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October 30, 2012
Updatery
Posted by Patrick at 07:36 AM * 171 comments

We’re fine. So far, we haven’t lost power, and our basement has stayed dry.

My Tor email address has been completely out since Sunday, because I accidentally let my password expire, and since Macmillan has been closed due to the storm, nobody’s been around to fix it. So if you sent anything urgent to my tor.com address, please resend it to pnh@panix.com.

Manhattan is a mess. But one of the curious sideshows of last night’s devastation was the very effective work of someone billing themselves as @comfortablysmug, who appears to be Twitter pals with lots of political and business reporters. The evening’s ongoing events were bad enough, but for whatever reason, this individual seemed to go out of their way to spread false, even more alarming stories which he or she more or less made up out of whole cloth. BuzzFeed’s Andrew Kaczynski has the interesting details.

October 29, 2012
Natural disaster photo cliché bingo
Posted by Teresa at 02:20 PM * 112 comments

Dogs on a rescue boat.

Picture labeled “calm before the storm.”

Deserted business district.

Weather Channel reporter doing standup.

Dramatic fake. (Both misidentified and photoshopped specimens will be accepted.)

===

Help me with this one. We need waves breaking over a seawall and a political leader at a press conference surrounded by aides. I’m trying to think of the rest. Points will be given for duplicates of categories already tagged.

For a while I was contemplating a drinking game, but using the obvious terms — storm surge, millibars, NOAA, evacuation — would also render it unsurvivable.

Any suggestions on how to classify the shirtless horsehead jogger?

(Added) First point goes to Peter Hentges for spotting the dramatic fake shot.

The List:

Dogs on a rescue boat.
Picture labeled “calm before the storm.”
Deserted business district.
Weather Channel reporter doing standup.

Peter Hentges: Dramatic fake shot.

Lila: Waves breaking over a seawall.

Jacque: President Obama looking concerned as he’s briefed by aides.

mjfgates: NJ Governor Chris Christie gives a press conference (video).

Macallister: Driver in 4WD vehicle fighting wind and weather.

Macallister: Undaunted/imprudent tourists at iconic location.

TNH: Undaunted/imprudent tourists at iconic location.

Jeremy Preacher: Item amusingly relocated to inappropriate place by wind.

Weatherglass: Damaged sailboats.

Caroline: Floodwaters with partly-submerged car to illustrate depth.

Mary Dell: People sitting on rooftops.

Mary Dell: Grocery cart full of bottled water.

GHN: Car squashed by a fallen tree.

Jim Macdonald: Shocking fake PLUS tourists at an unsafe location.

Suggestions:

Michael suggests:

*Spray-painted sign by some wiseacre taunting the hurricane.
*Guy in wetsuit with surfboard crossing beach toward Rocky-Mountain-sized breaking waves.

Carrie S. suggests:

*Person in lawn/deck chair with beer, and dramatic clouds in background
*Someone wading through water carrying something over their head
*Treetops protruding from water
*Canoe/rowboat/kayak on Main Street
*House with masking tape/plywood on windows
(More specific?)

Weatherglass suggests:

*Action shot of people sandbagging or installing plywood over windows.
*Store shelves emptied of desirable items.
*Police roadblocks closing dangerous routes.

Hilary Hertzoff suggests:

*Dramatic shots of storm from space
*Flooded downtown area (boats get bonus points)
*Dramatic shots of gathering clouds/rain…through a window.
*Meteorologists looking busy doing research.
*Lolcat of Mitt Romney referencing his desire to dismantle FEMA.
*The dramatic locking-up of some usually busy but now empty venue.

More to come, but I’ll post these now.

Riding it out
Posted by Patrick at 06:30 AM * 109 comments

It’s 6:30 AM on Monday and the wind is audibly kicking up outside our home in Brooklyn. We have water, canned food, and other emergency supplies. Macmillan, including Tor, is officially closed today—unsurprisingly, since New York’s subways, buses, and commuter trains have all been halted for the duration. I doubt very much that our mass transit, or the publishing industry, will be up-and-running before Wednesday at the earliest.

I still plan to be at World Fantasy Con in Toronto this weekend, although I postponed my flight from Wednesday to Thursday.

I mostly post this to note that we could lose power here in Brooklyn pretty much any time, and if that happens, it could be a while before we get it back. We have backup plans for staying connected to the world if that happens, but no guarantee that any of them will work. So no one should be surprised if we’re suddenly even harder to reach than usual.

Until and unless the power goes out, of course, we’ll be obsessively following the news online. We live a block and a half from one of the mandatory-evacuation zones, and three blocks from New York Harbor. We’re really hoping those boundaries are drawn correctly. When the storm surge comes in tonight, we’ll find out.

October 28, 2012
Open Thread 178
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 06:52 PM *

In honor of the current weather, the Beaufort Wind Scale:

Force Wind
(Knots)
WMO
Classification
Appearance of Wind Effects
On the Water On Land
0 Less than 1 Calm Sea surface smooth and mirror-like Calm, smoke rises vertically
1 1-3 Light Air Scaly ripples, no foam crests Smoke drift indicates wind direction, still wind vanes
2 4-6 Light Breeze Small wavelets, crests glassy, no breaking Wind felt on face, leaves rustle, vanes begin to move
3 7-10 Gentle Breeze Large wavelets, crests begin to break, scattered whitecaps Leaves and small twigs constantly moving, light flags extended
4 11-16 Moderate Breeze Small waves 1-4 ft. becoming longer, numerous whitecaps Dust, leaves, and loose paper lifted, small tree branches move
5 17-21 Fresh Breeze Moderate waves 4-8 ft taking longer form, many whitecaps, some spray Small trees in leaf begin to sway
6 22-27 Strong Breeze Larger waves 8-13 ft, whitecaps common, more spray Larger tree branches moving, whistling in wires
7 28-33 Near Gale Sea heaps up, waves 13-19 ft, white foam streaks off breakers Whole trees moving, resistance felt walking against wind
8 34-40 Gale Moderately high (18-25 ft) waves of greater length, edges of crests begin to break into spindrift, foam blown in streaks Twigs breaking off trees, generally impedes progress
9 41-47 Strong Gale High waves (23-32 ft), sea begins to roll, dense streaks of foam, spray may reduce visibility Slight structural damage occurs, slate blows off roofs
10 48-55 Storm Very high waves (29-41 ft) with overhanging crests, sea white with densely blown foam, heavy rolling, lowered visibility Seldom experienced on land, trees broken or uprooted, “considerable structural damage”
11 56-63 Violent Storm Exceptionally high (37-52 ft) waves, foam patches cover sea, visibility more reduced  
12 64+ Hurricane Air filled with foam, waves over 45 ft, sea completely white with driving spray, visibility greatly reduced  

Devised by Rear Admiral Sir Francis Beaufort in 1805 to standardize weather observations by ships at sea. Beaufort’s scale was officially adopted in the 1830s when Sir Francis was British Admiralty Hydrographer of the Navy. Beaufort invited Charles Darwin to accompany Captain FitzRoy on a survey voyage; that voyage saw the first official use of the Beaufort Scale.

Originally the scale’s observations depended on the appearance of a ship’s sails (0: All sails hang loose—12: All sails close reefed). With the advent of steam the observations were changed to the appearance of the sea. In the 1850s observations of flags and trees were added for stations ashore.

While the Beaufort Scale has been generally replaced by observations of true wind speed using instruments, today’s storm warnings still follow Beaufort’s nomenclatures.


