Friday, February 28, 2014

Polar vortex purchase

I called them The Five Egret-Men of the Ice-pocalypse:
Centerpointe Drive at West Walker during the most recent onslaught of this year's polar vortex phenomenon (which is also known as the "Early 2014 North American cold wave" or "Arctic outbreak", as if it were a form of meteorological acne).  Hunkering down and shivering, they were dropping their self-protective pretenses as they came closer than usual, closer to people and houses in search of food.  This pic was taken with an ordinary cell phone - not a telephoto lens.  
If you are in search of a souvenir of this winter's weather, this is one of your more attractive choices at the bargain price of, well, free to the public:
It's NASA's thermal composite image showing the intrusion of frigid air into lower latitudes.  It would suck to be in St. Louis right about then, eh?  
Given the severity of the circumstances, my husband and I opted for a more opulent offering, however.
After housing nothing but a couple of casual candles for four years, we finally filled our fireplace with gas logs.  
Is it cold outside?  Are you sick and tired of it?  Will a scene like this in your living room improve your mood?

The answer to all three questions is a resounding YES.  
Like every other house in Centerpointe, our builder-grade fireplace is what I call a "gas-assist".  It has a gas line running to it such that you can either put "fake" gas logs or burn "real" wood - you get a choice as to how to use it.  After going back and forth in my mind, I opted for gas logs.  The only time we ever want a fire in the subtropics is when we are desperate for one.  I decided that I don't want to be fussing around with wood procurement and storage logistics and cindery mess when I reach that point - I just want to come home and flip a switch.  If I want a real fire, I'll put one in the chimenea that we keep outdoors.
I didn't know this at the time when we ordered our gas logs from an internet retailer, but I didn't actually have a choice in the matter.  Our winter has been so severe that there's basically no real wood left to be bought locally, and there might not be for some time to come.

Let me guess
:  You have noticed and driven by this store on East Main Street umpteen million times but never stopped, right?  Such was the case with me until last week when I dropped in to buy a fireplace gas valve key (our builder never supplied one) and chat up the proprietor.  He basically had almost no wood left for sale, and was even concerned about his ability to procure enough in time for the next season of high demand.  He told me a "never seen anything like this" story of shoppers snapping up firewood.

Image screengrabbed from Google ground view.  
My husband was mortified that I chose this "Mountain Birch" style of gas log instead of the familiar (and way-over-done) oak.  He said, "We don't have birch in Houston - it's going to look out of place."  I replied, "We don't usually have Arctic air masses persisting for months on end, either.  If you squint your eyeballs, you can pretend that it's sycamore."  :-)
I had a specific design purpose in choosing white logs.  In this post from about a year ago, I described how we initially invested a whopping $180 to make our fireplace look just a bit better than builder grade. In accessorizing the result, I used a stark contrast between the paint and the white photo mats above and beside.  I needed white logs below to coordinate and counterbalance all those mats.    
Notice how the new gas logs also complete both rule of diagonals and rule of thirds visual effects here.
There are three clusters of white-containing objects which visually "pop" out of the scene...
...and furthermore, your eye follows diagonal pathways when roving from one popping cluster to the next.  
That's helpful because even the best fireplaces are usually artistic atrocities in that they are dominated by both horizontal lines and bisection, both of which are displeasing to the eye.

And what better way to memorialize this meteorological manifesto than with a meme!  (My husband hates it when I use cheap literary parlor tricks like all-consuming alliteration - he thinks the practice is beneath me.  Sorry, sweetie.)   Happy weekend, and yes, this winter has to end soon.  Finally.
This masterful meme was melded by Mermaid Musings, a Facebook community, although there are many similar offerings floating (skidding?) around the internet right about now.  

Monday, February 24, 2014

RE-UPDATED: New and different FIOS issues in League City TX

February 26, 2014:  The post below describes the apparent failure of a Verizon FIOS "backbone server" called ALTER.NET, a problem that Verizon's CSRs report is currently affecting subscribers all over America.  The resulting outage is not limited to Galveston County or the upper Texas coast.

No information is reported to be available on when this will be corrected.  Performance issues attributable to had reportedly been experienced by some FIOS users for about a year prior to this current incident, the impacts of which are detailed in the post below.

March 24, 2014:  We are still having intermittent failures within the FIOS network, enough to bring the normal flow of my work to a complete halt because of internet inaccessibility (I work largely from home).  The failures originate with ALTER.NET and VERIZON-GNI.NET.

April 4. 2014:  I still have an open service ticket on this problem.  I'm at the point now where I'm trying to get Verizon to tell me *exactly* what it's doing to rectify it.  I did learn yesterday that Verizon automatically closes service tickets unless they hear back from a customer within a set period of time (I forgot to ask what those limits are).  They closed my March 24 ticket after taking no action for that reason (I don't recall a contact attempt, but I lead a busy life so maybe I missed it).

July 20, 2014:  Not only do the problems continue, it now seems to be increasingly difficult to obtain partial refunds from Verizon for service not rendered.  See this post.


Original post:

I alerted on January 23, 2014 about FIOS speeds falling to intolerable lows.
This was a typical result from last month.  I was paying for ten times this amount of download capacity.  
A month later, the speed issue appears largely fixed, but now it seems we have a new and different problem involving time-outs of certain website calls but not others.  Some websites I can load reliably, others not at all, even though I can see from my cell phone that those same websites are fully functional.

