Sunday, December 20, 2009

Sybirak and Cerberus

The Polish term sybirak... is synonymous to the Russian counterpart sibiryak (a dweller of Siberia) and generally refers to all people resettled to Siberia... it is in most cases used to refer to Poles who have been imprisoned or exiled to Siberia.

After Mass today, I was speaking with a Polish-American acquaintance. She told me some family stories.
One reminded me of Jonathan Safran Foer's novel Everything Is Illuminated, in which
A young American Jew, who shares a name with the author, journeys to Ukraine in search of Augustine, the woman who saved his grandfather's life during the Nazi liquidation of Trachimbrod, his family shtetl.
As for my acquaintance: it seems that the woman had a relative who, along with his family, was deported from Poland to Siberia during World War II. Every day, Russian soldiers would tramp through, tossing the dead from the train. The relative grew so sick, he was mistaken for dead and, so, was tossed out.

According to the relative, he was revived by a black dog licking his face. (The relative could not say for sure if this was a real dog or, frozen and feverish, something he merely imagined.) From there, the relative struck out across the tundra. He was eventually taken in and shielded by a Jewish family. After the War, he was reunited with the fragments of his family.

Of course, it was his good fortune to be removed from the train as he may well have perished in a Siberian prison camp. As for being mercifully awakened by a dog...? In many cultures, the black dog represents death (in some Scandinavian countries, it's a white dog). One thinks of Cerberus, the hellhound. Or of Cadejo: "a big black dog that haunts naughty young men who walk late at night on rural roads." In this case, ironically, the black dog brought life (unless the black dog was death and, inexplicably, spared the man).

This reminds me of traditions in which animals play a seminal role.
  • The founders of Rome: Romulus and Remus, suckled by the she-wolf
  • In Norse lore: Auoumbla the cow who, by licking the ice, uncovers Buri, the first man
Or the creation myth of the Iroquois:

In the Sky World, there was a Tree of Life that was very special to the people of the Sky World. They knew that it grew at the entrance to the world below and forbade anyone to tamper with the Tree. One woman who was soon to give birth was curious about the Tree and convinced her brother to uproot the Tree.

Beneath the Tree was a great hole. The woman peered from the edge into the hole and suddenly fell off the edge. As she was falling she grasped at the edge and clutched in her hand some of the earth from the Sky World. As she fell, the birds of the world below were disturbed and alerted to her distress. The birds responded and gathered a great many of their kind to break her fall and cradle her to the back of a great sea turtle. The creatures of the water believed that she needed land to live on, so they set about to collect some for her. They dove to the great depths of the world's oceans to gather earth to make her a place to live. Many of the animals tried to gather the earth from the ocean floor, only the muskrat was successful. With only a small bit of earth brought onto turtle's back from his small paws, Turtle Island began to grow.

Who knows what fate holds? When it is better to be expelled from a train than to stay aboard.

Who knows from where our saviors will emerge? A sickness. A stranger.
A muskrat. A dog.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Evil, Thy Name Is Vundo

No, Vundo's not an evil clown.

It's a Trojan horse. You know, one of those nasty computer viruses that sneak into your system, then wreak untold havoc.

Vundo, or the Vundo Trojan (also known as Virtumonde or Virtumondo and sometimes referred to as MS Juan) is a Trojan horse that is known to cause popups and advertising for rogue antispyware programs, and sporadically other misbehavior including performance degradation and denial of service with some websites including Google and Facebook.

A Vundo infection is typically caused either by opening an e-mail attachment carrying the trojan, or through a variety of browser exploits, including vulnerabilities in popular browser plug-ins, such as Java. Many of the popups advertise fraudulent programs including (but not limited to) Sysprotect, Storage Protector, AntiSpywareMaster, WinFixer, AntiVirus 2009, AntiVirus 360, Personal Guard 2009, and Virus Doctor (not to be confused with Spyware Doctor).
Yep, the oldest trick in the book: present yourself as a kind soul, a do-gooder. Charitable, concerned, altruistic. Only to ruthlessly fleece your mark once you're in the door. Pandora's box in an attractive package. The handshake, then the stab in the back.

How do you know whether "Vundo's in the house"? Here are just a few of the symptoms:

  • Vundo may attempt to prevent the user from removing it or otherwise impede its operation, such as by disabling the task manager, registry editor, and msconfig...
  • Some firewalls or antivirus software may also be disabled by the virus leaving the system even more vulnerable. Especially, it disables Norton AntiVirus and in turn uses it to spread the infection....
  • Popular anti-malware programs such as Spybot - Search & Destroy or Malwarebytes' Anti-Malware may be deleted or immediately closed upon loading...
  • Web access may also be negatively affected. Vundo may cause many websites to be inaccessible.
  • Google search links may be directed to rogue antispyware sites, which can be avoided by copy and pasting addresses
  • Vundo may cause webpages to fail to load after sessions of browsing and present a blank page in the browser instead of the webpage.
... which is what happened on my computer. Popular sites. Blank pages. What the...?

And it hides so well, you can't detect it with spyware and rout it out (your outsmarted program claiming there are no infected objects when, in fact, they are legion -- which makes you
paranoid going forward, unsure if your system is ever virus free, reacting with panic to the slightest blip on your PC).

