Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Attack of the Robocallers

Robocallers are a modern plague.  It wouldn't have moved Pharaoh to let my people go, it's true, but he sure would have sent Egypt's Secret Police out to teach the scammers a lesson — if he could have found them.

Everyone, it seems, is now concerned, and everyone, it seems, is offering free advice on how to deal with them.  Why shouldn't I?

First, put an announcement message on your voicemail to let people know that their call may have been deliberately ignored:

Hello, you've reached the voicemail of [your name].  Either I'm unable to immediately answer your call, or I didn't recognize your number.  Please leave your name, a short message, and a call-back number and I will return the call when I am able.  Thank you and have a nice day.  If this is a sales solicitation call, you will never get a return call.  Have a nice day someplace else.

Second, adopt this policy:  if a call comes through with a name or number you do not recognize, let it roll to voice-mail.  Most cell phones will silence the ringer if you change the volume, so volume-up or volume-down and the ringer turns off.  The call goes to voicemail after ringing (silently) for x times.

Third, do not block the caller.  Many robocallers 'spoof' the incoming number;  the number you're blocking isn't the number the call is really coming from.  That means you will be blocking the wrong number.  Worse, the number you block is probably a real, active, in-use phone for somebody, and you could be blocking a number that, sometime in the future, you actually want to be able to call you.  And, because you're blocking the wrong number, it's a waste of your time and effort.

Some robocalls are really made by (software) robots.  These programs only know that the call has been answered, not that it has been answered by voicemail.  As a result, they begin their pre-recorded spiel as soon as the phone stops ringing.  Since you let it roll to voicemail, the first 10-15 seconds of that spiel doesn't get onto your voicemail.  When you finally listen to the message it says "...ether.  If you haven't taken care of this...".  The missing front end tells you immediately that it wasn't a real person, and you can safely purge the message.

Technology may provide some relief.  T-Mobile, for instance, has an internal list of probable spammers and marks many incoming calls as "Scam Likely".  Definitely let those roll to voicemail.  Most of them do not leave messages, but some...  The very best one I've ever encountered was an intelligent robocaller.  It could hear and recognize voice responses and respond appropriately.  It went something like this:
Me: "Hello... hello..."
Robocaller: (nervous giggle) "Oh, sorry, I was having a little trouble with my headset.  Can you hear me?"
Me: "Yes, I can hear you."
RC: "This is Julie from ... and I'm calling to see if you..."

At that point I hung up, but did you notice how the conversation went?  It waited for a second 'hello' before starting.  Then, it gave a reason for not answering immediately, so you believe this is a real person.  You respond with a 'yes', and the RC now knows it has a real person to 'talk' to, so it starts the spiel.  If you let it go on, it will ask questions, collect the answers, and maybe later route you over to the real caller having established that you do have storm windows and still have a mortgage and have a decent credit rating.  Insidious...

Legislation is unlikely to put a stop to this.  When has legislation ever solved a problem without creating two more to replace it?  When the law goes into effect, the spammers and scammers will alter their procedures or move offshore or... and the annoying calls will continue unabated.

Let them roll to voicemail.

Monday, June 24, 2019

Rx: government, 5mcg, bid, PRN

Government is best in small doses.  The stereotypical New England Town Meeting may be the best example of efficiently-run government.  A Congress with 100 Senators and 435 Representatives, flanked by a thousand federal agencies, may be the best example of how bad it can get.

A nation the size of the U.S. may simply be impossible to run efficiently, but our national tendency to make every issue "a federal project" puts us on a path to costly, unjust, and overly-complicated government.  It may be that the best solution to this problem is 'secession'.

Perhaps the next amendment to the Constitution ought to be

"The prerogative of the States to separate from the United States of America and 'to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature's God entitle them' shall not be abrogated."

Some will object that we fought a civil war over this issue and resolved it in the negative.  That is categorically untrue.  What the civil war resolved was the truth that an industrialized society has a military advantage over an agricultural society.  Absolutely nothing else was decided.