I don't know how many local customers are impacted, so I'm posting this just in case there are others in my area for whom this info might be useful.  It took me an hour on the phone with Verizon to get to the bottom of this latest problem, so if you are affected, I'd like to save you from having to reinvent this wheel.

The effects are bizarre - for instance, I can load the homepage of Galveston County Daily News, but numerous of the sub-pages hang and time out.  When I dial into the FIOS helpline, one of the first questions asked is, "Do you have the ability to connect to the internet?"  That's usually an I/O question, but not in this case.  It's hit or miss.

My technical skills are not very advanced, but a FIOS technician walked me through the use of the Tracert command to find out what was wrong.
It means "trace route".  Explanation screengrabbed from Google.  I'd add more links to this post but my access to the internet is severely restricted at this point.  
The process goes like this.
  1. You use CMD in the main search box for Windows and it brings up a DOS box.  
  2. Then you can enter the tracert command followed by the name of the website that refuses to load.  Here's an example of the results.

Here's the basic identification of the hops for a site that I cannot access, as those hops were related by the FIOS technician (this may not be completely accurate but you should get the idea).  With respect to the numbers in the left-hand column:
1 is my internal network
2 is the equipment installed in my house by Verizon
3 is the line terminal in my street
4 is the fiber terminal in an office located in my city - essentially, their router before the signal goes out to the open internet
5 is the first external location through which Verizon's signal is routed
6 -11 are additional external routing nodes before it finally gets to the site I originally wanted to access
You can see a 103 millisecond result in Step 5.  That tells Verizon that there's a serious problem with this part of the transmission process because it should be much faster than that.  With those kinds of speeds, nothing will load because it will time out before it has a chance to do so.

Compare that DOS screengrab above with this one, which is for one of the websites that I can access:
No such huge millisecond number appears anywhere.  
Verizon can't fix this kind of problem quickly.  After spending an hour with them on the phone, they told me that they basically had to set their technician to tracking down this mysterious bottleneck in order to figure out what's going on.  Various Whois queries placed the offending interim ISP (which is called variably in New York state or (gulp) Beijing, China.  I only get access to half the internet while Verizon's internal investigation drags on.

Anyway, just another day in consumer paradise.  If you have a hang problem, you can try that method above to see if that's the source of the issue, or simply call your Verizon FIOS rep. Good luck and remember that every service failure warrants a corresponding offset on your bill (in my opinion, anyway).

Update February 25, 2014:  I'm including this additional example for Verizon's reference because the CSR I worked with yesterday told me that, for security purposes, they don't have the ability to receive emails.  So they can look at this on the internet instead.

Additionally, I am noting for the record that there are also multiple other references to Verizon's problems with on the internet (e.g., here and here), including this one from Verizon's own FIOS forum which I will reproduce below because content like this tends to disappear from the internet and I want future searchers to be able to see this for reference.

When I called the FIOS help line yesterday, their own CSR knew nothing about this existing issue with, an issue that has reportedly persisted for close to a year now.  I do believe from the CSR's demeanor that he was truthful about that.  When he saw how my trace was progressing, he was extremely surprised.  What this suggests to me is that Verizon is not even informing its own CSRs about known existing problems.  What is the sense in that??  Not only does the resulting inefficiency waste my time, it also wastes the time of their own employees.

This forum poster's speculation about Verizon's use of to throttle bandwidth is provocative.  It's pure speculation, but look at that same question within the context of what's happening to at least some of us FIOS subscribers in League City Texas:  We had shockingly bad problems with download speeds last month, as evidenced by my screengrab at the top of this post.  My FIOS service was running at 5 Mbps; for comparison, my cellular modem this morning runs at 11 Mbps (I just checked it).  FIOS was only half the speed of a cellular modem, if you can imagine that.  And then after weeks and weeks of screwing around with no results, Verizon solved our speed issue - but immediately after they did, this problem began to manifest in its place.

So this begs the obvious question:  Was the use of the method by which Verizon solved or partially solved its bandwidth problem in our area?  By routing some of us through a de facto throttling site?  We have no proof, but it sure is one hell of a coincidence, isn't it??

Anyway, here's a partial reproduction from the FIOS forum for future reference: issues continue for months - verizon doesn't care
I have had multiple reoccurring issues with Fios and here in NYC for the past 6 months. Upon searching the web I see it's a reported problem by other users. I have 150/65 and going to multiple sites that pass traffic through alter can be extremely slow.
Talked with Verizon and they won't do anything about it. They will ask you to run a speed test through the Verizon Fios site. Of course everything checks out fine since it is one hop directly to their servers. They will say that anything else is third party and won't help.
My suspicion, though I have no facts to back it up, is they know about it but perhaps use it as a way of limiting your bandwidth. Primarily this happens on the weekends and from 11am to 1am week days. Anything that doesn't route through works at full speed.
Perhaps it is also that other ISP's pay for only a limited amount of bandwidth which jams up the highway.
I don't have enough technical knowledge to know but my traceroutes show the problem clearly.
For those users thinking about switching to Fios you should do traceroutes to the sites you most often use. If they hop through…. find another provider…….or stay where you are if it works well……

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Al Jazeera America rising, and what it means

About ten years ago, this was one of the most popular witticisms in America (variably attributed to Chris Rock or Charles Barkley):