It manages to not only ingeniously mask but prodigiously replicate itself. A coup of deception and contagion. Rippling. Spreading. Like


You're left to speculate how it snuck in:
  • Open the wrong email (even though it presumably came from a "friendly" -- a familiar source or someone you know)?
  • Click on a suspicious attachment (or one that seemed completely innocuous)?
  • Close an annoying pop-up or an ersatz ad (not realizing that closing, instead of closing out, activates infection)?
Mystified, you come face-to-face with the fact: on the Internet, you're basically connected to everything. Pray you have systems in place (though none are 100% guaranteed) to filter out the bad stuff. But never forget: same as a conventional pathogen, no matter what precautions you take, no matter how you try to prevent it, if you go out in public, you're bound to catch something.

The process may well leave you (like me) feeling helpless and haunted with questions:

  • What did I do wrong?
  • What protection is there from Vundo's restless and devastating tentacles? (Or from predatory computer repair shops that want to charge you hundreds of dollars for virus removal?)
  • What sick, unprincipled scum sucker would create, and propagate, an abomination like this?
Ponder. Ruminate. Reflect. Then, all else pales -- the injustice, the outrage, the anger -- as you realize. As you resign yourself to the stark, shattering truth. Only one thing matters.

Satan is real.

And living in your computer.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Dr. Strange, Master of the Mystic Arts

In an earlier post, I shared my interest in Black Bolt, leader of the Inhumans. Another Marvel character I've always admired is Dr. Strange. As you may know, Dr. Strange (like Spider-Man) was created by Stan Lee and (the notoriously reclusive) Steve Ditko.

Dr. Strange first appeared in the aptly named Strange Tales #110 (July 1963).
Strange is... a world-renowned if selfish neurosurgeon, until a car accident damages his hands and prevents him from conducting surgery. Learning of a hermit called the Ancient One who might cure his condition, Strange finds the man in the Himalayas. After Strange selflessly tries to thwart a traitorous disciple (Baron Mordo), the Ancient One teaches Strange the mystic arts.
Trekking to a wise man in the Himalayas -- where have we heard that one before? In fact, Dr. Strange is like a catalog of '60s preoccupations: the occult, Eastern mysticism, mind-bending (though not drug-induced) dimensions.

Steve Ditko drew the feature through Strange Tales #146 (July 1966), and during this period he and Lee introduced many of Strange's allies, such as his eventual lover Clea; and his enemies Nightmare; Baron Mordo; and Dormammu. Ditko also visualized the cosmic entity Eternity, a sometime ally of Strange.

These stories revealed that Strange uses magical artifacts to augment his power, such as the Cloak of Levitation; Eye of Agamotto; Book of the Vishanti and the Orb of Agamotto. From the first story, Strange's residence, the Sanctum Sanctorum, was a part of the character's mythos. The trademark circular window divided by three sweeping lines on the front of the residence (actually the protective Seal of the Vishanti) appears in many Doctor Strange stories. Strange's personal servant, Wong, guards the residence in his absence.

(The Sanctum Sanctorum always reminded me of Rotwang's lab in Metropolis.)

After Ditko ended his spectacular run, the good doc suffered through a period of creative lethargy. He was resuscitated in 1968 when artist Gene Colan came aboard.

As you can see, not only the title but the character himself got a facelift. In his stint on the book, Colan also drew one of the more famous covers in comics:

Unfortunately, Dr. Strange was canceled with issue #183 (Nov. 1969). His next notable appearance came three years later:
The character was showcased in the title Marvel Premiere with one story marking the debut of another of Strange's recurring foes, the entity Shuma-Gorath. To stop Shuma-Gorath entering reality, Strange is forced to shut down the Ancient One's mind, which causes his physical death. The Ancient One, however, assures Strange this was a necessary sacrifice and his soul merges with the cosmic entity Eternity. Strange then assumes the title of Sorcerer Supreme.
Writer Steve Engelhart and artist Frank Brunner produced a string of stellar issues.

(Engelhart was responsible for some wildly purple prose including "His dirt-filled mouth will scream forever in hideous agony.")

Dr. Strange got his own animated movie a couple years ago; ergo, I was able to introduce the character to my daughter. What better to pass from generation to generation? Now if I could only bequeath the All-seeing Eye of Agamotto...

Dairyland Dogs

No, we're not talking about a hot dog stand. We're talking about the endangered dogs of Dairyland Racetrack, discussed in an earlier post. I learned the following from a Nov. 21 blog post in the Chicago Reader:
If you're on Twitter or Facebook, you've probably already come across the message that Dairyland racetrack in Kenosha is closing and "900 Greyhounds need to be adopted or they will be euthanized." It's been shared and retweeted so many times by so many people that finding the original author is an exercise in futility.

But according to Ellen Paulus, president of the Wisconsin chapter of Greyhound Pets of America, the largest nonprofit group for greyhound adoption in the country, it's not true. "Wisconsin law mandates that no dogs can be put to sleep in our state just because their racing careers are completed," she e-mailed me. "Dogs have 3 options: transfer to another track to continue racing, go into adoption programs, or be signed back [to] their owners...."

In addition to Dairyland's adoption center, the Wisconsin Division of Gaming lists 51 adoption groups —including seven in Illinois—that have been approved to take the dogs. Paulus anticipates that "the majority of the dogs will be placed through the groups closest to the track: Dairyland's Adoption Center, GPA-Wisconsin, Greyhounds Only, Midwest Greyhound Adoption and Greyhound Alliance."

