Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Sparks of Hope

Sujata Massey

 Speaking to supporters for his presidential in Iowa in 2008, Barack Obama said: "Hope is not blind optimism. It's not ignoring the enormity of the task ahead, or the roadblocks that stand in our path. It's not sitting on the sidelines or shoring from the fight. Hope is that thing inside us that insists, despite all evidence to the contrary, that something better awaits us if we have the courage to reach for it, and to work for it, and to fight for it."

30 days after our election, I can see a number of things that give me hope.

First is 'Old Friends,' an Amazon Prime commercial that began running in the UK, Germany and the US last week to mark the holiday season. The advertisement features an Episcopal priest and a Muslim cleric in Britain who are faith leaders, rather than actors. This fact probably explains how beautiful the men's connection is. I could watch this ad time and again and still tear up. Jeff Bezos, who owns Amazon, made a powerful, quiet statement of hope to all. This commercial may be the first ever to feature a Muslim cleric. The risks taken by running 'Old Friends' closes the deal for me regarding Amazon. I am happy to shop from Amazon--just as I'm really pleased Bezos has owned and expanded the subscriber base of the Washington Post. 

Teamwork and forgiveness have also turned around the dire situation at the Standing Rock Reservation. To summarize a very complicated situation, the US government was planning to run part of the Dakota Access Pipeline for natural gas through a burial ground on a Sioux reservation in North Dakota. Hundreds of Indians and their friends stayed present at Standing Rock in bitter cold to keep the digging from beginning. They were abused by the police. Some military veterans pledged to come to the reservation to protect the protestors from the police, and but a serious confrontation was averted. Last Sunday night, the Army Corps of Engineers announced it will not approve an easement allowing the DAP to run through the reservation. The leader of the Sioux community was asking protestors to return home with the hope that the situation will continue toward peaceful resolution. A moving forgiveness ceremony in which military veterans acknowledged their past role in oppressing Indians and taking land took place this past Monday, with Chief Leonard Crow Dog telling Wesley Clark Jr., "We do not own the land. The land owns us."

tru2u design on Etsy is giving 25% of profits to Amnesty International

Without a word, but a sign, people can show solidarity. The Safety Pin Solidarity Movement began a few months ago, following the U.K's vote to leave the European Union. Since then, violent acts against immigrants and people of color have risen. British people spread the tradition of wearing safety pins on their coats or sweaters to publicly signify that they are "safe" people who will support anyone being marginalized. I loved the idea, and to make my symbol stand out, I bought my own colorful safety pins on Amazon Prime (of course, given the 'Old Friends' commerical.) However, artistic safety pin jewelry is popping up everywhere, including in wonderful jewelry form from Etsy artists such as  tru2u jewelry, sometimes with some portion of proceeds going to a human rights organization.

The last thing bringing me hope is the sun. Autumn really has not ended in Maryland. The weather is warm,  the crimson maples are holding their leaves, and the earth is still soft enough for planting. So I finally got down to business. I never get around to planting bulbs in the fall, but since Thanksgiving, I've planted 100 daffodils, 100 Narcissus Thalia, and 100  muscari latifolium. No matter what happens this winter, I'm sure I'll see some flowers in the spring. The cycle of nature is the strongest proof that hope has a reward.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Every Vote Counted

Annamaria on Monday*
*Inspired once again by the ever fabulous RadioLab

Since the USA is in the grip of recounting the last presidential election ballots, I figured we should look into how important is each vote.

Every singe vote counts, right?

Well, if you research elections won by one vote, you are likely to get this list:

               In 1645, one vote gave Oliver Cromwell control of England.
            In 1649, one vote caused Charles I of England to be executed.
            In 1776, one vote gave America the English language instead of German.
            In 1845, one vote brought Texas into the Union.
            In 1875, one vote changed France from a monarchy to a republic.
            In 1923, one vote gave Adolf Hitler leadership of the Nazi Party.
             In 1941, one vote saved Selective Service - just weeks before Pearl Harbor was attacked

Amazing, huh?  Except that every item on it is totally wrong!  None of these is at all correct.  In fact, in that 1923 election, only one person voted against Hitler.  The other five hundred and some party members all voted for the badest man in history.

