Sunday, April 26, 2015

Rage Against the Machine

How I spent my week: Hunting down an insidious virus that had turned my desktop computer into a billboard for bogus downloads promising to fix nonexistence problems for an outrageous price.

There is nothing like a bare-knuckle fight with a bunch of cybercriminals to ruin my usual sunny disposition.

I contemplated flinging the damn thing off the Santa Monica Pier, or, better yet, removing my hard drive and dipping it in boiling oil while laughing hysterically. Instead, I reached for another handful of blood pressure medicine and washed it down with a dry martini.

Up in Colorado, Lucas Hinch had a different approach to his computer problems.  He pumped eight bullets into his 2012 Dell XPS 410.

So much for ctrl + alt + delete.

Hinch reportedly got great satisfaction from his action. "It was glorious," he told a reporter. "Angels sung on high." 

The Dell kept giving Hinch the "blue screen of death.” “It was extremely frustrating," he said. "I reached critical mass."

Alas, Hinch was cited for discharging a weapon within city limits. His gun was confiscated and he faces a fine although I’m thinking no jury would ever convict him.

I ended up with a menu full of malware and spyware search-and-destroy products which promise to keep my computer pure as the driven snow. Unfortunately, while they ferreted out viruses and other assorted junk, they didn’t prevent them from returning.

A friend finally suggested that I reboot my operating system to a pre-virus version  which, as of this writing, has worked with sporadic success.

Had I owned a gun however…

Lest you think Mr. Hinch and I represent some sort of technological lunatic fringe, there is a clinical condition known as Computer Rage which is spreading like, well,  a virus. And we have it bad.

According to one research paper on the subject, it is a heightened physiological response with associated feelings of anger and frustration resulting from using a computer or other complex electronic device. It may result in the physical assault of the computer or similar item, most likely leading to the device incurring more damage than it had before.

The malady is so common that a California company offering data recovery services to victims of computer meltdowns features a call-in service staffed by a woman who used to manage a suicide prevention hotline.

Further evidence is found in a survey conducted by the University of Maryland asking those afflicted with Computer Rage how they acted out their anger.

A few answers:

“I poured gasoline on a computer and set fire to it.”

“I once shot a computer with a .50 caliber sniper rifle.”

“I took great pleasure throwing an old monitor into a dumpster hard enough to smash it completely.”

“I have smashed 3 keyboards broken with bare fists caused by pure hatred against Microsoft Windows.”

“Coffee in the keyboard, with sugar works best.”

“Shot a 19-inch monitor with a 12-gauge shotgun. Then with a .22, then hit it with a hammer.”

“I once was so frustrated that my laptop was going so slow I threw it into a fryer when I was a manager of a restaurant.”

“I once got concussion from slamming my head on the monitor.”

And the ultimate comment: “I hate not being able to understand things. It makes me feel inferior, computers have a way of doing that sometimes. That's why I feel like smashing my computer with a hammer.”

One could deduce from these findings that computer frustrations rank along road rage and telemarketing calls as a danger to our collective mental health.

To avoid the kind of computer rage you might regret later, experts suggest using a strategy that's familiar to parents: take a break.

"Usually, the best thing to do is to get out of the environment. Just like if you get mad at your kids. Leave the house, leave the office, cool down for 10 to 20 minutes," said one.

Actually, when my kids misbehaved, I stared at them with a look that, if allowed to continue for too long, could have turned them into pillars of salt.

I it on my computer. It just stares back.

Someone suggested that companies could benefit from instituting 15 minute "frustration breaks" that employees could take during the week. Consider it the 21st century version of Industrial Age break-time.

The consensus from those who study such things is that when something goes wrong with your computer, the best thing to do is slowly drop the mouse and step away from the keyboard.

That smells like surrender to me.  Next time, I may just try the boiling oil approach.

Robert Rector is a veteran of 50 years in print journalism. He has worked at the San Francisco Examiner, Los Angeles Herald Examiner, Valley News, Los Angeles Times and Pasadena Star-News. His columns can be found at Robert-Rector@Blogspot.Com.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

When Nonsense Becomes News

When Hillary Clinton announced last week that she would seek the Presidency, it was trumpeted by the major news outlets as “breaking news” even though she had been honing a campaign for months.

Indeed, she had announced her plans to launch her campaign via social media several days earlier.

As one colleague mentioned with just a soupcon of sarcasm, “Wow. Who saw that coming?”

