistic shades, also were popular.

The last several years have seen a huge changeup:  Bright lipstick, often glossy, drew attention to itself. 

First came variations of red.

Then came pink.

Now I am seeing colors that are not typically associated with lips, but that have been favorites at mani-pedi parlors for the last five years or so.

I have seen all the above shades on the streets lately.  The effect is interesting and novel, but if I were a young woman I wouldn't wear one of these colors for a family portrait.

The current state is about as far lip color can go.  After a few years, my guess is that these looks will play themselves out.  Then it will be back to neutral and normal-looking shades.

After that, who knows?

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Richard the Third, Reinterred

Richard III, as reconstructed from his bones

Below is a short view of the passage of the coffin of England's last Plantagenet king to Leister Cathedral, where he was interred today, not far from where he died in the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1484.

His body was found in 2012, buried under a parking lot, only the latest indignity suffered over many hundreds of years by Richard III, whose name has become synonymous with craven plotting and evil.

Shakespeare made the case against Richard in his often-performed 1592 tragedy.  In it, Richard schemes to gain the monarchy and along the way arranges the death of two of his brothers, his wife's first husband and father, his wife, his two nephews and assorted others.  A description from Richard III:

Bloody thou art, bloody will be thy end;
Shame serves thy life and doth thy death attend.

Shakespeare's view fit the narrative of his times, when England was ruled by Tudor monarchs who cast Richard, of the York family, as unrepentantly evil.  (Indeed, if Shakespeare had written a Richard who was honest and heroic, the playwright might have been escorted quickly to the Tower of London.)

This view of Richard, called the Tudor Myth, remains the subject of historical argument.  In his day, Sir Francis Bacon called Richard "a good lawmaker for the ease and solace of the common people."  He was said to be an honest administrator and an efficient warrior as the duke of England's northern territories and in his short monarchy of just over two years.

Even today, though, the play's the thing.

True or not, Shakespeare's play is compelling. Every serious actor of a certain age gives us his rendition of Richard.  Thespians love to strap on the hunchback (Richard had scoliosis, a different problem) that the Bard gave Richard, a physical deformity to match his odious character.

Done well, a Richard III performance examines the hollowing out of an evil man's soul and his descent into paranoid incomprehension.  But there is always the hazard of taking the performance too far --  chewing the scenery and such -- as the Monte Python comedy ensemble demonstrated in 1970.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Paint and Psychology

Residents of the St. Pauli neighborhood of Hamburg had an unusual problem.  The area is home to many popular pubs and bars that draw 20 million drinkers each year.  This all was fine except for one thing:  A certain number of men did not make use of the traditional amenities to relieve themselves.  The result was an unpleasant and lingering odor, that being urine.

The neighborhood hit on a solution involving the psychological principle of aversive conditioning -- a variation on the work of Ivan Pavlov, who won a 1904 Nobel Prize for his work demonstrating that dogs could be trained to salivate at the sound of a bell after the sound had been associated with the arrival of tasty dog treats.

The agent of the Hamburg conditioning project was not a bell but a type of nautical paint, typically applied to the hulls of ships to prevent rust.

Pavlov would be proud.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Monica Lewinsky

Monica Lewinsky is back.  Again.

A Thought Experiment:

      Imagine that a serious young woman in the late 1990s worked as an intern for the vice
      president, did a fine job and, based on this, was admitted to a prestigious graduate degree                     program.  Imagine that she finished the program and turned her thesis into a thoughtful
      book about mistreatment of women in American culture.  Imagine that the book was well-                   received by academics and pundits alike.

      As a result, would the young woman

        a) be the subject of a biography by the same author who wrote about Princess Diana,

        b) be interviewed by Barbara Walters,
         c) be offered a chance to write about herself for Vanity Fair magazine,

         d) be invited to give a TED talk on her book's subject, or

         e) none of the above

I'm going with e).  The serious young woman would be a very minor celebrity in intellectual and political circles, but that would be the end of it until she wrote another good book.

Monica Lewinsky

Let us speak now of Monica Lewinsky.  We know what she did as an intern in the late 1990s.  She acknowledges that this was a mistake, but she has not apologized, exactly.  She has asserted that she was a willing adult participant in an affair with an unhappily married man.

She has taken up the cause of people who have been shamed by cyber bullying, starting with herself. She is angry at the treatment she has received over many years.  She is weary of being called a slut in internet jokes and rap lyrics.

She has a valid point.  Who can blame her?  The internet is an ugly, anonymous place.  People are targeted and humiliated -- women much more often than men.

Now Lewinsky wants to use her fame for good. "We need to return to a long-held value of compassion and empathy," she instructs us.

Yesterday, her photograph covered the top half of the Sunday Styles section of the New York Times.  This was the headline:  "In Her Own Voice: But this time it's on her own terms"

The article goes on at length:  Monica attending a play called "Slut" and comforting teenage performers, Monica explaining her continuing distress, at 41, at still being called "that woman" after winning a master's degree in social psychology, Monica's long-time relationship with Vanity Fair magazine and her famous 2014 autobiographical article, two late-night hosts' regrets at how she was treated in the late 1990s, Monica's brains and her wish to "give a purpose to my past."