Fifty dogs are scheduled to be sent to adoption programs on the east and west coasts in early December.

Those fifty dogs were all over the news.

And from the Letters section of the Chicago Reader (Nov. 26):
"Operation Dairyland"—the closing of Dairyland Greyhound Park—can be followed at a Web site hosted by the Greyhound Alliance: The site provides the most recent information/status of the closing. Dogs that are available to adoption groups are posted and regularly updated; most of the dogs will be moved to groups after 1/1/10. There is a link for individuals interested in adopting to find their local adoption organization. Upcoming hauls, fundraising events, and news will be posted. Individuals can donate to support the dogs and subsidize transportation, and 100% of donations will go to the dogs. Thus far, there has been (as we expected and very much appreciate), a fantastic outpouring of support from the public and the greyhound adoption network.
Wonderful news. Coincidentally, I recently heard a financial advisor refer to pets as a "money pit." As any dedicated pet person knows, Sparky and Miss Puddins are far from being a bad investment. In fact, studies show the myriad benefits of having a pet. This morning, in my optometrist's office, I was paging through the March 2008 issue of National Geographic Kids. I came across an article professing "Dogs Are Good Medicine":
One of the most recent discoveries about dogs is how good they are for people. People with dogs are healthier and have fewer colds, sore throats, and stomachaches. Petting a dog [or cat] helps reduce anxiety, and lowers heart rate and blood pressure.
In order to enjoy your pet, you have to take care of it. Some people are pretty cavalier in that department. Recently, a neighborhood cat was done in by a coyote. Some residents took offense at the owners letting the cat out, thereby putting it in danger. The owners responded in the local paper (the
Beverly Review):
Our cats are and were in excellent health, properly groomed and clean... [critics'] insistence that the cat would roam if outside is entirely incorrect. Our cat always stayed on our property and was killed on our back patio.
This from
Today cats live longer than ever. Just 20 years ago the life expectancy of a cat was four to six years; today they live 15 years or more. Life expectancy in cats depends on many things, but the most important factor is whether he is an indoor-only cat or an outdoor cat. Life expectancy varies significantly between the two.

  • Indoor cats generally live from 12-18 years of age. Many may live to be in their early 20s. The oldest reported cat was 28 years old at the time of death.

  • Outdoor cats generally live to be around four to five years of age. Their deaths are typically due to traumas such as being hit by a car or dog attacks. Outdoor cats are also more susceptible to several deadly viruses that are spread by fighting or prolonged intimate contact with an infected cat.
  • You're not doing your cat any favor by letting it outside (whether or not a coyote's on the loose... though coyotes did raise Pecos Bill).

    Finally, in my last visit to Animal Krackers (the pet store where I buy my supplies) the clerk told me about the Savannah cat -- a hybrid between an American domestic and an African serval. Like their savanna-dwelling cousins, the Savannah can grow up to 30 lbs. (some servals top 50 lbs.). As you can see, these cats (like their savanna-dwelling cousins) are stunners. Just be ready to drop some serious change if you want one.

    The Surgeon Skips Town

    The other day, I learned that my orthopedic surgeon, the guy who was gracious enough to reconstruct my ankle, is leaving town. Though his departure is shrouded in mystery (the letter I received referred to "unforeseen circumstances"), he apparently found a better gig downstate. Which meant I needed to gather and transfer my records to another "ankle man."

    Fortunately, my daughter already goes to a podiatrist that we like (and who's willing to take me on as a patient). Most notably, the change allowed me to page through my records -- a small sheaf of documents -- and review my case. A walk down memory (or is that "surgery"?) lane. Here are some highlights:

    12/29/08: This pleasant gentleman presents for evaluation of his right ankle. He twisted his ankle and fell on the ice several days ago.

    Physical examination: Demonstrates tenderness both medially and laterally.

    Radiographic findings: Radiographs demonstrate a displaced fracture of the right ankle. This includes a displaced fibular fracture and disruption of the ankle mortis.

    Impression: Severe displaced fracture of the right ankle.

    Plan: The patient will be scheduled for an ORIF of the right ankle. We discussed all possible complications and the patient wishes to proceed with surgery. The surgery will be performed on 12/31/08.

    12/31/08: Open reduction and internal fixation of the right ankle.

    Operative findings: The patient had a displaced fracture of the right ankle that involved the medial and lateral malleolus as well as complete disruption of the syndesmosis requiring the placement of syndesmotic screws.

    Procedure: The patient was brought to the operating room and placed supine on the operating table. Once under anesthesia, the patient was prepped and draped in the usual sterile fashion about the right ankle and the right lower extremity. A tourniquet was inflated. A lateral incision was made. Dissection was carried down to the fibula...

    1/30/09: Mr. Brien returns for evaluation of his right ankle ORIF. The staples were removed and the cast was removed. The incisions look great.

    2/2/09: I had a long talk with the patient about the fact that we will need to remove those syndesmotic screws at some point. For now, I would like to keep him on nonweightbearing and simply work on range of motion.

    2/27/09: [Mr. Brien] is doing well considering the severity of his injury.

    Radiograph shows excellent position of the ankle internal fixation. Exam shows intact neurovascular status of the right ankle and foot.

    The patient is going to begin 50% weightbearing on the right ankle. He is aware of the possibility of posttraumatic arthritis.

    4/20/09: Mr. Brien returns for evaluation of his right ankle. I took the staples out of the right ankle at the site where we removed the
    syndesmotic screws two weeks ago. The patient is going to increase his ambulation with full weightbearing and physical therapy...

