Category Archives: Social comment

The role of bird poop in US history

Guano, as we towers of literary force are supposed to refer to bird excrement, has the surprising tendency to accumulate on islands frequented by numerous birds. What in the continental United States would be referred to as ‘parts of rural Georgia,’ far out to sea, may once have been worth planting the flag and bringing a shovel.

In 1856, the United States decided that it was entitled to claim any island that was:

  • a) uninhabited (perhaps because it was too coated with bird dook for anyone to want to live there);
  • b) too coated with bird dook for anyone to want to live there; and
  • c) unclaimed by anyone else (perhaps because it was too covered in bird dook to be of interest).

This resulted in us claiming about eighty islands worldwide. Considering the nitrate-rich nature of bird poop, this was somewhat less stupid and arrogant than it might seem–though that bar wasn’t set terribly high.

Weirder: we still claim some of them. Some have even been strategic in wars. Others, strategic or not, got the shit kicked out of them in those wars. The United States: Not Only Will We Control Your Islands Of Bird Ca-Ca, You May Wish You Had Thought Of That Before We Did, Suckers.

Here are the ones we’re still hanging onto, even if our yearning for bird turds has declined or, more plausibly, if we already confiscated all the bird turds we deemed essential to our national interest:

Bajo Nuevo Bank, a.k.a. the Petrel Islands. A couple of very narrow atoll-like reefs with minimal land area (as in, if you have a decent arm you could throw a baseball from the east beach to the west beach at most points): draw a line north from the Panamá Canal, stop where you reach the latitude of the north Nicaraguan border well to the west, and you’re in the right neighborhood. Colombia claims them, and the International Court of Justice agrees, but for some reason we still dispute the sovereignty. Thus, it is a pair of guano islands that still fit into the conversation. I doubt that we will ever go down and start shooting at the Colombian Navy over this, although given trends in our national leadership, I no longer put any stupidity or lunacy past them.

Baker Island, originally New Nantucket. Just over three-quarters of a square mile, it’s halfway between Hawaii and Australia and very close to the Equator. We built an airfield and used it as a base during World War II, partly in response to some Japanese air attacks. We left a lot of airfield-and-army-related junk there, where it all still rusts or otherwise deteriorates. Now the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service operates it as a wildlife refuge, which means in essence leaving it alone since it has no human population or strategic value. They visit it every couple of years, just to see how everything’s coming. You know, make sure no one has set up a meth lab, look for Gilligan, that sort of stuff.

Howland Island. This isn’t far from Baker Island, about thirty miles nearly due north, and is in roughly the same ignored condition. Its land area is a little over a square mile and a half. Before she disappeared, that great Kansan Amelia Earhart was searching for her preplanned stopover point on Howland Island. We had big plans for this place in the 1930s, intending it as a refueling stopover for intercontinental air travel, and to that end we set up a colonist program where four Hawaiians at a time would come to live there. This was not easy in peacetime, but got worse when the Japanese bombed it the day after Pearl Harbor, killing two of the colonists. We evacuated the other two, landed a battalion of Marines, and prepared to hold fast. After the war, we abandoned Howland Island; now it’s another Fish & Wildlife-administered/ignored refuge.

Jarvis Island, formerly Bunker Island. Well southeast of Baker Island–far enough to be almost due south of the Hawaiian island chain–is another square mile and three-quarters of former guano mine. We tried a small settlement there, which led to some drama when the colonists saw a submarine surfacing not long after Pearl Harbor. They figured the US Navy was there to rescue them. When the sub opened up on them with its deck gun, the colonists reconsidered their hypothesis. Later, the Coast Guard picked up the Jarvis Island colonists, then shelled their former settlement. Not to be outdone in the destruction of uninhabited places, another Japanese sub swung by and also shelled the ex-settlement. This too is now a wildlife refuge.

Johnston Atoll. This small group of islands, the largest of which amounts to a square mile, sits about 850 miles southwest of Hawaii. There’s a long reef, the primary island, and a couple of minor islands. In aerial photos, they mostly look sculpted by Seabees. You will not believe the things we have done to Johnston Atoll.

For a variation on the usual theme, we did the wildlife refuge thing first. Given that tensions with Japan were on the rise in those days, that didn’t last long. Over the next seventy years, we would:

  • Base warplanes out of it
  • Base the Coast Guard out of it
  • Plaster it with nuclear weapons, including some failed launches
  • Set up an anti-satellite missile base (we did not shoot down any actual satellites from here, at least not that we admit to)
  • Track satellites and recover film cans dropped from satellites
  • Test biological weapons
  • Store chemical weapons
  • Store Agent Orange
  • Destroy the chemical weapons
  • Knock down all but one building, then abandon it
  • Come back to clean up all the chemical and nuclear mess we’d made over the years
  • Kill some invasive ‘crazy ants’

And there may have been other activities that have never become public. In fact, I think you could just about bank on that.

Kingman Reef, formerly Danger Reef. Its total land area is .012 square kilometers, and it sits there and gets wet about a thousand miles south of Hawaii. After about ten minutes of mathematical ineptitude, I collapsed with apathy before figuring out whether its area was the size of a basketball court, or a football field, or a baseball card. Then I found out it’s three acres, so much of it awash that there is not much need to take any action except refraining from hitting it with a boat (odds of which, by accident, are rather remote). Another wildlife refuge run by those hardworking and dedicated public servants at Fish & Wildlife, and another guano island that found its way into the United States due to bird feces.

Midway Atoll. Now we’re talking! Imagine you are on Hawaii’s big island and you get this craving to boat along the line of the islands, headed for Japan. As you pass between Kauai and Ni’ihau, you say screw it, I’m just going to keep going. About a third of the way to Japan, you’d hit Midway. It has three islands (one is dinky), surrounded by a reef, so unless you looked alive on the approach you would probably run your boat aground and suffer an ignominious and very expensive rescue. You aren’t supposed to go to Midway without advance permission, so there is no reason for the permanent workforce of forty to make nice with you, even if you hum the Marines’ Hymn and say you only came out to visit the war memorials. Total land area is about two and a half square miles, so there are a finite number of places to sneak in, and you would somewhat stand out. Do not do it.