Everything in the article, like everything about Monica Lewinsky's fame, traces to her early notoriety.  Many years later, she wants to remain in the public view to press her case as a virtuous victim showing the world the errors of its ways. 

A Question

In her TED talk, now online and quoted in the Times article, Lewinsky asks:  "Can I see a show of hands of anyone who didn't make a mistake or do something they regretted at 22?"

This is a fair question.

But here's another question.  Who wants a mistake at the age of 22 to define her life?

Ultimately, this is what Lewinsky wants.  If the story of her dalliance with a president goes away, so does her fame.  So does Vanity Fair, so does the New York Times, so do the TED talk organizers.

Another Thought Experiment:

      Imagine that Lewinsky withdrew from public life after the scandal was revealed.  Imagine
      that she moved to a remote place, perhaps changed her name and certainly refused all                           interview requests.  Imagine she took up a new career as a doctor or a tech engineer or a                       librarian.

Had she done this, Monica Lewinsky now would have a record of genuine accomplishment.  People seeking to judge her would have to weigh 15 years of adult integrity and modesty against several months of adolescent misbehavior at the age of 22.

Lewinsky would be a joke no longer.  She would have a private life.  What she would not have is her fame.

Lewinsky wants the fame.  Sadly, her only claim to fame requires keeping the blue dress and cigar stories alive.  She wants to have it both ways.


Thursday, March 19, 2015

Boys Will Be Boys

Point the First 

At the left is a photograph of a fraternity house, the local chapter of a national organization with a 95-year history on the campus of Penn State University.

Last year, a coed found that members of the fraternity had a secret website of photos of women, including a picture of her, topless.  She complained, and the website was taken down.

It was replaced immediately by a new secret website that included "nude females that appeared to be passed out and nude or in other sexual or embarrassing positions,” according to a detective quoted in the press.  He added, “It appears from the photos provided that the individuals in the photos are not aware that the photos had been taken.”  The website included many, many such photographs.

The fraternity has been banned from the campus for a year, and at least some of its members think they're getting a raw deal.

Here is what one of them told Philadelphia magazine.

     "It is shameful to see the self-righteousness that has sprung from the woodworks in response
      to the alleged Penn State fraternity 'scandal.' Here's a quick reality check: everyone — from
      Bill Clinton to your grandfather to every Greek organization in the nation does the same old
      stuff, just as they have been for the entirety of human history. That's where that lil' old quip,
      don't throw stones if you live in a glass house, comes from. And believe me, we all live in a
      glass house. Thus it is laughably pathetic to see the media spring on an occasional incident
      such as this, especially a media complicit in overturning the same sexual mores and moral                   standards that for millennia had at least to some extent curbed outright licentiousness. The fire
      of indignant, misplaced self-righteousness that looks to ruin people's lives and unjustly ruin                 reputations is the abuse and violation that should be at the center of discussion, not the
      humorous, albeit possibly misguided, antics of a bunch of college kids."

Later, the magazine interviewed the fraternity member.  He characterized the fraternity's website as "satire."
      "Yeah, like you get a Snapchat, and people send like raunchy Snapchats all the time. ... It's
      not a malicious type of thing … Everybody's … saying, 'Oh, there's pictures of passed-out
      girls,' and making it seem out to be such a malicious thing. It's like, yeah, girls pass out or
      fall asleep all the time and somebody takes a Snapchat or picture and, like, it's not that it's
      funny. But it's just satire. … Nobody’s sitting there like, 'Oh ... how are we going to
      victimize these people?' ... Go on a site like [where they post things like]
      the girl of the day or ... like the swimsuit model of the day … it's just, you know, fooling

Point the Second

At the right is a photograph of professional boxer Floyd Mayweather, Jr.  He has won 10 world championships and is ranked by Forbes as the world's highest-paid athlete.

In 2010 and in front of three of his children, he yanked their sleeping mother from her bed by the hair, then punched and kicked her, sending her to the hospital.  A son ran for help, which may have prevented more serious injuries.

According to a November report in USA Today, "It was one of seven alleged assaults Mayweather has committed against five different women that resulted in him being arrested or issued a citation. Last month, his former fiancée, Shantel Jackson, filed a civil lawsuit including claims of battery, false imprisonment and allegations that the fighter pointed a gun at her."

The same article noted that Mayweather, who has a large car collection, "said his view of buying cars is similar to how he looks at women."  From the article:

       "' Even if you can't drive 10 cars at one time you got people that got 10 cars,' Mayweather
       said in a Showtime documentary, 30 Days in May, a production that listed Mayweather as                    executive producer. 'So, you're able to keep maintenance on 10 cars. So, I feel that as far as
       it comes to females, that same thing should apply. If you are able to take care of 20, then
       you should have 20.'"

Also from the article:

        "In June, Mayweather posted on Instagram that 'if a female shows half her body, she is
        asking to be disrespected,' as part of a rant about women's attire and what image it
         projected about them."