Continued from Open Thread 177. Continued in Open thread 179

October 27, 2012
How to Batten a Hatch
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 11:19 PM * 46 comments

This weekend we’re seeing an awful lot of stories with headlines like, “Hudson County municipalities batten down the hatches in preparation for Sandy’s arrival.” So it occurs to me: How many people actually know how to batten down a hatch?

Actually “battening down” a hatch isn’t something that’s been much practiced since the days of wooden ships. Therefore, not too many photos exist of hatches, battened or not. But this won’t deter me: Illustrations here are mostly taken from sites specializing in model ships, where the model-makers are rightfully proud of their craft.

Right then. To batten a hatch, you need: A hatch. A tarpaulin. Battens. Nails. (Optionally: batten boards, wedges, line.)

A hatch is an opening in the deck of a ship, usually rectangular in shape. The hatch has raised sides around the opening, called the hatch coaming. Inside of the hatch coaming you have a lip. Hatches are used for gaining access below decks, either for people or for cargo. After you’ve done stowing cargo below, through your cargo hatch or your main hatch, you’ll want to place a wooden grating on top of the hatch, inside the coaming, on the lip, to allow air and light to get below, but keep sailors from falling down the hatch.

Air and light are all well-and-good, but when you have heavy weather you could get water below too. When you’re shipping white water over the bow you don’t want openings in your deck. So, to prepare for high winds and heavy seas, you would batten down your hatches.

To do this you need is a big piece of canvas tarpaulin, larger than your hatch. Put the tarpaulin over the hatch, as tight as you can make it. Fold the corners, much like your basic hospital corners on a bed, with the openings of the folds leading aft (so that seas breaking over the bow don’t catch in them). Wet canvas, as you know, is watertight.

Things you need after this are battens. These are long strips of wood, the length of the hatch coamings. Nail these over the canvas, into the sides of the hatch coamings, and there you have it: A battened hatch. Yes, you’ll still ship some water, but the pumps should stay ahead of it.

Now, some variations. You can remove the grating and, in its place, put solid boards. These are called “hatch boards” or “batten boards.” Put the canvas over top of the hatch as before, and batten it down.

Nailing the batten boards to the coaming isn’t the only (or even necessarily the best) situation. If you have a metal coaming, or you don’t want to destroy your nice shellaced wood, provided you have cleats installed on the deck alongside the coaming, put the battens in place, then drive wedges between the cleats and the battens to hold the battens in place. Have the broad end of the wedge face forward, so the seas will tend to drive the wedge more securely home.

If you don’t want to or can’t nail into the hatch coaming, and you have no cleats alongside the coaming, you will tie the tarpaulin across the hatch. The hatch coaming should angle slightly in as it approaches the deck, so the line won’t slip up and off. Put your tarpaulin over the hatch, as before, and tie it on in this manner: Take a piece of line and tie a bowline in one end. Lead the line around the hatch, then put the bitter end through the bowline. A ways back, in the working part, tie a single bowline-on-a-bight, lead the bitter end through that, then haul away. Take the end back again to a fixed attachment point somewhere nearby and fashion a Spanish windlass to tighten it down as far as ever you can. Make fast.

The resulting knot is not dissimilar to this Trucker’s Hitch.

Model ships linked above for use as illustrations:

Frankenstorm alerts and resources
Posted by Teresa at 02:02 AM * 33 comments

(We’re discussing the storm down in After Irene.)

===

The commentator to watch: Dr. Jeff Masters, sometimes known as “the Nate Silver of meteorology.” He’s definitely worried about Sandy the Frankenstorm, but he’s worried in very knowledgeable ways.

===

This first batch of links is heavy on Twitter feeds because they’re so useful in a general emergency. Websites give you news when you remember to ask for it. Twitter gives you news as soon as there’s news.

Weather Underground’s Twitter interface page. Local weather reports, severe weather alerts, and the individual Twitter feeds of eight meteorologists.

The NOAA StormCentral 2012 site, and the National Weather Service’s National Hurricane Center site. If it’s storm information, those guys have it.

NHC_Surge, the experimental Twitter account of the Storm Surge Unit of the National Weather Service.

NHC_Atlantic, the National Hurricane Center’s Atlantic Twitter account.

FEMA’s hurricane preparedness page

The FEMAregion2 Twitter account: New York, New Jersey, the Virgin Islands, and “Peurto Rico.” FEMAregion3: Philadelphia. FEMAregion1: Boston. FEMAregion4: points South.

The FCC’s and FEMA’s Tips for Communicating During an Emergency.

The American Red Cross’s Power Outage page. (See the left-hand menu for info on other emergencies: heart stops, house floods, leg falls off, children attacked by whale, etc.)

The White House Blog: Monitoring Hurricane Sandy.

New Jersey: Governor Christie’s storm preparedness site.

The NYC Office of Emergency Management is practical, effective, and informative.

NYC severe weather page.

Sign up with NotifyNYC to get email or text emergency alerts.

NYC Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities.

NYC MTA status info, and hurricane announcement.

Isobars, millibars, and nearly-nude data in motion: the NOAA animated weather forecast model.

Google Crisis Response map for Hurricane Sandy. Very well executed: just click on the features you want to see.

Stormwatcher webcams.

WaPo recommends Seven apps to get you through Hurricane Sandy.

Weather.com’s rather nifty interactive weather map.

Weather.com’s Hurricane Tracker site. Lots of current videos of the storm. If the Weather Channel is running true to form, many videos will feature reporters in rain ponchos standing in ill-lit locations, shouting to be heard over the storm.

The original interactive sea level flooding map.

October 26, 2012
And what is this new sense of time?
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 06:47 AM * 54 comments

What is this weight in my mind?
And what is this new sense of time?
It’s the open fields and the friends that are gone,
And I’ve been in the lowlands too long.
—Gillian Welsh, “Lowlands”, who didn’t mean it the way I’m hearing it now.

The sun is sinking behind the clouds on the horizon. The official sunset time on the internet is still about ten minutes away, but the air temperature isn’t going to take account of that nicety. I stop and put my jacket on over my cardigan. It’s not quite enough, but I’m keeping the gloves and hat in my front basket. Sometimes the promise of more warmth later is better than the warmth itself.

This is a good spot. The bike path runs between two strips of water, both bright with reflected sky. To my right is a narrow patch of reeds, its leaves beginning to turn purple-brown with autumn. The last light of the day gives them a bit of its orange, a parting gift of warmth and richness. To my left, the fields stretch out for kilometers, flat and treeless. Only the livestock and the woodwork—bridges and little stretches of fence—break the landscape between me and the outlines of the distant trees and towns. Above it all, the sky is full of light.

Then the sun disappears and the land goes grey. Time to mount up and ride on. I’m still about forty-five minutes away from my village, and I’m getting hungry.

Five years ago, I wouldn’t have been out here without a good reason. Six months ago, I was indifferent to this vast, flat, wet landscape. My heart has always been in the mountains and the desert. When I moved to Scotland, I learned to love the terrain by analogy. The rolling hills of the Borders have a lot in common with those near San Francisco1. And the way that the bones of the land show beneath the heather in the Highlands echoes the California desert and its sagebrush. The places aren’t the same, really, but the similarity is enough to make a bridge. It’s enough to find a way to love the landscape.