While history has proven Midway an ideal location for carrier-based naval warfare battles (look this up if you doubt me, then come back and apologize), its location was incredibly strategic in World War II. Had the Japanese won the 1942 carrier/air battle and occupied Midway, they would have been positioned to threaten the Hawaiian Islands. Having fought so hard to keep it, the armed forces just couldn’t break up with Midway for another fifty years. The Navy finally shut down its last operations in 1993. The people who live/work there are with Fish & Wildlife, and it’s another refuge. It has proven a good place to study the impact of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which stands as an enormous monument to corporate and government social responsibility when no one is around to punish them for doing the wrong thing.

Navassa Island. About a third of the way from Haiti to Jamaica, you’ll find this two-square-mile uninhabited island. Columbus’s men visited it and reported back that it had no water, giving people (even those Native Americans Columbus and his successors failed to eradicate) reason to avoid it for another three hundred and fifty years. Only when its bird crap value became evident (and it met the other conditions) did the young United States pounce on this place. Haiti protested. Even then, we knew we could win a war against Haiti, so we stood our guano. It was the scene of some ugliness when a phosphate (bird crap) mining company hired 140 black contract workers from Maryland to extract the fabled feces. Conditions were awful, the workers revolted in 1889, and in a move much envied by so many in the modern world, they killed five of their supervisors. Take a guess at how that went over in our justice system, knowing how it functions even today.. At least we didn’t execute them, but only because President Harrison intervened.

For some years we kept up a lighthouse on Navassa, but the Coast Guard took it down in 1996. I gather that what happens there now is: Fish & Wildlife officially has charge of it, Haitian fishermen camp out there when they feel the need, the U.S. prohibits this but does nothing to prevent it, and the end result is a wildlife refuge that mostly works in spite of a disputed claim no one seems to press.

Palmyra Atoll. Had you gone looking for Kingman Reef, but missed about twenty miles south, you would come to one of the few guano islands (this one, in fact, did not contain significant guano, so the original basis for a claim was flawed) with a permanent staff. One wonders what sins one must commit in order to be assigned there. Anyway, Palmyra amounts to a little more than two and a half square miles, girdled by reefs on three sides, and divided into a whole bunch of little islands. In a clever attempt to disguise its true purpose, the one with the airstrip is called “Aviation Island.” Back when there was a Kingdom of Hawaii, said kingdom claimed Palmyra. The United States incorporated it into the Territory of Hawaii, but it is not now part of the state; the government took it away upon statehood. It did service as an airbase during World War II, and now the Nature Conservancy owns part of it, with an ongoing population of a half to two dozen.

As for the other seventy-odd, other countries claimed them, or got them in treaties, or for whatever other reason we decided not to be difficult about it.

And that’s the story of our guano islands, the territory we annexed in the name of bird deuces.

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Myths (and truths) about Ireland

I like Ireland, though not everything about Ireland, and not as much as my wife does. She would move there tomorrow if I were to let down my resistance for an instant. I think some of that is how much she has enjoyed travel there, but traveling in a place differs very much from living there.

One suspects that a part of her perspective still buys into a little of the mythology. It occurs to me that Ireland is a very mythologized country in the United States. Maybe I can clear some of these up by stating the myth or perception as I have heard it, and clarifying the reality as I saw it.

Ireland is dangerous due to sectarian and nationalist violence. False. Even at the worst times of the Troubles, as they are known, most of Ireland was far safer than much of the United States. To get caught in the crossfire, a visitor would have needed a) tremendous bad luck and the worst imaginable timing, or b) enormous stupidity. A sensible visitor would have been, and would now be, far more concerned about an auto accident on a narrow road. Nowadays, concern about Trouble-related violence makes about as much sense as avoiding Midland, Texas for fear of Comanche raids.

All of Ulster is in Northern Ireland. False. In fact, three counties of Ulster are within the Republic. None of Leinster or Connaught’s counties are in Northern Ireland. (Munster does not border Ulster, thus sparing us that question entirely.) Thus, when you say ‘Ulster’ to refer to the North, this is imprecise.

The Republic is Catholic and the North is Protestant. Partly false. Catholics form a large majority in the Republic, but are also a strong presence in the North, which is about half Catholic and half Protestant. Of course, a percentage do not identify with either religious direction from the standpoint of practice, but may still identify with one as a cultural factor. Every religion has its own culture. Just as I know nominally Mormon people who practice almost none of the LDS faith’s strictures (yet still describe themselves as Mormon), you could find atheists and agnostics in Ireland who come by Catholic or Protestant identify through family heritage and upbringing. I would say that the Irish are less religious than Americans, but since religion is so connected to culture in Ireland, it conveys something of a misleading impression to the observing outside world.

Gaelic is a dead language. False on two counts. In the first place, ‘Gaelic’ is inspecific as a descriptor, as it could also refer to Scots. With regard to Ireland, the the suitable term is ‘Irish.’ Irish is not a dead language, though it may be fair to say it might have died out but for strenuous efforts toward its preservation. In the first place, the Republic of Ireland’s Bunreacht (constitution, in force since 1937) states that the Republic has two official languages, Irish and English, and that an Irish citizen may receive all official services in either language. What is more, the Irish version of the Bunreacht is the definitive original. You should be able to see where this goes. Gardaí (police), many government officials, and so forth must be capable of serving the public in Irish, thus must be conversational. Irish is spoken as a first language in certain areas, mainly in Connaught and Munster but also heavily in western Donegal, called Gaelteachts.

In my experience, while one may function well in English in Gaelteachts, locals will welcome a sincere effort to speak Irish. One would have to search very hard for a part of Ireland where one would need to speak Irish in order to function, but I am sure they exist. Some in Ulster also speak Scots Gaelic, which is very akin to its Irish sister language. I can tell you from experience that an American speaking Irish in the Republic is considered something of a wonder, though that American should take a little care in trotting out his or her ability. I found that many Irish felt they should be more proficient in the language, and that it embarrassed them a bit for an American to be more conversant with it than they. It’s never good manners to embarrass one’s hosts, especially hosts as patient as the Irish.