Allowing discretionary secession would, in fact, have an immediate salubrious effect on the efficiency of our federal behemoth.  When states acquire the power to defund the federal government, that federal government would necessarily become much more attentive to the needs and desires of the individual states — or lose their funding.  Many problems that are now addressed with one-size-fits-all national programs would have to be handled at the level of the individual states, as was the original plan in the 18th century.  We would again, after a hiatus of 155 years, resume true Constitutional governance.

Friday, June 7, 2019

Ounces and Pounds

There's an old riddle that goes "Which weighs more, an ounce of feathers or an ounce of gold?" and the accepted answer is that they both weigh the same.

Except that they don't.

An ounce of feathers weighs the same as an ounce of bread or an ounce of balsa wood, but an ounce of gold is heavier.  The reason is that feathers and bread and balsa wood are weighed using the Avoirdupois scale, and gold is measured on the Troy scale.

An Avoirdupois ounce is 437.5 grains (28.35g), but a Troy ounce is 480 grains (31.10g).  An ounce of any precious metal is 42.5 grains heavier than any non-metal because the two things are measured on different scales.

Pounds are something else.  An Avoirdupois pound is 16 Avoirdupois ounces, 7,000 grains, 453.6 grams, but a Troy pound is only 12 Troy ounces, 5,760 grains, 373.24 grams.

Oddly, while an ounce of gold may be heavier than an ounce of feathers, a pound of feathers is heavier (by 80g) than a pound of gold.



Update:   Thanks to Jim Pruitt for the correction.  This originally said 'lead', but Jim points out that the Troy scale is used only for precious metals and like substances such as gems, so I changed 'lead' into 'gold'.  Hot dog, I'm an alchemist!

Wednesday, June 5, 2019


Sometimes when I get on a writing jag, I put music on to play in the background.  Often, it's Brahms.

Back in the days of 4 track reel-to-reel tape recorders, the 60s, my sister presented me with a recording of the Brahms 2nd Piano Concerto played by the famous Sviatoslav Richter.  In those days, the Soviet Union was a brutally repressive regime that made it difficult for its citizens, especially its famous and/or talented citizens, to travel abroad.  Often, they just wouldn't come back.  Richter had been offered a gig with the Chicago Symphony to record a few piano pieces including the Brahms PC#2.  It was that recording that introduced me to Brahms.  I didn't even unwrap it for nearly a year, but when I did and listened to it finally, I was awe-stricken.  It became such a favorite of mine that I probably damaged the tape by playing it as often as I did.

Twenty years ago in the heat of the Y2K 'crisis', I was working a contract in Houston for EXXON and living in an apartment.  I flew home for Christmas, planning to come back to work the last few days of the contract before packing the apartment into my car and driving home to Florida for the last time.  At Christmas, my girls gave me a CD of Brahms' 2nd and 3rd symphonies.  It went back to Houston with me and, with my car packed to the headliner, I slipped the disc into its player and began my 2-day journey home.

Between Houston and Oldsmar, I didn't change the disc.  I let it play on repeat-forever for 2 whole days.  It was that enchanting.  It is, to this day, one of my favorite CDs.  I'm listening to it now.

Thank you, ladies.

Saturday, June 1, 2019

F-you, Woodrow Wilson, and the horse you rode in on.

If there is one person who is most responsible for the Second World War, it may be Woodrow Wilson.

RMS Lusitania was sunk in May 1915 by a German u-boat after being warned via ads placed in the New York papers that it was a target.  Everyone shrugged off the threat by the German ambassador, assuming they would not dare torpedo a peaceful passenger liner.  Germany claimed Lusitania was transporting war materiel.  In April 1917, in the wake of 'The Zimmermann Telegram', Congress, spurred on by Wilson, declared war on Germany.  Wilson was hot for 'regime change' in Europe, and had his own ideas, the 14 Points, about how he would reorganize the continent.  The sinking of the Lusitania two years prior also played heavily into the declaration of war, and the Zimmermann Telegram has since been proven to be disinformation planted by British counter-intelligence.