You know that the world is off tilt when the best rapper is a white guy, the best golfer is a black guy, the tallest basketball player is Chinese, and Germany doesn't want to go to war.
They may have built upon each other over time with slightly different versions.  Screengrabbed from Google image search.  
I propose a 2014 update as follows:

You know that the world is changing when the best rapper is still a white guy, the best golfer is still a black guy, Germany still doesn't want to go to war, and the best domestic American news coverage is produced by Qatar under their governing system of absolute monarchy.
Al Jazeera America, aka AJAM (which is an interesting acronym given that it means "non-Arab" in Arabic), low-res logo screengrabbed from their website.  
Yes, you heard me correctly.  But rather than explaining my conclusion in this regard, given that I'm in a groove of quoting others here, I am honored to include one of my Facebook buddies, who recently beat me to the punch line in describing the circumstances that led to this result which is indeed bizarre by any historical precedent:

Our mainstream media has become a set of echo chambers tailored to their pre-polarized audience sets. They have a degraded purpose of passing off politicized opinions as news/analysis. Some are blatantly extreme in their bias like FOX/MSNBC, and others mask it a tad bit better.

I found Al Jazeera to be the best source of news in our wretched system of journalism. They also cover news outside our borders much better. Try it! Locally [in League City Texas], [DirecTV carries it on channel 347]. In case your cable provider doesn't cover it, their website offers a no-frills portal to topically organized content.

Is there anybody out there who would disagree with those precipitating conditions and, if so, why?!  That pretty much nails it in my opinion as well.  My buddy is not the first person to refer to domestically-produced news content using the term "echo chamber" (in fact there's even a book by that title), and he won't be the last.  What we see on TV is not news anymore - most of the content (what little exists) is nothing more than a carrier wave for propaganda.
The various echo chambers love to hurl echo chamber accusations at each other:
"YOU are the worse echo chamber!"
"No, YOU are the worst echo chamber!"

Screengrabbed from Google..
I actually found AJAM during a marathon channel surf a few weeks ago.  Every once in a while I have a full-blown attack of buyer's remorse because I'm paying big bucks for three million TV channels while all I watch is HGTV and TNG re-runs on Netflix (which, in case you were wondering, is currently running into bandwidth hell for this reason).  
Well, that's not exactly true.  I do also watch The Walking Dead, which probably means that I will be held financial hostage by DirecTV for the duration.  Meme screengrabbed from this source, which probably got it from somewhere else.  
So when I get those attacks of buyer's remorse, I go on a big hour-long surf just so I can look at what else is out there and reassure myself that it all still sucks, and I'm not missing anything.  

Except I paused on AJAM because it didn't seem to suck that badly.  

And then I was encouraged to watch further because I noticed that they only spend about 10% of their time - just six minutes per hour - running commercials instead of the 36% consumed by the average American network (which makes live TV un-watchable for me... who would voluntarily waste 36% of their time, duh?!).

But then I realized... could it be true?!  OMG, was I dreaming, or was I seeing ACTUAL INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALISM?!  

It's true.  I felt like I was suddenly transported back to 1980 and I was watching the CBC all over again, the way it was back then (not the way it is now).  I thought that kind of journalism was gone forever.  But apparently it is rising like a Phoenix from an unlikely bed of foreign ashes.

This situation begs two questions:
  1. Why is this happening?
  2. How long will it last?
With respect to those questions, my Facebook buddy lamented as follows:

Given the primary [American TV viewing] audience profile that mostly wants sound bites that reinforce their biases, I can see [AJAM] not surviving too long.

His point is valid - how could AJAM possibly support its obviously-massive infrastructure with only six minutes of adverts per hour as it comes up against the fact that Americans have been largely brainwashed to expect feel-goody personal validation as their primary news hour deliverable??  But I myself am not so sure that it will prove to be as simple as AJAM dying a quick and largely unnoticed near-future death.  I replied,

First of all, the normal business rules of cash flow and profitability don’t apply when we’re talking about anything having to do with the Arab world. Second of all, [my husband] suspects that they’re establishing themselves as ethically unassailable with their American reporting specifically because they wish to command a corresponding presumption of objectivity when reporting on the Middle East. If that’s the motivation, then they may be willing to fund an American financial black hole in perpetuity or something close to it.

Time will tell how this thing evolves.  Will the effort last?  Will AJAM manage to thoroughly embarrass and shame the front-running American networks into reverting to higher journalistic standards??  In effect, will it save Americans from their egotistical echo-y selves??  We await the answers.  Meanwhile, we can sit back and enjoy the show - the news show in which AJAM is hands-down beating us at what had previously been our exclusive journalistic game.   

Friday, February 21, 2014

Your municipal tax dollars at work, and an idea

Tens of thousands of your municipal tax dollars are being paid to help bring a man to League City who has referred to a mixed-race person as a "mongrel".  

Screengrabbed from a New York Times article titled "Candidate for Texas Governor Stands By Outspoken Musician". Usually a headwaters of liberal expression, the NYT was surprisingly, almost inexplicably, reserved in this piece.  "Outspoken"?  Are you kidding me?!  This man used a derogatory term to refer to a person's race.  In my books, that is not "outspokenness" - that is racism.  
To do a reality check on what we are dealing with here, let's evaluate that term "mongrel", shall we?
From Merriam Webster online.  
A quick etymological review confirms that "mongrel" has never been applied as an objective descriptor at any point during its use in the English language.  It's a pejorative term intended to convey a declaration of genetic inferiority deriving from breed mixture as opposed to breed purity, which is considered superior.  In Nugent's application, it has every appearance of being a declaration of genetic inferiority deriving from racial mixture.  Once again, that is racist as I define racist.