On May 2, Mayweather is scheduled to fight Philippine boxer Manny Pacquiao at the MGM Grand Garden in Las Vegas.  Ticket prices start at almost $5,000 and up; the event also will be available on video-on-demand for an estimated $100 in HD.

The fight is expected to make more than $120 million for Mayweather.


Am I the only person who thinks we have a problem here?

Floyd Mayweather is a crude, uneducated man.  His athletic success and his money have attracted sycophants who are not willing to criticize his retrograde view of women as possessions or his violence against women.

Some fraternities seem to operate in a similar way: One or a few leaders take glee in the objectification and humiliation of women, and many others -- their brothers -- follow along instead of challenging them.

(Women also behave badly.  The "mean girls" phenomenon -- in-groups isolating and tormenting individual women at the direction of nasty alpha girls -- operates everywhere from middle schools to the work world. )

What the fraternity member called "the humorous, albeit possibly misguided, antics of a bunch of college kids" can be seen another way:  as evidence of a broad character flaw.

We expect "college kids" to grow up to be responsible adults, but there is growing anecdotal evidence that many of them are proceeding rather slowly toward that goal.

It does not help when we shower wealth, fame and advertising endorsements on a man like Floyd Mayweather.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The Whites

Some years ago, when I was doing research for a whodunit that I never marketed, I interviewed two homicide detectives about their work.

One of them mentioned an old man who had been found dead, naked, on a hillside about five miles from where I lived.  The case had not been solved officially.

"But I know who did it.  I know exactly what happened," said the cop.

I knew enough not to ask who did it or how.  The detective would not have told me.  He still was working the case.  For all I know, he still is.


This theme -- cops obsessed with murders unsolved and, particularly, killers unpunished -- is the central premise of The Whites, a new novel written by Richard Price and published under the pseudonym Harry Brandt.  Price burst onto the literary scene more than 20 years ago with Clockers, another story of police obsessions.  Since then he has published other books and also written for the acclaimed television series, The Wire.

I enjoy police procedurals and have read some of the work of Ian Rankin, whose detective, John Rebus, works out of Edinburgh, Scotland, and also several of the Harry Bosch stories by Michael Connelly, whose books are set in Los Angeles.

The Whites, however, does not strike me as the first in a series of police procedurals. Its haunting mood, which absorbs the reader from first page to last, must have lived with the author for the many years he spent writing it.  The Whites is a one-off, a piece of genuine literature about its place and time and the way involvement with criminals affects the lives of police officers who deal with them.


Billy Graves, the book's lead character, runs the midnight crime investigation squad in New York City.   He is a second-generation cop with a troubled wife, two sons and a demented father who lives with the family.  His closest professional connections are four friends who worked with him on anti-crime assignments in the late 1990s.  They called themselves the White Geese and were very successful.  The other four have since left the force, all scarred by unresolved investigations of murderers who destroyed lives and families and never were brought to justice.  These killers are the "Whites" -- the Moby Dicks of their respective Ahab cops -- of the title.

As Price puts it, "No one asked for these criminals to set up houses in their lives, no one asked for these murderers to constantly and arbitrarily lay siege to their psyches like bouts of malaria, no one asked to feel so helplessly in the grip of this nonstop black study that they had no choice but to pursue and pursue."

Early in the book, one of the Whites is stabbed in the middle of the night in New York's Penn Station; he runs away, leaving a long bloody trail before he collapses and dies.  Billy and his crew begin the investigation.

Events proceed from there.


I finished reading The Whites a week ago.  It still is walking around with me.  A great piece of work.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Phone Pests

Gosh, I'm popular.

I spend most of my time on the East Coast, but I'm out West now, and have routed my telephone calls here, where the day starts three hours later.  Every morning, some thoughtful person calls me between 6 a.m. and 7 a.m.

Today I learned that I had won a cruise for two to the Bahamas.

Yesterday, Carmen from Card Services offered to fix credit problems I never knew I had.

The day before, it was someone from the Breast Cancer Association.

Last week, a real estate lady said she was "going to be in your neighborhood" and offered to do a market analysis of my home's value.

With friends like these, who needs an alarm clock?

Unwanted Phone Calls

The federal government set up the Do Not Call registry in 2003 to protect us from unwanted calls.  All we had to do was register our numbers, and all the callers had to do was request the list of our numbers.  Then, according to the plan, we would not be pestered again.

The registry has been an abject, utter, complete failure.

The FTC, which operates the registry and enforces violations, bragged in a press release recently that it had targeted 105 violations of registry protocols and collected settlements in 80 cases since 2010.

I have news for the FTC.  I've received more pesky calls since January than the FTC has resolved in the last four years.

If Congress wants to save a few million bucks on the next federal budget, it could defund the Do Not Call Registry.  I'm pretty sure nobody would notice the difference.  

The Most Recent Prosecution

To be sure, the FTC's most recent enforcement action was a good one.  It prosecuted a boiler room operation that phoned senior citizens, sold them "fraud protection" and "pharmacy benefit" products and then used the seniors' information to siphon money out of their bank accounts. The scam had been operating since 2010 and collected at least $11 million.