    Mr. Brien returns for evaluation of his severe right ankle fracture. He is making steady progress.

    Physical examination: Demonstrates good range of motion. There is only slight swelling of the ankle.

    Plan: The patient will increase his ambulation...

    8/10/09: Mr. Brien returns for follow-up of his
    severe right ankle fracture. Examination shows excellent range of motion of the ankle.

    Mr. Brien returns for evaluation of his right ankle fracture. Examination shows mild swelling of the ankle.

    Impression: Doing well following ORIF of a
    severe right ankle fracture.

    Plan: Mr. Brien will return to see me in six months.

    Krampus - Scourge of the Sinful

    Christmas. The season of carols, candy canes, and Krampus. Certainly you know who Krampus is! Wikipedia definitely does:
    Krampus is a mythical creature who accompanies Saint Nicholas in various regions of the world during the Christmas season. The word Krampus originates from the Old High German word for claw (Krampen). In the Alpine regions, Krampus is represented by a demon-like creature accompanying Saint Nicholas. Krampus acts in conjunction with Saint Nicholas; the latter gives gifts to good children, while the Krampus gives warnings and punishments to the bad children. Traditionally, young men dress up as the Krampus in the first two weeks of December, particularly in the evening of December 5, and roam the streets frightening children and women with rusty chains and bells. In some rural areas the tradition also includes birching by Krampus, especially of young females.
    Certainly you know what "birching" is!
    Birching is a corporal punishment with a birch rod, typically applied to the recipient's bare buttocks, although occasionally to the back and/or shoulders.
    This medieval woodcut illustrates:

    Or how about these more modern renditions?

    Nothing like a dose of Teutonic cheer.
    Ah, what fun (though not as much fun as St. Nick seems to be having, peering through that window).

    Of course, in Dutch folklore, we have a similar, though less diabolical, character: Black Peter (or Zwarte Piet).
    Although it is said that the origins of Zwarte Piet are unknown, it seems most plausible that Zwarte Piet is a continuation of the much longer held tradition of depicting Sinterklaas in the company of a dark skinned man, thought to be the Devil. He is also depicted as the slave of Sinterklaas. This was due to the pervasive belief amongst Europeans that the Devil would resemble a Moor....

    According to myths dating to the beginning of the 19th century, Saint Nicholas (Sinterklaas) operated by himself or in the companionship of a devil. Having triumphed over evil, it was said that on Saint Nicholas Eve, the devil was shackled and made his slave. A devil as a helper of the Saint can also still be found in Austrian Saint Nicholas tradition....

    Zwarte Piet is often portrayed as a mischievous but rarely a mean-spirited character. Parents used to tell their children that if they have been good, Zwarte Piet will bring them gifts and sweets, but if they have been bad, Piet will scoop them up, stuff them in his huge dufflebag and spirit them away to Spain as punishment. Though this is increasingly uncommon nowadays, he can still carry some type of whip or scourge (called a "roe"), especially a birch, which could be used for birching or in modern words, to chastise children who have been too naughty to deserve presents.
    Okay, okay, enough with the birching. (Interesting side note: some claim that Santa wields a whip based on this tradition. Yes, and to drive his sleigh.)

    Here in the States, we've made Christmas so joyful, so sanitary. Let's not lose sight of Krampus and all the things he represents (pain, punishment, retribution). This video should help get you into the true holiday spirit.

    Remember: He's making a list and checking it twice. Gonna find out who's naughty or nice. Santa Claus -- and his
    sadistic, unforgiving compatriot Krampus -- are coming to town.

    Thursday, December 3, 2009

    Yippee, the Recession's Over!

    This past week brought some presumably good news: the national unemployment rate dipped from 10.2 to 10 percent. Naturally, everyone (except for those annoying skeptics) hailed the end of the recession and the start of a long-sought recovery.

    Here's what we can expect...

    From a Dec. 7 story in USA Today:
    [S]ome experts predict [that temporary workers] could constitute up to a quarter of the workforce in a few years.... Gary Mathiason, vice chairman of Littler, the No. 1 employment law firm, predicts half the jobs created in the recovery will be filled by contractors, consultants and other temps.
    In other words, a massive segment of the workforce -- categorized as "employed" -- will be either underemployed or living precariously from one transient temp/consulting/contract job to the next (remember: when one of those jobs end, you can't collect unemployment benefits). In short, we're becoming a society of day laborers.

    From a Dec. 1 AP story -- "New $100 Billion Safety Net for Jobless in Works":

    Many economists say increasing or extending unemployment payments is among the most efficient ways to jump-start the economy. It's easy to do and the people getting the benefits typically spend the money quickly. With the economy in a fragile recovery, cutting off benefits could be harmful.

    "It would significantly raise the risk of falling back into recession next year," said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's

    Not all economists agree, however, especially if the benefits are financed by adding to the nation's $12 trillion debt. There's also evidence that unemployment insurance actually raises the jobless rate slightly because some people don't look for work as diligently as they do when they're on it.

    "There are two downsides to extending unemployment benefits. One is the higher budget deficits that you get. Two is that unemployment benefits create a disincentive for some people to go back to work," said Keith Hennessey, an economic adviser to former President George W. Bush.