Screengrabbed from Google (emphasis mine).    
Because of the nature of some of the people who will be reading this post and my expectation that they won't be familiar with constructs such as etymology, I find it necessary to include every applicable reference for clarity.  Here is the definition of pejorative, screengrabbed from Google.  To denigrate someone is to "treat or represent as lacking in value".  When you associate that act of denigration with a person's racial make-up, you're basically saying that they lack value by virtue of the racial make-up to which you are referring.  Which, again, in my books is racism.

Am I making my point about my opinion on this one??
So this is what your tax dollars are doing for you and for League City - bringing the likes of this man into our midst under the guise of "promotion".

And as the public objection to Nugent's "outspokenness" continues to build, with Governor Perry issuing a long-overdue censure yesterday, I can predict the kind of statement that League City's City Council might issue in its own defense.  So let me preempt that particular PR strategy:  

"Oh, well, we did that deal with the hotel occupancy tax back in December.  Nugent didn't call Obama a mongrel until January.  We were unaware that Nugent is this extreme."

Uh, Council. guess what??  You are a tangible part of what is helping to create this monster.  You knew he was "outspoken" in very questionable ways before you shoved a bucket of our money at him and his fronting organization.  When you do things like that with a person of this type, you further validate him in his own eyes.  And the more he gets validated, the more "outspoken" he becomes.  Hello!!  Rather than being able to claim an innocence defense, you are one of the government entities who is helping to further embolden this guy, duh.    
Political denigration is bad manners, but it's fair game.  Ideological denigration is fair game.  But denigration that invokes a person's race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, disability status, or any other involuntary and unchangeable facet of their being is off limits.

Highly unflattering and propagandizing - but nevertheless publicly acceptable - Obama meme from an unknown source.   

So what should be done in response to this Nugent situation as it affects us here in League City?

I suggest a peaceful public protest be organized for April 12, 2014, which is the date of his concert in League City.  A nonviolent demonstration involving a bunch of mixed-race people holding signs that read "I am not a mongrel".  Equally importantly, the loved ones of those people participating by holding signs that read "I am not the friend of a mongrel" or "I am not the co-worker of a mongrel" or "I am not the cousin of a mongrel".  In my case, I would need to hold a sign reading "I am not the mother of a mongrel".  

And what could Nugent's response to such a public gathering possibly be??  Could he step out in front a protest like that and say "Oh, when I called Obama a mongrel, I didn't mean to suggest that every mixed-race person is a mongrel"?  Sorry - that just would not ring true.  It simply wouldn't be convincing.  That would not be much different from someone saying, "When I called so-and-so an N-word, I didn't mean to suggest that every black person is an N-word."  Yeah, right.  

Think about it.

Collage from Google image search for the term "mixed-race people".  Each and every one of them is a beautiful and unique person in their own right, with not a single mongrel among them.  The little Cheerios girl in particular is my personal hero.  She's awesome.  

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The taming of the shranole

Here's a sight you don't see every day.
It started with this anole trapped in a garden bucket.  My dog attempted to eat him.  I rescued him from the dog, and then did what any decent gardener would do:  I took him on tour around the neighborhood so I could show him off to the kids.  

See, normally you can't pick up an anole - they are as fast as lightning and if you try to grab one, you're just as likely to fatally injure it as anything, because they will stop at nothing to escape.  But the unique circumstances of yesterday evening led to a different reaction from the anole.  
 It's all a question of relativity.  Once I had him in my hand, his priority became aiming those independently-swiveling eyeballs toward the ground so that he could keep a fix on the dog.  He correctly deduced that the hand, however dangerous it might be in its own right, was simply his better option.

But then something happened.
You'll notice that he's in his bright green phase in these pictures (he was the deepest, most vivid shade of terrified charcoal brown when I first picked him up).  That's because he's totally relaxed.  Here, I think he was attempting to chat with me.  
Reptiles in general are fast learners.  Once they determine that a novel situation is not dangerous to them, they tend to become disinclined to vacate that situation.  I've noticed this with snakes (although I would never be so dumb as to handle a poisonous one).   They may start their interaction with you fighting for their perceived lives, but once you make friends with them, they don't necessarily want to leave.
And that's what happened in this case.  After about 30 minutes of hand habituation, he strongly resisted all attempts to release him back into the wild.  Here I was attempting to set him back into the garden, but he wasn't having any of it.  What better new territory to claim than a willing human?  After all, we do attract yummy flies in abundance.  
From the picture above, he ran up my arm, hopped onto the top of my head, and then took up residence on my shoulder.  I had to get my husband to help me get him safely off and back where he belongs.

Another day in suburban paradise.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

What's wrong with this CNN picture?

With the recent death of a famous American actor from an assumed heroin overdose, commercial news media, including local outlets, are replete with a reinvigorated focus on drug addiction, its consequences, and the enforcement efforts that we as a society are making to curb it.
Look familiar??  That's League City's half-built Public Safety Building in the background, a half a mile from us.  This is a screengrab from a recent Channel 13 piece that showcases the ongoing training of League City's newest drug-fighting K9.  That black blur you see in the mid-ground is another pooch practicing his pounce.  LCPD reportedly now has three drug doggies.