But think about it:  The Do Not Call Registry didn't figure in this matter: It was a straight-up con game and prosecuted, appropriately, as theft and fraud.

(Plus, what is it with senior citizens?  Does the human brain suddenly turn to mush on its 65th birthday and become unable to recognize sleazy financial scams?  The older I get, the more I worry about these things.)

My Telephone Friends

Most of the calls that I receive these days are robocalls.  Sometimes I push through in order to demand that my number be taken off the caller's list; usually the person at the other end hangs up before I can get the words out.

But there was a different variation recently.

     Me: "Please take me off your phone list."

     Caller:  "Okay, give me your phone number."

     Me:  "What do you think I am -- crazy?"

     Caller:  "A computer generates all our numbers."

People Who Can Phone You Up 

There are some people who are allowed by law to bug you by phone.

     -- Companies with which you have done business or that you owe money:  Fair enough.

     -- Charities:  That's why you get so many calls every year from your friends at the police benevolent association and anti-disease groups.
      I don't give these people money.  This type of fund-raising is inefficient; most of what is collected is spent staffing the phone banks.

     -- Political campaigns:  Every candidate for political office in my region puts out a long pre-election campaign call saying why s/he deserves my vote.  My impulse is to vote against these people just on principle, but sometimes they are candidates I favor.  What to do?

     -- People conducting surveys:  Some people are flattered to be asked for their opinions on cable companies or banking products or political issues.  Me, not so much.

What to Do

At least two companies offer products to block calls -- Privacy Star, an app for Androids and Iphones, and Nomorobo to block voice-over-internet.

A woman I know has put an answer message on her land-line phone: It requests that unsolicited callers remove her number from their databases.  She stopped answering her phone, and she says the message has significantly reduced the number of robocalls she gets.

I think I'm going to do this myself. But every time you call me, you'll have to wait for me to call you back.

My Idea

This may be unworkable, but I like to think big.  I think several things should happen.

1) Phone carriers should refuse to connect calls coming from unidentifiable phone lines.  Robocallers have become skilled at pretending to originate traffic from phone lines that are not in service.  Can't that be stopped?

2) People who answer phone calls from unwanted callers should be able to signal their unwillingness to receive calls from marketers they have not contacted.  Maybe they could hit a special phone button:  I suggest the number "7."

3) Every time the number 7 button is pushed, the irritating caller should be required to transfer two cents to the billing account of the phone line that has been called.

Seriously: We buy phone service for our convenience, not to make ourselves available to people who want money.  We want to receive dinner invitations from friends.  We want to know if a relative has been in a car accident and taken to the hospital.  We want to hear from the school district if classes have been cancelled because of snow.

The rest of these people, if they really want to reach us, should have to pay a little something.  Call it a marketing expense.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Western Ports -- Oakland's Turn

After many months, a longshore workers' slowdown of traffic through Pacific ports in the American west ended with a tentative settlement on February 20.

Except in Oakland.

After the West Coast settlement was announced on February 20, Oakland longshore workers immediately initiated another slowdown.  An arbitrator immediately ruled that it was an unfair labor practice.

Much traffic has been processed through Oakland since, but intermittent slowdowns have continued as well.

On Wednesday, the operator of the largest terminal at Oakland ceased operations at noon and sent about 45 workers home.  This followed trailer trucks lining up for hours at some terminal gates, and other gates being closed, while workers, apparently deliberately, slowed traffic to a very slow crawl starting on Monday.

In Oakland, the members of Local 10 of ILWU, the Oakland chapter of the longshore union, are demonstrating their dissatisfaction with the new contract.  The slowdowns persist despite arbitration rulings against them.  Given this week's events, the local may be turning up the volume.

The Oakland Issue -- More Jobs

What Local 10 did not get from the new contract, and still wants, is more jobs, specifically to handle the movement of shipping containers onto trucks.

According to the Journal of Commerce, "the two-worker process -- in place for 30 years -- requires workers who drive yard tractors to get out of their seats to lock and unlock containers onto the tractors.  (Local 10) demands a third person to be hired to do locking and unlocking."

The demand is for "featherbedding," hiring more workers than are needed to do a given job.  (The often-cited example was the retention of railroad firemen:  They shoveled coal into steam engine boilers but were kept on for many years after rail lines had shifted to diesel fuel and did not require such labor.)

Port employment worldwide has dropped precipitously with the adoption of containerized cargo over the last 50 years.  You can understand why Local 10 would like to have more members.

You can understand also why the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA), which represents port operators, is not interested in adding a bunch of new employees so yard cart operators don't have to get out of their driver seats and turn a few switches.

The PMA says the union is attempting to impose increased manning requirements unilaterally by making port operation more difficult.  This means slowing work on loading and unloading.

Port operators can ask the workers to speed work up to the normal rate, but it appears that the longshore workers, to quote Bartleby, "would prefer not to."