Ireland rains all the time. More true than false. Ireland is fairly rainy even in summer (though they tell me that is changing), and very much so in winter. Drainage and flooding are always issues. I doubt any part of Ireland uses, needs, or wants irrigation, in much the same way that few equatorial nations spend much effort on central home heating. However, even in winter in Ireland, there’s a fair chance of a sunny day. And a sunny day in Ireland is something to treasure and soak up.

There’s a castle everywhere you look in Ireland. Partly true. Ireland is loaded with old buildings and ruins, some of which are or were castles or forts. Some are open to the public some of the time. Some are open to some members of the public who know the right way to pose the question, which in Ireland is often not in the most direct way. In my experience, the best way to search for anything in Ireland involves a pub and some patience. In a pub, some locals get the chance to size you up and decide whether to refer you onward or not, make a phone call for you or not, give you directions or not. Once they make up their mind about you, in their own time and in a positive way, they tend to look out for you. Attempts to rush the Irish only serve to annoy them.

The Irish drink a lot. Depends on perspective. In terms of per capita consumption, the Republic stands slightly above the UK (which includes the North) and Germany, slightly below Australia, and well below much of eastern Europe. The French and South Koreans drink more than the Irish, for example. So if your perspective is American, on balance, drinking is slightly more. If it’s Ukrainian, the Irish are relatively light drinkers. I have seen a lot of people drinking in Ireland, but I have rarely seen anyone sloppy drunk, and in those cases I saw clear evidence of general disapproval.

What is true (though gradually changing): the pub is a social center. While some pubs still have the old ‘snug’ (women’s area), it’s kind of an artifact. Nowadays women and children are more than welcome, and it is unremarkable to see an entire Irish family having dinner at the pub. A non-drinker is still welcome in most pubs provided, as in most hospitality establishments, he or she at least buys something. A recovering alcoholic, if asked, might explain that s/he has taken the Pledge (a religious vow). This is an acceptable excuse for declining to have a pint with someone, as is a strict religious observation. The Irish understand that some faiths (LDS, Islam) drink no alcohol.

The Irish remember everything forever. True–both the good and the bad. There is a monument in County Cork to the Choctaw, who in response to the 1840s famines gathered up as much money as they could find and sent it to help alleviate the famine. Roadside markers show the points where Volunteers fell during the struggles for independence. Even during the Troubles, it was remembered which families had bought their land many years before, and which had appropriated it. The Irish build monuments to historians; I have seen them myself. If a fairy mound happens to be in the way of a proposed road, workers cannot be found to bulldoze it. The road will simply have to go around. Do good deeds in Ireland, and be remembered for them. Do wrong there, and be remembered as well. Cromwell has been gone for nearly four hundred years, and they haven’t even begun making an effort to forget his deeds.

Irish time is ‘-ish’ time. Mainly true. Business hours, where posted, tend to flexibility. The most pointless thing one can do in Ireland is try to pressure anyone to do anything faster; they will not comply, and it will only irritate them. If a flock of sheep is blocking the road, it will continue to do so until the shepherd gets them where he wants them. Honk and you prove yourself a fool. Wave in a friendly way and be patient, and the shepherd will be prone to get the beasts moving a little faster.

Ireland has made it easier to get to its most famous destinations. True, but at the cost of making them unappealing. The Cliffs of Moher? Newgrange? Giant’s Causeway? Blarney Castle? Killarney? All generously equipped with tour bus parking, the dreaded ‘Visitors’ Centre’ (except Killarney, all of which is a de facto Visitors’ Centre, thus it needs none) and suitable entry fees. Sweater and other traps, of course, for your shopping pleasure. The Giant’s Causeway so saddened us that we coined the verb “to causeway”: to take an otherwise appealing and beautiful place and garbage it up for money. I understand that everyone needs to make a living, that it is their island to do with as they choose, and that they don’t want or need my advice on that subject. I also understand that most of them despise this trend. Look on the bright side: there are many locations just as appealing and special that are rarely overrun by huge green tour buses labeled “Paddy Wagon” and displaying a large Disney cartoon leprechaun. I very much doubt that every worthwhile place in Ireland will become causewayed in my lifetime. I do not think the Irish will allow that.

Bless them.

Amazon blacklists

In case you were hoping to see such a list, I want to make sure the first line tells you that you won’t find one in this post. Legal reasons. However, don’t fret; on the worst one, I’ll drop enough clues.

There was once an aspiring writer who sent his ms to a famous literary personage for comment. The cunning aspirant pasted a couple of his pages together, so that when he got his ms back (children, we used to create these things on typewriters, and copying was so expensive that we sent our originals out to publishers, accompanied by return postage since we did want them back once inevitably rejected), he could see if the personage had finished it. The pasted pages had not been separated, the personage panned the ms, and the aspirant wrote in to complain. “You don’t have to eat a whole egg to know if it’s rotten,” answered the literary personage.

On this philosophy I base a good deal of my life. If something is bad, it is not necessary to continue suffering with it. One ought to be shut of it without remorse. Be it a Facebook moron, a mediocre restaurant, or a crappy Amazon vendor, one may dismiss it. If one can, one probably should.

Amazon does not offer a feature to block or flag a bad seller. One can write a nasty review (and watch the bad seller get it removed), but might someday forget that seller’s name. In such a case, one might send that seller repeat business. We wouldn’t want to do that, would we?

What makes a bad seller? From my standpoint, it’s poor handling when something goes awry. I have learned that there is almost a small industry that rips sellers off: it requests returns and refunds for items where the shipping cost is rather expensive, and it becomes cheaper for the seller to refund the money and not ask for the item back. Disgusting that anyone would do business that way, but this is humanity, and in humanity, if there is a way to do something dishonestly, it will be discovered within seconds of the honest method’s invention.

What it means is that many sellers start out with chips on shoulders. They come to assume that anyone with an issue is angling for something free. Some have procedures they demand be followed, which may or may not be reasonable. They all know that you have them over a barrel, if you want to roll out said barrel, but they try to steer you away from that.

I decided not to make the same mistakes twice (although an infuriating one, noticed this very day, somehow got past me), so I created an Amazon blacklist. It’s a Word table listing the vendor’s name and why I placed them on a no-buy list. Since I try hard to shop with independent vendors rather than accept a 2¢ discount to get it from Amazon’s undercut pricing (yeah, they do that), I’m not the kind of customer the indies should mess with. Yet a few do, and they end up on my blacklist.

