Week in Review

  • Naizulam Vazerbeium, please call back and leave a message. We know it was you because our answering machine annunciator said so. Or was it Vaiuleranium Luzainnermon? Your call is important to us.
  • US Rep. Tom Lantos’ passing was memorialized this week. A WWII resistance fighter who emigrated to the US in 1947, Lantos worked tirelessly as a champion of human rights. Much to the chagrin of conservative detractors, he saw gays and lesbians as humans who also have rights. His voting record won a perfect 0% from the hatemongering front group Family Research Council  — good enough for us.
  • American Airlines grounded their entire fleet of aging MD-80’s, joining the ranks of other major US airlines in the limelight for flying aircraft that might be shunned by self-respecting Third World nations. No, it wasn’t the jackscrew problem this time, it was wiring harnesses. Meanwhile, a Texas consortium is negotiating to purchase the entire fleet of MD-80 fuselages for conversion to industrial rotisserie cookers.
  • US Airways wasn’t one of those airlines. They had their own publicity problems with a pilot whose loaded handgun discharged in the cockpit of a flight on final approach to landing.
  • This could actually be seen as good news for US Air, as it will help the public forget the incident with recently merged America West where one of their pilots was busted for flying while intoxicated.
  • Tata Motors bought Jaguar and Land Rover from ailing Ford Motor Company for a song, at 1/3 the purchase price of what Ford paid to acquire the prestige British manufacturers some years back. You might think this is funny unless you know that Tata is one of the fastest rising industrial stars in India, one of the fastest growing economies in the world. There is, then, no truth to the rumor the vehicles will be converted to scooters or pedal cars, nor will they be rebranded as Jagutata and Land Rotata.

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Economy in Review with Typos

How many typos can you spot in the following news summary? (with apologies to Vanguard) — 

The U.S. trade deceit widened in November, hitting its highest level in more than a year amid then-record oil prices. In other economic news, the chairman of the Federal Reserve said the Fed is prepared to make additional interest rate cuts to simulate growth. For the weak, the S&P 500 Index fell 0.8% to 1,401. The yield of the 10-year U.S. Treasury note fell 6 basis points to 3.82%.

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James Kim

They found his body Wednesday morning in a shallow pool of water at the end of a dead-end box canyon in Big Windy Creek. James Kim died of exposure – hypothermia – after a truly heroic quest to hike for help for his stranded family on a remote seasonal back road in Oregon. They found his family Monday, cold and hungry, but alive.

The whole nation followed the search for the missing family. When it was learned James had finally tried to hike out for help, we hoped against hope that he would turn up alive in the face of increasingly brutal odds. We join millions of others in extending to the Kim family our happiness that Kati Kim and the two children were rescued, and our sadness that James Kim’s desperate effort to reach help ended in the loss of his life.

Kim’s ten mile hike forced him to climb boulders, cut through dense brush, and swim in icy water in freezing temperatures with no way to warm up or dry his clothes. The same hike would have been extremely challenging, at best, in the summer. Reportedly, he died a little over a mile distant from his starting point.

Seasoned outdoor campers and hikers will look at the map reconstructing his fatal journey and ask themselves how it could have happened. Looking back on my own experiences in a couple of decades of hiking and camping in California’s Sierra Nevadas:

it’s my own personal judgement that, with the wrong mix of circumstance and necessity, it could happen to anyone.

I’m far from being the “compleat” survivalist outdoors person, but I do have several hundred trail miles in the most remote reaches of Yosemite, Kings Canyon and various national forests stretching from Truckee to Bishop. Most of those trail miles were solo. I also spent a couple of decades camping and day-hiking around the North Fork of the Yuba.

Looking back, all those hundreds of trail miles, marked out carefully on USCG&GS 15-minute series topographical maps, were safe. They were planned and prepared for months in advance. I carried equipment and supplies for almost any expected or unexpected occasion. For the planned portions of those trips, I knew at any given time what my options were if something went wrong.

Impromptu Hikes: In every case, it was the impromptu cross-country day hikes that could have proved to be the killer. Provisioned with shorts, a T-shirt, hiking boots, a small camera, a hunting knife, water bottle and waterproof matches, I regularly got myself into trouble, from which only I could get myself out. And this was the summertime.

Two incidents prove illustrative of the point I’m trying to develop. Although my rock-climbing training was very minimal, it was enough for most needs, and I was overconfident about my skills. In one incident, I free-climbed a small mountain near my tent-camp. The steep ascent involved a short “rock chimney” climb to get to the next ledge, and then a search for a way up the next twenty feet, and so forth. I realized I had no idea exactly how I got to the top, but when I did, I took some pictures of the Rae Lakes Basin that are posted on this site now.

The problem, of course, was getting back down. It was approaching sunset, and my side of the mountain was in deep shadow. I hadn’t counted on not being able to see details like texture and loose gravel. I had a lot left to do in camp before nightfall. With the better part of a thousand feet left to descend, I was beginning to feel a sense of urgency to end this day hike shortly. But, there were no rockfalls of “scree” that one could slide down to descend quickly (another foolish stunt).

