Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Remember the Y2K Scare?

How naive we were as we approached the new year 15 years ago.

In the days leading up to New Year's Day 2000, there was this overwhelming anxiety about what would happen to the nation's computers when asked to shift correctly from 1999 to 2000. Apparently, the storyline went, computers hadn't been programmed to handle a situation in which all four digits of a year changed.

Which made me wonder ...

Personal computers were still relatively new in 1999. It was still news in those days when someone established an online presence. Online shopping may be pervasive today, but then it was still a new thing for many people. Prior to Y2K, I can recall an intensive effort by many businesses to encourage people to shop online — but I honestly don't recall now if it was encouraged during the Christmas season of 1999.

Perhaps it required too much courage in the face of all the doomsday predictions that were circulating.

My point is, the developers of the personal computer were considered the best and the brightest of their generation. Weren't they bright enough to know that the year 2000 was coming up?

All sorts of apocalyptic scenarios were proposed in the days leading up to New Year's Day, causing considerable fear among the many Americans for whom personal computers were still new and intimidating things. I'd like to think that people have learned since then, but sometimes you have to wonder.

As they apprehensively approached the dawn of a new millennium — which was incorrect, too, but I long ago reached the conclusion that I wasn't going to win that argument — many of those Americans believed they could engage in any behavior that suited their whims and remain completely anonymous online or that, by simply pressing delete, they could permanently remove embarrassing or incriminating comments or photographs. Unfortunately, it appears some people still do.

Well, anyway, back to New Year's Day 2000.

Remember what happened? Nothing. Well, that isn't completely true. As I recall, there were a few very minor glitches — the kinds of things that wouldn't raise any eyebrows today. But lots of people took it seriously.

Businesses, too. Somehow some folks got the idea that they could avoid any problems if they switched off their computers before midnight on New Year's Eve, then switched them back on the next day.

Which made me wonder ...

If computers really weren't programmed to accept a four–digit year change, what made those people think it would behave any differently when power was restored to it? What was so special about having the power off at midnight? It still wouldn't be programmed to accept a four–digit year change.

It did seem like the logical evolution in thought from those who, when forced to deal with video issues on an old–fashioned TV that needed rabbit ears to pick up signals, responded by hitting it on the side. Aside from maybe knocking loose some of the TV's innards, I couldn't figure out what they hoped to accomplish.

Maybe people lost their ability to reason because we weren't changing one digit or even two. We were changing all four digits — and people approached New Year's Day 2000 (dubbed "Y2K") with more apprehension than they did Mayan Calendar Day a couple of years ago.

"Of course, it wasn't long before it became clear that all the fears associated with the turn of the millennium were for naught," wrote TIME's Lily Rothman.

Well, I guess it's a good thing we don't have to worry about a computer revolt at midnight this year. If you don't buy into the end–of–days scenarios, the next generation that will have to worry about issues surrounding a millennium change won't begin to show up for more than 900 years.

Happy New Year.

Friday, December 26, 2014

A Decade After the Boxing Day Tsunami

Do you remember what you were doing on this day in 2004?

It was, of course, the day after Christmas. I had made plans to meet my brother to see "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou," which had just premiered the day before.

We never really decided on a time or place to see it, though, until virtually the last minute that day. We met for lunch at a burger place and looked through the movie listings in the Dallas paper until we found a good starting time at a theater that was reasonably close. It was a Sunday, and it was kind of wet and dreary. The Cowboys were playing the Washington Redskins that afternoon, and we kind of hoped that would keep people at home in front of their TV sets, but nobody really seemed to care about the game. The Cowboys were on their way to a dismal 6–10 finish.

Consequently, my memory is that the theater was kind of full, and we wound up getting seats that were less than ideal.

Such a problem would be seen as trivial a few hours later after the world became aware of the deadly tsunami that had rolled across the Indian Ocean that day. The tsunami was triggered by an underwater earthquake that registered a magnitude of 9.3; that is only an estimate, of course, but if it is accurate, that would make it the second– or third–strongest earthquake in recorded history.

