Monday, July 27, 2015

Our Cheatin' Hearts

I didn’t just fall off the turnip truck.

I have lived and traveled throughout the United States. I have visited numerous foreign countries. I have served in the military.

I have practiced the craft of journalism for nearly 50 years, which requires a finely honed dose of skepticism.

I have been involved in the coverage of thousands of stories. I have seen and heard it all. Nothing surprises me. At least so I thought.

Then I read this past week that an Internet site that caters to married folks on the prowl for extramarital affairs had been hacked. Revelations are threatened. Fear and loathing ensues.

The existence of the website is no surprise. The Internet is full of enough decadence and depravity to make the Marquis de Sade blush.

What caused my jaw to bounce off my chest is that the site, called Ashley Madison, claims to have nearly 38 million subscribers in the U.S. and several foreign countries. You read that right: 38 million. Just for the sake of comparison, there are 68 million married couples in the U.S.

Apparently, there’s a whole lot of cheatin’ going on.

Or not. There are a lot of ways to look at this: (1) The website has greatly exaggerated the number of clients or (2) many who go on to the website are curiosity seekers who don’t indulge in actual adultery. Or (3), 30 million of the subscribers are teen-age boys who are getting their jollies on the Internet.

Of course, there is also (4) we are a morally corrupt people who preach devotion while practicing deviousness.

The answer is probably (5) all of the above.

According to several published articles, cheating isn’t cheap.

The site offers a guarantee that you will find someone: "We guarantee that you will successfully find what you’re looking for or we'll give you your money back.”

However, the guarantee is so restricted by conditions—one must buy the most expensive package, send "priority" (more expensive) messages to 18 unique members each month for three months, send 5 Ashley Madison gifts per month, and engage in 60 minutes of (paid) chat per month,—that qualifying for it is  difficult and expensive.

And, cha ching, female members are allowed to send "collect messages" that male members must pay for in order to read them.

Making this somewhat less than user friendly is that "more men than women use the service, with the disparity increasing as they advance in age," and "Men seek sex, while women seek passion.” 

What’s most astonishing about all of this is that are 38 million people who have no problem giving up their credit card numbers, sexual proclivities and adulterous intent to a bunch of strangers running a website.  What could possibly go wrong?

Something did.

A group of hackers called The Impact Team reportedly has posted some data already and is demanding that parent company Avid Life Media, shut down Ashley Madison and a sister site,, according to Krebs On Security, a blog run by former Washington Post reporter Brian Krebs.

In a manifesto obtained by Krebs, the hackers said: “Avid Life Media has been instructed to take Ashley Madison and Established Men offline permanently in all forms, or we will release all customer records, including profiles with all the customers’ secret sexual fantasies and matching credit card transactions, real names and addresses, and employee documents and emails.”

All of this raises a question: Does hacking an Internet site and revealing information about its clients constitute a worse offense than infidelity?

Perhaps these statistics will shed some light on the issue.

Asked about infidelity, 22 per cent of married men admit to having strayed while 14 per cent of women admit to cheating at least once. But 74 per cent of men say they would have an affair if they knew they wouldn’t get caught while 68 per cent of women agree.

So the fear of getting caught in flagrante delicto is a major deterrent. And what’s a sure-fire way to get caught?  Send your darkest secrets off to a sleazy Internet site.

In this case, perhaps hackers hold the moral high ground. After all, The Impact Team doesn’t appear to be interested in financial gain or to have a political agenda. Instead, their purported motivation is moral outrage.

Interestingly enough, a 2013 Gallup Poll that listed behaviors and societal realities that included porn, gambling, abortion, polygamy, and the death penalty, 91 percent of survey respondents flagged adultery as morally reprehensible. It drew a higher rate of disapproval than any issue on the survey.

Instinctively, we sense that lying to and betraying the one person we’ve sworn fealty to is far worse than simply divorcing that person. Condemnation of divorce has decreased since 2001, but disapproval of adultery has held steady.

All of which proves that 38 million people can be wrong.

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, July 19, 2015

Flights of Fancy

When I was young, I spent a great deal of time in outer space.