You can blame this overreaction on the media, whose practitioners are so hungry for the red meat of a Presidential campaign that almost any event takes on epic dimensions and nonsense becomes news.


While driving to Iowa with aides and Secret Service agents in tow, Clinton stopped at a Chipotle restaurant for lunch where, it was reported, she was largely unrecognized.

The New York Times breathlessly reported that the order included a Blackberry Izze drink and that Mrs. Clinton carried her own tray. ABC told us that she ordered a chicken burrito bowl (with guacamole).

A Times column informed us that, according to Chipotle’s nutritional calculator, her lunch checked in at 840 calories, 11.5 grams of saturated fat and 1,720 milligrams of sodium. Mrs. Clinton’s order, the Times said, was healthier than the average American’s order, with significantly fewer calories, saturated fat and sodium than most orders have.

The Politico website disclosed that Clinton didn’t leave a tip.

Fox News host Andrea Tantaros suggested that Clinton visited the Mexican restaurant chain in an effort to appeal to Hispanic voters. No tienes ni un pelo de tonta.

Not to be outdone, CNN speculated that one of the biggest obstacles Clinton has to overcome is the perception that she represents the past.

What better way to shed that outdated 1990s stigma, they concluded, than appearing a hip restaurant of today like Chipotle?

And for true political junkies, Business Insider reported that President Barack Obama has also been known to frequent Chipotle, where he once caused a minor flap by leaning over the sneeze guard.

Can the Republicans close the Burrito Gap?  Stay tuned.

Not content to pick through the leftovers of Clinton’s lunch, some pundits are busy weighing in on issues that are remarkable in their insignificance.

Among them is Peggy Drexler who argues in a CNN opinion piece that the press is demeaning Clinton by referring to her solely by her first name.

“Since the news broke last weekend that Hillary Clinton had declared her candidacy, notable among the blitz of news stories are the many that refer to her as the mononymous "Hillary," as if she were a pop star in a pantsuit,” she writes.

Singled out for Drexler’s wrath are the New York Post and the TMZ website, both of which would rank in the bottom 10 of credible journalism entities. The Post is a sleazy Rupert Murdoch tabloid while TMZ is a paparazzi-fueled scandal monger, focusing on the foibles of the show biz set.

I read numerous news stories in the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, New York Times, Chicago Tribune and this paper, none of which referred to Clinton solely by her first name.

That doesn’t stop Drexler who writes, “Whether she endorses the idea or not, calling Clinton by her first name serves to, at best, reinforce gender and workplace stereotypes -- that women need to be "approachable," not abrasive or aloof, in order to get the job done and be liked while doing it -- and at worst, infantilize and put her in her place.”

Which would be a powerful argument if it was supported by facts. It isn’t.

Then there is Dr. Julie Holland who writes in Time magazine that Clinton is the right person for the job because she is post-menopausal. As if anyone asked.

“The long phase of perimenopause is marked by seismic spikes and troughs of estrogen levels, which can last for more than a decade in many women. But afterward, there is a hormonal ebbing that creates a moment of great possibility.

“As a psychiatrist,” she writes, “I will tell you the most interesting thing about menopause is what happens after. A woman emerging from the transition of perimenopause blossoms. It is a time for redefining and refining what it is she wants to accomplish in her third act. And it happens to be excellent timing for the job Clinton is likely to seek. Biologically speaking, postmenopausal women are ideal candidates for leadership. They are primed to handle stress well, and there is, of course, no more stressful job than the presidency.”

All well and good but gender, age and Clinton’s hormone levels will not be an issue in this election. Any Republican nominee playing the gender card would run the risk of alienating 50 per cent of the country’s population; asking if she still suffers from hot flashes would be as like speculating on the size of Jeb Bush’s prostate.

Talking about age would be hypocritical. Clinton is 67.  Ronald Regan was 69 when elected. Bob Dole was 73 when he ran and John McCain was 72.

So far, Clinton has been the focus of this silliness. When the Republicans hit the road, it could rise to a new level.

Robert Rector is a veteran of 50 years in print journalism. He has worked at the San Francisco Examiner, Los Angeles Herald Examiner, Valley News, Los Angeles Times and Pasadena Star-News. His columns can be found at Robert-Rector@Blogspot.Com.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

From Missiles to Mother's Milk

Once around the Internet:

It should come as no surprise that almost anything imaginable is for sale online these days.