When WW-I broke out on July 28, 1914, it was, initially, 'a pissing contest among cousins'.  Virtually all the countries originally involved were monarchies, and virtually all of their rulers were related, most of them via Queen Victoria.  Kaiser Wilhelm and Czar Alexander are both in this category.  Various cousins took various sides in the dispute.  Through 1917, it was carnage on a Biblical scale, largely wiping out an entire generation of European men.  By 1917, the war was a stalemate, both sides running out of steam, when the U.S. entered the fray and tipped the scales.

By 1919, the industrial might of the U.S. had finally worn the Axis powers down to the point of surrender.  Wilson had what he wanted all along: Germany destroyed as a viable competitor.

The sinking of the Lusitania is an interesting study in the light of what we now know.

In the 1980s, the technology became available for divers to study the wreck in detail.  What they discovered was enlightening.  First, the British government tried to prevent the operation because they feared there might still be unexploded ordnance on board.  This came as a surprise to everyone involved since the British had claimed for 65 years that Lusitania carried only passengers, and that Germany was wrong about it having war materiel on board.  Now they were saying that Germany was justified in sinking the ship.  Further, it was the U.S. government that was 'the shipper' of that material.  When Wilson swore Lusitania was a peaceful passenger ship, he was lying, and he knew it.

When divers finally did reach the wreck of Lusitania, they discovered two holes in the hull.  One had the earmarks of a torpedo hit: the hull was bent inward.  The other hole was different.  The metal was bent outward.  Lusitania sank as fast as it did because it blew up from the inside.  It blew up from the explosives Wilson swore to the American people were not aboard that ship.  The people who died that day were killed by Wilson's lies.

The entry of the U.S. into WW-I, a conflict in which we had no cause to intervene, was engineered by the Executive Branch because Wilson wanted a piece of the action, and he didn't care how many Americans had to die to get it.

The result: Germany was reduced to third-world status generating intense hatred of those who brought them low, and made it possible for a demagogue with a glib tongue to convince the beaten-down Germans that they should exact revenge on those who did this to them.

Had it not been for Wilson, the U.S. would have steered clear of that shitstorm, WW-I likely would have been a draw, and everyone would have been anxious for it not to happen again.  One would today have to be a doctoral-level researcher of German history to be able to correctly identify Adolph Hitler — if he even rated a mention.  The Holocaust might not have happened.  Nuclear weapons might not exist.

I hope Woodrow Wilson is burning in Hell.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Paris - 2008

Friends of mine — Earl and Kellie (McCoobery) Starr — are presently in Paris visiting some of Earl's kids who live there.  They walk.  They walk a lot, which is easy to do in Paris which I tell people is one of the most walkable cities on Earth.  I'm having a back-and-forth conversation with them on FaceBook and that reminded me of our last trip to Paris in 2008, so I thought I would put down some recollections of that most memorable trip.


Norene's brother passed away in 2007 and we went north for the festivities.  At a family get-together afterwards, Norene's niece approached her and asked when we were next going back to France.  Norene suggested that it might be soon.  The niece begged to tag along with her daughter and Norene agreed.  We were a party of four.

We told this story to our friends, Joe and Cathy Mallozzi, and they expressed interest in going with us.  We were a party of six.

The grand niece's talent for bowling got her onto a team that wangled an invitation to play in an Italian tournament, so niece and grand-niece wound up going to Italy ahead of our trip to France.  Their finances precluded two trips to Europe so close together, so we were a party of four again.

When her divorce was finally final, my co-worker Peggy Thomas held a celebration at a local watering hole, and during the event, I recounted the trials and tribulations of planning this all out.  Peggy admitted she soooo wanted to go to Europe, especially with seasoned travelers as guides.  Chris Dulligan, another co-worker, did a 'me too!', and we were a party of six again.


Months ahead of the trip, I asked for each of the travelers to provide me with a list of their must-see sights in Paris, and from that list, I divided our days such that we could hit a maximum number of attractions.  Of course, the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, and the Louvre topped everyone's list.  I'm pleased to say we saw all the sights (except two) from everyone's lists.  For a pictorial recounting of the trip, see my website.