In one case, I learned that a whole bunch of idealistic-sounding book vendors were in fact branches of one larger book vendor. It took me some time to find and blacklist them all. Not only have they been jackasses both times something went wrong with an order, but they have the maddening habit of using barcode stickers on the exterior spine. These are usually very difficult to remove without damaging the dust jacket spine or actual spine. Their labels are so fiercely adhesive and persistent that it can take an hour’s soak with Googone to loosen them, and because they are on the spine, that is harder than it would otherwise be. All dozen-odd of their locations are blacklisted. I see them very often when book shopping, and I get a little bit of joy every time I cheerfully pay someone else fifty cents more.

Until Amazon comes up with a blacklisting system for us, I guess it’ll have to do.

The Social Grenadier’s Helpful Keyboard-Launched Grenade Assembly Guide

The descent of Facebook into its natural level–a place where no one can get the living snot whaled out of him or her for being just plain rude, thus people say things they would not say in person and expect no backlash–has led us to a new means of lowering the dialogue level. I call it the Social Grenade.

A social grenade is a statement that follows fairly close to the model: “If you disagree, you have no value.” I call it a social grenade because it catches everyone who sees it in the blast radius, sparing only those it imagines that it exempts. I thought of calling it the social mortar round, but a mortar (an indirect fire weapon) lacks the personal connotation of a hand-thrown or launcher-fired fragmentation grenade. A modern trip through Facebook feels like a trip through no-man’s-land in which both sides pitch periodic grenades and rarely look to see where they fell.

I suspect it is exhausting. People may be having difficult times coming up with suitably alienating and relationship-impairing social grenades. My initial reaction was to compose a post like “If you throw social grenades, please tie a garbage bag tightly over your head.” I am normally a believer in fighting fire with napalm fire, revenge doubling the wrong done, letting people see how it feels, making sure the lesson takes; however, blind adherence to past practice leads to dumb present practice. The brain is not obsolete, even if it may happen to be in disfavor. Don’t always go with your gut, for it is sometimes queasy.

After giving it about two seconds of thought,  I thought I would light a candle rather than curse the darkness. I would offer something proactive and helpful: a handy social grenade assembly guide to smooth and assist in the complete deterioration of all worthwhile dialogue. If the goal is to wreck the maximum number of relationships, let’s streamline the process. Why make alienation harder than it needs to be?

To use this quick-assembly tool, when you come to bracketed items, choose the option that best fits. Please remember that these are only suggestions; if none of the given choices are sufficiently fanatical, invent and insert your own. (If they are all too fanatical for you, you are not the type to throw social grenades, so this is unhelpful for you. When all the social grenadiers have blown up all their relationships, look around you: the survivors will be those who did not participate. They may be very fun people.)

The social grenade begins with your statement of opinion (or absolute truth, if your view does not allow for any remote possibility of differing views qualifying as opinions). So:

My

  • [opinion]
  • [belief]
  • [thesis]
  • [truth]
  • [personal hobbyhorse]
  • [monomania]
  • [objective reality]
  • [divine revelation]
  • [horoscope]
  • [meme]
  • [{other} ________]

is that [{expound your viewpoint here}______________________] and that this view is

  • [divinely revealed, that’s why I called it a damn divine revelation]
  • [fundamentally perfect]
  • [way cool]
  • [duh, winning]
  • [too obvious to explain to idiots]
  • [Zen master wisdom]
  • [the best ever]
  • [eternal truth]
  • [bae]
  • [the only valid perspective]
  • [woke with a mighty waking]
  • [obvious to anyone who was not randomly trepanned in infancy]
  • [directly from the {Bible/Qur’an/Talmud/sports section/bathroom graffiti/________}]
  • [{morally/intellectually/genetically/_____ly} superior]

[{./!/!!!/!!!!!!!!!!!!!!}]

If you disagree, your

  • [perspective]
  • [delusion]
  • [Cthulhu worship]
  • [baffling lapse in reason]
  • [opinion]
  • [conclusion]
  • [tragic mental deficiency]
  • [raving]
  • [idiocy]
  • [psychological incontinence]
  • [cretinism]
  • [ideological perv]
  • [demonic evil]
  • [drug-induced foolishness]
  • [laughable standpoint]
  • [dipshittery]
  • [warped reality]

  • [is wrong]
  • [sucks real hard]
  • [would embarrass a lobotomized tree sloth]
  • [is actively leading us to degeneracy]
  • [makes me puke]
  • [makes me prolapse my stomach, I took selfies as proof]
  • [is cray cray]
  • [makes a strong case for whacking one’s head against a bridge abutment]
  • [admits liking Justin Bieber]
  • [wrote in Kim Jong-Un during the last election for all the offices]
  • [saddens me for humanity]
  • [poaches baby elephants]
  • [would drive a living saint to opium addiction]
  • [is worse than Hitler]
  • [is worse than Hitler and Himmler combined]

Therefore, if you feel this way,

  • [hang yourself]
  • [unfriend me now]
  • [unfriend and block me now]
  • [unfriend, block, and sue me now]
  • [unfriend, block, and ambush me now]
  • [consume a sack of penises]
  • [I will burn your name over a purple flame mounted in a virgin’s skull at midnight]
  • [auto-euthanasia is worth exploring]
  • [you suck]
  • [add some tinfoil to your next pizza]
  • [add some drano to your next pizza]
  • [please get cancer]
  • [I hate you]
  • [your feelings are invalid]
  • [in the garage is a running engine with your name on it]
  • [never speak to me again]
  • [you are such a fuckhead]
  • [you deserve a fatal yeast infection]
  • [I will hunt you down with a nailgun and a bad attitude]
  • [you need mental help]
  • [you need mental health institutionalization]

[./!/!!!/!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!/]

There. Hope that makes it easier!

My current Firefox no-saying suite

One of my theories about humanity is that, in many areas, people divide into two natural or conditioned inclinations. One of the simplest is the question: what’s your default answer? Do you fundamentally prefer to say “yes” or “no”?

I believe that most people prefer to say “yes.” I believe that more people find it harder to say “no” and easier to say “yes.” People, companies, police, etc. take advantage of this to bully information out of the average person.