I read every science fiction book I could get my hands on and watched every movie from "Destination Moon" to "Star Wars" in hopes that someday the world they portrayed would be a reality in my lifetime.

We would travel the solar system if not the universe on flights of adventure and fantasy. We would encounter strange new civilizations whose inhabitants we would befriend. We would also fight bad guys, from Ming the Merciless to Jabba the Hutt, in our quest to establish freedom, truth and justice throughout the galaxies.

Alas, at my age I’ll not see those fantasies become reality unless someone invents warp speed next week. But we have come so very close. When my time comes to leave Earth, I will have loved the future that I lived.

When I was young, there were no astronauts, no moon walks, no space stations, no Mars rovers. Now, with the Pluto fly-by this week, we have visited every planet in our solar system. It is an amazing feat considering we were Earth-bound a mere 112 years ago.

And while our search for extraterrestrial life continues, our voyages have become de facto journeys of self-discovery, teaching us that our planet is a very special place in a vast and violent universe.

The voyage of the New Horizons vehicle past Pluto was much more than a trip through time and space. It allowed us to see a place so shrouded in mystery, so cold, dark and distant, that it has held the public’s imagination since it was discovered by an American, Clyde Tombaugh, in 1930.

As a literary subject, Pluto is the stuff of dreams.

In “Plutonian Depths” (Wonder Stories Quarterly, Spring 1931), a short story by Stanton A. Coblentz was the first to take advantage of the newly discovered and named world. In “The Red Peri” by Stanley G. Weinbaum., the title character is a space pirate with a secret base on Pluto.

“First Lensman” (1950), a novel by E. E. "Doc" Smith, features an alien race colonizing Pluto without ever realizing that life existed on Earth.

In “World's Fair 1992” by Robert Silverberg (1968), a U.S.-led expedition reaches Pluto in less than two weeks using a nuclear-powered spacecraft capable of continuous acceleration. The spacecraft collects five crab-like indigenous Plutonians and returns them to Earth orbit for study.

In a July 1958 comic book, Superman journeys to Pluto to obtain some giant snowflakes, frozen so solidly that they will not melt on Earth, for inclusion among the collection of “space trophies” which he is gathering for the Metropolis Museum.

In the sitcom “Mork and Mindy” (1978), Mork informs Exidor that he's been to every planet in the solar system, even Pluto, which he derides as a "Mickey Mouse planet."

Even more famously, astronomers drew the wrath of the public when they declassified Pluto a few years back, deciding it was a “dwarf planet” and not worthy of membership in good standing of our solar system.

In a compromise that pleased no one, it was later declared to be a “plutoid.”

Perhaps the highest honor to be accorded the Pluto mission is that it has given birth to conspiracy theories.

The “truthers” have adjusted the tin foil on their heads and declared that the whole journey is a fraud,  announcing that “Pluto is only at Disneyland’ and “NASA’s mission is to ensure we know nothing about what is outside of our world.”

Others believe that NASA has indeed captured real images of Pluto but that there’s a possible cover-up involving aliens and buildings on the surface.

Now that be have traveled our solar system, what's next?  Most scientists believe a manned mission to Mars will be attempted by the mid-2030s.

There are no press releases or Kennedyesque pronouncements (“we do these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard”).  NASA is doing its planning quietly. 

Faced with an ever-changing political landscape and the scope and expense of a program that may take 20 years, it is better not engage in chest-beating.

Jason Davis, in a Planetary Society blog, put it this way: “There is indeed a plan to put humans on Mars. Vague? Yes. Hard to see? Absolutely. But that's because… NASA officials are playing the long game. And right now, it may be the only game they can play.”

NASA’s budget in 1966 was $43.5 billion (in 2014 dollars). Today, NASA gets about $18 billion. Add to that an apparent lack of political will to go to Mars.

“So NASA has less than half the money to execute a program that is twice as ambitious and will take twice as long (as it did to go to the moon),” Davis writes. “Nevertheless, they'll need a methodical, step-by-step approach like the one used in the 1960s with Mercury, Gemini and Apollo.

“Furthermore, officials…want to avoid Apollo-style one-and-done Mars visits. They'd rather see NASA establish a sustainable, long term presence in deep space.”