The Effects

Two days ago, the Agriculture Transportation Coalition (ATC), an export group, issued a call to arms to its members, complaining about the situation.  It quoted frustrated port customers:

        Director of Global Supply Chain for a major importer has 12 containers on board a ship 
        that is stuck in the Port of Oakland congestion, is being charged $1,540 in demurrage for 
        failing to return a container to the terminal within the contracted "free time." That importer 
        has had truckers in line daily and has at this point only recovered 5 containers.  In other 
        words, the terminal is charging the importer for cargo that it cannot pick up! 
        "The West Coast Port situation is NOT getting better.

         "We are TIRED of the Steamship Lines, Ports, and ILWU holding us and other customers 
         hostage with their politics and finger-pointing.  It is costing us $$ that we cannot afford and 
         you guys are manipulating and mis-managing the ports.  If we are not allowed to pick up 
         containers that were released late and delivered  late, then we should have UNLIMITED 
         free time because it is YOUR fault that we cannot get our freight and goods!!"

         A California rice exporter:  "We (all Oakland stakeholders) are going to permanently 
         lose customers and business, in addition to those already lost, not to mention wasted time
         and expense for truckers and others due to shut out and split/rolls due to stop receiving 
         export loads. . . . What are the issues and solutions? It seems like the local could care less 
         about arbitrator rulings of illegal work stoppage.   This seems to be personal? Please help!"

         A California almond exporter: "I don't think agreeing on a contract made any difference 
         to the ILWU. I'm not even sure ratifying a contract will make a difference."

California exports more agricultural products than any other state -- $13.8 billion worth in 2013.  Most of these products -- dairy, meats, fruits, vegetables, soybeans and nuts -- have sell-by dates that can render them valueless after long delays.  The dollar value of California sales of almonds and rice dropped 18 percent from first-quarter 2014 to first-quarter 2015; the decline was credited partly to the strong dollar and partly to port slowdowns on the West Coast.

The Oakland port, nearest to California's central valley and the heart of its agriculture production, almost certainly processes most of California's farm exports.

What Next

Starting March 30, 90 delegates of the ILWU will gather in San Francisco to discuss the West Coast contract and decide whether to recommend its passage by all the members of the union.

This seems to me to work in favor of Oakland's Local 10.

     -- San Francisco is just across the bay from Oakland, easy to reach for the local's members and their families and friends who may gather to urge the delegates to reject the West Coast contract until their issue is addressed.

     -- The Bay Area is a traditional union stronghold.  The ILWU was founded in San Francisco following months of strife in 1934.  Other unions' memberships may be eager to pressure the ILWU delegates on Local 10's behalf.

     -- Continued stoppages at Oakland, including wastage of valuable agricultural products, could lead port customers to demand that the port operators do something -- anything, including settle with the union  -- to get traffic moving again.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Meatloaf Cupcakes

Last week I discussed what I thought was the newest fashion in meat: little hamburger sandwiches called sliders.

After I posted this information, a friend called to tell me to that I was way behind the times.  Turns out that sliders are "so 2013."

The new fashion is meatloaf cupcakes.

As you can see, the concept is a simple one.  Stir up a batch of your favorite meatloaf recipe and, instead of forming it into a bread-like shape in a loaf pan,  press it into the slots in your muffin tin and cook in the oven.  While the "cupcakes" are roasting, whip up a batch of mashed potatoes for "frosting."  Combine the two in the traditional fashion and serve, as seen above.

I don't know why I didn't see this one coming.  Traditional cupcakes were a big deal for several years, but the fad had played itself out.  ("So 2010," as my friend would say.)  All the cupcake bakeries now have closed, and every town has another storefront with a "For Lease" sign in its window.

Then -- voila! -- somebody came up with the brilliant idea of making cupcakes new again by fashioning them out of ground beef, veal and pork.

 To my knowledge, there is no patent or even any patent pending for this concept.

This has allowed creative cooks to cut loose and improvise.  Meatloaf cupcakes are now an internet mania, I discovered in a brief search this morning.

Food Network has a recipe that calls for cooking 20 minutes in a 450-degree oven, while Betty Crocker recommends 35 to 40 minutes at 350.

Land O' Lakes, the butter company, offers an Italian version with a frosting made of instant mashed potatoes and an LOL cheese product.

You now can find recipes for barbecue meatloaf cupcakes, meatloaf cupcakes frosted with mashed sweet potatoes, meatloaf cupcakes to serve at high tea and, no doubt to appeal to guys, bacon cheddar cupcakes.

Men will eat just about any dish that includes bacon.  It is the food that never goes out of style.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Camille Paglia's Critique of Feminism

Camille Paglia 

In my experience, people mostly seek out people whose beliefs confirm their own views. Those people probably avoid the commentary and writings of Camille Paglia.

As you might guess, I think this is their loss.

Paglia, a professor at the University of the Arts, Philadelphia, is an interesting intellectual.  She trained in the classics and yet is absorbed with modern culture.  Lesbian and raised Catholic, she has let fly with challenging observations in books and articles discussing everything from serious poetry to the Real Housewives.

For this, she has earned the disdain of hard-line feminists and conservatives and religious people. She writes for the general audience as well as the group-think eggheads who flourish in the groves of academe.  You don't have to agree with Paglia on every issue -- who could? -- to appreciate what she has to say.

