Sunday, September 29, 2019

The Shropshire Hoard

The Shropshire Hoard
These coins, found in a farmer's field in England, are roughly 2,000 years old. The metal detectorists who unearthed them didn't follow the rules for reporting the find to the authorities. As for me, I have made it a lifelong endeavor to follow the rules... all the rules... whether they make sense or not. But these rogues evidently do not agree. They still haven't come forward. 

Most of the coins are attributed to a tribe known as the Dobunni (which sounds like Dubonnet... but that is another story).

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Chances Are... by Richard Russo

Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2019
ISBN 9781101947753 (ebook)

In this splendid novel by one of my favorite writers, three men in their mid-60s - longtime friends Lincoln, Teddy and Mickey - spend a weekend on Martha's Vineyard mulling over the disappearance of Jacy, their mutual fantasy girlfriend from college days.

I've read most of Russo's novels. This one has all the things I love about his writing. It's highly readable, with a compelling story and believable characters. But then there are passages such as this one, which appears after Lincoln wonders: "If there was such a thing as do-overs, if we all had a bunch of chances at life, would they all be different? .... Or would they play out exactly the same?"
"To Teddy's way of thinking - and he'd thought about it a lot - this depended on which end of the telescope you were looking through. The older you got, the more likely you'd be looking at your life through the wrong end, because it stripped away life's clutter, providing a sharper image, as well as the impression of inevitability. Character was destiny. ...Why? Because... well, that's just how the story went. Nor, as the ancient Greeks understood, was it possible to interrupt or meaningfully alter this chain of events once the story was underway."
Russo doesn't bludgeon us with his insights. He has the knack of blending them together with plot, character development and believable dialogue.  Chances Are... will appeal to readers of my generation who remember the Vietnam war, the draft and the late 1960s in general. Russo fans will also notice that poignant sense of regret that runs through much of his work.

NB - I could hardly believe it when I read it, but this book contains the following passage: "Staring out to sea, she said, 'How come everything has to be so fucked up?' "  This is quite a coincidence, because in jest I have often asked my wife that same question, in almost exactly the same words. I have yet to find the answer.

Further Reading
New York Times Book Review. The Old Men and the Sea (or Richard Russo's New Novel). Alida Baker. July 30, 2019.

Monday, July 22, 2019

Neil Armstrong: Deist

In recent weeks, much ink has been spilled over the fiftieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. Among the more interesting tidbits: astronaut and moon walker Neil Armstrong once listed his religious affiliation as “deist.” Could I do the same?

Deists believe in a Creator, who was the first cause of everything.
But the Deists' Creator is not involved with or concerned about mankind, and may not even be aware that mankind exists.  Deists do not believe in divine miracles, one true faith, or a true and authentic holy scripture.

I’m willing to accept the possibility of a Creator. Everything I can think of was created in one way or another. 
Plato's Timaeus dialogue holds that "Everything that becomes or is created must of necessity be created by some cause, for without a cause nothing can be created." In this view, since the universe exists, it must have been created, and something must have caused that to happen. 

But does the same argument apply to the Creator itself? What created the Creator?

Some religions believe that the Creator has always existed. It was the first cause, and was caused by nothing. That would make it a totally unique being. Likewise, some say the universe itself was not created, but has always existed. This concept of an entity with no beginning puzzled me as a child, and still does.

Some say that you can't use the existence of the universe as an argument for a Creator unless you accept the possibility that the Creator was itself created by something else, just like the universe.  This leads to a dizzying scenario "wherein each newly presumed creator of a creator is itself presumed to have its own creator" (Wikipedia, Problem of the Creator of God).  Sometimes known as "infinite regress," this seems almost a paradox. It's like "turtles all the way down," the myth that the world stands atop a World Turtle, which stands on another turtle, which in turn stands on yet another turtle, and another and another, all the way down to....what? Infinity, I suppose. If this is true, reality is a hall of mirrors and infinite reflections.  

Some Gnostics believed in an artisan god, the demiurge, which fashioned what we perceive as the universe but was itself created by a higher being. That higher being created the raw material with which the demiurge worked. This, Gnostics reasoned, explains why the world we perceive is not perfect. But who created the higher being? Where did the process begin? We are searching for the first cause, not something that was acted upon by something else. 