Insurmountable?  No. Man will visit Mars someday. And beyond. After all, exploration is part of our DNA. Had it not been, we would still be living in trees.

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, July 12, 2015

Get Your Hands Out of My Guacamole

Musings from an ink-stained wretch:

The New York Times, chief tambourine shaker for East Coast elitism, has decided to stick its fingers into our guacamole.

After all, what do we know about Mexican food?

Times food columnist Melissa Clark recently published a recipe that calls for English peas to be added into a traditional guacamole dish.

In the column she writes, "The peas add intense sweetness and a chunky texture to the dip, making it more substantial on the chip."

For those who think this is a really bad idea, the Times smugly added the two most feared words in the English language: “Trust us.”

What’s next?  Cauliflower tacos? Brussel sprouts Rancheros?

I’m all for fusion in cooking but simplicity is the hallmark of Mexican cooking and we don’t need to fancy it up to make it taste better.

Besides, I’m convinced the Good Lord in his infinite wisdom created avocados to provide us a simple but delicious appetizer. Then he created televised football as the perfect place to enjoy it.

But I’ve got to hand it to Clark. She managed to do something Americans thought was impossible. She united our political parties.

“Respect the nyt, but not buying peas in guac. onions, garlic, hot peppers. Classic,” tweeted President Obama.

“You don't put peas in guacamole,” tweeted Jeb Bush.

Donald Trump, reached at a Taco Bell drive-through at 1 a.m., said he would have no comment.

Not surprisingly, the Texas Republican Party, well known purveyors of paranoia, declared that the recipe was proof that the New York Times was declaring war on Texas.  

And Fortune magazine pointed out that the whole mess was bad for the environment. “…based on data from the Water Footprint Network, one ounce of avocados requires 9.1 gallons of water. For one ounce of peas, you’ll need a staggering 44.5 gallons.”

We’re lucky they didn’t suggest adding almonds to our guac.

Give peas a chance? Not in my house.

Speaking of Donald Trump, it’s time for the bloviating, bullying billionaire to pretend once again he’s a serious presidential candidate.

Which means it’s time for Republicans to shelter in place and hope be goes away quickly.

Trump’s presidential aspirations appear every four years like some sort of flu bug. And every four years, the American people decide that their nation isn’t ready for a President who combs his hair with a Cuisinart and isn’t acting in his role as a snarling boss/jerk on a reality show.

But he’ll stick around long enough to inflate his ego and inflict damage on the Republican Party with his special brand of buffoonery.

“When Mexico sends its people, they're not sending the best," he said during a recent speech. "…they're bringing drugs, they're bringing crime. They're rapists and some, I assume, are good people, but I speak to border guards and they're telling us what we're getting."

And what would he do as president?  "I'd probably say ‘you have to go back.’ Do I like doing that? No, I'm a nice person believe it or not, I mean I have a heart. But I'd probably tell them ‘you have to go back.’

Mr. Nice Guy followed that up by declaring that he would win the Latino vote.

So why does the media continue to cover this nonsense? Long ago I swore off Glen Beck, Ted Nugent and Keith Olbermann. Why not Trump?

“Everyone knows that Donald Trump is not the brightest bulb in the pack and his political ramblings are completely meaningless. Everyone also knows that it’s fun to cover him anyway," New York journalist Chris O'Shea explained.

In other words, as long as Trump is out there promoting himself, whether in the context of a presidential campaign or not, we'll be seeing the snarky stories from those who don't take him seriously. Why? Because everything he says is, in some way, designed to make news. 

"The media covers Trump because people want to read about him," O'Shea added. "He’s the living embodiment of a car crash—you know it’s going to be bad, but you look anyway." 

I stand guilty as charged. I promise never to do it again. Until next time.

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.

Monday, July 06, 2015

A Not-So-Great Debate

“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to the Republican presidential primary debate presented, produced and controlled by Fox News.

“We come to you tonight from the Rose Bowl, the only venue big enough to accommodate the 146 announced candidates, their staffs, advisers, flaks, fund raisers, lobbyists, loyalists, lawyers, accountants, donors, do-gooders, political junkies, groupies, mistresses and assorted hangers-on. Not to mention wives, sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts and cousins, all of whom are on the candidates’ payroll.