Today I share her critique of the current state of feminism in an answer to a question posed by a Jesuit interviewer. Like most of her observations, it is energetic and challenging.

In your view, what’s wrong with American feminism today, and what can it do to improve?

After the great victory won by my insurgent, pro-sex, pro-fashion wing of feminism in the 1990s, American and British feminism has amazingly collapsed backward again into whining, narcissistic victimology. As in the hoary old days of Gloria Steinem and her Stalinist cohorts, we are endlessly subjected to the hackneyed scenario of history as a toxic wasteland of vicious male oppression and gruesome female suffering. 

College campuses are hysterically portrayed as rape extravaganzas where women are helpless fluffs with no control over their own choices and behavior. 

I am an equal opportunity feminist: That is, I call for the removal of all barriers to women's advance in the professional and political realms. However, I oppose special protections for women, which I reject as demeaning and infantilizing. 

My principal demand (as I have been repeating for nearly 25 years) is for colleges to confine themselves to education and to cease their tyrannical surveillance of students' social lives. If a real crime is committed, it must be reported to the police. College officials and committees have neither the expertise nor the legal right to be conducting investigations into he said/she said campus dating fiascos. 

Too many of today's young feminists seem to want hovering, paternalistic authority figures to protect and soothe them, an attitude I regard as servile, reactionary and glaringly bourgeois. The world can never be made totally safe for anyone, male or female: there will always be sociopaths and psychotics impervious to social controls. 

I call my system "street-smart feminism":  There is no substitute for wary vigilance and personal responsibility.
"The Catholic Pagan:
10 Questions for Camille Paglia"
Sean Salai
America Magazine
February 25, 2015 

Note:  Paglia's answers to the other questions in the article are also interesting and worth a look.   

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Shipping Oil by Rail

Two weeks ago, as promised, President Obama vetoed again the construction of the Keystone Pipeline to run crude oil south from Canada to refineries near the Gulf of Mexico.  A congressional effort to override the veto failed.

In recent years, the movement of oil by trains to the east and west coasts has increased manyfold as oil production has increased in the Upper Midwest and Canada.  

Keystone by itself would not have been sufficient to handle all the oil that now is being harvested in these areas.  So we are going to have to be prepared for more oil shipments by rail.  

Unfortunately, the rail record is not good.

Here are the three most-reported oil train derailments of recent years.  There have been many, many others, including a November 2013 event that spilled 2.7 million gallons of oil in a rural area of Alabama. 

Lac-Megantic, July 2013

A 74-car oil train derailed in a small Quebec town in the very early hours one morning, setting off a hot fire that burned 30 buildings and killed 47 people, most of them in flames.  It was Canada's most deadly railway accident in 149 years.

Most of the dead had been inside a popular downtown bar.  If the accident had occurred during business hours, it is likely that many more people would have died.

An estimated 1.5 million gallons of oil were spilled in the derailment.

Later, the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration estimated that more oil had spilled from trains in the United States in 2013 alone than in all the years since 1975.

Environmentalists countered that many thousands of gallons of oil also had spilled from pipeline leaks and in other incidents.

Lessons Learned:  After the accident, experts concluded that oil cars were much more likely to derail at higher speeds.  A top speed of 40 miles per hour was recommended for oil trains. 

In addition, oil train operators were urged not to deploy older oil cars, but only ones built to meet new safety specifications adopted by the railway industry in 2011.

Lynchburg, VA, April 2014

Fifteen cars derailed from an oil train and caught fire, sending smoke and flames 60 feet into the air.  Hundreds of people were evacuated from their homes and returned later in the day.  An unknown amount of burning oil was spilled into the James River, which empties into the Chesapeake Bay.

The train was moving at 24 miles per hour when the derailment occurred.  The cars that derailed met the higher industry safety standards.

West Virginia, February 2015

Twenty-seven cars on an oil train of 109 cars derailed just after the train had passed through the town of Montgomery.  Nineteen of the cars were punctured, and many burst into flames that burned for days.  An unknown amount of oil leaked into a river, causing the local water utility to close its access point and cut off water to 2,000 people for several days.  Electrical power was cut to 800 households for a longer period.

Transportation officials said the train was moving at 33 miles per an hour and not speeding.  Again, all the cars on the train met the new 2011 standards for safety.

What Next?

Recently, the Washington Post's Wonkblog sized up the dangers of oil transit by pipeline versus rail cars and concluded this:

       "It's abundantly clear that the rate of accidents per billion barrels is significantly higher for
        rail, and it also fluctuates more year to year. Pipelines see a pretty steady 22 or so accidents
        per billion barrels of oil transported. In recent years, the rate for rail-transported oil is
        10 to 20 times higher than that. But the rail accident rate is falling, suggesting that railroads
        are starting to make the safety investments necessary to deal with the huge increase in oil                     business the industry has seen since 2010 or so."

One investment to come may be better oil cars -- replacing the new 2011-standard ones that seem not to have been as safe as expected.