    What can you say about all those shiftless slugs out there, reveling in their "handouts," whiling away their days watching Oprah and eating bonbons? Guess there's no incentive in losing your house.

    We're not out of the woods yet, as Robert Reich relates in "The Truth About Jobs that No One Wants to Tell You":
    [T]en percent unemployment really means twenty percent underemployment or anxious employment. All of which translates directly into late payments on mortgages, credit cards, auto and student loans, and loss of health insurance. It also means sleeplessness for tens of millions of Americans.
    Count me in (the recession's shunted my family into a limbo of uncertainty, insomnia, and impending disintegration).

    That sourpuss Robert Reich (again) on the "The Economic Reality that No One Wants to Talk About":

    The basic assumption that jobs will eventually return when the economy recovers is probably wrong. Some jobs will come back, of course. But the reality that no one wants to talk about is a structural change in the economy that's been going on for years but which the Great Recession has dramatically accelerated.

    Under the pressure of this awful recession, many companies have found ways to cut their payrolls for good. They've discovered that new software and computer technologies have made workers in Asia and Latin America just about as productive as Americans, and that the Internet allows far more work to be efficiently outsourced abroad.

    This means many Americans won't be rehired unless they're willing to settle for much lower wages and benefits. Today's official unemployment numbers hide the extent to which Americans are already on this path. Among those with jobs, a large and growing number have had to accept lower pay as a condition for keeping them. Or they've lost higher-paying jobs and are now in a new ones that pays less.

    Yet reducing unemployment by cutting wages merely exchanges one problem for another. We'll get jobs back but have more people working for pay they consider inadequate, more working families at or near poverty, and widening inequality. The nation will also have a harder time restarting the economy because so many more Americans lack the money they need to buy all the goods and services the economy can produce.

    So let's be clear: The goal isn't just more jobs. It's more jobs with good wages....

    Without... productivity-enhancing investments, a steadily increasing number of Americans will be priced out of competition in world economy. More and more Americans will face a Hobson's choice of no job or a job with lousy wages.

    Which means folks will fall into one of two camps: the miserably unemployed or the miserably employed. Among the latter, I know a number who are aching to be laid off. For them, a stint on the dole represents a godsend next to a gulag of 60-hour workweeks, eviscerated benefits, and endless threats.

    Sure, they're "grateful to have a job." They're also deeply resentful -- tired of toiling under grueling, 19th-century conditions. They fantasize about having a heart-to-heart with the boss, where they can finally, triumphantly say: "
    Do me a favor. Get it over with. Can me."

    Which ties back to findings presented in my Nov. 24 post -- by and large, the employed are way stressed out... cashing in sick days and courting professional assistance. Survey results from HR and benefits consultant Watson Wyatt show that:
    Stressed-out workers are calling in sick more often and turning to employee assistance programs for help in greater numbers in the wake of layoffs at many firms.
    Not surprisingly: "78 percent of employers cited 'excessive work hours' as a leading cause of worker stress." (How nice of companies to offer EAP services to lessen that stress... a little like a man who beats his wife but hands her a Band-Aid afterward).

    No question: it's bad for the survivors (a.k.a. people who are still working). However, they, at least, can avail themselves of EAP services. Who do the unemployed turn to? How do they cope? It's hardly as though they have discretionary income to squander on counseling. ("Honey, do we pay the therapist or do we eat?")

    For the last word, a sobering, non-sugar-coated assessment from Elizabeth Warren, weighing in on "America Without a Middle Class":
    America today has plenty of rich and super-rich. But it has far more families who did all the right things, but who still have no real security. Going to college and finding a good job no longer guarantee economic safety. Paying for a child's education and setting aside enough for a decent retirement have become distant dreams. Tens of millions of once-secure middle class families now live paycheck to paycheck, watching as their debts pile up and worrying about whether a pink slip or a bad diagnosis will send them hurtling over an economic cliff.

    Tuesday, November 24, 2009

    This Recession Is a Killer

    Earlier today, I came across some jolting news -- "Early Data Suggest Suicides Are Rising":
    [T]he number of suicides in the U.S. crept up during the worst recession in decades... The precise reasons for the rise in suicides aren't yet known. But suicide rates have historically risen during tough economic times, when unemployment is high, suicide experts say....

    "We're hearing from people who might not have sought help before," said John Draper, project director [for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline]. Some crisis centers note that financial problems outpace depression as reasons for the calls, he said. "There's a lot more anxiety and fear related to paying bills and finding a job. Certainly there's some hopelessness about the future...."

    The number of suicides tends to rise with a state's unemployment rate, said Christopher J. Ruhm, an economist at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, who has studied the health effects of recessions. His research suggests that for every one percentage point increase in a state's unemployment rate, the number of suicides increases 1.3%.
    Good to know, living in a state with an 11% unemployment rate. And what about "suicide expert"? There's some job. (All jokes aside, those verses from the Moody Blues' "Question" keep playing in my head: "In the grey of the morning, my mind becomes confused, between the dead and the sleeping and the road that I must choose.")