All of these possibilities are difficult to grapple with.  I keep coming back to the question of what came before. (This reminds me of the cleverly titled Who Came First, Pete Townshend's first solo album. But that is another story.)

Timaeus handily disposes of this problem by stating that "the father and maker of all this universe is past finding out."  This is a good point. There’s an inherent mystery here that cannot be solved by logic and reasoning.  I suppose it is ultimately a matter of faith, something which I do not have. Creator? No Creator? Supreme Being? First cause? Turtles all the way down? To me, the answers are unknowable. 

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

The Tooth Picker

Dedicated to Walt Whitman

I am a man of the narrow spaces
There no space remains
To breathe, to grow, to live
To chew, to brush, to floss.

Something is stuck in the narrow spaces
A morsel lodged between my teeth
I yearn to be free of it 
I am the tooth picker. 

In my dreams rotten teeth crumble
My mouth a horror of broken stumps
I must choose new teeth
I am the tooth picker. 

Broken-down busboy, trailer park carny
We share the same fate, grimacing and ashamed
Yet hope remains for smiles and laughter
A new day dawning in my mouth. 

False teeth sustain me.
New mouth set me free.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Nightmare Alley (1947)

Last night, watching Turner Classic Movies, I stumbled across a film that I've been searching for since childhood. I saw part of it on television as an adolescent, and while I’d forgotten the title and most of the plot, two scenes made a big impression on me all those years ago. 
The Geek

 In one, a carnival barker tosses a live chicken to a sideshow performer styled The Geek, announcing: "And now ladies and gentlemen, it's feeding time."  In the second, a pretty female carny demonstrates her electric chair act for a sheriff. He’s snooping around because he’s been told of performances involving live chickens and women in scanty outfits. 

 I can now report that the movie containing those scenes is Nightmare Alley (1947). It's an excellent film noir with many redeeming features, including some great acting by Tyrone Power, Joan Blondell, the fetching Colleen Gray (who plays Molly/Electra) and Helen Walker. 

 I was hoping Nightmare Alley might also contain another scene from a movie whose title I’d forgotten, involving a runaway carousel. But as it turns out, that’s in Alfred Hitchcock's Strangers On A Train (1951).

Thursday, May 09, 2019

Trump-Induced Constitutional Crisis

I'm very proud of myself for not posting this on Facebook, which I almost did a moment ago. So I'm going to vent here and now. 

According to this article in today's New York Times"Some who previously urged caution are now saying impeachment may be inevitable." 

By Sheryl Gay Stolberg, New York Times

Let's back up for a moment. Special Counsel Robert Mueller has concluded his investigation and submitted his findings. I've read Volume II of the report (well, the executive summary and selected pages, at least).

Congress is seeking an unredacted copy of Mueller's report. They are also pursuing multiple investigations of Trump's doings.  Mr. President and Attorney General Robert Barr are refusing to cooperate and "fighting all the subpoenas", as Trump puts it. 

After the Mueller report was released, over 400 former federal prosecutors released a statement which included the following: 
Each of us believes that the conduct of President Trump described in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report would, in the case of any other person not covered by the Office of Legal Counsel policy against indicting a sitting President, result in multiple felony charges for obstruction of justice.
It's hard to ignore a statement like that, coming from so many legal professionals. To me, it's a call to action. And it is Congress which must act now.  Trump cannot be indicted as a sitting president. He is effectively above the law unless Congress decides to impeach him. 

I once hoped this country would never have to endure another impeachment. But sadly, my view is that Congress must impeach to uphold the rule of law and the Constitution. This is part of the system of checks and balances that has held our democracy together for centuries.  

There are others who agree with me. In an April 27 articleThe Economist opined that impeding an investigation and accepting help from an enemy (which interfered in the 2016 election "in sweeping and systematic fashion", as the Special Counsel's report put it) are precisely the sort of actions the founding fathers would view as grounds for impeachment. That article went on to say: 
Democrats fear an unsuccessful effort to remove Mr Trump would help the president. But just moving on as if it were business as usual seems unacceptable too, signalling as it would that the only limit to the power of presidents is what they can get away with politically. How Congress and American political institutions respond in the coming weeks to Mr Mueller’s report will set precedents that could last for decades. 
A few final, dismal observations: not so long ago, the President and some of his supporters in Congress called for an investigation as to why the Special Counsel was appointed in the first place. Others would like to see the Obama administration and Hillary Clinton investigated.  And in a particularly mind-bending twist, there are those who call for an investigation of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, to determine whether the FBI spied on the Trump campaign. 