Meanwhile, mile-long oil trains run 18 times a week run on tracks alongside the Columbia River in Washington state, while others run on the river's Oregon shores.  In 1984, an oil train ran aground alongside the Columbia, spilling a large amount -- estimates ranged from 170,000 to 350,000 gallons -- of oil into the river, injuring and killing birds and carrying glops and clumps of oil to the river's large and ecologically sensitive estuary.

In Philadelphia, 45 to 80 oil trains move through the city weekly.  The population of Philadelphia is about 1.5 million people.  If one of the trains derails and catches fire, the loss of life likely will be greater than in any previous incident.

Oil trains are now the main conveyors of crude oil in the lower 48 states.  It's time we faced the fact and tried to assure that people, lands and rivers are safe.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Pets on Jets -- the Fur Flies

Yesterday I spoke of the startling increase in the numbers of pets flying in airplanes as emotional support animals.

This trend may make flying more comfortable for distressed people, but it is not without cost.  Many passengers hate it.  The matter has been discussed in news articles, and I am sharing some responses from people who wrote to comment after reading such stories.

Not surprisingly, somewhat more of the writers are critical of the phenomenon.  When people are pleased with things as they are, they are less likely to take up their pens and join the discussion.


If you want to make a real difference in how pleasant flights are, ban children. If you want to make a real difference in how safe flights are, ban alcohol.


I sat next to a woman who said she had her dog certified as a comfort animal just to avoid the airline fee. She flat out admitted it was not truly needed as a therapy animal. She just felt like it.

A Dialog

Complaint:  I have horrible allergies to animals and I need to travel for work every month.  Fido gets to fly while I have to take a later flight.  One time it took me three days to get home because "emotional support dogs" were on every flight.

Response: Allergy medicine is much easier to come by, easier to take and more effective than drugging up someone with psychological issues so they can fly.  Get over it.

A Funny Story

Above is a cellphone picture that went viral.  It shows a woman carrying her emotional support animal, a 70-pound pot-bellied pig, onto an airplane.  When she set the pig down on a seat -- it was too big to fit under a seat -- other passengers complained that it stank, made unpleasant noises and acted like, well, a pig. Owner and pet were ejected before the plane took off.


They need to charge people to bring on emotional support dogs. It's a scam that other passengers will have to pay for in time. I pay for my little dog to fly in a crate under the seat once a month - I'm not so unstable that I need emotional support from my dog. I don't recall seeing people flip out on planes before this scam started (unless they were drunk).


A Dialog

Complaint: Some stupid bitch just walked on my flight with a big shaggy dog. No kennel. Just on a leash. And, there's no way she needs an assistance dog. WTF!?

Response:  Sounds more like a case of someone got on the plane with an emotional support animal and some stupid bitch got his panties all in a bunch over it for absolutely no reason other than he's a miserable shrew who hates dogs.


If we're going to allow pets in the cabin, then why don't we just turn off the no smoking light while we're at it.


If you have such severe allergies that the presence of pet dander (or peanuts) can cause serious injury or death, you shouldn't be flying on a public plane, whether animals/pets are banned or not. With such a severe condition, locking yourself in an uncontrolled, confined space that is potentially hours away from medical attention is quite risky and fairly foolish.


Fake certification scams abound online. For a few hundred bucks, I could "certify" a giant hissing cockroach as a "service" animal.


I have had horrendous experiences in the past two weeks.
       The first time, a very pregnant woman boarded the plane with an ESA dog and took the middle seat next to mine. Obviously there was not a lap for her dog so it sprawled across her with its head in my lap and its tail in the lap of the teenage boy next to the window. It got worse halfway into a five-hour flight when the dog began to smell.  We were both covered by dog hair and disgusted by the odor.
      Last week, on a different flight, an ESA dog with a woman became sick and vomited on the passenger next to her. People for three rows in both directions were gagging and becoming ill with the stench. I asked the woman what she thought she was doing and she said, "What can I do, my dog lives in Phoenix."
      Don't these selfish people realize that not only are they trying to skirt the system, they are abusing the rights of others and actually torturing these helpless dogs who can't endure four- and five-hour plane flights without toilet and exercise privileges.
       The dogs seemed nice, it was their nutty owners who caused the problem. If these folks are such emotional wrecks they can't travel without an ESA dog perhaps they should stay at home or get a stuffed animal -- after all, traveling is stressful.


Certainly better in the cabin than in the hold, where pets routinely DIE (look it up!).
     I would love to abide by the rules, but you can sure bet I'd lie and put a service vest on my dog before I'd trust her LIFE to the airlines.

Another Funny Story

This is another cellphone picture, taken during the course of a cross-country flight. The woman is walking her dog off an airplane after it had two episodes of diarrhea in the plane's aisle.  The plane's crew had run out of paper towels to clean up after the dog, and so the jet made an unscheduled stop in Missouri.  A ground crew cleaned up the mess, sanitized the cabin and presumably restocked its cleaning supplies.  Then the plane -- with the dog back onboard -- took off and continued to its destination.


A Dialog

Complaint: Switching seats doesn't always solve the allergy problem.  For people with significant animal dander allergies an animal on the plane can lead to a severe asthma attack and misery.

Response A:  If the flight time is the one the person with the service dog wants/needs to take legally they cannot be denied access to the flight. If someone is that allergic it is their issue and they would have to get off the flight.