As a solid “no,” this does not mean that I cannot cooperate, that I cannot assent, that I cannot sometimes just go along. It means that, without a reason, the answer is a default “no.” For example, nearly anything my wife asks of me is perfectly reasonable. She’s my wife and it’s my job to help her in every way. Thus, her answer is nearly always “yes.” The post office, Amazon, my grocery store, telemarketers, and so forth do not enjoy her privileges. I don’t want to help or cooperate with them unless I have a good reason, such as “I would like my mail delivered correctly,” or “Amazon needs to know this information in order to ship me these cans of duster.” Will I put my grocery cart back in the collection space? Sure, because I think it’s a positive contribution. Can they compile a dossier on everything I eat and drink? Not with any help from me.

What seems automatic decisionmaking for most people is not automatic in my world, but it still produces a lot of “yes.” If I don’t make sure my recycling is clean, it’ll cause problems for something worthwhile, so it gets rinsed out. “Yes.” If my trash cans are not in a feasible spot, the trucks will not be able to get to them; “yes.” Lots of life circumstances come with good reasons. The bank wants to see my ID to let me into my account? “Yes.” I should hope they always do. However, the grocery store wants me to create a record of my purchases with a ‘loyalty card’? “No.” But we’ll give you a discount! No. I choose to view it that you impose a surcharge in order not to have this dossier created. I will mostly choose to shop someplace else. Thus, “no.” Every supposed discount can also be viewed as a surcharge for those not qualifying for that discount, which is not how our precious corporations hope you will think.

Because the default answer is no–let’s call me a no-sayer–I do not make it easy for random organizations to get information about me. Why do I care? They aren’t entitled to know why I care, either. That’s how the no-sayer thinks. If I were suddenly exposed to media attention, I would first ask myself whether I were in a position to manipulate them for my benefit. After all, they seek access for their own benefit. If I were in such a position–if I had a reason–I’d consider it. If not, “no.” Why not? No answer. Don’t you want to tell your side of the story? No answer. Do you have cut vocal cords? No answer. Even a negative answer beyond “no” would provide information, crack the door open. Only “no” followed by silence is a complete zero for them. They are not entitled to an answer, nor are they entitled to know why they are not entitled to one and will not receive it. Nothing.

“What do you have to hide?” “None of your business.” “Why?” “Also none of your damn business.”

Car dealers hate no-sayers. The sales rep starts asking questions, and gets very annoyed if one won’t answer them. Most of the people who have no right to information will eventually obtain it because yes-sayers are afraid to be thought rude or uncooperative. I saw it all the time with collection agencies, as I inherited a Boise deadbeat’s phone number (and a lot of people in Boise end up broke, so that probably isn’t rare). A couple of these calls came in per week. The collection agents all felt entitled to answers to their questions about this indebted person. They did not enjoy being told that they weren’t entitled even to ask questions until they answered all of mine. They persisted in trying to ask the questions and acted as though I were very mean by insisting on my basic right. They were used to hammering down resistance through repetition, which suggests that it works. Far as I was concerned, they’d initiated the call; they could either answer me to my satisfaction, or get nothing. And since I had no reason to help them, my questions would never end; they would never get anything. Collection agencies provide a perfect example of where the no-sayer produces an unwanted consequence.

This brings us to the Internet, a place where it seems someone is always asking for our private information–and mining it without telling us. What other websites have you visited today, hmm? Fascinating! Browsing the Web involves expecting salvo after salvo of information requests, many of which one’s browser will answer accurately by default. This, of course, is inimical to the no-sayer. The firm no-sayer will tend, to the limits of his or her free time and technical aptitude, to seek out new ways to say “no.”

NO TREK. No: the final response. These are the voyages of the starship Neverprise. Its continuing mission: to refuse companies permission to explore my data; to seek out new ways to say and enforce “no”; to boldly “no” where no one has said “no” before…

Some of my readers may be interested in better no-saying for fun and privacy. I use a crapload (ten of which compose a crapton) of Firefox add-ins, most intended to assert my right to control the answer and direct it toward “no.” If I’m going to say “yes”, I’ll be needing a good reason. And if the add-on can allow me to give false information, when true information is not my obligation, that’s even better. I consider myself within my moral right to lie at will to any question I consider inappropriate (or where lying is dangerous). My car insurance company is owed an answer about what car I drive, where I park it, etc. Some random agency is not entitled to know that. I’m entitled to tell them I drive a circa 1910s Stanley Steamer that runs on virgin macadamia oil.

If you would like to say a whole lot of “no” to nosey websites, I’m here to help you. Here’s the current “no” lineup, a work in progress:

Adblock Plus, and Adblock Plus Pop-Up Add-On: one of the most basic ways to avoid seeing advertising. I will disable it on certain pages if I feel that is deserved.

Cookie Monster: this enables me to accept or reject a site’s cookies. There are limits to how well this can work, because most sites that require a login will require cookies. Nearly every other site includes a bullshit statement that “by using this site you agree to use of cookies.” I block the cookies anyway. Since they can’t enforce that, it means nothing; I don’t morally recognize any supposed agreement or contract with a stupid basis, such as ‘reading this means you agree.’ If the site won’t work without them, I decide how much I care about it. If I care a lot, I either accept the cookies for session only, or just do it from a browser that has no add-ons installed. That way, at least their cookies are in a jar that gives limited information. If a no-sayer cannot simply say “no,” the next best answer is this electronic noncommittal grunt. Call it numph-saying.

Disconnect: blocks most third-party tracking. No single add-on can be trust to block everything one dislikes, so it’s okay to double up if you don’t mind the performance impact. For me, it’s worth it to say “no.” The no-sayer’s obvious default answer to all tracking is “oh hell no.” One has to enable Disconnect’s content blocking on a site-by-site basis. So far I have not run into a site where blocking the tracking content impaired the site for me.

DuckDuckGo Plus: at this point, I am not sure I need this. DuckDuckGo itself, as a search engine, doesn’t track me. (For this reason, I turn off my ad blocker while using it. They asked politely, so I didn’t mind saying “yes.” It’s amazing how nice and cooperative I get when asked politely with a good reason.) The add-on claims to do a lot of privacy-related stuff. Maybe it does. If so, great. If not, it doesn’t cost me much performance (if any).