The only conclusion any researchers have come to on this subject is that the odds of any election being decided by one vote are pretty close to nil.  In terms of a US presidential election, the odds of the outcome being decided by a single vote is 1 in 10 million.

Despite the unlikely odds, the right to vote is prized, as it should be.  Ask anyone who lives in a country where the right does not exist.  Democracies, if they are true to the rights of their citizens, hold the process of voting to be sacred in the civic sense.

Take India, the largest democracy in the world, for example.  It has 800 million voters.  Yet India runs its elections on the principle that no one in the country should be more than two kilometers (e.g. within walking distance) of the nearest polling place.

This applies even to a hermit priest, the only permanent resident living deep in the Gir Forest.   For every election, a team braves wild lions to bring in equipment and set up a poling place so this guy can cast his ballot.


If you don’t believe this, you can watch one of several YouTube videos on the subject here.

In a study of 16,577 US elections, two researchers found only one that was decided by one vote.  This took place in 1910 in the 36th Congressional District of New York, an entity that has since been gerrymandered out of existence.  But 106 years ago, the Democrat Charles B. Smith won by 20,685 votes while his opponent garnered only 20, 684.   Looking deeper into US history, I found eight local elections won by one vote.  Recounts found a few of them won by wider margins—two or three votes instead of one.  In one case the recount proved that the vote was a tie!

Charles B. Smith, D, NY

In actuality, of course, in any election, everybody’s vote counts.  If any two of Charlie B. Smith’s constituents had decided it was not worth going out to vote and stayed home, Charlie would have lost.  One's candidate winning depends on her or his supporters going to the polls.  If too many stay home, their candidate loses the whole shebang.

For us in the US, one frustrating thing about presidential elections is the existence of the Electoral College, which results in candidates having to battle state by state.  Until this year, only four times in history has the Electoral College vote disagreed with the overall popular vote: 1824, 1876, 1888, and 2000.  The last of these is one that I and many of my fellow citizens still dispute.  It was the Supreme Court, not the people, that had the final say.

As of now Hillary Clinton is ahead in the popular vote by more than 2.5 million.  It does not seem right that PrezOrange is taking office.

So why do we have an Electoral College?  Strange to say these days, the framers of our Constitution interposed it between the presidency and the popular vote because they feared an angry or ignorant citizenry would elect a tyrant instead of a statesman.   Also, when trying to get Thirteen Original Colonies united into a nation,  they needed to give the smaller, less populous states a break so they wouldn’t balk.

Lately, there has arisen a plausible effort to settle elections in a way that the Electoral College and popular vote would never again disagree.  Changing the US Constitution through amendment seems out of reach.  But there is another way to the same end.  It is called the National PopularVote Interstate Compact.  Right now 48 of our 50 states award all their electoral votes to the winner within the state.  This effort seeks to get states to change this rule and award all their electoral votes to the candidate who wins the nation-wide popular vote.  As soon as enough states (totaling 270 electoral votes) adopt this rule, never again will there be a discrepancy between the two.  Simple and clean!

As of now, the following states have already adopted it: California, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island Vermont, Washington, and the District of Columbia. They comprise 165 electoral votes.  (The yellow states have legislation pending.  I hope they don't chicken out.)   As for me, I hope this change happens.  

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Oddments - crime news from the UK

As well as the major stories in the news this week, there have been quite a few smaller items from the UK that caught my eye, for different reasons.


Cyber blackmail is on the increase. According to the police, webcam blackmail cases have doubled in the last year, going from fewer than 400 to over 850. The NCA (National Crime Agency) admit, however, that many of the victims don’t report the crime, so actual numbers are likely to be far greater.

Contrary to what you might expect, the majority of victims are males between 21 and 30, who are befriended by fake identities on social media and persuaded to perform sexual acts in front of their webcams.

The blackmailer will then usually demand money or they will post the videos online, or share with the victim’s friends, workmates, and family, in a moved dubbed ‘sextortion’. It’s believed that online blackmail of this type has led to several suicides.

