Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Refrigerate Me, Please

Over the Memorial Day weekend, I traveled to Ohio to visit with friends and family. Memorial Day is an interesting holiday in that part of the country weather-wise. It is generally considered the kick-off of the summer season, and more often than not the temperatures are vaguely summer-like, with highs in the upper 60's to lower 70's. Every now and then, though, there will be a Memorial Day that is more reminiscent of winter than summer. I recall my last year of working my way through college at a country club, we had to cancel just about all of our planned outdoor guest activities because the highs couldn't find their way out of the 40's.

This past weekend was exactly the opposite. It hit 90 every day we were there. Honestly, I don't ever recall it being so warm in May in the 30-plus years I lived up that way. It brought home the fact that folks in Ohio have a different relationship with their air conditioners than we have in the south. Here, our relationship resembles a committed monogamous marriage; we are pretty much tied to our AC, for better or worse. In Northwest Ohio, it's more of a friend-with-benefits kind of thing.

It turned out that the AC at my sister's house, where we stayed the first night, was broken entirely; which she had no way of knowing since she hadn't had it on yet this year. It was too hot to sleep in the bedroom, so I spread out on the living room sofa under the ceiling fan with the screen door wide open. The next two nights, we stayed with friends, and while their AC worked just fine, they took a very strategic approach to cooling; allowing the house to heat up during the day, then turning on the AC for a little bit just before bed to "cool things down" before turning it off for the rest of the night.

Looking back, I lived most of the first 30 years of my life with virtually no AC. We survived by keeping every available window open during the summer months and having a fan in almost every room. We also had a basement which, although musty-smelling, was pleasantly cool. Truth is, in Northwest Ohio really hot days are the summer exception rather than the rule, and, even then, it typically cools off once the sun goes down, making for decent sleeping even when the highs are in the 80's. There were always a handful of nights, though, when it was just too hot to sleep.

My father bought a window-mount air conditioner in the summer of 1975. It was a short-lived respite, though. He said it caused him to get colds so he got rid of it. I suspect the electric bill might have had an impact on his decision, as well.

I got my first real taste of air conditioning when Janet and I were first married and moved into a starter apartment. I don't really recall much about that, other than I'm sure we used it judiciously as we barely had two nickels to rub together in those days. When we moved to the Little House on the Highway, we didn't even have a fan for the first summer, and I recall several nights sweating in bed trying not to make skin-to-skin contact with Janet and hoping against hope that the beagle wouldn't want to cuddle.

Our move to the condo in Three Meadows was the start of our climate-controlled life, with central air a "luxury" we could finally afford, and it goes without saying that air conditioning is a big part of our lives at the Wynfield Creek Homestead where 90 degree days are the rule, not the exception. Is that environmentally friendly? Maybe not, but laying awake in bed dripping sweat unto your sheets is no way to live. I'll find some other way to save energy; refrigerate me, please!

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Conspiracy Theories

Recently, a Charlotte city councilwoman tweeted that she did not believe the World Trade Center was destroyed by hijacked planes and suggested that 9/11 was an "inside job." When pressed on the issue, she apologized if anyone was offended by her tweet -- many Charlotteans had personal and business connections to people killed or injured in the attack -- but stopped short of retracting her comments.

Conspiracy theories are nothing new, but the ability to produce and promote disinformation is far greater today than it was even twenty years ago. I recall receiving a letter in the mail a year or so after moving to North Carolina in 1995. It was written in pencil on a sheet of yellow legal paper and offered the author's rambling account of how the weights he was using in his physical therapy were causing his cancer. I felt bad for the obviously disturbed individual and considered the amount of time, effort and money it cost him to send out those letters to random individuals. Today, I suspect those same delusional ramblings would elicit thousands of followers on Twitter and result in a YouTube "documentary," Your Weights Are Killing You.

The ability to inexpensively produce professional-quality content and disseminate it on the Internet at a minimal cost has emboldened every crackpot with an ax to grind and opportunist with a dollar to scam. But, not all conspiracy theories are created equal.

Extrapolation Conspiracy Theories

Many conspiracy theories are based on extrapolation of legitimate scientific thought. For instance, noted scientists like Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking have argued it is almost a certainty there is other intelligent life in the universe. This is extrapolated to suggest that these aliens either founded life on earth and/or visit earth regularly, which is far, far less likely to be true.