FB Purity: rearranges Facebook to one’s liking, enabling various garbage to be blocked and other aspects of it less odious. There is, of course, a limit to how much of FB’s data hydra activity one can prevent while being the product for its marketing (and make no mistake, you aren’t the customer; you are the product for sale). Most people just throw their hands up. As a stolid no-sayer, my response is “then I’ll block what I can; if I’m out of weapons, I’ll claw with my fingernails; if all I have is an eyebrow hair, I’ll slug ’em with that.”

Facebook Tracking & Ad Removal: I would like this just for the sake of its icon, which is a flipped bird. Gets rid of at least some Facebook garbage. Might be overkill combined with FBP. I’m willing to accept that possibility. I operate on the assumption that Zuckbook is forever re-engineering itself to defeat all ad blocking and self-customization, and that any add-on may cease working at any time without notice until it receives an update, so the more, the merrier as long as they don’t overload the browser and cause it to collapse.

Fakespot: this can be used to assess the bot production level of product reviews. If one suspects that a given product has a lot of bogus puff reviews generated by automated means, it’s worth running.

Flashstopper: halts video autoplay. I hate video autoplay. If I want to see or hear the video, I’ll elect to play it myself.

Forecastfox: a good weather add-in. Worth whatever tracking is caused by having to give it a location. (Since it cannot tell you the weather unless you tell it a location, the request is reasonable.)

Ghostery: another tracker blocker. The fact that it usually finds some tells me that the overlap with other add-ins is worthwhile. The interesting here is what it tells you. Wonder how come FB seems to know so much about your online habits? There’s a tracker called Facebook Connect that is found all over the place. This lets you put a stop to that. I just block every single tracker; if something doesn’t work, I’ll consider some selective enabling. So far it never has. When you win a bid on Ebay, for example, instead of the normal Ebay Stats tracker, you get about ten others that can only want to know what you bought. Blocking them all doesn’t impair your purchase, so this is just the corporate world continuing to compile its dossier on your shopping habits.

GoogleSharing: this is just delicious. This add-in mixes up your Google requests with others and sprays them at Google, thus peeing in the data mining pool–and there doesn’t seem to be anything they can do about it. Anyone who read the preamble will understand how little I like the idea of Google forming a neat little profile about me.

Honey: this digs up discount codes for online shopping. Haven’t saved any money so far, but haven’t had it long.

NoMiner: it seems cryptocurrency ‘miners’ (who need a lot of processing power in order to make money) are using our machines to do some of the processing. No. This is my most recent add. I think cryptocurrency is pretty questionable anyway, but even if it’s completely smart and good, my clock cycles are not public property.

NoScript: this one is among the few that can cause pains in the ass. Most websites use many scripts from many sites, a good percentage of which are designed to feed data hydras. One by one, I will enable these for this session only, until the portion of the page I care about begins to work. Some I just have to set it to accept all the time. Using this means that I sometimes have to use a clean alternate browser. I can’t fault the pages in question for not working when I block some of their functionality, but I can at least reserve the right to decide when to allow them to work.

Here’s a key part of the no-sayer’s code: one must understand that this has its consequences, especially with websites. Developers set all that stuff up to work together. They can’t prevent you from taking out pieces, but it’s like a vehicle engine: all the pieces do something, and if you take some out, some things will not work right. If you just want to drive during the day, you can disconnect your headlights, but you then cannot complain if you forget to reconnect them come dusk, and if you cause an accident through your neglect, that’s your own fault. Own your “no.”

PriceBlink: something like Honey, but will dig for alternate and better prices on online shopping. Good referent.

ReminderFox: my personal calendar. It’s how I remember to make that grocery run, or someone’s birthday, etc. Essential.

Remove Cookies for Site: this is what we do when we had to enable cookies in order to proceed, but want them gotten rid of afterward. If it doesn’t find any, then great; someone actually meant it when they said the cookies were session only. I never take their word for that. If it does find some, also great. I don’t use it that often, but on some really cookie-filthy sites it makes me feel better.

Remove Google Tracking: says it removes tracking from Google searches. Now and then I end up using Google to search, though not often. This makes me feel a little less nude about it.

Tab Memory Usage: kind of nifty, tells me how much data the current tab is using. Nice to know which sites are the most porcine.

The Camelizer: this thing rocks. You use it for an Amazon item you consider too spendy, and tell it your email and what you’d like to pay for the item. When you get your price, it notifies you, and you can proceed to purchase it if you wish.

TrackMeNot: something like GS, barfing out a steady stream of spurious search requests. Gives the data hydra something useless to suck on.

View Cookies: want to know what the current page’s cookies are? Good prelude to deleting them.

Web of Trust: this will flag search results with a little circle: green, yellow, or red. One that is red has been reported by enough users as malevolent in some way. Not all ways are relevant to all people; for example, one thing that will get reported is child-inappropriate stuff. You can check the reason and make your own decision.

Yahoo Mail Hide Ad Panel: self-explanatory. Yes, I know that Yahoo funds itself with these ads. No, I do not care. Yahoo has its problems and I have mine.

Does all of this slow Firefox down? Maybe. Is all of it necessary? Maybe not. Does it all make me feel like I am properly noncooperating with nosy people to the greatest extent possible? Yes–and some of you may find one or more of these useful.

Black History Month: Jerry LeVias

Why have a special Black History Month? From this history buff’s perspective, the answer is simple. Because traditional history teaching has tended to downplay black Americans’ achievements and stories, black children have too often grown up thinking there weren’t any. When Nichelle Nichols appeared in the original Star Trek series (1966-69) at her communications station on the bridge of a proud starship, one person later summed up the impact (quote inexact) on his youthful perspective: ‘It was the first time anyone had made me think there would be black people in the future.’

Maybe someday we’ll do a better job of telling all the stories. For now, I’m glad we have a month that emphasizes those less often told. And I like college football, and Jerry LeVias is not well remembered today, so it occurred to me to tell his story.

Born (1946) and raised in Beaumont, Texas, LeVias (leh-VYE-us) starred as a football quarterback in then all-black Hebert High School. As he came of age in the mid/mod-1960s, the nation was in a ferment of change. It may be helpful to understand that full backdrop, which also coincides with my early childhood.