But there’s no bridge from anyplace I’ve lived to the Dutch polder. This is nothing like anything I have ever known. If my love of California came through the front door and my love of Scotland through the side, this sudden, inarticulate love of the Netherlands is the unexpected guest who appears one day in the living room, ringing no bell and answering no invitation. And yet here it is, and it draws me out of the house and away from the cities every bright day. I go out for half-hour rides and come back three hours later, windblown and bright-eyed.

And the Noord-Hollands polder through which I’ve been riding is the real deal: the unfiltered, unadulterated Dutch landscape, served neat. It’s undiluted by tulips and uncut by the tourist trail. It stretches out northward from the urbanized shore of the IJ to the Afsluitdijk, making up the land between the North Sea and the IJsselmeer. The fields are punctuated by towns and villages: Purmerend, Volendam, Alkmaar, Heerhugowaard, Den Helder, Edam, Enkhuizen, Hoorn, Schagen, Heiloo. Straight, elevated canals and swift roads cross them, taking the people and the freight to and fro. But the land between is filled only with a kind of vastness: long, straight lines of pasture under the endless, endless sky.

This land was reclaimed from the water in the sixteenth century, and its first crop was Dutch democracy. The hoogheemraadschappen, the water boards that manage drainage and flood control here, are among the oldest democratic institutions in Europe. 2 They have endured in the face of centuries of authoritarianism, a living assertion that the best way to get a thing done is to empower the people who do it. The landscape here is their mute, stubborn, enduring proof, an irrefutable argument in mud and grass. The water boards are the reason that Dutch political culture, which demands cooperation between fundamentally different points of view, is known as the polder-model. This land was built by people who did not agree with their neighbors, but who worked with them anyway, and the people who live here do not forget it.

But that’s history, and this is working farmland. The old wooden pumping mills have been moved to the tourist attractions and nature reserves. What remains are long, narrow fields, divided by sloten (canals used primarily as drainage ditches3). Just as the Scots make fences from the stones they clear from their land, so the Dutch make them of the water they drain away from theirs.4 Because the sloten are sunken, the only visible fences are the short, gated stretches that prevent the livestock straying along the roads the tractors take from field to field. So the land has an odd, ragged look from a distance, as if some force had destroyed all but three meters of every fenceline.

Apart from the fences, all that stand above the fields are strips of reeds beside the water, wooden bridges carrying bike paths and roads over the canals, and the occasional bench where one can sit and look out over the landscape. I don’t think there’s anything to see, sitting on those benches, but I’m always half-afraid to stop and find out, lest a further undiscovered passion take me and I never get up again.

I’m only half-afraid, mind, because it’s not just the polder that draws me, but the act of cycling through it. Noord-Holland is interlaced with networks of bike paths, all well-marked and well-paved, used almost exclusively by Dutch people. My experience of the landscape is inextricably linked with the little thrums and whirrs of my bike as I ride, the steady progression the of ground beneath my front wheel, and the occasional nods and terse greetings shared with my fellow-travelers. I treasure this feeling of going somewhere, past these indifferent cattle and disinterested sheep, over bridges and beside bright stretches of smooth water, moving always toward the intricate silhouette of civilization that marks the boundary between earth and sky all around.

It’s not a landscape for secrets. You see whom you’re going to meet well in advance, and the prosperity or ruin of the next farm over is apparent at a glance. Even the rain comes well-heralded, sweeping across the open pastureland. I’ve read many theories that the Dutch bluntness and honesty comes from the openness of their land, that it grew alongside the polder-model in these fields. I don’t know if it’s true, or provable, but cycling here, I find it entirely plausible. This clarity and openness gets into a person’s head and won’t leave it. I can’t even imagine growing up immersed in it from birth. This is an area where many of the older generation still do not have living-room curtains, but choose to spend their leisure time in full view of their neighbors.5

And yet, despite that ceaseless visibility, it is a place of surprises: the tiny clover blossoms still showing beside the cycle track; the ruined propeller of a World War 2 plane that came down in the fields, a monument to the crew that bailed out over the North Sea and died; the cable ferries that take me across the broad canal, pulling themselves along on a metal rope suspended above the water6; the honesty-box stand where I buy six new-laid eggs, still grassy, for €1.50. And underneath those lies the constant rediscovery that this land is the work of human hands, and that it is pleasant because the people who built it valued the people who would live there enough to make it so. It is a perpetual gift from the past to the future, and I am perpetually humbled to receive it, like a stranger invited to dinner and fed the best food in the house.

I’m conscious that I’m finding it hard to disentangle my sudden passion for this open land from my steady, growing understanding of and affection for the people who live in it. Indeed, I get the sense that the two are deeply linked, that I journey into this culture the way I cross these open fields, and that the destination of the two is a single thing: home.


  1. Though something in my subconscious insisted that their greenness meant it was always spring, even in the snow.
  2. Regular readers know that I’ve voted in their elections.
  3. Unsurprisingly, Dutch has a lot of complex technical vocabulary for waterworks.
  4. In the Netherlands, by the way, Robert Frost’s neighbor is right. Good fences make good neighbors here; an un-dredged sloot can endanger all of the fields around it at flood time.
  5. The younger generation do have curtains, albeit usually left open, and self-adhesive plastic that looks like etched glass to blur the view in.
  6. I asked the operator how ships got up and down the canal. She explained that they can loosen the cable so that it lies on the water bottom; they do it twenty or thirty times a day in the off-season, and a good hundred or so during the summer.

October 25, 2012
After Irene
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 10:44 PM * 96 comments

A year and two months ago (see: Hurricane Lantern) Hurricane Irene was heading up the east coast of the US, looking to make landfall in the New York City area.

Today we have another Hurricane, Sandy, following much the same track. This time around, however, we’re looking at higher high tides (full moon; spring tides), and the possibility that Sandy will join with a nor’easter to bring snow and even more wind and rain to the region. Expect high winds, heavy seas, flooding, power outages, downed trees, and impassible roads. I can tell you that folks in Vermont are not happy tonight.

At Gowanus Bay, New York, on Monday, 29 October, Higher High Water (+5.5 feet above datum) is at 0814. Lower High Water (+4.88 feet) is at 2035. On Tuesday, 30 October, Higher High Water (+5.49 feet) is at 0849. Lower High Water (+4.74 feet) is at 2115. On Wednesday, 31 October, Higher High Water (+5.37 feet) is at 0922. Lower High Water (+4.55 feet) is at 2155.

The New York Office of Emergency Management (OEM) has a handy ready-for-hurricane guide.

We know the drill. Gather supplies, stand by to shelter in place, but know your evacuation zone and, if an evacuation order comes, get out. Have a plan in place on where you’ll go and how you’ll get there. Make sure you have communications set up so your nearest-and-dearest will know where you’ll be and how to get in touch with you.

The day may come when you’ll be tempted to drive through flowing water. Resist that urge. Your body may never be found. Do not drive through still water either, unless you have no other alternative. Half of all flood fatalities in the USA are vehicle-related. Flood-preparedness pamphlet from NOAA.

Be careful with heating, cooking, and light sources powered by flame. Cold coffee won’t kill you. Carbon monoxide (or a house fire) will.

List of useful Making Light posts here.

Post full of external links about hurricanes in general and Sandy in particular here.

October 19, 2012
O Tannenbaum
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 10:17 PM * 116 comments

The Christmas season is coming.

I live in an area filled with Christmas Tree farms. (They’re a crop like any other, only one with a growing season measured in years rather than months.) Already the trucks filled with cut and bundled trees are rolling south and the restaurants are filled with muscular gents with pine sap on their Kevlar chaps ordering and eating two dinners at once.