Counterpoint Conspiracy Theories

These theories seem to evolve for no reason other to offer a counterpoint to widely-held, seemingly obvious and well-proven facts. The purveyors of this sort of theory seem to get a thrill from being "in on" some secret that eludes the other 99.9% of humanity. Flat-Earthers are the best example of this. The spherical shape of the earth is proven fact, beyond question. Yet, a small, but shockingly vocal group, including some high-profile athletes and entertainers, insist that it is not. They refute scientific fact with ludicrous work-arounds (Antarctica is actually a ring of ice that surrounds a disk-shaped Earth and holds the oceans in) and claim that any evidence t the contrary is fabricated by the establishment, which exists to deceive the world about its actual shape. What, precisely, their motive would be for perpetrating this spectacular rouse is a bit less clear.

Wishful-Thinking Conspiracy Theories

Elvis is alive! Kennedy survived the assassination attempt and is living on an island in the South Pacific with his soulmate Marilyn Monroe! Ripped from the pages of the National Enquirer, these conspiracy theories offer happy endings to less-happy circumstances. Now that we are a full 40 years beyond Elvis's death, many have forgotten just how pervasive and convincing these rumors were. Even the mainstream media wold occasionally be suckered into a story about a man running across Elvis at a convenience store in Alpena.

Ugly Racist Conspiracy Theories

The ugliest conspiracy theories are the ones which nut-job racists conjure up to feed their hatred. The most enduring and pervasive of these is the "Zionist" theory, which postulates that a group of Jewish elites have been planning to take over the world for centuries. How, exactly, a people who have been repeatedly conquered, enslaved and killed throughout history are making that happen is a little hard to grasp.

Crypto-Zoology Conspiracy Theories

Ending on a happier note, stories of Bigfoot, The Loch Ness Monster and the Abominable Snowman are a relatively harmless type of conspiracy theory. Anyone who's spent time alone in the woods knows that your mind can start to play tricks on you, so many of the reports of these creatures are probably legitimate cases of mistaken identity. The photographic evidence has, on the other hand, pretty much been debunked as elaborate hoaxes.

Just for fun, I have compiled a Top 3 list of conspiracy theories ranked according to the possibility they are true. What do you think? Let me know on my Facebook page.

1. New Coke was an "inside job." Probability 30%  This theory says that Coke purposely released New Coke with the intent of driving demand for Classic Coke. It's a convoluted path, but considering the way it worked out, it's not beyond the realm of possibility.

2. Ghost Cosmonauts. Probability 25%  This theory says that several failed Russian space flights resulting in the deaths of their flight crews were covered up. Prior to the fall of the USSR, I would have said the odds of this were better than 50%, and indeed some unsavory facts about Soviet-era space deceptions have come out. Laika, the first dog in space, did not die a peaceful death, as originally reported, and Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, ejected from his capsule at high altitude and parachuted to the ground rather than returning with the craft to Earth. The most likely candidate for a suppressed failure would be the July 1969 "test" of the N-1 rocket, which some believe was actually a last-ditch effort to beat the Americans to the moon. The rocket exploded just a few seconds into its flight, destroying the launch facility. 

3. Fixed Championship Boxing. Probability 20%  Boxing has always had a dark underbelly and the idea that certain significant fights were fixed is pervasive. In particular, the second Ali-Liston and first Ali-Spinks fights are pointed to as likely candidates. Given the relationship between the sport and organized crime, especially in the 60's and 70's, it is absolutely possible. The one thing that points against it is that I can't see any amount of money that would have persuaded ed Ali to take a
fall. He was too proud for that.

Monday, May 14, 2018

The Outlaw Josie Marek

Folks who follow my writing sometimes comment that while I often tell stories about my father, I rarely mention my mother. The simple reason is that by nature of his outsized personality, stories about my father tend to be more interesting. Mom was quieter, more introspective and less prone to the sorts of grand gestures that make for good anecdotes. In honor of Mothers' Day, though, I thought I would share a few stories about "The Outlaw," which is what my high school buddy Jeff St. Clair called her because, although her name was Josephine, everyone called her Josie, and the movie, "The Outlaw Josie Wales" was popular at the time.

My mother was born in Lakeside, Ohio in 1921, the youngest (10th) child of Peter and Mary Kokinda. She grew up on a small homestead just outside of town during the Depression. Although times were tough, the family had a cow and chickens and were able to eek out a moderate existence on their small plot of land. She married my father in 1940 and my oldest sister, Marilyn, was born in 1941. I came along a full 21 years later, when she was 42 (surprise!). In between, my sister Bonnie and my brother Jerry came along.