Vietnam had not yet heated up, but the civil rights and women’s rights struggles were well under way. It was not a time, like ours today when civil rights marchers might just get tear-gassed if things got a little rough. It was a time when peaceful marchers could expect to face water cannon, attack dogs, look-the-other-way Klan assaults, baton charges, and lynchings. In most of the places where civil rights demonstrations occurred, hospitals were segregated, so those who were injured might have limited and lesser options. Recourse to the law was rarely even minimal, considering that the law had turned a blind eye toward the violence–if it was not itself the perp. These marchers were warriors, young and old, male and female, and they were getting the hell beaten out of them for what they believed in.

American sports had followed different integration paths, but the college football world might have had the unwieldiest. For decades its governing bodies were weak, regional conference leadership held all the cards, and things were different in East Lansing, Pullman, and Tuscaloosa. In football, most of the northern and western schools practiced a form of segregation called “stacking.” This meant putting all the black players at a couple of positions (wide receiver, defensive back), to avoid a general takeover on the basis of raw talent. My own alma mater, the University of Washington, stood accused of this–and justly, I believe, to our lasting embarrassment. The amount of talent on the table can be estimated if one imagines a modern major college team without black players and with maybe only a couple of Polynesian players.

Think they’d be nationally ranked? Maybe in the ESPN Bottom 10, which in my view is one of the few really good things that emanates from the Eternal SEC Promotional Network.

Many southern universities remained segregated–these were the Wallace days–and many that were not segregated did not recruit African Americans to play football, nor take the field against them. Quite a few northern and western schools enabled this discrimination by benching their own black players (usually just one or two) out of ‘respect’ for the southern schools when matched up against them. By the 1960s, at least, some northern schools began to face student unrest at this enablement of racism.

The Union had won the Civil War, but lost the civil peace.

In 1965, Jerry LeVias was a senior star at Hebert, and had appeared on the national stage when he traveled to Ohio to play with an integrated all-star team of Texas footballers. This was a first, and it helped crack open doors in one of the nation’s biggest football markets–not least when LeVias caught two touchdown passes from roommate and fast friend Bill Bradley, a white.

Over two decades before the NCAA “death penalty” would inflict lasting damage on its program, Southern Methodist University’s football success was a point of pride in Dallas. With a natural crosstown rival in Texas Christian University, Dallas/Fort Worth was a football center in a football-crazy state. The Southwest Conference (now defunct) was in essence the Texas Conference. SMU Mustang football spared no effort or expense to recruit and compensate the best athletes it could find. As of 1965, the majority of black college football players played at historically black colleges/universities such as Grambling, Howard, Alcorn A&M, and many others. More than ever were moving on to play professionally in the AFL, which was just beginning to appear competitive with the old guard NFL, and where black athletes were more welcome and prevalent.

By the spring of 1965, the racial door was letting in a ray of daylight. SMU coach Hayden Fry was ready. Jerry LeVias accepted Fry’s offer of an athletic scholarship, becoming the first African American scholarship player in the Southwest Conference. (He was not the first black football player to appear in an SWC game, it seems. John Westbrook, who debuted as a walk-on for Baylor in 1966, saw the field one week before LeVias’s first appearance. In those days, freshmen simply did not play, so LeVias would not appear in a 1965 game. Westbrook almost surely deserves his own article.)

American life has never been easy for black pioneers, and LeVias took a great deal of abuse on and off the field. Imagine being eighteen or nineteen, and putting up with that while trying to get good grades and improve in sport. Some blacks on campus called him an Uncle Tom. You can guess what many whites called him, though he had Coach Fry’s unbending support. Did the abuse from some of his teammates (those are supposed to have one’s back, as a rule) hurt him more than the blatant personal fouls, spitting in his face, and stunts like when the Texas A&M cadet corps released a black cat onto the field? I’d think so.

How many times have you seen an athlete claim to use an insult as motivation? Believe it. In one infamous 1968 incident, a TCU player spat in LeVias’s face. He threw down his helmet and said he quit. Coach Fry came over to talk with him, convincing him to keep playing. When the conversation was done, and TCU’s punt team took the field, LeVias took his customary station to return it. He carried the punt return for an 89-yard touchdown with eleven tackles broken or dodged, giving SMU the margin of victory over its arch-rival.

As he went through hell, LeVias excelled. In his case, long before AA meant African American, it meant All-American. An electrifying runner, LeVias rewrote the Mustang record books while leading SMU to a conference championship in 1966 and a Bluebonnet Bowl victory in 1968. As Coach Fry told him–meaning it in the best possible way with reference to the public reaction–the more touchdowns he scored, the whiter he got. LeVias went on to a six-year pro career in the AFL and NFL, earning all-AFL honors in 1969.

A gentle-hearted, religious man who always resisted anger, Jerry LeVias would pay for those early days of endured cruelty with years of internalized pain. The price of leading the way for southern sports integration was high. He has succeeded well in life, and nowadays gets some of the recognition he deserves, but I don’t think that many younger fans have heard of Jerry LeVias. All of us who love college football might justly take a moment to give a brave man some respect.

Why I don’t have or want a so-called “smartphone”

It may come to pass that I am the last holdout in this area. This bewilders all but a handful of those I know. How could I possibly not want one of these devices? They act as though this were a Luddite decision, a sort of insanity, Old Grumpness lived out.

Not so.

I use technology (such as now) when I see the benefit from it. What I never do is adopt technology for the sake of technology. If the corporate world holds up an object and says, “This is what you get now,” most people just say “okay” and buy it. I do not. Instead of assuming that the corporation is presenting me A Good Thing, I assume the corporation is my adversary and never has my interests at heart. And that’s fair; if it were up to me, the corporation would probably see some dark days (and worse ones when it actually sinned), so I can’t expect it to mean me honest fairness when I mean it anything but.

So we begin with me thinking the corporation considers me too mindless to do anything but Just Buy Now, and me looking at the corporation like a suspicious car lurking in front of my house or Jehovah’s Witnesses standing on my front steps. It means I will think most critically about whether I want the thing. The corporation does not enjoy the presumption of honest intentions; the default assumption is that it wants me to spend money I should not. It spent a lot of money creating marketing in order to do this.