In exploring the topic while providing my readers with content guaranteed to educate and enlighten, I have discovered everything from a Hughes AIM-4D Falcon Missile (warhead not included) to not-so-gently used underwear to Titanic-shaped ice cubes available at the click of the mouse.

I was nonetheless surprised to see a story the other day warning consumers about the dangers of purchasing breast milk online.

According to a story in the Los Angeles Times, researchers who tested 102 samples of breast milk purchased from popular milk-sharing websites found that one in 10 contained substantial amounts of cow DNA.

Further tests ruled out the possibility that the cow DNA was the result of minor or incidental contamination and suggested that the tainted breast milk had probably been mixed with cow-milk-based baby formula.

Disturbing news. On the other hand, who buys breast milk from anonymous Internet sites? In fact, who buys it at all?

Some 21% of parents who seek breast milk online are doing it for a child with a preexisting medical condition, the story said. In addition, 16% of those looking to purchase breast milk say that their child has a formula intolerance. 

That means 63% of purchases fall into other categories. A look at the breast milk websites shows that many are made by women who simply can’t produce enough milk. And, yes, there are a lot of male purchasers out there, most claiming they use it for health or fitness reasons.

Although both the Food and Drug Administration and the American Academy of Pediatrics frown on purchasing milk over the Internet, the trend is growing. 

Based on published figures, in 2011 there were 13,000 people participating in these transactions. Today, the number has grown to 55,000.

While I understand I’m wading into emotionally charged waters here, buying breast milk from an anonymous donor seems like a really bad idea, like buying a used toothbrush.

For all we know, Mother’s Little Helper may knock back a fifth of vodka a day or suffer from some loathsome disease.

Then there is the cost.  One website which runs classified ads offering breast milk, the asking price runs $1 to $2.50 an ounce although kosher breast milk was going for $3.50 an ounce.

Given that a 6-month-old baby consumes about 30 ounces a day, and figuring a cost of $2 an ounce, that could run to more than $1600 a month.

So much for the milk of human kindness.

Latest dispatches from the drought front:

Claire Cain Miller of the New York Times: “So people who eat nuts live longer and nuts are using all of California's water so we'll all die of either thirst or of not eating nuts.”

In the meantime, the Los Angeles Times is trying to drought-shame us by running graphics which disclose how much water it takes to produce our meals. Example: eight ounces of beef with six ounces of pasta and eight ounces of cherries will take 1,000 gallons.

Stay tuned for the “Drought Cookbook” coming soon to a store near you.

I am not immune from drought hysteria. I reached for a can of almonds at the market the other day and immediately felt pangs of guilt. Just think: the amount of water it took to produce those almonds could help fill a pool in Beverly Hills.

It’s Masters Week, when the whole world watches the most famous golf tournament of them all at Augusta National in Georgia.

The whole world that is except China.

It seems Chinese authorities recently announced the closure of 66 "illegal" golf courses -- roughly 10% of all courses in the country -- in an apparent attempt to start enforcing a long-ignored ban on golf-related construction.

The following day, the Commerce Ministry announced that one of its senior officials was under investigation for "participating in a company's golf event," thus putting him on the wrong side of President Xi Jinping's rules against extravagance among government officials, according to CNN.

You can bet that “under investigation” means we won’t be getting a Christmas card from him this year.

China has never really embraced golf. Mao Zedong banned it, denouncing golf as the "sport for millionaires." Even after China opened up and golf re-emerged in the mid-1980s, largely as a way to attract foreign investment, the sport was saddled with serious image problems, CNN reported.

It seems the construction and maintenance of golf courses is particularly resource intensive. China is home to 20% of the world's population, yet just 7% of its fresh water and 9% of its arable land, one-fifth of which is polluted.

Golf also remains prohibitively expensive in China where it is seen as a self-indulgent and elitist. In a nation of 700 million peasant farmers, a new set of Titleist clubs isn’t on many “must have” lists.

It sounds like getting a foursome together might be tough.

Robert Rector is a veteran of 50 years in print journalism. He has worked at the San Francisco Examiner, Los Angeles Herald Examiner, Valley News, Los Angeles Times and Pasadena Star-News. His columns can be found at Robert-Rector@Blogspot.Com.

Saturday, April 04, 2015

Bank On It

Quick quiz: Whose face is on the $1, $2, $5, $10, $20, $50, $100, $500 and $1000 bill?  Bonus question: Who’s on the $100,000 bill?