If you’re targeted, the NCA advises not paying anything or communicating with the criminals, but to take notes and screenshots of all messages, temporarily suspend your social media accounts so the evidence is preserved, and report the incident both to the police and to the social media site where the contact was made.

Gone in Six Seconds

I don’t know what kind of courses they offer at Newcastle University, but experts there announced this week that it’s possible to guess all the details necessary to crack your credit card security in under six seconds, using a laptop and an internet connection.

They’ve developed a technique called Distributed Guessing Attack, which feeds the card number simultaneously into hundreds of websites and guesses the remaining details until it strikes lucky by a process of elimination – something which usually takes around six seconds. The researchers found that some credit card companies did not have systems in place to detect multiple high-speed attempts.

Each website allows often up to 20 attempts at inputting the required data, and by using up these guesses on each site, the DGA software is able to very quickly piece together the required information. Added to that is the fact that different sites often ask for different info, so the cyber thief can piece it all together even faster.

There is some speculation that an attack of this type was used to hack the details of 9000 Tesco Bank customers in early November.

Going, Going … Almost Gone

It was reported this week that a retired businessman, Minh To, found to his surprise that his half-million-pound house was up for auction on the property sales website, RightMove. If the man’s daughter, an estate agent, hadn’t called him only a few days before the sale to ask where he was moving, he might never have discovered the scheme.

Greater Manchester Police traced four men who had raided Mr To’s postbox for utility bills and used them to forge his signature and transfer the deeds of the house into their ownership. This was possible because Mr To had paid off his mortgage, otherwise the agreement of the bank involved would have been required.

New Money

Back in September, a new polymer £5 note was launched in the UK, with Sir Winston Churchill on the reverse. The new note was designed to be more robust than the previous paper versions, but it hit the news this week when a vegetarian café in Cambridge refused to accept the new note as it contains animal products.

An online petition has already been launched in response to an outcry by vegans, vegetarians and some faith groups, when it became known that the new fiver contains tallow, a form of rendered fat from either cows or sheep.

The Australian inventor of the process commented that the fuss was “absolutely stupid” although the Bank of England claims it’s looking for a solution. Singer Morrissey, meanwhile, has suggested that people donate their own bodies after death to be used in the production process …

Not All Bad News

In keeping with the ‘leave ‘em laughing’ tradition of British news reports, my final piece is about Craig Vaughan, a farmer in Teesside, whose Cocker spaniel, Dora, was stolen along with her five puppies, while Mr Vaughan was busy milking his cows.

Mr Vaughan appealed for help on social media tracing the dogs, and the news was shared up and down the country. His hope was that it would be publicised enough to make it almost impossible to sell the pups.

And on Wednesday, he announced that a third party had intervened and managed to get the dogs back on his behalf.

“Someone has done me a massive favour and he wouldn’t take any money from me for them,” Mr Vaughan is quoted as saying. “I cannot believe I have got them back. It just goes to show you cannot beat the Great British public.”

I wonder if police are looking for Cruella Deville?

This week's Word of the Week is stibogram, meaning a record of footsteps, as opposed to ichnogram, meaning a forensic record of footprints.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Demystifying the Trojan War, Redux


This post originally  went up a bit under three years ago, but knowing you all have elephantine memories, I didn't dare try and slide it past you.  Besides, it's one of my favorites and took so long to write originally I felt it deserving of a re-run on its merits [N.B. Note clear rationalization].  And considering how my week has run, it'll be better than what I could do afresh.  You, see, I have been in one of those rare (for me, at least) writer's zones over the past five-days that had everything running perfectly toward finishing the novel I'd been struggling with for months. One does not jump off that sort of ride with the muses, and I'm pleased to say I finished a (relatively) polished re-draft of Andreas Kaldis #9 last night around midnight!  But this morning (Friday) I'm off to Chicago for my last book event of 2016, taking place Friday evening. So, with that introduction, here's Helen and crew.... 

How many of you have heard of the Trojan War?  I bet there’s not one of you who hasn’t. It’s the world’s best known epic tale of romance, action, and intrigue, and thanks to Homer’s telling in the Illiad and the Odyssey, a source for countless storylines down through the ages…including the Coen Brothers’ 2000 film, O Brother, Where Art Thou.