These early trees are being sent to far distant climes. I recall how much Christmas trees cost in La República de Panamá: So much that we never had one. I’m told that in Saudi Arabia, Westerners are approached on the streets by fellows who whisper, in furtive voices, “Want to buy a Christmas tree? Very good, very cheap.”

Colebrook is the home of Weir Brothers Tree Farm, best known for its “Fralsam” hybrids: A cross between Balsam Fir and Frasier Fir. They deliver.

Whether the Christmas tree is a holdover from the pagan past I’m not prepared to say. If it is, the thousand-year gap between that past and the emergence of the Christmas tree in Germany in the sixteenth century (legends of St. Boniface to the contrary, those are the earliest documented Christmas trees) is a little difficult to explain.

By the end of the 18th century Calvin, Knox, and the Puritan movement had pretty-much killed off Christmas in the English-speaking world, until the “old-fashioned Christmas” was invented in Victorian England, with the the tree introduced by German-born Prince Albert and a big assist from Charles Dickens. From there “traditional” Christmas celebrations (with a tradition that, in some cases, dated back decades) spread to America, because, hey, party!

So, buy a Christmas tree from Colebrook this year. Help support our local restaurants!

October 17, 2012
Portal fantasies, and cycles of desire
Posted by Teresa at 08:04 PM * 309 comments

Over at Dangerous Jam, the LJ of Rachel M. Brown (Rachelmanija), they’re discussing portal fantasies in light of certain remarks made by some unnamed agents in a post that isn’t available to the general public. Which is tiresome; but that’s Live Journal for you. It’s nevertheless an interesting subject.

Yesterday there was a fascinating discussion of portal fantasy, in which a character from our world is transported to another world. The classic example of this is Narnia. I can’t link to the post, because it was filtered (the “portal fantasy” discussion was in the comments) but I offered to make a public post on the subject. I invite the participants to copy their comments to it.

There was a Sirens panel in which five agents, who were discussing their slush piles, mentioned that they were getting quite a few portal fantasy submissions. Two of them said those made up about a quarter of their total fantasy submissions.

This would all be clearer if the agents’ names were mentioned. There’s nothing improper about it.
I said, “This intrigues me, because I haven’t seen a single one in the last ten years. Is it that editors aren’t buying them? Did you pick any up?”
I know what you’re thinking. Hang on and keep reading.
The agents replied that none of them had even requested a full manuscript for a single portal fantasy.

They explained that portal fantasies tend to have no stakes because they’re not connected enough to our world. While in theory, a portal fantasy could have the fate of both our world and the other world at stake, in practice, the story is usually just about the fantasy world. The fate of the real world is not affected by the events of the story, and there is no reason for readers to care what happens to a fantasy world.

One agent remarked that if the protagonist didn’t fall through the portal, there would be no story.

Of course, this is the key quality that makes a portal fantasy a portal fantasy. England was not at stake in the Narnia series, Narnia was. If the kids hadn’t gone through the wardrobe, there would indeed be no story. Nor was Narnia tightly connected to England: the kids were from England and that was important, but the story was all about Narnia.

The agents added that nothing is absolutely impossible to sell, and one said that she had a middle-grade fantasy which had portal elements. But overall, they were not enthused.

In the filtered discussion, several people confirmed that it isn’t just that agents won’t even take a look at portal fantasy manuscripts; almost no editors are willing to buy them, either. Presumably, this is why agents don’t even want to read them.

Agents and editors: Is this correct? If so, why? The obvious answer is that they don’t sell to readers… but normally, you know that because they consistently fail to sell. In this case, there seem to be none published at all.

Granted: on the face of it, this makes no sense. Just off the top of my head, the last decade (loosely defined) saw the publication of Spin, Axis, Vortex, Un Lun Dun, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Coraline, The Magicians, The Magician King, various works by Jasper Fforde, and volumes in the Wheel of Time, Harry Potter, Merchant Princes, and Laundry series, all of which use numinous portals. If you include TV shows, there’s Buffy, Angel, Fringe, and the whole Stargate franchise. I can’t possibly list all the movies, but I’ll mention Spirited Away, Monsters, Inc., Pan’s Labyrinth, The Ring, and Inception.

Portals aren’t just present; they’ve become part of the basic toolkit.* Why grown so common? At a guess, because we’re all spending a lot of time in an environment where we magically jump from one location to another.

I suspect the misunderstanding in question grows out of the ubiquity of portals in fiction. They’ve ceased to be interesting in their own right, and are now just a mechanism. If a writer thinks having a character fall through a portal is sufficient bang for the buck, they probably aren’t writing a very good story.

This is borne out by the agents’ other remarks: there’s not enough at stake in portal fiction, there’s no reason for readers to care what happens, and if it weren’t for the falling-through-the-portal bit there’d be no story. I’ll take that as tentative confirmation that if they’re thinking of a book as a portal fantasy, there’s not enough going on in it; and if there’s enough story to make it a good book, they aren’t identifying the portal as a central feature.

There is another possible explanation, but I’m not feeling a surfeit of portals at the moment, so I don’t think it’s what’s going on. I’ll describe it anyway, because it’s always happening to one kind of fiction or another.

It’s a cycle. It starts when someone writes a terrifically appealing book or series:

Readers: OM NOM MOAR LIKE THAT.

Writer: Hmmmf. I could write that as well as (original author) did.

Editor/Publisher: It appeals to the same audience that loved yon terrifically appealing book or series. (Acquires and packages it accordingly.)

Readers: YUM, LIKED THAT BEFORE, NOM NOM NOM.

Writers: Ka-ching! Here, have some more!

Editor/Publisher: Gosh, these are selling awfully well. ( Acquires and packages them accordingly.)

Readers: LOOK, MOAR! NOM.

More writers: This subgenre is Teh Hot Stuff. I shall write a series in it, and all shall love me and despair!

Editor/Publisher: Um. I know it’s got problems, but these are so popular …

Readers: TUMMY NOT FEEL SO GOOD.

Lots and lots of writers: It’s practically a formula! Cowabunga!

Editor/Publisher: Cripes, it’s another one of those. I’ve already rejected a dozen of ‘em this morning.

Readers: OOH, SHINY! (Wanders off in pursuit of some new thing.)

What cloys the readers’ appetite for a style or trope or category isn’t the good examples; it’s the third-rate knockoffs. If they O.D. on imitations, you sometimes have to wait for their dyspepsia to subside before they can remember what they liked about it in the first place.

October 16, 2012
Michael Bérubé, Joe Paterno, and Penn State
Posted by Teresa at 11:15 AM *

Michael Bérubéauthor, sometimes blogger, bright star of academia, and current MLA President — has written a remarkable essay about why he has resigned the Paterno Family Professorship in Literature at Pennsylvania State University.

That’s “Paterno” as in Joe Paterno, as in former boss of Jerry Sandusky, as in the child abuse sex scandal at Penn State, so you might think there’s nothing to explain. You’d be mistaken. Michael Bérubé has done a thing that doesn’t happen nearly often enough: he’s sorted out the actual story, evidence to date, and moral responsibilities of individuals and institutions.

In a perfect world, pile-ons wouldn’t happen. In a marginally less perfect world, every pile-on would be issued its own Michael Bérubé.

I don’t need to explain why I resigned the Paterno Family Professorship in Literature at Pennsylvania State University, do I? I mean, really. It was the Paterno Family Professorship in Literature. That’s all you need to know.