“We don’t expect the general public to witness tonight’s debate in person. Since all of the declared candidates are busy raising money in California, the Secret Service has blocked off every major thoroughfare from San Luis Obispo to the Mexican border for security reasons.  We are assured all affected will be able to return to their homes sometime in the near future.

 “In addition to the usual suspects --- sons of Presidents, current and past senators, members of congress and governors who will all claim they are ‘political outsiders’ dedicated to ‘cleaning up the mess in Washington’ --- there are a few candidates you may not be familiar with.

“Buford T. Biblebelt is a former police chief who believes in the three B’s: Baptists, Bourbon and Batons. He advocates the frequent use of nuclear weapons as a foreign policy tool and wants to impose reforms at home based on his curious  concepts of Scripture that would make Sharia law look like a day at Disneyland. His law-and-order platform recommends 25 to life for jaywalking. He equates freedom of speech with disturbing the peace and favors repealing all the amendments to the Constitution   except the Second. He is backed by the Society for the Preservation of the Dark Ages.

“Malcom X. Wellborn III is the candidate of the Conservative Republican African Party. He grew up in upper-class surroundings but claims he pulled himself up by his boot straps. Those boots, however, were made by Gucci. He is the author of a book entitled “White Is the New Black.” He claims to be a humanitarian. He once saw an old woman struggling to carry two bags of groceries home. So he slashed her welfare payments. Now she only has to carry one bag. He is supported by white people who complain that blacks complain too much.

“Allister B. Affluent. A billionaire industrialist, he advocates closing our borders to foreign trade except for the occasional Mercedes Benz or Ferrari, outlawing trade unions and reestablishing the minimum wage at $1.25. A day. He believes global warming is a hoax and yearns for a United States that runs on coal, a commodity in which he is heavily invested. He believes all immigrants are felons and probably terrorists. He is prepared to spend a billion dollars on a campaign which will be a tougher sell than hawking sun screen to the Eskimos. He’ll be the favorite of the pampered and politically tone-deaf.

 “Because of the number of participants and because Fox’s new hit reality show, “Bikini Bachelorettes From Bakersfield Stump for Trump” will be shown immediately following the debate, candidates will be limited to a one-minute statement followed by a short scurrilous remark from somewhere in the audience. Remarks directed at Donald Trump will also be delivered in Spanish.

“If they have anything further to say, operators will be standing by to sell them additional air time.”

The above is, of course, an attempt at satire. I’d mock the Democrats too but for the fact that they decided on their candidate years ago. They’re just not fun anymore.

They have elected and reelected an African-American and will try to put a woman in the White House. After that?  Keep your eye on Caitlyn Jenner.

Whimsy aside, the truth about the Republican primary race is almost stranger than fiction.

There are 14 announced candidates with several waiting in the wings. They run the gamut from Mike Huckabee, a dyed-in-the-wool evangelical, to George Pataki, who supports abortion rights and gay rights.

This Tower of Babel is so problematic that the folks over at Fox News have decided to narrow the field by using the meat cleaver approach.

According to published reports, Fox has said it will allow only 10 candidates onto the stage, and it will choose them according to their standing in the five most recent national polls. Candidates who miss the cut become non-persons.

Some polls are so notoriously unreliable that the Fox folks might just as well throw darts at a board festooned with candidate pictures and use that as the selection criteria.

Using the Fox method, Donald Trump might make the cut. His latest polls numbers were shockingly good. But he would not be a welcome presence. According to a Bloomberg report, Trump appearing in the debates "is a nightmare scenario for the Republican establishment, which risks having its presidential field look more like an unwieldy circus of a reality TV show than the self-styled embarrassment of riches."

Just to add a touch of surrealism to the proceedings, Doyle McManus, writing in the Los Angeles Times, envisions this scenario:

“It's more likely that Fox, which is very good at building an audience, will delay its last poll until just before Aug. 6 — and then hold a televised selection ceremony like the suspense-filled ritual that precedes the NCAA basketball tournament.”

You can’t make this stuff up.

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.