But how many of you know the actual story of the War? Other than of course the bit about the (possibly) kidnapped Helen’s face launching a thousand ships and The Horse.  Aha, the ranks are thinning quickly.

Well, here’s my adapted telling of the tale based upon a version I came across while reading The Everything Classical Mythology Book, by Lesley Bolton.

The most well-known character in the myth is, of course, Helen of Troy, though she really wasn’t from Troy.  That’s just where she ended up spending ten years waiting to be “rescued.”  Helen was the most beautiful woman in the world and the daughter of the union of Zeus and Leda (not Leto, whose children with couldn’t-keep-it-in-his-pants-Zeus were the twins Apollo and Artemis).

Helen by Evelyn De Morgan

However the aggravation of raising such a beautiful daughter (something I know first hand) didn’t fall to her natural mother and father (assuming there’s anything natural about a Greek god turning himself into a swan to seduce a mortal), but to her foster father, King Tyndareus of Sparta.  

King Ty, as I like to call him, worked out a way of keeping all the suitors for his daughter’s hand (and a lot more) at bay by making all swear that in order to participate in the competition, they had to agree to abide by Helen’s choice of husband and defend her against anyone who might try to kidnap her.  The winner was Menelaus of Sparta and they were wed.

Menelaus by Giacomo Brogi

Then along came Paris of Troy, who stopped in to say “Hi” to the groom and, when the opportunity presented itself in the form of a quick trip out of town for Menelaus, to repay his host’s hospitality by stealing away his bride. 

Paris and Helen by Jacques Louis-David

But the kidnapping wasn’t a spontaneous whim.  Paris felt he had a right to claim Helen.  You see, Paris had been the judge in a beauty contest among the gods Athena, Aphrodite, and Hera to settle a dispute as to which of the three was the fairest.  In keeping with the sort of judging still seen in many parts of the world today, Paris made a side deal with Aphrodite that he’d choose her in return for her promising him the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen. But before he could claim her, she’d married. 

No matter, to Paris a deal was a deal and he’d come to Sparta to collect his prize. He spirited Helen away and, after spending their first night together on Kranae, a tiny island just off the port city of Gytheio on Greece’s Southern Peloponnese, it was off to Troy.  

Abduction of Helen, Francesco Primaticcio

Church on Kranae
[As a side note, that one-night diversion has created a thriving cottage industry on modern day Kranae, for today couples exchange marriage vows at a church on that spot, no doubt hoping for better luck than came to Paris and Helen.]

Not surprisingly, Menelaus didn’t take kindly to Paris’ thank you, and when Menelaus’ trip to Troy with Odysseus (aka Ulysses) to demand of King Priam of Troy her immediate return proved futile, Menelaus returned home to Sparta, massed Helen’s former suitors who’d pledged to defend her against kidnappers, and with his brother Agamemnon in command, dispatched an army of a thousand ships to reclaim her. 

But the Olympian biggie gods were involved in this mess up to their tiarasses.  Some had aligned with Greece (e.g., Poseidon because he was pissed at the Trojans for not having paid his bill for construction work, and Athena and Hera because of Paris’ involvement in fixing their beauty contest).  Others sided with Troy (e.g., Aphrodite who’d created the mess in the first place, and Apollo joined in it with his twin sister, Artemis.) 

Anytime the gods got involved in something there were problems.  And in this instance, just to get things started, Agamemnon had to sacrifice his daughter to the god Artemis (a backer of Troy) for the winds to blow and launch his thousand ships. 

The Greek plan was simple, conquer the numerous towns surrounding Troy and thereby squeeze it into submission.  A simple plan turned into nine years of war with still no end in sight. Hmm, sound familiar? 

In the tenth year everything went to hell in a hand-basket for the Greeks.
First, the Greeks’ greatest warrior, Achilles (slayer of the Trojans’ greatest, Hector) died when pierced in the heel (surely you knew that) by an arrow cast into the air by Paris from behind his fortress walls and guided to its mark by Apollo.  