Screengrab courtesy of KTRK-TV.  
The problem with many of these news media offerings, in my opinion, is that they are formulaic and misleading, thereby doing a profound disservice to the public in helping to perpetuate a variety of addiction-related myths.

The most egregious case I've encountered thus far comes from CNN, in this story titled "One snapshot in a tragic national picture:  Long Island sees exploding heroin use".  This piece framed the issue in the same old tired sensationalist terms:  There are narcotic-peddling wolves in our midst, and they are zooming down a freeway near us, targeting our innocent and unsuspecting children.  Where they strike next, nobody knows, but you can bet that the results will be randomly tragic and wildly undeserved.  

No.  Someone needs to call bullsh*t on this nonsense, because that is not the typical mechanism by which kids get sucked into drug use.  And if people don't discard that kind of mass-consumption mythology and instead start coming to terms with the truth, they won't have a prayer of interceding effectively when (not if) drugs come knocking on their own family door.

I have to insert the usual disclaimers before I continue with my editorial.  I am not a psychological services professional.  I do not have any specialized education or training in the area of substance abuse.  But what I do possess is almost five decades of experience in actively opposing addiction-based lifestyles within certain branches of my own extended family, and in certain social and professional circles.

I'm also a mother who has recently had to deal with predators actively promoting drug and alcohol use to my own kid.  The same is true of every parent of an American teenager - if you have a teenager but you don't believe that your kid has been offered drugs and alcohol, then you are simply delusional.  And if your kid hasn't described either to you or to some other trusted and responsible adult when, where, what, and by whom those illegal substances were offered to them, then I strongly advise you to do whatever is necessary to build up enough security in your primary family relationships and friendships for that kind of intergenerational communication to happen.

In disclaimer sum, my history has left me with strong perceptions and opinions on the subject of substance abuse, which I will now proceed to express.  The opinions of others may differ.

I parsed the offending CNN article in the most practical and useful terms I could think of:  I analyzed it through the lens of my own child's prevailing perceptions of what might be wrong with it.

My child has a particularly vivid, visceral, and almost irrational need to see justice prevail (a characteristic that she might have inherited from her mother).  In shedding the innocence of childhood during her transition to adolescence, she began reacting negatively to a wide variety of social imperfections, including drug and alcohol abuse.  So I gave her a printed copy of that CNN article, I numbered each paragraph for ease of reference (there are 25), and provided the following instructions:
  1. Mark the warning signs that the parents in this story missed.  
  2. Flag the erroneous beliefs, assumptions, and harmful paradigms that most probably allowed [drug] addiction to flourish in some of these cases.  Physically mark and describe on these [printed] pages.  
If you have a teenager who is old enough to handle this kind of exercise, I invite you to do the same, because there could scarcely be a better learning experience.  Print out the article, and have them annotate it as best they currently can.  They could also read it online but I prefer tangibility - if they print it out and write on it, that process will be more deeply symbolic of them taking ownership of the content and ideas (which is an example of the process of taking personal responsibility for something).  Writing over the top of someone else's statements is an act of physical domination, which also underscores the counter-message that your children do not, in fact, have to perceive of themselves as helpless and submissive potential targets of an impending tidal wave of Mexican heroin, as I believe this article insinuates.

Then, after they have done their best based on their current teenaged understanding of substance abuse, sit down and discuss their findings with them.  Teenagers, even the best-developed ones, won't be capable of spotting every red flag in this article, which is exactly what makes it such a valuable learning experience.  Some of the atrocities in the piece are easy to perceive, but some of them are much more subtle and derivative in nature, and thus will not be recognized except by people who have developed extensive addiction-related empirical wisdom.

I'm going to provide you with my own propaganda punch list to help you with the headwork.  I will tell you what I believe, which is not necessarily the same as what the majority of Americans believe (which, I contend, is exactly why addiction continues to play such a prominent and inconceivably expensive role in our society).  You might not agree with everything I describe here.  Some of it might take you aback or make you offended.  You can decide which of these viewpoints below you wish to consider and/or offer to your own teen.

Scope of the issue as stated by the article:  "Heroin use has exploded in what is being described as an epidemic...".  

A layperson's grasp of the word "epidemic" is along the lines of the typhoid outbreak that killed one third of the population of Athens Greece, or, closer to home, one of those miserable intervals in which fully one quarter of the kids in a public school classroom are simultaneously out sick with the flu (as happened when my daughter was in Grade 4).  We went to a wedding a few years back where 50% of the guests came down with norovirus - now that was an epidemic, let me tell you (and yes - every member of my family ended up on the unlucky side of that statistic).

In profound contrast to those examples of epidemics, only about 1.6% of Americans have ever tried heroin in their entire lives.  In their entire lives!!!  Sure, there are isolated enclaves where usage is higher than that, but to describe the present situation as an "epidemic" is irresponsible at best, and unconscionable at worst.  Perception is the most pernicious part of peer pressure, and what statements like that do is leave young people under the impression that a whole bunch of people are doing heroin.  CNN implied this, so it must be true, right?  And when naive young people think that "everybody" is doing something, they will be more inclined to try it themselves.
And don't believe everything you read on the friggin' internet either, even if it comes from a source that's supposed to be reputable.  
Overall tone of the article:  "Several factors have contributed to this "perfect storm" of addiction according to experts -- among them, proximity to major airports and transportation centers..."  with an expound provided by Paragraph 17:  "Many [who begin using heroin] are cheerleaders, athletes and straight-A students from loving homes."  