Must admit: naming it the “smartphone” was a stroke of marketing genius because it hoodwinked the world. This thing isn’t smart! This is just a miniature laptop with Internet and phone capability. I grant that some of them are gaining ability to interpret simple commands and engage in something resembling conversation, but this thing is not a fraction as smart as an average human being with a search engine. Most people just accepted the term “smartphone,” which made it sound as though all other phones (and by extension, other phone users) were dumb. It is my way in life to analyze clever marketing. If it offends me, I feel free hold that against the marketer. So, for starters, I don’t want one because the name is misleadingly stupid and insults my intelligence. For that alone I would resist owning one. I keep retraining myself to say ‘mobile phone,’ but that also includes my flip phone that doesn’t have Internet access.

Even so, I might have ended up with one of these phones had I not come to hate them 98% of the time. Not just a garden variety casual hate, but a long, slow, muriatic loathing that is to be savored. I hate them because people behave in shocking fashion with them. Look at a breakfast table, and you’ll see five people who got together for breakfast. All are silent and appear to be contemplating and/or manipulating their genitals. They are all texting. Some probably felt the world needed to see a picture of their food. Many will take calls at a restaurant table, or just about anywhere, having an outside-voice conversation in absolute disregard for everyone else. They have come to worship these things, to give them priority over the people they love the most, certainly over any consideration to complete strangers. For that alone I would hate them. Remember payphones? Eating in a restaurant these days is like in the old days if your table was next to a bank of payphones.

Then there’s usability. I am a man. While I have a man’s hands, I admit to a great vanity over them. They are big without bulkiness, almost ridiculous-looking on me, except that they border on feminine. They might be the hands of a WNBA center. And I’m good with my hands. I’m the guy who fixes the little screw on someone’s glasses, or achieves some other tiny, fussy, precise little repair. I type about 80 wpm, which by male standards is not bad at all. All this bragging is to explain that my hands are not clumsy bunches of sausage-shaped paw-tips. And yet I find it difficult enough to hit the right depressable buttons on my flip phone. To type on tiny chiclet-sized images on a glass screen, I would need a little stylus. My fingertip is big enough to hit four of those images at one time. Anyone who writes will tell you that s/he expects and requires keys to make, when struck with fair accuracy, the impressions s/he intends. Any other situation is intolerable. And while I muddle with the thing trying to figure out what to do, as when my wife asks me to look something up, it goes dark on me, and I have to wake it up again.

Then there is the screen. At 19″ my monitor isn’t large by modern standards, but it’s large enough to meet my needs. The modern mobile phone screen looks to me about 4″ diagonal, max. This is unusable for any sustained period. So my rejoinder is: “When you violate all the laws of physical space and time, and invent a telephone that fits in my pocket but has at least a 17″ screen and a full-sized 102-key keyboard, definitely get in touch with me, and let’s do business. Until then, I don’t want one of these.”

Also, I can mooch. Everyone else has one. If we as a group are going somewhere, and cannot find it, I don’t need to have one of these because someone else will. Probably everyone else will–and they will enjoy using them to solve our problem. I acknowledge the benefit of access to the data; I just don’t like the medium most of the time. So why not just mooch off those who love the medium? All I have to do is refrain from saying something hateful about the device while it is benefiting me. I’ll go that far. Since it’s a device, I owe it no consistency of opinion. I am welcome to like it in someone else’s hands, at his or her expense, while it’s making my life easier. I can hate it the minute someone pops it out to text in the middle of a once-civil conversation. Next time it does me some good, I’ll remember to be quiet for the duration of the benefit, and we all get along fine.

So I don’t need one. I don’t need to check my email when I’m out. I don’t need to be on Facepalm 24/7. I can do them when I get home.

And given the costs of these things, mooching is no small benefit. These are hideously expensive, with constant ‘new’ models that become faddish and create enormous buzz. “Do you have the new Hamhock FY2?” “No. I’m waiting for the Hemroid 5bs. It has a home colonoscopy app.” Monthly costs are outlandish, especially with data plans. I know because I pay our bills, and I see what we pay for my wife’s phone activity. This amount is far more than the device is worth to me–especially when I can mooch.

And even if I wanted one, there are some companies I won’t deal with on any terms. If Arrogant Turds & Trash buys out our current cell provider, we’ll hit the road. There is nothing I would wish to mail to that company that the law allows, except for perhaps a bag of small gummi penes. There are no telecom companies I want to deal with, only those I dislike least. When my wife’s former employer required her to accept a company-provided Ipad and pay a monthly (reimbursable) bill to Abhorrent Tongues & Tushies, requiring me to send money monthly to that company, I was not a happy person. Had she not been in a somewhat delicate position, I’d have tried to get her to refuse–what’s with this idea of making it obligatory for employees to lend money to the employer? So even if I did want one, I’d be choosing among the least hated, not the most liked.

Now you see what a stony resistance lies along this path.

It’s like with debit cards. Same thing happened. Corporations mailed them out and said, “This is what you get now.” Most people accepted the clever marketing implication that if credit cards got you in debt, and ran up your bill, debit cards did otherwise and were better. Debit cards simply give your money away sooner. If you do not realize why this is bad, read up on a concept called the Time Value of Money. You may not care, but your bank definitely does. I see two uses for debit cards: for people too lazy or innumerate to manage a checking account, or for people who want the free ATM feature (so they can pay cash for more things, again proving they haven’t read about the time value of money). I guess they might be okay for people whose credit or self-discipline precludes using a real credit card.

I took one look at debit cards and said: “This makes no sense. This benefits only the bank, at my expense. Forget it.” One credit union blithely mailed me one anyway. They did not do this a second time. To this day, I have had a debit card only for as long as it took me to drive the mailed item to a credit union branch and have the discussion. I have never used one.

So, no. I don’t want one of these phones. No, I’m not going to chew you out for having one. I may even mooch off what you can do with it. (Not “off of” what you can do with it. Anyone who uses that combination, please desist. It is acceptable until about seventh grade.) But I don’t want or need one.

When you find one that has a full-sized keyboard and monitor, yet fits in my pocket, made by and with serviced provided by companies that don’t roil my stomach too much, let’s deal.