If you answered George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Alexander Hamilton, Andrew Jackson, Ulysses S. Grant, Benjamin Franklin, William McKinley and Grover Cleveland, you are correct and you may read on.

If you answered Woodrow Wilson to the bonus question by looking in your wallet, you can pick up the lunch tab.

Our currency is adorned with a pantheon of American icons. There is one conspicuous absence, however. A female.

Now, there’s a movement afoot to display the likeness of a woman on our folding money. Two have already adorned our coinage. Susan B. Anthony and Sacagawea.

It is not without precedent. The likeness of Martha Washington appeared on $1 silver certificates in the late 19th century. But nobody plunks down a couple of Marthas for an Egg McMuffin these days so her fame lacks, ahem, currency.

It seems the winds of change are about to blow Andrew Jackson right off the $20 bill in favor a female. With all due respect to Old Hickory, recognizing the contributions of 50 per cent of our population seems right and proper.

Why Jackson? Unless you hold to the idea that any American President is beyond reproach because of the office he holds, he seems like a good candidate for retirement. 

While he was a hero in the War of 1812, he was also the architect of the Indian Removal Act of 1830, a dark event in American history in which as many as 45,000 Native Americans were forced from their ancestral homelands to be settled west of the Mississippi River.

Many suffered from exposure, disease, and starvation while going on the route to their destinations. It is estimated that 4,000 to 6,000 of the 16,543 relocated Cherokee died in what was to be known as the Trail of Tears.

Like many of our early presidents, Jackson was a slave owner. He was also a slave trader who, according to one account, was known to wager slaves on the outcome of a horse race.  Starting with nine slaves, Jackson held as many as 44 by 1820, and later held up to 150 slaves. Throughout his lifetime Jackson may have owned as many as 300 slaves.

Unlike other presidents, Jackson holds the distinction of having shot and killed a man in a duel.

Ironically, Jackson detested the idea of paper money and would be appalled to know he is represented on our currency.

Some explain that Jackson was merely a man of his times. But not everyone in the early to mid-19th century engaged in his callous disregard for human rights.

The fact is, nobody seems to know how Jackson ended up on the 20 in the first place (he replaced Grover Cleveland in 1928 who got promoted to the $1000 bill).
An investigation by the Washington Post found little explanation. Even Jackson historians said they didn’t know how or why he was chosen.

The Treasury Department’s website says the department’s “records do not suggest why certain Presidents and statesmen were chosen for specific denominations.”

Apparently, a substantial design change is not subject to Congressional approval. “The Treasury secretary has the authority to unilaterally make this change,” said Susan Ades Stone, executive director and spokesperson for Women On 20s.  
Her group would like to see the change made in 2020, the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote.

So let’s throw the rascal out, or off as the case may be.

Who will take his place? Stone’s group lists the candidates as Clara Barton‎, the founder of the American Red Cross; Margaret Sanger‎, who opened the first birth control clinic in the U.S.; Rachel Carson‎, a marine biologist who wrote the hugely influential environmental book “Silent Spring.” Rosa Parks‎, the iconic civil rights activist; Harriet Tubman‎, the abolitionist activist famed for her journeys on the Underground Railroad.

Also, Barbara Jordan‎, a politician who was the first black woman in the south to be elected to the House of Representatives; Betty Friedan‎, feminist author of the “Feminine Mystique.” Frances Perkins‎, the Secretary of Labor under FDR, who was the first woman appointed to the U.S. Cabinet; Susan B. Anthon,women's suffrage movement leader; Shirley Chisholm‎, the first African-American woman elected to Congress.

Additionally, Elizabeth Cady Stanton‎, early women's rights activist and abolitionist; Eleanor Roosevelt‎, human rights activist and former First Lady; Sojourner Truth‎, African American women's rights activist and abolitionist; Patsy Mink, the first woman of color elected to the House, and the first Asian American elected to Congress. Alice Paul‎, women's suffrage movement leader.

Whoever emerges as the leading candidate will undoubtedly undergo a highly political and public vetting process.

Perhaps there should be one more change: The new $20 bill should be redeemable for $15 to underscore the disparity between men’s and women’s pay.

Robert Rector is a veteran of 50 years in print journalism. He has worked at the San Francisco Examiner, Los Angeles Herald Examiner, Valley News, Los Angeles Times and Pasadena Star-News. His columns can be found at Robert-Rector@Blogspot.Com.