In a one-two perceptual punch, as well as being unconscionably misleading as to basic American heroin use statistics, I find this article to be sensationalistic, superficial, and fear-mongering because it insinuates that the primary drug addiction threat is primarily attributable to an exquisitely-efficient trafficking infrastructure which preys upon otherwise functional individuals.

In actual fact, a large percentage of the young people who adopt a drug-using lifestyle do not do so because they are pretty and popular blonde kids randomly seduced by a "perfect storm" of circumstances.  They do so because they are taught those behaviors within their own families.
It's very difficult for young people to "just say no" when their own families are saying "yes".  Many of those families try to impose the "do as I say - not as I do" directive.  But a parental message of hypocrisy is almost always worse than no parental message at all.  
 Sure, there are some kids who, because of conspiracy of circumstances and immaturity, start associating with the proverbial "wrong crowd" and get introduced to an addiction lifestyle through that route instead.  But I believe that they are a distinct minority.  There are no hard statistics on this that I know of because it is so difficult to measure, but my estimate from personal experience is that at least two thirds of young people who embrace addiction do so because, as a lifestyle, it is methodically handed down from generation to generation within their own families.  Usually the addictive substance of choice is not something flashy like heroin - it's usually alcohol, given that about 15% of American have a problem with the drink.  But in other cases, the culprit behavior can instead be another drug or non-drug addictions such as workaholism, sex addictionspendaholism, or religion addiction.  The end lifestyle result is the same regardless of the addictive substance.  Only the details differ.

This is an important point because, until the true source of any given difficulty is identified and acknowledged, there is zero chance that it can be overcome.  People who point accusing fingers at Mexican and Colombian drug lords as the ultimate source of their problems are bullsh*tting themselves and everyone else, and won't be capable of helping themselves until they adopt a framework of personal responsibility through which they can come to terms with the truth.

In expanding upon this primary family-related (as opposed to drug-lord-related) focus, I'll show you red flags in the sections below and you'll see a consistent theme emerge.  I don't claim to have any intimate knowledge about the specific individuals showcased in the CNN article.  I'm using them here as stand-in representatives for what I have most commonly seen in a variety of addicted (usually alcoholic) families.  In other words, I'm "profiling" here because the practice is useful as a starting point in comprehending larger trends, not because I intend to be accusatory toward any given individual. The resulting interpretations may not apply in those individual cases, but they are instructive of larger overall addiction realities regardless.

Paragraph # 2:   "I was stealing money from my parents, I was doing illegal actions with my friends..." 

Most people, including teens, will be able to spot this one because it is the obvious freebie, the low-hanging bullsh*t detection fruit in the article.  Most commonly, parents who don't register significant amounts of money missing from their own wallets and the general existential impacts of five bags of heroin per day on their kid are:
  1. Not in possession of basic information about drugs (most adult Americans cannot legitimately claim this as information about drug addiction is readily available in our society and is taught in most public schools)
  2. Mentally, emotionally, and/or physically absent from their child's life
  3. In denial, a dangerously maladaptive, personal responsibility-abdicating state of mind which may include full-blown enabling of their child's addiction
  4. Engrossed in an addiction lifestyle themselves, which prompts them to interpret their child's similar behavior as normal, or
  5. Some combination of the above
In a minority of specific situations, there could be other more innocent explanations, such as, perhaps a parent was battling cancer and simply couldn't be there when their child needed them.  Conversely, some addicted children have genuine un-diagnosed mental illnesses that render them beyond the reach of even the best parenting.  But extenuating circumstances such as those are the exceptions, not the rules.  Most of the time, a child's addiction is a reflection of what's going on within his own family.  Specifically, it's a reflection of the family's prevailing world view, which we'll talk about next.

Paragraph 5:  "There's a primary focus on youths taking responsibility for their own behavior."

If your teenager doesn't pick up on this red flag, try using this question as a prompt:  Can you think of a reason why it might it be necessary to isolate a young person in rehab and spend a solid year teaching him to take responsibility?

Answer:  Assuming that child has no neurological impairment, the most likely reason why that's necessary is that he was not taught to take responsibility at home.

And therein lies the number one hallmark characteristic of addicted individuals and families: A general refusal to take personal responsibility.  If you look closely, you can see this idea manifest again and again in the CNN article and in my analysis of it.

Paragraph 19:  "Heroin?  My son?  Never.  How did I not see that?"

Most likely it was denial.  My teenager picked up on this red flag with ease.

Paragraph 20:  "[The named parent] says stigma is keeping families from seeking help.  "Our children are just like every other mother or father's child and they're not junkies.  And that term needs to change.""