Response B:  If switching seats does not solve the problem, then maybe the person should consider driving to their destination, for it is impossible to control dog hair left on the clothes of people, just as it is with perfume, which many people are allergic to as well.


I have an emotional support dog due to acute post-traumatic stress disorder. It is small, properly trained and registered, and I have no issue with an airlines employee politely asking to view my folder I take with me.
     I was loudly asked the nature of my disability, not for my papers that are all in order.  A poorly trained employee loudly humiliated me in front of more than 100 waiting passengers.
     I have an issue due to an injury.  I agree many are abusing the system that is set up for people that sincerely need the companion to overcome panic and anxiety disorders. Train airline staff to inquire discretely.


Just another reason to hate flying.  I am deathly allergic to cats and I was told that I would have to find another place on the plane or get off.  It should be the other way around.


This should be stopped, plain and simply. I am a dog owner and a psychiatrist. This is a matter of public rights vs. private perception and self-indulgence. I live in a state where medical marijuana and soon, legal recreational marijuana will be permitted. I look forward to the latter because by and large the former is a sham. Medical marijuana has become the means to consume for any 'patient' who wishes, with no diagnosis or complaint off limit, from knee pain to headache.
     Similarly, emotional support animals require nothing more than a subjective complaint and a compliant practitioner (though the reality is that many don't bother with this minor inconvenience).          Curious how there seems to be an epidemic of people claiming the need to impose their dogs on the public, in the absence of any evidence that dogs are a new discovery or mental disorders are increasing.
     What has changed is our common sense as a society, our willingness to tolerate nonsense, increase in self-indulgence and lack of common courtesy.
     The only reason for dogs to be allowed in the public should be the narrow circumstances of highly trained service dogs with specific impairments such as blindness. Credible certification should be required and should be produced upon request. Workplaces, public transit and inside spaces should otherwise be animal-free.


Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Pets on Planes

Aisle seat or window?

        "You may be impressed to know that there was a Great Dane on our flight from
         Paris to Detroit.  Apparently it originated in Venice. . . . I am not making this up."

I received this email recently from a friend who is tired of seeing dogs on airplanes.  She and her husband, who travel frequently, have a very nice dog, but the dog does not accompany them when they travel by air.

I just looked up Great Danes and found that males are 32 inches or higher at the shoulder and typically weigh more than 120 pounds.  These are very big dogs, not the sort to fit in pet carriers under their owners' seats, even in first class.

Think about it.  A Paris-Detroit flight takes about 10 hours.  Tack on a hop from Venice to Paris and sitting around two airports, and you've got a long, long day for a dog that probably would prefer to spend its time galloping through the countryside.

And, during that time, a Great Dane is probably like a human in that it would need some restroom breaks.  Can you potty-train a Great Dane?   Are there diapers for such an animal?  What if the dog becomes airsick?  What items from the plane's service cart could be offered to nourish such a passenger?

These are the sorts of questions that keep me up at night.

Another Example

My friend is getting particularly exasperated by the flying dogs known as "emotional support animals."  I have noticed these as well.  They typically are little dogs in carrier bags, almost always toted by young women.

A couple months ago my friend told me that she watched a young, college-age woman board an airplane with her mommy AND daddy AND an emotional support animal.

As in the previous case, this set me wondering.  What a delicate specimen that girl must be!

Is she able to go to school without her parents and her puppy?  Can she gather, unaccompanied, with friends for coffee dates?  When she goes shopping at the mall, does she require that stores accommodate her need for a small animal to prevent her suffering attacks of the vapors?  Does she take her dog on dates?  Will she ever grow up?

The Law

There are two kinds of dogs on planes.

I.  Therapy pets.  The most common example of these is seeing-eye dogs for the blind, but dogs can help people with many other disabilities.  Such animals have traveled with their owners for many years without controversy.  They are trained individually to be helpful with specific challenges and to behave well around other people.

II,  "Emotional support animals." These fall into a much looser category under the Americans with  Disabilities Act.  Since 2003 (or perhaps 2011 -- accounts vary), people with psychological or psychiatric problems have been allowed to bring such animals aboard airplanes.  All these pet owners need to do is get a certification from a psychologist or other professional affirming the need for the support animal.

In the last few years, the number of troubled people taking advantage of this has exploded.  There are now hundreds of online mental health professionals who offer to evaluate people and issue the necessary certification for $100 or so.

This provision makes it much cheaper for a person needing emotional support to fly with a pet.  Airlines typically charge $75 to $125 to bring a pet along on a flight, but emotional support animals travel at no cost.   More than a few people, including my friend and, sometimes, I, believe that people are faking disabilities to get free rides for their pets.

Other Animals

In fact, emotional support animals can come from many species.  I have read of cats, marmots, hamsters, pigs, monkeys, miniature horses, parakeets and ducks.

I also have read that the Department of Transportation has decreed that "inconvenience of other passengers is not sufficient grounds to deny a service animal carriage in the cabin."

Not surprisingly, this has led to some friction among the flying public.

More about that tomorrow.