Except that’s not all you need to know. And much of what you think you know is wrong.

Here’s what everyone knows: The Jerry Sandusky serial-child-rape scandal involved “an unprecedented failure of institutional integrity leading to a culture in which a football program was held in higher esteem than the values of the institution, the values of the NCAA, the values of higher education, and most disturbingly the values of human decency.” Those were the words of the NCAA’s president, Mark Emmert, as he announced sweeping and severe sanctions against Penn State’s football program.

And there is no question about who is to blame: “In order to avoid the consequences of bad publicity, the most powerful leaders at the university — Spanier, Schultz, Paterno and Curley — repeatedly concealed critical facts relating to Sandusky’s child abuse.” Those were the words of the Freeh report, commissioned by the Penn State Board of Trustees and submitted by former FBI Director Louis J. Freeh. In his news conference on July 12, Freeh insisted that the iconic coach, Joe Paterno, “was an integral part of this active decision to conceal.”

I read the Freeh report the morning it was released and proceeded to ignore every news-media outlet’s request to comment. A producer for National Public Radio’s All Things Considered called my English-department office, my office at the Institute for the Arts and Humanities, my cellphone, and my home phone. For good measure, she e-mailed and tweeted me. That afternoon, I saw a cloud formation that pretty clearly seemed to be a smoke signal — “Professor Bérubé, this is NPR. Please call us RIGHT THIS SECOND.” Radio, TV, newsmagazines, and newspapers called and wrote. But I had nothing to say that day, and I have had nothing to say since. Until now.

I knew the day the Freeh report was released that I would have to resign the Paterno chair, but I hesitated for almost six weeks. (I informed my dean on August 20.) I did so chiefly out of concern for the feelings of Sue Paterno, Joe’s wife. I have always been very fond of her, as has my wife, Janet, and my son Jamie — and she will always have my respect and gratitude. I thought also of Joe’s son Jay Paterno, a former quarterbacks coach at Penn State, whose wife, Kelley, was one of my students when I was a teaching assistant at the University of Virginia. …

Bérubé then discusses some of his interactions with the Paternos. I’m only leaving it out because it’s bad form to quote that much of an article.

Onward.

More important, the Paterno family has done nothing wrong. Remember that the next time someone casts aspersions on the name “Paterno.” Yes, they are contesting the Freeh report, the NCAA sanctions, and the destruction of Joe Paterno’s legacy. From the outside, from where you sit, it doesn’t look good. But just imagine their shock and grief. Last year their father/husband was an idol, a symbol of integrity in the deeply corrupt and smarmy enterprise of big-time college sports, author of the “Grand Experiment” that sought to bring success with honor to dear old State. He was Saint Joe, a throwback to an era when football players actually took real classes and graduated along with the rest of their cohort. (Indeed, the graduation rate for Penn State’s African-American players has matched that of its white players; few football programs can say as much.) Suddenly he is associated with—and, by some accounts, the mastermind behind—the cover-up of the most horrible scandal in the history of American collegiate athletics.

Who can say what form the Paternos’ grief should take? Grief is perhaps the least manageable of human emotions. And if the family members were grieving, as I knew they were, should I add insult to injury by telling them I could no longer hold the chair that bears their name?

Of course, that’s precisely what I had to do. So once I received word from the College of the Liberal Arts that my resignation of the chair was official, I wrote to Sue to tell her of my decision. I assure you it was not an easy letter to write.

Over the past year, many people have remarked that Penn State is living inside a bubble. In State College, in Centre County, perhaps in a 50-mile radius around Beaver Stadium, you can still see hundreds of tributes to JoePa — on T-shirts, on taxis — and, even more common, in expressions of anger and exasperation at the “National Communist Athletic Association” and “the Freeh Stooges.” It is striking.

Some visitors find such a reaction appalling — with good reason. Surprisingly few people here realize how bad it looks to contest the report our own trustees commissioned, flawed though it be; surprisingly few people here realize how it looks to wear T-shirts that construe Penn State as the victim in all this, as if they are willing to become complicit with the whole mess, active participants in the culture that produced this scandal. …

And yet we who live inside the bubble know a few things you don’t know. We know there is good reason to be puzzled at Freeh’s conclusion that Joe Paterno “closely” followed the 1998 police investigation into an allegation that Jerry Sandusky had engaged in inappropriate conduct with a boy in the showers at the university’s athletic facility. The Freeh report itself produces only two e-mails from Tim Curley, the athletics director who is now on leave, to support that argument. One indicates that Curley had “touched base” with Paterno, and the other asks for an update because “Coach is anxious to know where it stands.” The funny thing is, people didn’t usually refer to Paterno as “Coach”; they called him Joe. Of course, it’s possible that Curley was speaking in code precisely to protect Paterno; but it’s also possible that the second e-mail refers not to Paterno but to Coach Sandusky himself. We really don’t know.

But we do know that when it comes to the 1998 investigation, Freeh’s claim rests on a curiously thin reed. And though that doesn’t absolve Paterno for his inaction after Mike McQueary, a former graduate assistant, reported seeing Sandusky in the showers with a boy in 2001, it does hold out the possibility that he was not lying to the grand jury in 2011 when he said he didn’t recall the 1998 investigation. (By contrast, it does not seem plausible that Curley and Gary Schultz, now a former vice president of the university, would not have remembered the 1998 investigation, as they claimed in 2011. But we will have to wait for their day in court, scheduled for next year.)

And we know that while the body of the report contains crucial details about the real scandal of the 1998 investigation, no one has cared to focus on those details. They may not have been part of Freeh’s commission, but they raise important questions about why the investigation was shut down, and they warrant attention. They tell a sorry story about local law enforcement and child services — but they don’t tell the full story. Alycia Chambers, a psychologist who was contacted by the mother of one of the boys Sandusky was “grooming,” filed a report with Detective Ron Schreffler of the university police department and with the Pennsylvania child-abuse line, affirming that Sandusky fit the profile of a pedophile. Schreffler, in turn, reported to a caseworker at Centre County’s Office of Children and Youth Services, but the Freeh report does not indicate whether he passed along Chambers’s report.

The mind boggles at how much human misery, first and foremost that of Sandusky’s subsequent victims, could have been prevented if anyone had had the sense to listen to Chambers and act accordingly. According to Freeh, because the youth-services agency had conflicts over contracts with the Second Mile, the charity Sandusky founded, the investigation was handed over to Pennsylvania’s Department of Public Welfare, which engaged its own psychologist, who proceeded to tell everyone that there was no cause for alarm: Sandusky wasn’t grooming kids for abuse, and the psychologist had never heard of a 52-year-old man “becoming a pedophile.”

How did this debacle happen? Was someone in the know protecting Second Mile, which Sandusky used to recruit his victims? Did the second psychologist just tell the public-welfare folks what they wanted to hear? Did everyone involved sigh with relief when the district attorney closed the investigation?

We don’t know. What we do know is that everyone who had any knowledge of the 1998 investigation should have rung every available alarm, and gone to every appropriate authority, after McQueary reported what he saw in 2001. No one in the Penn State leadership did so, and that — not their responses three years earlier, when the district attorney sounded the all-clear — is what is unforgivable.