Then a fight broke out between Odysseus and Ajax of Salamis (non-kosher style for sure) over who’d get to wear Achilles armor (starting to sound more and more like that Brad Pitt 2004 version of the tale called Troy, does it not?), an honor ultimately bestowed on Odysseus that led Ajax into madness and ultimately taking his own life.  And then the Amazons weighed in to fight on the side of the Trojans.

But the Greeks did not give up.  Led by Odysseus they captured the King of Troy’s son, and through him learned what they needed to do if there were to be any hope of Troy falling.  The Greeks did as the prince had said, culminating in snatching away the sacred statue of Athena—the Palladium—which stood within Troy to protect the city from destruction.

But still Troy did not fall.  Then Odysseus came up with a plan, perhaps the most famous hustle in history: one requiring a gigantic wooden horse and some mighty gullible Trojans.

It was the blueprint for a classic scam that’s since played out countless times in print and film:  Present the mark with a fascinating unexpected gift.  Get a shill to tell a believable story compete with a hook that gets the mark to thinking it’s come up with a way to outsmart the hustler, and toss in a last minute twist that threatens to destroy the plan but fails because of an even greater surprise twist. 

In this case, the Trojan Horse (more aptly the Greek or Spartan Horse, since they built it) appeared one morning outside the walls of Troy with the Greek army nowhere to be seen, leaving the Trojans confused over what to do with it: destroy the horse, or bring it within their city’s walls.   Then appeared a man in rags—the disguised Greek soldier Sinon—who claimed he’d escaped being sacrificed to Athena by the Greeks as an offering to appease her ire at their having stolen the Palladium from Troy. 

Then seemingly by chance he revealed a secret of the Greeks: that the great wooden horse before them was also meant to appease Athena by serving to replace the Palladium, but the sneaky Greeks had intentionally built it far too large to pass inside the walls of Troy out of fear that if brought inside it would bring victory to the besieged city.

Just as the Greeks’ plan seemed to be working, one Trojan stepped forward to challenge Sinon’s story (standard screenwriting fare these days), and hurled his spear at the wooden horse, no doubt hoping to elicit a cry from whomever it struck within. But just as he did, a giant sea monster reared up and devoured the cynic, distracting the crowd from the point of both his logic and spear.

The Trojans took the monster as a sign of Athena’s anger at the spear being tossed at an offering to her—rather than of an effort on her part (remember, she was on the side of the Greeks) to silence one threatening to expose the Greeks’ plan. 

Surprise, surprise the Trojans figured out a way to bring the horse within their walls, and while rejoicing in their good fortune missed Sinon freeing the soldiers inside it and opening Troy’s gates for the rest of the Greek army to enter the city.

We all know what happened next. Or at least we think we do.  Helen was returned to her husband.  But not until after the Greeks had engaged in a bloodlust rage of battle so unsettling and sacrilegious to gods that had once backed the Greeks that they turned on them, bringing Odysseus ten more years of trials and tribulations before reaching home (after all, it was a two-book deal for Homer) and far worse fates for far more.

Homer 850 BCE

Yes, that’s a plot line we’ve seen before and will see again. And though there were no real winners in the Trojan War, there sure have been a lot of modern day literary and box office triumphs. 

Many thanks again to Lesley Bolton for the inspiration I found for this post in her The Everything Classical Mythology Book.


Friday, December 2, 2016

A Conflict Of Priority.

There are some things that are now so politically sensitive that  it is almost impossible to voice an opinion without somebody accusing you of some ism or other.

There is the sadly commonplace issue of what to call that day that happens on the 25th of December. You know Santa, drunkenness, presents  .. and oh yes, it is to celebrate the birth of the Baby Jesus if you are a Christian. And a celebration of being nice to people if you are not. It was a pagan festival in Europe long before Christianity came along. It was the turn of the deep winter and those lucky enough to survive it celebrated.