The six of us met up at the Philadelphia airport whence we flew to Paris, arriving there the morning of September 7th, and took the shuttle to our apartment: 17 Rue Cadet.  We dropped our luggage and went to get breakfast at a local bistro, then everybody went back to the apartment for a much-needed snooze.  By mid-afternoon with everyone rested, I hustled them all across the street and down into the Metro to get our Cartes Orange, 5 days of go-anywhere Metro use.  Day-1 I had planned to devote to "Metro 101".  Joe and Cathy, raised in Brooklyn, knew all about subway travel; Chris and Peggy — not so much.  We did some trips hither and thither as practice, and wound up at the Abbesses Metro station in Montmartre, then climbed and climbed and climbed up to Place du Tertre for Sacre Coeur and dinner at Le Consulat.

In the days following, we tripped out to Chartres, had dinner at Le Refuge des Fondus, took in a show at Le Bal du Moulin Rouge, and got creeped out by the Paris Ossuary (among many other things).

After a week of Paris, Peggy and Chris flew home and the remaining four rented a car at CDG and headed for Normandy to see Rouen, the D-Day beaches, the American cemetery, and, finally, Mont St-Michel.  To top off the trip, we next went to the Loire valley to take in the chateaux: Chenonceau, Montpoupon, Clos Lucé, Cheverny, and Chambord, finally returning to Paris for our own flights home.

Yes, a good time was had by all.  Did I mention that Paris is a very walkable city?  Joe came home seven pounds lighter than he was at the start despite having eaten his way through half the boulangeries in France.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

The Theory And Practice Of A Welfare State

In a welfare state, wealth is transferred from those who have wealth to those who don't.  Ideally, the recipients of welfare state charity are those who are needy through no fault of their own and who are making an effort to become self-sufficient.  Too often, however, the modern welfare state provides support for those who have no ambition to become self-sufficient, and which is a primary factor in how they became 'needy' in the first place.  A modern industrial society can actually tolerate a certain number of able-bodied slackers, although it's never a good idea since it tends to encourage others to take that low road.

In a modern industrial society, those with ambition and talent can live in comfort not generally available to welfare beneficiaries.  This is, in fact, the primary element that makes the welfare state possible: some people are producing wealth far beyond what is actually necessary for subsistence, and that extra wealth can be tapped in order to provide for those whose wealth-generating ability is below what is necessary for subsistence.  Voila!  A source of wealth and a place to use it.

If the recipients of welfare largesse are encouraged, cajoled, or coerced to end their reliance on public charity, a welfare state can operate for a very long time, and the more robust the underlying economy, the longer the game can be played.

We know, however, that entropy always increases, and this is true even in a modern welfare state.  As benefits become more lush, more people find themselves comfortable with the idea that they are wards of the state.  Eventually, that group becomes a powerful voting bloc, and at that point, the system, like a star that has run out of fuel, is on the path to a spectacular end.  In fact, without a mechanism that forces welfare recipients off the dole after a limited time, that path begins when the welfare state is first established.  As the number of participants who produce no wealth grows, the burden on the actual wealth-producers becomes more and more onerous.  If the number of wealth-producers is also falling (as it is in America today) the collapse of the system is easy to foresee.

Things get out of control when newborns are eligible for state-supplied welfare because there is an incentive, usually in the form of larger payments than are strictly necessary for the newborn's survival.  That is: having a baby becomes profitable and the incentive to become productive and leave the welfare rolls decreases, even if only slightly.  This also moves society toward the point where welfare recipients constitute a voting majority.

In Minnesota recently, a modern scam involving their welfare system threatens to bankrupt their economy.  Working mothers whose income is under a certain figure are eligible for $1,000 per child per month for child care expenses.  A company is formed for the purpose of delivering 'child care' and subscribes a group of families.  It then hires those mothers as 'attendants', and pays them minimum wage for 25 hours per week to watch their own children!  The company bills the state for the 'care' at the maximum allowable rate and, it appears, funnels the excess offshore.  It should not come as a surprise that the proceeds of this scam are used to bring Mom's relatives over from the home country so that they can apply for and get welfare benefits here.

Meanwhile, the sources of the funds for doing all this are having children at a much decreased rate.  The next generation will be much smaller, but supporting a much larger group of welfare clients.

This can't go on.