So there are two institutional failures here. The first, in 1998, is primarily a failure of our police and child-protection authorities. The second, in 2001, is primarily a failure of university governance. …

Bérubé digs into more details. At no point do I get the impression that he’s trying to exonerate Joe Paterno. Mostly, he’s sorting out the evidence and putting it in context. That’s a worthy thing, however ugly the story.
It may be too late to try to scale back the hysteria; it may not even be possible to call it by its proper name, “hysteria.” But those of us who live and work at Penn State, and who are most horrified and disgusted by these crimes, might yet be able to try to say that some of what has been said and written about Paterno has been unfair — even unhinged. And we might be able to say so while acknowledging that his failure to ensure Sandusky was stopped is more than enough to taint his legacy forever.

I have read a year’s worth of essays and blog posts and tweets and message boards now, and I have found that there are people out there who speak as if Joe Paterno had tried to find ways to help Jerry Sandusky rape children for decades. It is no wonder that 28 percent of the American public believes that Paterno himself was a child rapist, and an additional 15 percent are not sure. As usual, The Onion said it best: “Additional Findings Show Every Penn State Student, Alumnus Also Knew About Ongoing Child Molestation.” That is how some of the media coverage has gone.

Also from The Onion on this subject:
12 August 2011, Penn State Players All Worried They’re Going To Be The One Who Accidentally Kills Joe Paterno
July 12 2012, Freeh Report: Joe Paterno Burning In Hell Right Now
July 21 2012, Details Of Paterno Family’s Internal Report
July 23 2012, Penn State To Also Remove Statue Of Showering Sandusky
July 29 2012, Texas A&M Fans Celebrate 1999 Alamo Bowl Victory Over Penn State
July 31 2012, Penn State Students Trying To Understand Why They’re There Now
August 27 2012, Penn State Bans The Who’s ‘Fiddle About’ During Games
October 11 2011, They Can Never Take Away My Memories by “Jerry Sandusky”
The Onion had a field day with that story. So did a lot of other publications that weren’t nearly as funny.
I have read countless denunciations of the man’s desire to coach into his 80s, written by people who are convinced that Paterno covered up Sandusky’s crimes simply because he wanted the record for most career wins-and who are apparently unaware that Paterno feared that when he stopped coaching he would die. (You know what? He was right.) I have read longtime Paterno haters jump on the man’s corpse because he continued to play Rashard Casey at quarterback at the start of the 2000 season, after Casey had been charged with aggravated assault by the Hoboken, N.J., police, despite the fact that Casey said he was innocent. (The grand jury refused to indict him, and the city of Hoboken eventually settled Casey’s lawsuit for malicious prosecution.) Paterno’s support of Casey was actually laudable, at least for people who believe in the presumption of innocence.

I have read sportswriters sputtering with indignation all over again about how arrogant and deluded Paterno was to believe that Penn State, and not Texas, should have been national champions in 1969, because everybody knows that Texas was a stronger team. (As the sportswriter Allen Barra recently pointed out in a sneering review of Joe Posnanski’s biography of Paterno, Penn State’s opponents that year were very weak, going 49-44; as Barra inexplicably failed to point out, Texas’ opponents were 39-61. You could look it up.) I have read right-minded citizens complaining loudly about Paterno’s exorbitant salary, ignorant of the fact that it was a fraction of those of his peers for almost his entire career. Our local paper’s former sports editor actually came out of retirement to chortle that he always knew Paterno would come to a bad end, and recounted the outrage he felt in 1985 when Paterno didn’t tell him the full story of some kid’s injury. (I am not making this up.) I know it is hard to think that “Paterno is innocent of X and Y even though he is at fault for Z,” when Z involves something so hideous and overwhelming. But the schadenfreude and the piling on have been remarkable.

Cheap moral glow: never edifying. One of these days I must write about pile-ons and how they work. They’re an evil phenomenon.
And I have watched in amazement as Vicky Triponey, a former vice president for student affairs who became infamous in some circles at Penn State for eliminating the right of students to have a say in what groups are recognized on campus, remade herself as “the Woman Who Stood Up to Paterno” (to cite a CNN.com headline from July 2012). If you never heard of Triponey until she began to take her sweet revenge on Paterno, you don’t know how surreal it is for many of us to see the woman who tried to cut funds from the student radio station — for its criticisms of the university administration, some students charged — being touted as the brave whistle-blower who lost her job for crossing the football coach.
As Patrick remarked yesterday, when one of these trains gets moving, all kinds of cars will opportunistically latch on. It’s another thing that happens in pile-ons.

That’s not the end of the essay. Bérubé ties in half a dozen more issues, all of which have significance beyond the Penn State football program. Go, read.

October 07, 2012
Chupacabra
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 12:43 PM * 81 comments

The chupacabra (Spanish name, literally goat-sucker) was first reported in the mid-1990s. A previously-unknown animal that attacked farmyard animals, at night, with unusual bite patterns, news was first spread from farmer to farmer before it was picked up by the popular press.

Since the sightings were first reported in Latin America, and the news carried by less-credible sources such as supermarket tabloids, the animal was not taken seriously at the beginning.

“We didn’t put a team on the ‘chupacabra’ until 2002,” said Dr. Martin Despatchio of the CDC, in an interview on Larry King Live. “No one believed in it. But, after the anthrax scare in 2001, when we had teams out looking for sources of the anthrax spores that had been used in the attacks, several of them heard independent reports and we figured, ‘What could it hurt to look?’”

The CDC initially didn’t find anything. An animal that was rare at best, that attacked only at night, and didn’t appear to feed in any kind of normal way, would be hard to catch. The investigation was put on a back burner. “With SARS, the flu epidemic, and funding cuts… something had to give way,” Dr. Despatchio said, “And the chupacabra project was what we didn’t do. In retrospect that might have been a poor decision.”

Then, in 2006, a live specimen of a chupacabra was trapped in Texas.

“‘Live’ is a generous way of describing it,” says LCDR Ronald Fortmontain of the US Public Health Service. The PHS took charge of the specimen. “We couldn’t quite place the species at first. Its appearance and behavior were just … weird. Although it had a mammalian body type, its core temperature was ambient. So, we needed to dissect it to make the determination. Which meant killing it. And that was just darned tough to do. The usual methods … carbon monoxide, potassium injection … had no effect. ”

The method that finally worked was shooting it in the brain.

“And that was when things got really weird,” Fortmontain said. “Cytologically, this thing was a coyote. A long dead coyote. But it had been moving and trying to attack. The biowar people had a lot of concern over smallpox, so the first thing we did was rule out smallpox. Then we figured, ‘maybe rabies.’ We did detect a virus, a previously unknown virus. We started playing around with it, using animal tests. And when we started getting the results back, we were wishing it had been smallpox or rabies.”

The virus, code-named “Z,” proved to be rapidly fatal among the test animals, “For some values of ‘fatal,’ says Fortmontain. “Some of the tests of death… no breathing, no heartbeat, no body heat, starting to decay… yes, you’d call it dead. But they were still moving. They were looking at you. They were going for you; you know, attacking. They had a rudimentary intelligence. It was, well, a lot of people were freaked out. And we figured, if we’re this freaked out, what are the civilians going to do when they hear?”

The Public Health Service, the CDC, and researchers at Johns Hopkins, the only ones who knew about Z Virus, had a problem. By then the chupacabra was being reported across most of Latin America and the American south and southwest. “They were pretty much coterminous with the range of the American coyote, and the coyote is everywhere; in cities, in rural New England, everywhere,” says Francine Corizon, public affairs officer for Johns Hopkins. “This was classified at a very high level. Special intelligence, compartmented information, I don’t know what all because I wasn’t cleared to know. Pretty much no one below echelon-one commands had an inkling. The decision to alert the public — we kicked that down the road, waiting for the day when the public couldn’t be kept in the dark any more. That day was coming, because we knew that the Z Virus could cross into the human population. Dr. Ernesto Diaz at the University Hospital of Mexico found that out the hard way. That was when everyone got really … serious about the problem. Coyotes on goats, hey, what’s new. People on people, that would be a bit more difficult to cover up.”