How strong is a 9.3 earthquake? The one that struck 10 years ago today is thought to have had the energy of 23,000 Hiroshima bombs. It caused at least 227,898 deaths.

In the aftermath of the tsunami, some proposed the creation of a global tsunami warning system, but because of the relative rarity of tsunamis in some areas — including the Indian Ocean, even though earthquakes are fairly common in Indonesia — a global network of sensors would be necessary, and that can be too costly for poor countries. Also, the world has so little experience with tsunamis that it would be extremely difficult to find enough people with the expertise to monitor and assess global conditions for tsunamis in the making. The first real sign of a tsunami is the earthquake itself, but if it happens far from shore, the tsunami may travel a great distance, as it did in 2004, before striking areas where the earthquake was barely felt, if at all, before it is noticed.

Tsunamis eventually reach a point where they begin to dissipate if they don't strike land, but they can still cause damage when they do; and tsunamis can be deceptive. Initially, they may resemble rising tides.

Something else to keep in mind — not all undersea earthquakes produce tsunamis. An undersea earthquake in almost the same area about three months later was estimated to be 8.7 (which would still make it one of the 15 strongest earthquakes in recorded history) but produced no tsunami.

The 2004 earthquake struck, as I recall, off the west coast of Indonesia that morning, which would have been Christmas evening here in the United States.

But, initially, no one knew what had happened, and it wouldn't become apparent to the world that anything out of the ordinary had happened until the tsunami wave had traveled across the Indian Ocean to the east coast of Africa, a journey that probably took about 10 hours.

Actually, what many people don't realize is that a tsunami is not a single wave but rather a series of waves that can come in surges separated by five minutes to an hour. The first wave is not always the most dangerous.

"A tsunami, when it approaches, is silent," observed survivor Alexa Moses, a writer from Australia, in The Age. A tsunami simply doesn't attract attention until it strikes land. The longer it takes to strike land, the more strength it can accumulate — until it reaches that point where its strength begins to diminish.

And a portion of the tsunami did strike India shortly after the earthquake, but most of it traversed the Indian Ocean unobstructed until it reached Africa.

For that matter, more than 130,000 of the casualties were in Indonesia, but not all of those deaths could be blamed on the tsunami. If you've ever seen footage of the aftermath of land–based earthquakes, you know that people die when buildings and bridges collapse, when they are struck by falling debris, etc., and it is reasonable to assume that many of the deaths in Indonesia were the result of being near the epicenter of a 9.3–magnitude earthquake.

Many deaths, of course, were the result of the tsunami, which was quite powerful in the immediate vicinity. Take a look at the link to Moses' article. You will see aerial photographs that clearly show how the topography was changed.

None of what had happened was being reported on TV as I prepared to meet my brother or on the radio as I drove to the burger place. After I got home from the movie, I saw the first reports I had seen of the destruction. It was astonishing.

It was also astonishing to see the world's response to the disaster. Relief efforts raised $14 billion. Many of the survivors of the tsunami still have a long journey in front of them, but that money made getting started on that journey less difficult.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Christmas Musing: Why I Write

It is early on Christmas morning, and I am awake, but it isn't like it was when I was a kid. I'm not up because I want to find out what is under the tree. I have no tree in my apartment.

Actually, I am up because I have had a touch of some sort of virus lately that has me congested, unable to breathe. So I am awake before sunrise on Christmas morning, like when I was a boy — although, clearly, not for the same reason.

It is cold and clear this morning. The forecasters have said it will be warmer today (but very windy), which would make it one of the milder Christmases I have experienced in Dallas. I didn't grow up here, but I spent most of my Christmases here visiting my grandparents and my parents' old friends, and I have spent most of the Christmases of my adult years here, too.