Our federal elected officials are stuck in a seemingly endless cycle of investigating one another. This activity is a huge distraction. They should be dealing with critical issues facing this country: health care, gun control, national security, the federal deficit, climate change. But there's no time for that now. We've got a constitutional crisis on our hands. 

Thursday, February 07, 2019

Nevada Gaming Control Board vs. Wynn Resorts

On January 25 the Nevada Gaming Control Board filed a complaint against Wynn Resorts, owner and operator of the luxurious Wynn and Encore hotel/casinos on the Las Vegas Strip. In that complaint, the Gaming Control Board asks the Nevada Gaming Commission to fine Wynn Resorts and "take action against" the licenses held by the company.

Las Vegas Review-Journal,  January 28, 2019
The complaint contains numerous allegations of sexual misconduct by Wynn executives, including Steve Wynn himself. Even worse is the Gaming Control Board's claim that various senior executives were aware of these incidents, but did not report or investigate them -- a violation of the company's own sexual harassment policy. Even the chief human resources officer and three separate people who held the position of general counsel are said to have failed to act in this regard.

In other words, the company did not apply its own policies and procedures to Mr. Wynn. And it goes beyond that. A former Wynn employee now stands accused of facilitating sexual relationships between cocktail servers and guests of Wynn Resorts (see page 16 of the complaint; link below).

Read the complaint:

The following is a summary of the allegations contained in the Gaming Control Board's January 25 complaint.
  • A Wynn employee complained to her supervisor that she had been raped by Mr. Wynn and became pregnant as a result. The company settled this complaint for $7.5 million. See page 9 of complaint. 
  • A cocktail server at Wynn Resorts claimed that Mr. Wynn pressured her into a nonconsensual sexual relationship. Wynn Resorts settled this claim for $975,000. See page 11.
  • A former Wynn cocktail server and flight attendant claimed that Mr. Wynn engaged in sexual misconduct against her. See page 12.
  • Separately, a flight attendant sent Mr. Wynn a letter alleging that he had engaged in sexual harassment with several flight attendants. See page 14. 
  • Three employees of Wynn's Encore Spa claimed that Mr. Wynn engaged in sexual harassment during massages that were performed on him. See page 13.
  • A former general counsel of Wynn Resorts received an e-mail alleging that a former executive "loves sleeping with cocktail servers". The general counsel did not investigate or report the matter, according to the complaint. See page 17.
About a year ago,  some of these accusations were made public in the Wall Street Journal. At that point, the Board of Directors of Wynn Resorts began investigations. Wynn has since resigned his position and divested all his holdings in the company.

It is not clear to me why it took the Nevada Gaming Control Board so long to file the January 25 complaint. A year has passed since the Wall Street Journal published its article. Perhaps that's how long it took for the Wynn board to complete its own investigation.

Speaking of the company's board of directors, many of the allegations in the complaint relate to things that happened over 10 years ago.  How could something so wrong go on for so long without coming to light? Why didn't the board come to grips with this sooner?

You may wonder why I have put so much effort into writing this post. And I shall tell you. If the January 25 complaint is accurate, Wynn Resorts has committed an outrage against its own employees and against the city of Las Vegas. Worst of all, of course, is the damage done to employees. But there's a business concern as well. This sordid tale fulfills the coarsest "Sin City" myths and expectations that so many people have come to believe. That tarnishes the reputation of our city. It's bad for business in so many ways. Just as an example, stories like this make it harder for local companies to recruit quality employees to relocate to Las Vegas. No wonder we have a shortage of doctors in this town.

Read the story in the Las Vegas Review-Journal:

Wynn Resorts admits wrongdoing, Nevada regulators find more sexual misconduct allegations

UPDATE: On February 26, the Nevada Gaming Commission fined Wynn Resorts $20 million for the conduct outlined in the complaint, according to The New York Times.  This follows a settlement reached between the Gaming Control Board and Wynn Resorts. The timeline for the settlement is curious. All parties signed the settlement on January 25. That is the same day the Gaming Control Board filed its complaint.  I wish I had a better understanding of this timeline. Why didn't the Gaming Control Board mention the settlement in the complaint? Or was the settlement speedily reached after the complaint was filed and signed on the very same day?