There had, in fact, been a cover-up going on. A number of ingenious theories had been floated, mostly involving coyotes with mange.

At the same time, in early 2011, the CDC launched its “Zombie Preparedness” campaign, supposedly a “light-hearted” approach to emergency preparedness. “But we were in deadly earnest,” said Dr. Despatchio. “About six people knew the whole story, and one of them, Geraldine Ritz, came up with that idea, and the Surgeon General said, ‘Go with it,’ so we did.”

At the same time, a team at Johns Hopkins and another team at the Public Health Service, in a facility in Florida, were working on a cure and a vaccine. “Cure, well, we wrote that off early on,” said Ms. Corizon. “If we found a cure it would be the first virus, ever, that anyone had actually cured. Usually, you just support the person until their own immune system takes care of the disease. But with this one, that wasn’t going to happen. It was too rapid. The other approach, using injections of either live attenuated or dead virus to produce immunity, well, the bio-ethical concerns were extreme. Even if we had something that sort-of worked, we were years from human trials if we could even get it past the ethics committee.”

After the Diaz Event, the teams that were working the problem had begun to carry sidearms. “The gallows humor, I can’t repeat most of the jokes. You had to have been there,” Dr. Despatchio said. “Mostly, the most common way people said ‘hello’ was ‘If it comes to that, do me.’ And the response would be ‘I’ll do us both.’”

That was the situation through 2011 and into 2012. The first documented cases of Z Virus among humans in the general population took place over the summer of 2012, “And we were pretty good about covering those up too,” says LCDR Fortmontain. “The people who had the right answer thought they were joking, and we let them think so. But a lot of us started sweating then. We knew all along that the outbreak, particularly given the animal reservoir of virus, wasn’t a question of ‘if.’ It was a question of ‘when.’ Now the answer to ‘when’ looked like ‘any day now.’

Which is where matters stood until this weekend. As anyone who has read the news knows, “When” would be the weekend of 6/7 October 2012.

“It’s a new world,” said Dr. Despatchio. Then, looking right at Larry King, he said, “If it comes to that, do me.”

Mr. King responded, “I’ll do us both.”

October 05, 2012
Correlation and causation: still just good friends
Posted by Teresa at 06:00 AM * 89 comments

First thing you have to know is that Patrick and I completely disagreed about this article.

So, anyway, Daniel Engber has declared war on “Correlation doesn’t imply causation,” calling it The Internet Blowhard’s Favorite Phrase. He’s wrong. Blowhards have entire suites of favorite phrases, which is useful insofar as it lets us spot them quickly and classify them according to type. “Correlation doesn’t imply causation” is only one of them, and it’s also used by smart, thoughtful, engaged commenters who are acting in good faith.

What’s really going on is that there’s a large population of demi-trolls on the internet who aren’t all that smart, and don’t have much to say that’s original or interesting, but who passionately want people to pay attention to them and act like their opinions are worth something. Mind the gap.*

This means they’re always in the market for universally applicable arguments. When they find one, they make excessive use of it. Some of them have discovered that causality is very hard to demonstrate. I wouldn’t say they understand the principles involved. They just know that people who do understand causality will stop in their tracks if you invoke it.

Srsly.

Some of their other all-purpose arguments and comments:

It’s a slippery slope.
You’re arguing from emotion.
The internet changes everything.
I challenge you to prove me wrong.
I’m not going to do your research for you.
You wouldn’t react with this much hostility if I wasn’t right.
If you cared about this as much as I do, you’d be saying the same thing.
The ultimate in insanity is to keep doing the same things while expecting different results.
(Not a complete list.)

There’s an even easier way to spot Engber’s bête noire, Zyxwvutsr, as a demi-troll. Note this paragraph from one of Zyxwvutsr’s comments:

Engber … correctly noted that risky behavior causes bad health, but failed again to break out of the standard liberal paradigm that says the poor are not responsible for their own plight. He does this by citing a paper that “low income, education, powerlessness, discrimination, and social exclusion” cause risky behavior rather than the other way around.
Stop and ask yourself: is there such a thing as a “standard liberal paradigm that says the poor are not responsible for their own plight”? There is not; so QED, you’ve got a troll or demi-troll using “wrong things liberals think, which I just invented on the spot or am parroting from some right-wing source” as an all-purpose argument.

Pinky swear: a whole lot of what appears to be right-wing grassroots argument online is actually doofs like Zyxwvutsr using “wrong things I fantasize liberals doing” as an all-purpose fill-in. Guys like him are generally clueless about what centrists, liberals, and leftists actually think, and their own ideologies are an incoherent patchwork of borrowed opinions. The one thing they’re sure about is that being a right-winger means they’re right — and they desperately want to be right, even if they’re not sure what they’re right about.*

So how do you deal with them? My favorite method is to calmly engage with the factual content of their comments. Correlation isn’t an on/off leap of faith; it’s a technique for assessing data. Talk about what it’s doing in this case.

One of the cute things about trolls and demi-trolls is that most of them have difficulty unpacking, extending, or modifying their sacred opinions. If you put them in a position where respect is clearly available, but the price is that they have to actually know and understand what they’re talking about, they’ll often just evaporate.

Is this a guaranteed technique? It is not. It’s merely a good one. But it sure as hell beats taking up arms against “correlation is not causality.”

(Note: a sketchy draft of this post accidentally went live a couple of mornings ago, then got taken down. Apologies to anyone who was confused by that.)

Addendum:

Comment #20, from James Moar:

“It’s a slippery slope”

Well, you’ve got to remember that if you use a slippery-slope argument once, you’ll end up using it for absolutely everything.

October 03, 2012
A mysterious hatred of fedoras
Posted by Teresa at 02:00 PM * 187 comments

Fedoras: Forever Alone is a loony site. I don’t mean that in a good way. Its proprietor sounds just a bit unbalanced. Here’s her colophon, which on her site is all-caps, centered in a narrow column, and thirty-four lines long:

A compilation of the worst offenders in fashion: Fedora wearers. Here we collect images of the men (mostly) of okcupid who message us while wearing these horrible hats that are an instant deal breaker. A fedora speaks volumes about one’s character. It implies that he is a basement dwelling, live action role playing, no social skills having, complete and utter geek in the worst sense of the word. Nobody looks good in a fedora, but these are the chumps that, not only look bad in them, but have single handedly brought the fedora so far out of fashion that we don’t think that anything will bring them back. Shame on you geeks of America! Here is your wall of shame.
So unpleasant.

In spite of all that spluttering and stereotyping, one thing her photos make clear is that she wouldn’t recognize a geek or a gamer if one bit her. Mind you, I’m fine with her not wanting to date fans. I’m sure they’d find her uncongenial.

Ms. FFA’s problem is that she basically doesn’t like hats — I think there’s a word for that — but she thinks it’s everyone else’s fault. She’s also noticed that not many men look as good in their hats as Humphrey Bogart and Michael Jackson did in theirs, and feels they’re at fault for it. Going by her photos again, her active dislike is given to guys who wear unbecoming hats that are too small for them. This is a trivial problem, not a character flaw. They need bigger hats and better advice.