    I'm reminded of mass suicides in history -- where things get so awful, suicide becomes a preferable route. Consider (as Wikipedia does) Masada and Okinawa:
    • The rampart [assault ramp] was complete in the spring of 73, after approximately two to three months of siege, allowing the Romans to finally breach the wall of the fortress with a battering ram on April 16. When they entered the fortress, however, the Romans discovered that its 960 inhabitants had set all the buildings but the food storerooms ablaze and committed mass suicide rather than face certain capture, defeat, slavery or execution by their enemies.
    • With the impending victory of American troops, civilians often committed mass suicide, urged on by the Japanese soldiers who told locals that victorious American soldiers would go on a rampage of killing and raping. Ryukyu Shimpo, one of the two major Okinawan newspapers, wrote in 2007: "There are many Okinawans who have testified that the Japanese Army directed them to commit suicide. There are also people who have testified that they were handed grenades by Japanese soldiers (to blow themselves up)."Some of the civilians, having been induced by Japanese propaganda to believe that U.S. soldiers were barbarians who committed horrible atrocities, killed their families and themselves to avoid capture. Some of them threw themselves and their family members from the cliffs where the Peace Museum now resides.
    With the recession as bad as it is, it's no wonder that Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs), like crisis centers, are getting more calls. Surveys conducted by EAP provider ComPsych found that
    • Some 92 percent of employees say financial worries are keeping them up at night... Only 8 percent of employees described themselves as “not worried.”
    • More than half of U.S. workers said their work atmosphere felt worried due to the economy... Of respondents, 16 percent described their workplace as "panicky....""Workers are shouldering more work due to layoffs, and finding it difficult not to be distracted by future uncertainties," said Dr. Richard A. Chaifetz, Chairman and CEO of ComPsych. "We have seen a record number of calls for on-site counselors due to layoffs as well as requests for ongoing stress management counseling."
    If it's this lousy for folks who are working, you can imagine how stressful it is for people who aren't. You'd think, if a company had any heart, they'd at least extend EAP services to individuals who are let go. Consider this proposal from Perspectives, another EAP provider:
    EAPs can help HR executives design a plan that meets the organization’s objectives while treating employees with compassion, consideration and respect. That plan may include transition tactics, having an EAP counselor on hand to help mitigate the downsizing effort and extending EAP benefits to the departing employees at no cost to them.

    In fact, extending your EAP benefits for up to 18 months may be one of the most rewarding tactics you deploy – because it’s extremely cost effective (costing far less than other employee benefits) and helps to resolve potential conflicts before they escalate.

    Offering an extended EAP and helping employees understand the value and benefit of it beyond their employment is an important measure that is often overlooked. Not only does the EAP help minimize the risk of employee retaliation by allowing them to “vent” natural emotions like shock, resentment and denial to a trained, qualified third-party source that respects their situation, but it helps them come to terms with the change. The EAP can also help former employees refocus on potential growth opportunities and next steps by guiding them through development of a personal transition plan and providing resources for job searches, retraining and education.

    A wonderful idea, especially as this "recession problem" isn't going away soon (some experts predict that the unemployment rate will keep rising until summer 2010). Despite a few promising indicators, there doesn't seem to be any foreseeable relief on the job front. A Nov. 25 story in the Washington Post tells us that
    The unemployment rate will remain elevated for years to come, according to a forecast released Tuesday by the Federal Reserve... Top Fed officials expect the unemployment rate to remain in the 6.8 to 7.5 percent range at the end of 2012 and said it could take "about five or six years" from now for economic activity to return to normal.

    The math is simple: The U.S. economy is capable of growing at roughly 2.5 to 3 percent a year, thanks to population growth and technological improvement, and needs to grow faster than that to create large numbers of jobs and significantly improved standards of living.... the five current Fed governors and 12 presidents of regional Fed banks expect growth of 2.5 to 3.5 percent in 2010 -- which would be enough to bring the unemployment rate down only slightly.

    "Business contacts reported that they would be cautious in their hiring and would continue to aggressively seek cost savings," said minutes of the Fed policymaking meeting earlier this month, which were released alongside the forecast. The officials "expected that businesses would be able to meet any increases in demand in the near term by raising their employees' hours and boosting productivity, thus delaying the need to add to their payrolls."
    Which raises the critical question: "With such an anemic forecast, what do people have to feel hopeful about?" With dwindling assets and limited options, how long can unemployed folks hold out? Will a call to an EAP or a visit with a counselor save your marriage or your house? What can you realistically expect from employers, mortgage companies, and the government (the same entities that helped get us into this mess)?

    Have no fear -- the White House is hosting a "jobs summit." As the Wall Street Journal reports: "Mr. Obama invited business and labor leaders, as well as academics and economists" (all of whom are
    , presumably, employed).

    Democrats in Congress say they hope to pass a bill in coming months aimed at creating jobs. White House aides are being more circumspect. "Hiring often takes time to catch up to economic growth," said Valerie Jarrett, an adviser on business issues to President Barack Obama. "At the same time, there are limits to what government can and should do, even during such difficult times...." Ms. Jarret said the aim is to create "a climate that will spur short-term job creation." Other officials say Mr. Obama is seeking ways to work with the private sector but will offer no concrete proposals at the event.

    If that doesn't instill confidence, I don't know what does ("limits to what the government can do" -- tell that to the poor sucker facing foreclosure).

    So we return to that constant, dispiriting drumbeat: What can people do? Where can they turn?

    In this season of thanksgiving, I say "Turn to the bird." Not just any bird -- a heritage turkey.
    Heritage turkeys can be differentiated from other domestic turkeys in that they are... raised in a manner that more closely matches the natural behavior and life cycle of wild turkeys [as opposed to their unfortunate "industrial agriculture" cousins].
    We learn from the Heritage Turkey Foundation that
    Most breeds of heritage turkey were developed in the United States and Europe over hundreds of years, and were identified in the American Poultry Association's turkey Standard of Perfection of 1874. These breeds include the Standard Bronze, Bourbon Red, Narragansett, Jersey Buff, Slate, Black Spanish, and White Holland. Later added to the standard were the Royal Palm, White Midget and Beltsville Small White.