Incident One. Season: summer. Weather: clear, mild. Elevation: less than 10,000 feet. Time of day: late afternoon. Location: Kings Canyon. Distance from camp: less than 1 mile.

On this shallow ledge that led nowhere either ahead or behind me, I peered down and saw another even smaller ledge, perhaps a man’s height below me. I’m not sure if it’s me or human nature, but the prospect of hanging from my ledge, face to the rocks, and dropping blindly a couple of feet or so, gives me the willies. I have to see where my feet are, and where they’re heading.

I began to see my choices were uncomfortably limited: either climb back up to the top and reassess the route down, or drop, facing outward, to the ledge below. I realized I’d boxed myself in with no out if the jump didn’t work. I also felt the beginning signs of panic. I started getting mild feelings of vertigo when I looked up. And, I have a bad left ankle.

Desperation is a horribly crippling hiking companion. The compulsion is overwhelming to avoid any further wasted time. The tired body wants to salvage a solution using the energy expended so far, and, worst of all is the compulsion to just press on with the plan at hand, no matter what. I jumped.

You know how you wobble when you land, and struggle to keep your balance? Obviously, I didn’t plunge off into free-fall, or I wouldn’t be here writing this. I made it back to camp after dark, still scared, exhausted, and ashamed of myself. Basically, I took a 50%-50% chance with my life. Looking back, my situation was not truly desparate, and I had no family waiting to be rescued. I could have turned back, managed my vertigo, and come up with a safer plan. But I allowed myself to become committed to an unsafe plan.

Incident Two. Season: summer. Weather: clear, mild. Elevation: less than 8,000 feet. Time of day: late afternoon. Location: Kings Canyon. Distance from camp: less than 1 mile.

This is the most embarrassing one, and didn’t get told often. It also happened in King’s Canyon. I got lost answering a call of nature.

After staking out my camp near the trail at about the 8000′ mark, still a day out (14 miles) from the parking lot, I left my stuff, grabbed the ziplock with the toilet paper roll out of the backpack, and headed down the hill a ways to find a suitable “spot”. No spot being found, I traversed to my left and down, until the rounded dome of mountain forest began to get steep. The walk (with no backpack) was invigorating, and it offered an occasional glimpse of the great vista of the valley below, and most of the long hike to the car tomorrow. When my “mission” was complete, I looked uphill, but all I could see was trees. So, I began trudging uphill. Hey, I was only five minutes from camp. How far off could I be?

Navigation: I knew camp was uphill. I also know that downhill distances are hard to judge when headed back uphill. I reasoned that if I headed more or less straight uphill, I should cross the park trail. I might come out a little downhill of camp, but this plan would work.

Fifteen minutes later, I had not hit the trail. Nothing looked familiar, but you couldn’t see anything uphill anway due to the forest looming above. Wouldn’t it be funny if I was lost, ha ha? Ten minutes later, it wasn’t funny. I knew I should have hit the trail by now.

It was getting late, and all my stuff was sitting unattended and could probably be spotted by a sharp-eyed observer from the trail. The old sense of urgency started kicking in. I knew that is the last step before panic. I should have found the trail long ago.

I knew better than to traverse left or right any more, for I finally saw what had happened to me. I had descended down the side of a dome, a vast inverted bowl. With the trees to obscure landmarks and navigation by visual recognition, “down” could mean any path from perhaps north-northwest to southwest or south-southwest. They all looked the same. “Up” could, it turned out, be practically anywhere! I was disoriented, and finally realized it.

I stuck to my reasoned conviction that “up” had to intersect the trail somewhere. In another five minutes I was on the trail. Next question: Was I above camp, or below it? Knowing that I had initially set off to the left (counter-clockwise), and that a diagonal descent is easier on the knees, I opted to hike back uphill.

I knew I’d have no way of knowing when I’d gone “too far”, meaning that the right answer must really be in the opposite direction. I did have the sense to mark the trail at the point where I re-joined it, with, I think, a streamer of toilet paper on a branch.

I and my ziplock of toilet paper arrived back at my camp, just before dark. I had already lost faith that I had made the right decision. It was about a twenty minute uphill hike on maintained trail, or, about one honest mile below where my five-minute hike had taken me.

Different orders of magnitude of seriousness: The circumstances under which I as a casual summer hiker got lost, or in trouble, were as completely different from James Kim’s urgent quest as night and day, and I certainly don’t intend to compare the two. Kim planned his hike in the car with his wife. I didn’t even plan mine or examine the risks. If I had been out alone, without gear in freezing weather for almost a week, does anyone reading this seriously think I might have survived either of those two incidents of mine?

Nature is an opportunistic killer. Even when nature is relatively benign, fear, exhaustion and confusion can kill. In my case, I had no backup plan. Since the day-hikes were unplanned in the first place, I had not even given serious consideration of the risks involved. My “ziplock hike” might have happened to anyone not paying proper attention to the environment, but my rock-climb was absolutely inexcusable.

I share my experiences here only to show, in a way I can relate from personal experience, how what seems like a simple and direct plan of action can fall apart so quickly and completely.