Thing is, I’ve never seen the fashion industry put warning labels on clothes. It would be nice if they did. For example: “CAUTION: This garment will look catastrophically weird with everything else you own.” They’d be especially useful on stingy-brim fedoras, which look fine on Frank Sinatra, Justin Timberlake, several score black jazz musicians, and almost no one else: “CONSUMER ALERT: If you don’t have the right face for this hat, it will make you look like a dork.”

Porkpie hats, which she can’t tell from fedoras, are even tougher. Lester Young wore one, of course. So did Dizzy Gillespie, when he wasn’t wearing his beret; and Thelonious Monk, who sooner or later wore everything.

The only white guys that ever really rocked a porkpie are Buster Keaton and Walter White. Odds are you don’t look like them. But will a hat salesman breathe a word of warning in your ear? Will he discreetly point out that a hat that rendered Gene Hackman, Paul Newman, and Robert Downey Jr. terminally uncool might need rethinking? He will not. He’ll sell you a hat that makes you look bad enough to make the Baby Jesus cry, and chortle as he wraps it up. There ought to be a law.

On the other hand, it will keep you from getting to know Ms. FFA. Embrace the hat.

October 02, 2012
Ex-TSA agent: “We steal from travelers all the time”
Posted by Teresa at 11:00 PM * 52 comments

I was ranting (and posting dozens of links) about this issue just the other day. Now former TSA agent Pythias Brown, the Newark-based one-man crime wave, has gone public about the problem of TSA theft from passengers.

The interview is revelatory. The TSA has put far more work into denying and obfuscating the problem than fixing it, so it’s startling to hear Brown talking about it in clear. The pictures he draws match the known data a lot better than the TSA’s press releases. Here’s the story:

A TSA agent convicted of stealing more than $800,000 worth of goods from travelers said this type of theft is “commonplace” among airport security. Almost 400 TSA officers have been fired for stealing from passengers since 2003.
Some additional number of them resigned and weren’t prosecuted. My guess is that the resignations outnumber the cases that were prosecuted.
Pythias Brown, a former Transportation Security Administration officer at Newark Liberty International Airport, spent four years stealing everything he could from luggage and security checkpoints, including clothing, laptops, cameras, Nintendo Wiis, video games and cash.

Speaking publicly for the first time after being released after three years in prison, Brown told ABC News that he used the X-ray scanners to locate the most valuable items to snatch. “I could tell whether it was cameras or laptops or portable cameras or whatever kind of electronic was in the bag,” he said.

A three-year sentence is par for the course for a conviction, even in cases where the TSA agent is known to have stolen hundreds of cameras and computers, or thousands of dollars in cash or jewelry. About half the time, they get three years on probation, and that’s it.

I do not doubt that some of their victims have worked longer to pay off the goods they’ve stolen than the thieves have been incarcerated for stealing it.

Brown often worked alone, screening luggage behind the ticket counters. He was frequently told the overhead surveillance cameras, installed to prevent theft, were not working. “It was so easy,” he said. “I walked right out of the checkpoint with a Nintendo Wii in my hand. Nobody said a word.”
I believe this. Stealing has to be easy because there haven’t been nearly as many arrests for accessory to theft as there’ve been for plain old one-person theft. Brown was mailing goods to his eBay customers from the airport FedEx, paying the postage charges with a personal credit card that had his home address on it. No one noticed.

This is the organization that has obsessively confiscated insufficiently small bottles of shampoo and hand lotion, made travel a nightmare for families whose toddlers’ names happen to match names on the ever-expanding no-fly list, and had the expensive new high-tech scanners they developed rejected by potential customers in German airport security because they generate too many false positives.

What doesn’t the TSA do? Standard investigative work. Standard site security.

With more electronics than any one individual could need, Brown began to sell the stolen items on eBay. At the time of his arrest, he was selling 80 cameras, video games and computers online. Brown said the theft was comparable to an addiction. “It was like being on drugs,” he said. “I was like, ‘What am I doing?’ but the next day I was right back at it.”
A routine comparison of eBay auctions with reported thefts at Newark would have lit up Brown’s vendor account like a Christmas tree.
Brown was finally caught after selling a camera he stole from the luggage of a CNN producer. When he sold the camera on eBay, he forgot to remove the news networks’ logo stickers. “I got complacent,” he said.

TSA’s culture of theft

But while Brown believes he might have been one of the worst thieves at the TSA, he imagines the agency’s culture makes it easy for others to do the same.

The TSA has never made any distinction between the appearance of security and the real thing. Meanwhile, every employee theft is a diagnostic indicator saying there’s a hole in security at that spot.
Many officers don’t care about their work and complain about low pay and being treated badly, he claims, which prompts them to steal.
Disgruntled employees and ex-employees are the biggest security hole in any organization. The TSA has a chronic morale problem that’s gotten worse over time.
To make it even easier to get away with, TSA managers also never search their employees’ bags.
That’s a new one on me. I had no idea. I am amazed. Millions of employees in retail and manufacturing jobs are subject to being searched. So are people at concerts and museums. So is everyone who rides my city’s transit system. So is everyone who passes through an airport who isn’t TSA. What earthly reason could there be to exempt TSA employees from bag searches when the organization has an endemic problem with theft?
The agency says it has a zero-tolerance policy for theft and terminates the contracts of all thieves within the TSA. In the past ten years, almost 400 TSA officers have been fired for stealing, 11 of which were fired this year.
Yeah yeah yeah, TSA zero-tolerance policy. That’s their answer every time it happens. Notice how they only guarantee they’ll terminate employment contracts?

Many of the biggest cases that have been reported and prosecuted have involved local law enforcement. I’d like to know whether that’s because police departments are more competent than the TSA, or whether the police won’t just write it off and let the TSA employee quietly resign.

ABC’s interview with Brown highlights the extent of the dilemma passengers face when traveling with valuables. Brown is just one of many officers caught in the act of stealing goods worth thousands.

In February, 2011, two TSA officers were arrested for stealing $40,000 in cash from a checked bag in New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport. Using an X-ray machine, the men found that the bag contained $170,000 and removed some of the money.

A favorite target: overseas travelers who speak English as a second language if they speak it at all. Many of them carry large amounts of cash, and it’s difficult for them to raise a fuss when they’re robbed.

Don’t feel too sorry for the employees driven to steal. The ones who do it target the most vulnerable travelers.

In the first two months of this year, a TSA baggage screener in Orlando was arrested for stealing valuables by hiding them in a laptop-sized hidden pocket in his jacket and selling the goods on Craigslist. And, a New Jersey-based agent stole $5,000 in cash from a passenger’s jacket as he was going through security. In April, a Texas-based TSA officer stole eight iPads from checked bags, while another officer stole a $15,000 watch from a passenger at the Los Angeles International Airport in May.
All of those were confident and well-practiced thefts, which means none of the thieves were doing it for the first time. I doubt they were doing it for the twentieth.
“It was very commonplace, very,” Brown said, describing the frequency of theft within the TSA.

“TSA is probably the worst personnel manager that we have in the entire federal government,” said Rep. John Mica, chairman of the House Transportation Committee. “It is an outrage to the public and, actually, to our aviation security system.”

Once an organization jells, it can be very hard to change. The TSA is habitually mendacious, corrupt, and incompetent. The whole thing should be burnt to the ground and rebuilt from scratch.

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