Mother was a cook at Portage Elementary for 20+ years, including all of my school days. However, I attended a Catholic school in Port Clinton, so I was only in the same building as her for kindergarten. Well, with one exception. During the winter "energy crisis" of 1977-78, our schools went to split schedules to conserve energy, and Mom worked at the high school cafeteria for a few weeks. One day, she came out and sat with me and my friends for an uncomfortable 10 minutes or so. To her credit, she got the drift and didn't try that again.

Portage Elementary was about a half mile from our house and Mom usually walked to work. Although she wasn't much of a driver, she did have a license and would occasionally make the 10 minute trip into Port Clinton for groceries or to visit family. I only recall riding with her once. She picked me up after work one summer afternoon in 1979 and drove me home, both hands clenching the wheel as we zipped along at a dizzying 30 MPH clip.

If my father was known as the "lawnmower whisperer," my mother's claim to fame was her baking. She was a mediocre cook, overall, but she could bake like nobody's business. Her specialties were nut and poppy seed rolls and pineapple horns. These were highly prized items at holidays and family functions like weddings and funerals. Her baking was done in what might be called the Eastern European tradition; heavy, doughy and sweet. My personal favorite was her coconut creme cake. This was a sponge cake cut in two and filled with a layer of coconut creme pie filling, then topped with a meringue-like icing and flake coconut.

Until her arthritis began acting up in the late 70's, she was a dedicated crocheter, making dozens of afghans, hats, gloves and footies. Although she didn't read much, she enjoyed circle-the-word puzzles and her "stories," afternoon soap operas like The Guiding Light, The Secret Storm and The Edge of Night.

She was also a big sports fan, and liked to listen to Cleveland Indians games on the radio in the summer, and watch Browns and Cavaliers games on TV on the fall and winter. My knowledge of and interest in sports comes almost entirely from her, but her choice of teams...

Mom had multiple health problems in the latter years of her life and passed away at age 87 in 2009. The picture that leads this article was taken at Easter of that year, a few months before her death.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Games of Skill and Chance

In the town of Wadesboro, where my economic development practice is located, a couple of new "adult arcades" have opened along the US 74 strip. It seems as though every few years the proprietors of these businesses find some loophole in the law that they can exploit until the state legislature figures out a way to close it. In the early 2000's it was video poker, which was originally categorized as a game of skill and, hence, not considered gambling. Then it was Internet sweepstakes, which originally fell under online privacy protections. The current iterations of these casino-lites are back to the "game of skill" angle.

Anson County is not alone in this current gaming boom. Multiple locations have popped up all over the Charlotte region, including Albemarle and Monroe. I am not certain about the types of games offered at places such as Hot Spot or Skill Fish, but an article about an Albemarle location mentions "shooting games." What is fairly obvious is they cannot actually be games of skill. A game truly dependent on a skill would mean that once that skill was acquired, one would be able to beat the machine on a regular basis.

Think about Asteroids, a game I occasionally played at the arcade back in the early 80's. The idea of the game was to navigate a tiny triangular ship between asteroids while blasting them with your laser and avoiding alien spaceships. I was never very good at it -- I might have been able to make a quarter last for 10 minutes, tops -- but I had buddies who turned that very specific and arcane skillset into an hour of play on two-bits. Yes, they had invested many quarters into developing those skills, but after a few hours of "practice," they were essentially able to play for free.

Clearly, that could never be possible in an environment where the "house" must pay out money for success. The business model for casinos is based on the predictable failure rate of random chance; if you roll dice an infinite number of times, certain number combinations will appear in predictable ways. There is, for instance, only one way to roll a 2 or a 12, while there are multiple ways to roll a 7.   Or, more graphically, imagine a roulette wheel. You can bet individual numbers, but you can also bet red or black. In doing so, you have slightly less than a 50% chance of winning, because there is one green "house" number. If an individual player plays red or black long enough they will eventually revert to the mean, which is to say they will not quite break even. The house, however, will always come out ahead in the long run.

For suburban homesteaders, that begs the question, "is what we do a game of skill or chance?" Certainly there is skill involved in knowing what crops to plant when to plant them and how to properly care for them, but ultimately does any of that make a difference if it doesn't rain, or rains too much, or if there is an unusually late frost? Is what we do more like Asteroids, where acquired skills all but guarantee success, or is it more like roulette, where eventually everything reverts to the mean?

John's Weekly FIELD NOTES Column is Now Published in Speckled Paw

John's weekly rural lifestyle column FIELD NOTES is now available as part of the Speckled Paw Newsletter. You can sign up to receive thi...