That doesn't make me an authority on Christmas in Dallas, but it's close! And, more often than not, Christmas in Dallas is cool — even cold at times. I remember a few warm ones when I was growing up, Christmases when my brother and I could go outside and play in shorts and T–shirts. We could climb the pecan trees in my grandmother's yard unencumbered by winter coats.

A couple of times when I was growing up, my family drove to South Padre Island near the U.S.–Mexico border to spend Christmas there, and it was always nice and warm (today, for example, the temperature is supposed to be 71° in Brownsville, close to 80° tomorrow and Saturday).

Anyway, this morning I have been listening to Mannheim Steamroller. I don't know how long they've been putting out Christmas albums — decades, I suppose — but I have one that came out nearly 20 years ago. It is the only purely Christmas album in my collection. I have Christmas songs that various artists have recorded, but they are always part of more general albums.

I remember when I got this album. It was about six months after my mother was killed in a flash flood. I was teaching journalism in Oklahoma and commuting to Dallas on weekends to see about my father. On one of my weekend trips, I heard "Pat a Pan" on the car radio and decided I had to have it. It has been in my collection ever since.

Listening to it really can be an exercise in free association. When I hear it, I think of those days after my mother died, and then I think about her (although I am sure that she never heard this album) — and that leads me to thoughts of my childhood. Mom was my biggest booster, and I am sure she must have encouraged me to take the path I took in life — writing. I have worked at other kinds of jobs, but writing has always been at the core of who I am.

It is a path that has led me to the job I have today as editorial manager for a stock–trading oriented website. I am very happy to have that job on Christmas 2014. Of course, I guess an argument can be made that, after slogging my way through the last six years following the economic implosion, I would be very happy to have any job. And I suppose there is an element of that. But the truth is that I like the people with whom and for whom I work.

Not everyone can say that, and I really am thankful for my job. It allows me to write for a living. I know some professional writers who fret about a lot of things, including writer's block, and writing becomes work for them.

Not me. Writing has always been fun for me. When I have some spare time, I would just about always prefer to write about something. I write three blogs (one of which is this one) so I always have an outlet for any inspiration I may have.

That's what it is. Inspiration. That must have been what my mother encouraged in me when I was little. Mom was about creativity, which has a symbiotic relationship with inspiration. She taught first grade, and I think most of the people who came through her classroom and their parents would tell you she was the most creative teacher they ever knew.

After she died, my family received hundreds of letters from old friends scattered across the country, a few even halfway around the world. One friend who knew her when she was a teenager sent us a letter with some photos of Mom participating in a play in junior high or high school. In the photos, she was clearly hamming it up in her usual way, and the friend remarked in his letter, "I always thought that, if Mary had not gone into teaching, she would have gravitated to the stage."

A career on the stage might have satisfied her yearning for creative outlets. She found other outlets, one of which was encouraging me to write. I had other influences along the way, but I am quite sure she was my earliest. When I was in elementary school, she arranged for me to take piano lessons, which I did for many years. I haven't kept up with it, but all that practice made my fingers quite nimble, and I am sure it contributed to my typing ability, which has been valuable to me all these years. I have certainly found it to be an advantage since personal computers took over the workplace. Many of my colleagues still hunt and peck, but I took typing in junior high and I already had the advantage of several years of piano lessons under my belt.

Of course, typing alone is not the same as writing. Simply stringing words together in grammatically correct sentences is not the same as writing unless you explore related ideas and themes. That is something I have worked on for years, and I really think it has paid off. I have people who read my blogs all over the world. Some sign up as followers who are notified whenever I post something new; others just pop in from time to time to catch up on what I've written.

Occasionally, they write to me. One wrote, "I can't wait to see what you will write about next."

I suppose that sums up how I feel about writing. I often know what I want to write about; I just don't know what I will say about it until I sit down and write.

That is the pleasure I get from writing — discovering what I think or how I feel as a result of writing about it. Sometimes I honestly do not know how I feel about something until I start writing about it. Sometimes, I am as surprised as my readers at what I think.