That one skinny paragraph is so fat with addiction world view that I almost don't know where to start.  I fully believe that I could literally write a second Master's thesis on just those three sentences even though my formal education is within the natural sciences rather than the psychological sciences.  For brevity, let me just hit a few of the highlights:

  1. 'Stigma' does not keep addicted families from seeking help.  False pride, otherwise known as vanity, is sometimes what keeps addicted families from seeking help and was perhaps the phenomenon that this speaker was referring to.  Vanity is that condition which compels us to put a higher priority on maintaining a good-looking lie than on being honest about a relatively common truth of experience (addiction).  Furthermore, normal healthy people in general society do not brand others with any kind of 'stigma' simply because those people sought mental health services (although shrewd people may do so if folks are obviously in need of such services but choose not to seek them).  
  2. "Our children are just like every other mother or father's child..."  No they are most certainly not, and to profess otherwise is to intensify the same denial that exacerbated the family's problem with addiction in the first place.
  3. Did you pick up on the pervasive "shoot the messenger" theme in that skinny paragraph?  Did it take you aback a little bit??  It should have, especially the attack in the last line, the attack that was directed at you and every other CNN reader.  When you saw that, did you think to yourself, "Whoa, whoa, whoa - who said anything about applying a derogatory term to drug-addicted youths?  Where did THAT come from?!"  Again, this is a manifestation of the fact that people in possession of an addiction world view are strongly disposed not to take personal responsibility for a wide variety of what goes on in their own lives.  One of the hallmark behaviors by which personal responsibility is abdicated is the practice of shooting the messenger: every time someone tries to tell them that their situation calls for personal responsibility, they reflexively reply with some variant of "It's not ME who has the problem - it's YOU" in order to deflect focus away from their functional issue.  In this example, the de facto messenger got shot before any message was even delivered - that's how prominent this practice is in the lives of those caught up in addiction.  Many addicted families will go to stunning lengths to avoid taking responsibility for addiction, enabling, and the various role-related behavioral problems that accompany that lifestyle.  God Himself in His infinite wisdom could come down from Heaven and in His most compassionate and loving voice, He could inform many an alcoholic family that they could enter the Kingdom of Heaven if only they would turn their efforts to resolving their addictions, and in response to this, many of those families would reply, "Who the hell are you to judge?!  Everyone knows that you are an imperfect God not worthy of trust.  We'd be fools to listen to anything you have to say."  A complete reflection of focus away from the situation on the table and toward a general effort to discredit the messenger is often the method by which personal responsibility is side-stepped (simple avoidance is another common choice).  

Paragraph 23:  "Being able to say that I have different ways that I can manage my emotions besides getting high, it makes me very happy and excited to go through my future."

My teenager initially missed this red flag, but immediately snapped to it when I issued a prompt analogous to that for Paragraph 5:  Can you think of a reason why this young man needed to learn to manage his emotions in rehab?"

Answer:  Most likely, it's because he didn't learn to do that within his own family home.

And why didn't he learn to do that while he was in his own family?

Because emotions are incredibly powerful, and making conscious and effective decisions about the ways in which you will manage your own emotions is pretty much the ultimate achievement in the realm of personal responsibility.  You have to focus on yourself (not messengers) to pull that off, and you have to take ownership of every external issue that affects you.  And for families characterized by addiction, that is their Achilles heel - they cannot and will not take that kind of responsibility.
I could go on, and on, and on with this analysis, but this post is long enough.  Again, my purpose here is not to criticize any specific individuals - my purpose is to call bullsh*t on the types of bad paradigms and misinformation that needlessly contribute to the loss of so many American lives to addiction.  The referenced CNN article describes numerous individuals who died of heroin overdoses.  In my view, we can best honor those souls not by engaging in mindless mass media mournography, but if we instead unblinkingly use the rich learning experiences provided by their examples to help other people avoid the same fate.  Especially teenagers, who are just entering the full flower of that stage of life in which they first learn to take responsibility for themselves.

Addiction is a lifestyle characterized by a maladaptive world view that revolves around blaming others and avoiding personal responsibility on a variety of existential levels.  The consumption of heroin, alcohol, and other substances is usually the very last step in the process of succumbing to that lifestyle - the use of substances is not the first step, and it's rarely the most consequential step.  Substance abuse is the tip of an existential iceberg - a symptom of something much more pervasive.  If we can be honest (brutally so if necessary) about what that triggering world view consists of, then there's hope for the people affected by it.

Have fun with your teenager.  Me, I'll sit here and wait for the messenger-shooting to begin.  But I don't mind being shot as the messenger, because I've had decades of time to get used to it.

Update February 17, 2014:
The morning after I posted this piece, the New York Times published "Addicted on Staten Island".  This is a paragraph screengrabbed from that article.  The NYT piece speculates, "the problems that have arisen on Staten Island would also seem to suggest a story about the stagnancy and the ailing fortunes of the working and middle classes."  Would you guess that this person described in the paragraph above became addicted in response to grief, depression or frustration arising out of a sense of economic stagnation?  Or could the fact that she spent ten years as a young child doing drug runs with her mother have had anything to do with it?

In so many of these cases, it comes from the families, not from the streets.    

Thursday, February 13, 2014


I am reminded of the line from the old Jesus Jones song "Right Here, Right Now":

A woman on the radio talked about revolution
when it's already passed her by.

There's an extraordinary young man from a little town 13 miles south of here and I believe he has already changed the world.

I think we've hit a tipping point with this one, even if we can't yet articulate exactly what it comprises.  But the signs are there.  There is a little gas baggery on the internet, but given the magnitude of what was represented by the young man's recent announcement, gas baggery is almost completely conspicuous by its absence.