What the heroic Mr. Kim endured goes beyond the pale of my imagination or experience. I can only express my disappointment and regrets that it ended so unhappily.

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Rain, Rain du jour

The weather is the topic of the day. California weather is setting records for most number of rainy days in, say, March. Last I heard, it was up to 24 days of rain out of 31. And it’s rained every day since. We don’t have the Severe Weather Threat found in the Midwest forecast (large hail and tornado damage). The perpetually gloomy 10-day forcast here follows, and thanks ever so much to weather.com for bringing this to your doorstep:

Showers, Rain, AM Showers, Rain, Few Showers, Rain, Partly Cloudy, Cloudy, Showers and Partly Cloudy.

The weatherman can probably expound for hours on the exact shades of meaning behind “rain” and “showers”. If ordinary English is underlying the meteorological meaning, I know that “showers” implies “sporadic”, where (by contrast) “rain” implies a more or less continuous downpour.

It never rains forty days and forty nights here, as I hear they claim it does in Seattle. So, in the Bay Area, I think they just interchange “rain” and “showers” to make us think the weather is going to have some sort of variability that the average person is remotely likely to ever detect.

Naturally, if you can forecast “Rain” (Fri Mar 31), it sounds like you have really refined the art if you can say “AM Showers” (Sat Apr 1) follow. Now, on Sunday April 2 the forecast jumps back to “Rain”.

What I want to know is, what happens in the afternoon between “AM Showers” and “Rain”? Do we get “PM Showers”, or does it just start raining steadily after the AM Showers taper off? Do they really know, or are they just saying that to make us feel good?

This is the sort of stuff that drives amateur astronomers indoors to their keyboards and cloudynights.com.

In the spirit of “truth in advertising” (the weather page being sponsored by The Weather Channel), I propose they re-phrase the entire 10-day forecast to read:


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“Abuse A Reaction to Looting”

Osnabruck, Germany (New York Times correspondent Richard Bernstein): according to their commanding officer, the three British Soldiers accused of abusing Iraqi civilians near Basra were acting “out of an effort to stop persistent looting of relief supplies”.

Shades of Abu Ghraib? In all of the scandal arising out of that gradual news discolosure and investigation, in which the conduct of US soliders was brought to light, I don’t recall hearing an excuse that pretended that the abuse was somehow justifiable or acceptable.

The excuse that abuse of the rules of acceptable human conduct can be tolerated when the victim “deserved it” needs to be understood very clearly for what it is.

This is the lie offered in justification of the Holocaust. “They had it coming” is the lie that pretends to excuse almost every mass murder and “ethnic cleansing” since the dawn of history. Underlying the lie, is the presumption that individual leaders, or even footsoldiers, are qualified to make such sweeping judgements on their own, outside of due process and the courtroom.

Observers of the domestic abuse scene will already have noted this is the self-justification of the abuser in chronic domestic abuse cases. It’s not a coincidence. In case after case, investigations reveal that the perpetrator had elaborate alibis for beatings and abuse over long periods of time. “She knows when she does that, I get angry. It’s her fault.”

And yet many Americans buy into even this, to some extent. The use of extralegal violence to “teach people a lesson” is still popular and even adulated in the media as a substitute for civil conduct and working within the system.

Even this falls apart when the victim himself or herself sanctions the abuse (which was NOT the case with the Iraqi victims). If we read the victims’ statement, “He’s really a very good man. He wouldn’t have beat me if I’d had my hair done properly”, everyone can see not only that this co-dependency is wrong, but that beating itself is way over the line.

So let’s hear no rationalizations about how our soldiers are put in a tough spot and occasional excesses are regrettable when they get pilloried by the media. The lesson civil and military leaders are trying to put out, probably in vain, is that we are all accountable for our actions as individuals, wartime or not. Don’t go blaming your victim when you break the law.

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Vanguard Economic Week in Review

Vanguard Economic Week in Review

This week’s economic reports painted a picture of generally robust
expansion in the U.S. economy. Analysts are setting their sights on
next Tuesday’s meeting of the Federal Reserve Board’s Open Market
Committee (FOMC), which should provide insight into the committee’s
response to recent signs of inflationary pressures.

OK, Let’s see if I’ve got this right, then. The next step: we wait for a meeting for an insight into a response.

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Getting Over It

We caught a TV sound bite last night from Senator John McCain. Topic: Vietnam. Message: “Get over it”.

McCain’s quote was tough to find via Google. Relevant links were paraphrased and densely interspersed with commentary. We found it in the Arizona Republic:

“I believe Bush served honorably. I believe Kerry served honorably. Let’s get over it, stop it now,” the Arizona Republican said. “We should be fighting this war [Iraq], not fighting the one that ended over 30 years ago.”

And now, stay tuned for commentary. “Get over it?” John, if we didn’t figure out Vietnam issues 30 years ago, what makes you think we get to say we have a handle on them this time around?

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Vanguard Economic Week in Review

“The biggest surprise of the week was the Commerce Department’s report
on new orders for manufactured durable goods–long-lasting products
that include a broad range of items such as farm machinery and personal
computers …”

At last: somebody finally bought something!

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