And it is appropriate to think about that on Christmas — because that is a gift my mother gave me.

Thanks, Mom.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

A Nation of Witch Hunters

When I was growing up, "innocent until proven guilty" was practically a mantra whenever someone was accused of a crime. Even if everyone knew the accused was guilty, it simply was not considered American to speak of someone as guilty until a jury had reached that conclusion.

That, after all, was the kind of thing the early settlers came to America to escape (and then, ironically, engaged in their own witch hunting in Salem, Mass.).

The newsrooms where I worked in my newspaper days were always sensitive to that. For a time, when I was a police/courts reporter, my editors always reminded me, when I came to the newsroom to write about the day's proceedings in court, to refer to the defendant as "the accused" or "the alleged" until the jury reached its verdict.

Even if we knew the defendant was guilty. We couldn't say so until it was official — meaning that a jury had reached that conclusion.

Saying so in print only made it seem — and rightly so — that the press had already reached its conclusion. To hell with the jury.

That has never been the role of the press. The press' job is to be the eyes and ears of the community. The newspapers for which I worked, as I say, were always very sensitive about that kind of thing. They earnestly sought to maintain an aura of neutrality, and most of the reporters with whom I have worked would have bristled at the suggestion that they were not absolutely fair.

It's been awhile since I worked in a newsroom so I don't know when that began to change. All I know is that it did — probably tentatively at first but grew progressively bolder as the press began to discover that no one was going to hold it accountable for prejudging criminal defendants.

Even if the press was wrong.

Today, all that is needed for the public to turn on someone is for someone else to say something. Anything. Doesn't matter if it is true. It is accepted on face value. Look how quickly people have turned on Bill Cosby, one of the most beloved entertainers of his day. He has been accused of truly reprehensible behavior. If those accusations are true, he should be held accountable. But they haven't been proven in court, which is where every American who is accused of something is entitled to face his/her accuser and defend himself/herself against the charges if possible. That's what the people who braved the unknown to settle this land wanted.

Well, at least, that's how it used to be.

How about the case of cable TV cooking star Paula Deen, who admitted using the "N word" many years ago and apologized profusely — only to be driven from the airwaves anyway by those whose only motive appeared to be a desire to see how the other half had been living all these years — not a quest for justice.

In Ferguson, Missouri, the grand jury, as you undoubtedly know, has been investigating the August shooting death of Michael Brown, an 18–year–old black man. The grand jury's decision not to indict the white police officer who shot Brown sparked riots and looting.

If you look at the transcripts of the grand jury proceedings, you will see that most of the witnesses' accounts supported the officer's version of events — and most, if not all, of those witnesses were black. The facts simply did not support accusing the officer of a crime and spending who knows how many taxpayer dollars in a futile attempt to convict him.

And that is what grand juries really are designed to do — filter the unsupported cases from the supported ones. Do you believe that there are too many frivolous cases clogging up the judicial system? Grand juries have been doing their part to keep the frivolous cases out of the system in this country for a couple of centuries. If you think it is bad now, try living in an America that doesn't have grand juries to serve as courthouse gatekeepers.

Apparently, there are, to misquote Jack Nicholson, people who can't handle the truth, though. In spite of the testimony of those witnesses, there are still people who say justice wasn't served — and that race was the reason.

That is mere speculation unless there is proof to support it. Astonishingly, there are people who continue to cling to claims that have been recanted, citing them as evidence in this case — when, in fact, they are no such thing.

Things are a bit murkier in the choking death of Eric Garner in New York in July. I haven't seen those grand jury transcripts, and I would like to because it could give me some insight into the jurors' mindset. From looking at the video, it appears that, at the least, a charge of negligent homicide might be in order — but a video doesn't tell you everything you need to know.