Similarly, there are no negative or even neutral reader comments appended to any of the local news stories on his announcement - I keep checking and they haven't appeared, a development which flies in the face of our well-deserved reputation for hosting a large and vocal fraction of right-wing religious fundamentalists (I use that noun loosely).

Perhaps most tellingly, no critical or derogatory memes appear to have been spawned in response to this young man.  You have to remember that the vast internet community, with all of its wing-nut extremism, makes memes out of defenseless people disabled by conditions such as Downs Syndrome, for crying out loud.  The wing-nuts will stop at nothing to defile and ridicule every person and public interest story that makes the news.  But Michael Sam?  Not a single image out there.  It's as if the entire world is holding its collective breath, and holding its tongue, waiting to see what happens next.

But it has already happened.  Regardless of what becomes of Mr. Sam from this point forward, the thing - whatever it really is - has already passed us by.  We'll only be able to really understand it at some unknown future moment of 20/20 hindsight.

As we wait for that point on the time continuum to intersect with us, please consider devoting two of your minutes to contemplating this unusually powerful video below.  If you don't watch a single other commentary on the Michael Sam situation, watch this one. Good ol' WFAA knocked it way, way out of the park (yeah, I know - wrong sport, but you get the picture).  Here's the URL if you're reading this on mobile device, and the embed to follow.

Right here, right now
Watching the world wake up from history.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

More of the wrong kind of Clear Lake lore

About 30 minutes ago, I tweeted about seeing a news broadcasting truck at CCISD's Clear Path Alternative school, not knowing what it was.  Almost certainly, it was in conjunction with this sordid story about the recent murder of a Clear Lake teenager who had reportedly attended the school.  The story must be going (inter)national because there's a 404 error and I can't even link to Clear Path's website at this point (URL perhaps overloaded).

More sick (but thankfully rare) stuff to be sensationalized and flogged in the popular media.  Wonderful news on yet another dreary abnormally cold day.  Sigh.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Goodwill rising, and what it means

Have you noticed the astonishing recent growth of Goodwill Industries, both in terms of local brick-and-mortar installations as well as their burgeoning online presence?
Goodwill has been around for over one hundred years, but it hasn't been around like this!!  I can remember when there was really only one visible donation location in the Clear Lake area.  Now there are eight...
...including this relatively new one right behind our neighborhood in the old HEB strip center at FM 518 and Highway 3.

BTW, how many local people do you think still refer to this as "the old HEB strip center"?  Yes, believe it or not, that corner used to be anchored by one of the original HEB grocery stores.  Years ago, I can remember driving down Highway 3 from north Clear Lake to get to it.  
What's remarkable is that there's a large and thriving Goodwill at FM 518 in League City, and another one just three miles south at the Victory Lakes shopping complex, at 2840 Gulf Freeway South in League City.
And the trucks are everywhere.  Here's one I recently photographed next to the League City Library.  
Their initiatives include forays into online book sales, particularly through retail giant Amazon.
I read constantly, particularly on issues of social policy, and I'm almost to the point where every single book I buy is a second-hander obtained through one of the Goodwill online retailers.  Different branches of the charity independently engage in these sales.  Here you see Goodwill Industries of Denver and Goodwill BookWorks.  
Goodwill's own reporting corroborates what is clearly visible on the ground and on the internet.
With growth like that, it would be a rare darling of the stock market if it were a public company rather than a nonprofit organization.  Screengrabbed from Goodwill's 2012 report.  
Here are the reasons why this situation catches my interest:

  1. I am a staunch believer in donating to charity, and I vet each of those nonprofits in which I participate.  Growth of the type shown by Goodwill tends to be a big-time corruption magnet, and so I took a quick look at third-party assessments of Goodwill's current cash flow.  While there have been some disclosures suggesting significant regional abuses, particularly in the area of excessive executive management compensation, Charity Navigator's current profile of the Goodwill Houston group suggests that significant financial abuses are not occurring.
  2. I am a staunch believer in bullsh*t detection and elimination to the extent attainable, and Goodwill's unprecedented growth rate speaks to the potential for public propaganda on issues of national economics.  Literally every day there's a new claim about "the disappearing American middle class", the continuing impoverishment of our country, and other perceived socioeconomic atrocities.  Two days ago, the headline rang through most major news outlets that 44% of Americans live paycheck to paycheck.  Well, the proof is in the pudding (although I will concede that the devil is in the details).  How do we reconcile the stratospheric increases in charitable donations, particularly of hard goods, with this claim of growing poverty?  Walk into any Goodwill store and you'll immediately get the impression from the quality of the stock that those donated goods are not deriving from the proverbial 1% or anything remotely resembling it in terms of socioeconomic status.  Those donations are coming primarily from ordinary working people who can afford to upgrade their furniture, household goods, and clothing with new purchases, people who donate their old goods after doing so.  

We have our news headlines, and then we have what's actually happening, as verifiable through direct observation of phenomena such as this.  Investigation and reconciliation of those two diametrically opposed ideas, that we are collectively getting poorer even as we are at financial liberty to donate our material goods at record high rates, is beyond the scope of this blog.  But I like to throw questions like this out there because they are routinely picked up and pursued by entities for whom such work is not beyond scope.  Let's hope that this curious question catches the eye of someone equipped to evaluate it.  In the meantime, know that you can probably donate to Goodwill Houston with the assurance that your surplus goods and the value they represent are likely being managed with continuing integrity.