    Large corporations have dominated turkey production and breeding since the 1960's, choosing the Broad Breasted Whites because of high breast meat production in a short period. But Heritage Breeds have been quietly gaining a renewed market and respect due to their flavor and superior biological diversity.

    An article in the New York Times concurs:
    Although these breeds make up far less than one percent of the 265 million turkeys produced in America... many chefs consider them the best thing to eat on Thanksgiving.
    I understand: in the turkey world, this holiday is shorthand for slaughter. Like their human counterparts, millions of turkeys are "getting the axe." But if you're going to gorge yourself, why not choose a heritage bird, the "Standard of Perfection"? Go on. Treat yourself. (And don't forget that, albeit temporary, bonus of the post-meal tryptophan trance -- the welcome stupor, the blessed Lethe and Nepenthe where you're blissfully crashed out on the couch, oblivious to setback or sorrow.)

    No matter our crushing concerns, Thanksgiving provides an opportunity to recognize, and appreciate, the simple things. Time with family and friends. A savory, bounteous meal. And, by Jove, it helps put things in perspective.
    If you think you have it bad, just remember: you're luckier than that big bird -- golden, glorious, dead, weighing down the table.

    Monday, November 23, 2009

    Perils and Possibilities

    This from Craigslist:
    Tails Pet Media Group, Inc. is seeking a part-time editor to join our growing collection of award-winning pet magazines.... We are seeking a motivated, detail-oriented journalist who enjoys writing about animals and is capable of assisting in editorial-related tasks. Main duties include writing local pet news, maintaining and compiling local pet resources, and assisting in content management for website.... Candidates who are involved in the Chicago pet community or who have pet(s) are encouraged to apply.
    I'm familiar with Tails (the magazine). I used to get my copy in the recreational center where my daughter had her tennis lessons. I particularly remember the August 2009 issue on pet loss: what happens to the dog, cat, or iguana who survive us? Who will look after them?
    According to Chicago estate planning attorney Lindsey Markus (, 40 states and the District of Columbia currently have pet-trust laws enacted or statutes allowing for the creation of a pet trust....

    It is imperative to establish a legally binding method of ensuring that your pet is cared for if you die or become disabled. In addition to making informal, temporary arrangements for the care of your pet, you must also make formal arrangements that specifically address the long-term care of your pet.
    This is serious stuff -- I'm glad Tails brought it to my attention. Pet owners agonize over finding a reliable pet sitter for the weekend. What if your pooch or pussycat needs a permanent sitter... for years? That's the scenario if you're out of commission or you've "slipped this mortal coil." If you value your pet, you have to look at contingency planning.

    Tails also has a delightful site. How can you resist celebrities and their pets, Tails' Reader Poll ("What do you think should be the maximum number of pets allowed per household?") or the Furry Forum ("Our experts answer your questions")?

    When I saw that Tails had an opening,
    I thought "I know these folks. I like their work. Neat job." Until I reached the end of the ad. "This is an on-site position" (their office is located too far from my home in the hinterlands) and the "pay is $10-$12 an hour depending on experience" ("Depending on experience"? Sheesh. Unemployment compensation "pays" $12/hour.)

    I didn't have long to bemoan the loss. Later that day, I received a
    chilling email:
    The Dairyland Race Track in Kenosha, Wisconsin, will be closing on December 31, 2009. Some 900 Greyhounds need to be adopted or they will be euthanized. Only 6 weeks to get this task done.
    As a pet owner, I was alarmed. As a greyhound admirer, I was appalled (greyhounds are the best argument for intelligent design). To think: used for sport, then tossed aside.

    Thankfully, euthanasia isn't a given. There seems to be another, encouraging side to the story (if we can believe it) -- in a Nov. 19 press release, Dairyland Greyhound Park claims that

    Wisconsin State law provides that the greyhounds are to be adopted to new homes, sent to another racetrack for racing purposes or returned to their owners. Our kennel compound will remain open until all greyhounds are properly placed.
    We do not know at this current time how many greyhounds in total will become available for adoption until we finish racing on December 31st, 2009.
    I'm no authority on Wisconsin State law. I just hope the race track honors its word. (For those interested, a Nov. 10 article in the Racine Journal Times discusses the track's closing and its impact, including the loss of 180 jobs.)

    If you know of anyone who might want to adopt one of these magnificent creatures: "Contact Joanne Kehoe, Operations Director at 312.559.0887 or the Dairyland Race Track Adoption Center direct at (262) 612-825."

    I'd consider adopting one of my own. Because I'm unemployed, I have ample time to walk a dog (and the exercise would do me good). However, we already have enough pets. And, as we know, greyhounds are sight dogs prized for their coursing (
    that astounding, innate ability to spot and chase game). Put him/her in a household of cats... The last thing I need is a 60-pound racing machine rocketing through the dining room. (Others contend that "It is a myth that no greyhound can live with cats. Many greyhounds and cats live happily together.")

    While we debate whether the "greyhound can abide with the tabby," let's end with this uplifting video on greyhound adoption.