Videos do help, of course, and I like the idea of equipping police officers with body cameras so investigators can see precisely what the officer saw when something like this happens. It's a worthy goal, but Barack Obama's pledge to provide federal funds to help police departments pay for such cameras is one more example of how Obama ignores feasibility in order to pursue what he believes would be an ideal world.

America is already $18 trillion in debt. The wise thing — the prudent thing — would be to focus on bringing down the debt, not adding to it. Hard choices must be made. Such choices almost always involve sacrifice, and, in the last six years, many Americans have had to make sacrifices they never thought they would have to make. Their leaders must give careful consideration before asking for more.

Of course, homicides aren't the only things getting attention these days. There have been a couple of cases of rape — or, rather, alleged rape — in the news. Now, don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that rape is anything other than what it is — an act of violence. But it is the kind of charge that sticks to someone even if he's been cleared.

I covered a rape trial once. The defendant was acquitted, but he was forever linked to the charge. He lost his job, couldn't find another one locally and, eventually, had to leave town. I've always hoped he was able to pick up the loose threads of his life and get back on track.

I also left that experience thinking that, if newspapers voluntarily withhold the names of alleged rape victims (and that is a voluntary thing — it is not mandated by law — freedom of the press, don't you know), they should also withhold the names of the accused until they have been convicted.

Rape is an incendiary charge. Bill Cosby, as I have pointed out, hasn't been convicted. He hasn't even been formally charged, yet his long–time associates are throwing him under the bus, one after the other. Maybe they're right to do so. But what if they are wrong?

Yes, sexual assault is an incendiary charge. It must be handled judiciously, which makes the case of actress Lena Dunham both fascinating and troubling.

For the last couple of months, Dunham has been hawking her memoir, "Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She's 'Learned,'" which includes her account of an occasion when she was raped.

Well, to be fair, she never actually accuses anyone of rape. But she does describe an evening of what is best described as non–consensual sex.

Dunham, in case you don't remember, made advertisements for Obama's re–election two years ago. Those advertisements were intended to appeal to young voters, equating casting one's first vote with losing one's virginity.

I do not mention that to explain any conclusions I may have reached about Dunham or her moral compass or anything like that — I think most readers are capable of doing that on their own — but because her political leanings are important to remember in the context of a portion of her narrative. I refer to her description of an occasion when she claims to have been raped by a prominent "campus Republican" named Barry when she was a student at Oberlin College.

Oberlin is in Ohio and, from what I have heard, put the liberal in "liberal arts." Just about any Republican would stick out like a sore thumb there.

Her account has been effectively debunked by John Nolte of Breitbart. It was praised for its "truthiness" in TIME back in September.

Now that the reliability of the story has been brought into question, Eugene Volokh of the Washington Post wonders if this prominent "campus Republican," identified in Dunham's book as "Barry," has grounds for legal action against her.

The most egregious example of this willingness — nay, eagerness — to blindly accept anything that is said could be found in the pages of Rolling Stone last month. The article described the horrific gang rape of a woman identified as Jackie at a University of Virginia frat house.

There were angry protests and the school suspended all fraternity activities for a year. Those would be appropriate responses except for one thing — "there now appear to be discrepancies" in the account, Rolling Stone's managing editor says. More than a few, actually. There are more holes in the story than you'll find in the average block of Swiss cheese.

As a journalist, I am embarrassed by the blatantly sloppy fact checking. It is shoddy journalism, and it is inexcusable.

Rolling Stone's managing editor was right to acknowledge that the "failure is on us," but the mistakes were so basic that a first–year journalism student, never mind a newsroom full of seasoned vets, would have spotted them.

The thing that concerns me, though, is this: What if the editors at Rolling Stone knew in advance about the problems with the story, and they gambled that no one would call them on it? That it wasn't sloppiness after all?

I am reminded of the bogus charges leveled by Tawana Brawley against a group of white men back in the late '80s. Do you happen to recall who one of her chief supporters was? Al Sharpton.