I was talking to a Muslim friend this week, and he starting going on about how much he hates Christmas. Because he says  his non-Muslim friends suddenly become very tongue tied round him wishing him a err ‘happy holiday’. He was taken into side room at work and asked if he wanted to take part in the Christmas lucky dip or not.  ‘Why wouldn’t I?’ he asked, ‘I do work here and it is office tradition.’ His kids get very upset as everyone else is talking about what they are getting from Santa but nobody asks them, and make a very politically correct point of not asking them. It’s a sad state of affairs when kids are left out of anything, especially Christmas. His kids know that it’s a Christian tradition and that they do their own thing at other times of the year.  It’s about being happy and showing appreciation for friends and loved ones, which is the same in every language I am sure.

And then there was the more prickly issue last week, some professional footballers spoke out about the sexual abuse they had suffered as youngsters. I have no issue with that at all, and well done to them for speaking out but it was the first item on the news . The second item was the death of a two year old child at the hands of his 'parents'. Am I the only person in the world who thinks it is the wrong way round. There is a huge moral panic in this country about sexual abuse, it is now the territory of the moral stormtrooper, but it is not new it has been going on since time began and maybe the human race should realise that.

As a crime, and it absolutely is a crime, it can fuel all sorts of other criminal activity including human trafficking and murder. It is pushed so far into the extreme of something unspeakable that is simply goes more underground. Could there be a better way of dealing with it? Some kind of amnesty? I mean where do you go if you are an adult who realises they have a genuine sexual attraction to children? Can you go to your doctor and ask for help or does that get you placed on a register? A register that might be leaked to the press by a do gooder with a freedom of information issue? There was a famous case down south where a house was set on fire because the arsonists were so stupid they could not tell the difference between a paedophile and a paediatrician. And there were children in the house at the time of the fire. 

The mob mentality is alive and well. 

I treat many patients who have ‘survived childhood sexual abuse’, and just note that well know phrase 'survived'. I would say that 50% of them have come to terms with it, rational enough to know it was nothing to do with them, it was the abuser. And they have good counselling to understand why the abuser did it. They grow up to be sensible people with maybe just a tendency to keep a very close eye on their own children. 

Other survivors, to be honest, let the abuse define them and everything that goes wrong in their life is down to the abuse and sooner or later that becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. Even one of the very successful footballers revealed that he turned to drink and drugs during his career due to the abuse he suffered as a youth.

The victim, any victim should never ever let the power be the possession of the abuser. That line of thinking only damages an innocent victim even more. So I am concerned that there now seems to be a growing assumption that if you have been abused as a child then the rest of your life should be scarred by that abuse. And some abuse survivors have said to me that they feel quite guilty that they do not feel that way, and they then start wondering if there is something wrong with them.
The recent headlines covering Operation Yewtree where victims were reporting historic abuse 40 or 50 years ago by celebrities who were either dead or already in jail, seems to me to be a poison chalice. Instead of pursuing those already in jail or already passed away for each new abuse claim ( 840 have come through on the helpline since the footballer went on the TV yesterday )surely the  resources should be directed into counselling or, maybe more importantly, to try and address the internationally organised abuse that is going on today. Even as I type this, there are atrocities being committed on children in this society and they have a chance of being saved. 

The German system seems to have  a better take on it – there is no burden of proof for a criminal case, both parties are asked to come to the table and have counselling. In the end sometimes they meet and that can be a very healing process  because at the end of the day it often turns out that they were both victims. Not always so but it might be a start.

And what of society as a whole? Two things are obvious. The most sexually attractive woman, according to the media, is now child like – stick thin, hairless, big eyed with petite facial features. Previous societies have regarded age as wisdom but not us.
And then there is the general sexualisation of general that goes on and we almost accept it without noticing. There is the odd moral outcry when a clothing store markets a bikini for a 5 year old but one look at the magazines children read tell a different story. Don’t even get me started on beauty pageants ...... false eyelashes, fake tan, full make up and, I do believe the term is, a stripper dress.
So while all that is going on the newsfeed is coming through that a mother has just pleaded guilty to drugging her own daughter with sedatives so that she could spend more time with her boyfriend. The mum is in court as the little girl, 4 years old, died due to the drug interaction.

In every species there is a strong instinct to protect the young, can’t help thinking we might be losing that in amongst the political correctness. Some straight talking required I think. 

Caro Ramsay  02 12 2016