    Sunday, November 22, 2009

    Ways Not to Earn a Living

    The (un)employment news grows increasingly dire, especially here on Chicago's South Side. On a statewide level:
    The Illinois Department of Employment Security reported that the seasonally adjusted unemployment rose from 10.5 percent to 11 percent between September and October, bringing the rate to its highest mark since August 1983.... Maureen O'Donnell, the department's director, said the "slowing pace of job loss and other leading economic indicators bring with it cautious optimism." But, she said, "they are of little comfort to those seeking meaningful employment during this national recession."
    As for the South Side:

    According to a Chicago Reporter analysis of employment data collected in the [U.S. Census Bureau's] 2008 American Community Survey, the collective unemployment rate for South Side neighborhoods Auburn Gresham, Englewood, Washington Heights and West Englewood was 23.2 percent. Those four community areas are grouped together in what the Census Bureau defines as a public use microdata area -- or PUMA. With a rate of 28.5 percent, only the PUMA covering the northeast corner of Detroit had a higher level of unemployment in 2008, according to the Reporter's analysis.

    Granted, I don't live in any of the four neighborhoods cited, but this is still sobering news. With so many people unemployed and so few jobs, folks are starving for work. Heck, their homes, their families, their very sanity are hanging in the balance. They'll do anything for cash. (Listen and you'll hear. That restless, irrepressible cacophony: "What can I offer? What can I sell?")

    And the predators out there know -- jobless Joes and Janes are highly susceptible to scams. In its "12 Scams of Christmas," security company McAfee includes:

    Job search related scams: With the [national] unemployment rate at 10.2 percent, there are plenty of job seekers looking for work. Beware of online offers for high paying jobs or at-home money making schemes. Some of these sites ask for money up front, which is a good way for criminals not only to steal your "set up fee" but misuse your credit card too. [McAfee's David] Marcus said that some "get rich quick" sites are all about money laundering, asking you to accept an inbound financial transfer and pay them.
    Take the bait -- you end up even worse off than before.

    It's not surprising that, with so much at stake, the unemployed resort to extreme measures... like donating organs. (I was recently reminded of this by the Illinois Secretary of State, who invited me to donate an organ or two should I have a disastrous car accident.) Consider this scenario from Park Chan-wook's Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (the first part of the Vengeance Trilogy, which includes Oldboy):

    Ryu, a deaf-mute, works in a factory to support his ailing sister who is in desperate need of a kidney transplant. Ryu tries to donate one of his kidneys to his sister, but is told that as his blood type doesn't match that of his sister, he is not a suitable donor. After being laid off from his job by the factory boss, Ryu contacts a black market organ dealer who agrees to sell him a kidney suitable for his sister in exchange for 10,000,000 Korean won (approximately $10,000), plus one of Ryu's own kidneys. He takes the severance pay from his factory job and offers the money to the organ dealers, who take the money and one of his kidneys, but then disappear completely. Three weeks later, Ryu learns from his doctor that a kidney has been found for his sister and that the operation will cost 10,000,000 won, but since the organ dealers stole his money, he won't be able to pay for it.

    One tough break, eh?

    Pretty grim, but not as bad as the shenanigans taking place in Peru:

    A gang in the remote Peruvian jungle has been killing people for their fat, police charged Thursday, draining it from their corpses and offering it on the black market for use in cosmetics. Medical experts expressed skepticism that a major market for fat might exist.... Yale University dermatology professor Dr. Lisa Donofrio speculated that a small market may exist for "human fat extracts" to keep skin supple, though scientifically such treatments are "pure baloney...."

    [P]olice received a tip four months ago that human fat from the jungle was being sold in Lima. In August... police infiltrated the band and later obtained some of the amber fluid, which a police lab confirmed as human fat.

    On Nov. 3, police arrested Serapio Marcos Veramendi and Enedina Estela in a Lima bus station with a quart (a liter) of human fat in a soda bottle. Their testimony led to the arrest of [suspect Elmer Segundo] Castillejos three days later at the same bus station.... Police named the band the "Pishtacos" after a Peruvian myth dating to pre-Columbian times of men who killed to extract human fat....

    Medical authorities reached by The Associated Press said human fat is used in anti-wrinkle treatments -- but is always extracted from the patient being treated, usually from the stomach or buttocks.

    "There would be a risk of immunological reaction that could lead to life-threatening consequences" if fat from someone else were used, said Dr. Neil Sadick, a professor of dermatology at Cornell Weill Medical College in New York.

    Dr. Adam Katz, a professor of plastic surgery at the University of Virginia medical school, was incredulous when told about the Peruvian ring.

    "I can't see why there would be a black market for fat," he said. "It doesn't make any sense at all because in most countries we can get fat so readily and in such amounts from people who are willing and ready to donate that I don't see why there would ever be a black market for fat, of all tissues."

    Unspeakable acts. Obscene, unpardonable conduct. Heartless, savage behavior reminiscent of some tawdry drive-in feature (I Drain Your Fat). What's more: the killings were both gruesome and misguided. How very pointless -- to go through all that and there's no market for your product.

    A lesson to us all: no matter how desperate you become, pause a moment and think. Retain your decency. Do your research. Determine what's truly profitable.

    Last night I had a dream. I was in some dusty village bazaar. A man was selling tropical birds. An old woman brayed about her brightly colored blankets. And me? I was hawking a bottle of liquid fat... and there were no takers.