Monday, August 31, 2015

Oliver Sacks, R. I. P.

Goodbye to Oliver Wolf Sacks (1933-2015).

The man filled his life with good works. He filled the lives of his readers with his humanistic appreciation of the life energy and the life potential in the afflicted persons who were the subjects of his books and, sometimes, the beneficiaries of his work as a neurologist.

If you haven’t read The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat, get to it. You have plenty of time to read it, and, if you’re like me, when you put it down you’ll realize you have new understandings of human-ness and of our marvelous will to live and of our sometimes very mysterious capacities to do so.

Sacks was a raconteur sans pareil and a peerless empath. He had gifts that were on full display in his books.

Read any one of them. You can’t go wrong.

Oliver Sacks, requiescat in pace.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

When safety standards were more interesting….

In 1912, testing the ruggedness and protective features of a football helmet was a fairly straightforward process:

1912 product safety test

Find someone who knew how to simulate diving through the defensive line, strap the helmet on him and do the test.

William "Pudge" Heffelfinger
Football already was starting to hit the big time in 1912. You might say that professional football got started on November 12, 1892, when the Allegheny Athletic Association paid William “Pudge” Heffelfinger $500 under the table to help the AAA team beat the Pittsburgh Athletic Club, 4-0 (touchdowns were worth 4 points at that time). Nobody worried too much about head or brain injuries back then.

The thing that bothers me most about the safety test picture is that the three safety consultants appear to be enjoying themselves a bit overmuch. Of course, they didn’t have TV back then.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Make low-wage employers pay for their workers’ welfare

Almost 75% of the folks who get aid for the poor are in families headed by someone who works. 
That’s right. Most of the $150 billion that state and federal governments give to poor people goes to poor people who live with a working head of household.

Let’s call it what it is: public assistance for the poor is a great big subsidy to employers who pay low wages.

As the New York Times editorial board put it:
“…the safety net, though strained and inadequate, is functioning. Low-earner tax credits, for instance, create an incentive to work by tying cash assistance to earnings. Other programs enable people to work by subsidizing health care, child care and transportation.
“The problem is that as labor standards have eroded, allowing profitable corporations to pay chronically low wages, taxpayers are not only supporting the working poor, as intended, but also providing a huge subsidy for employers by picking up the difference between what workers earn and what they need to meet basic living costs. The low-wage business model has essentially turned public aid into a form of corporate welfare.”

This isn’t doubletalk. If all those actually poor workers earning minimum wage at McDonald’s weren’t getting a welfare check, they’d be too sick and too undernourished to show up for work.

The low wage employers are taking full advantage of the fact that many of their workers have a welfare check to fall back on so they can pay the rent and feed the baby. If welfare did not exist, these companies would have to pay higher wages to get a work force that could actually show up for work.

Let’s start thinking about how to charge the cost of welfare back to these employers, and stop subsidizing their bottom line.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

The wisdom of H. L. Mencken

Mencken didn’t mind drawing blood when he offered his thoughts in public.

I don’t know of anyone who has or had such seething, scything wit.

Here’s Mencken considering the unexceptional talents of President Calvin Coolidge (served 1923-1929):
“There were no thrills while he reigned, but neither were there any headaches. He had no ideas, and he was not a nuisance.”

A Coolidge biographer observed “…he did represent the genius of the average…”


On the other hand, a laid-back Average Joe kind of politician might be a welcome relief for a little while….

Now, if Coolidge had had more hair, who knows?….

Ooops, wrong photo op

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Poor folks buy unhealthy food

This isn’t surprising but it is shocking.

Fifty years ago less than 15% of Americans were obese. Today about one-third of Americans are obese. In the last fifty years the overall cost of food has fallen about 40%.

You might simply conclude that food is cheaper so we’re eating more, and there is dreadful truth in that.

Evan Horowitz at the Boston Sunday Globe points to a troubling additional truth: poor people are buying sugary snacks and other sweetened unhealthy foods because those are the calories they can afford.

The prices of sugar-laden foods have dropped about 7.5% in the last 25 years, while the prices of fresh fruits and vegetables have gone up about 16%. Sugar is a carbohydrate that packs a lot of calories—you can get more energy per dollar from sweets than you can from bananas and arugula. If you’re pinching pennies, it makes some sense to buy donuts instead of cucumbers.

Try to imagine what you would buy at the grocery store if your current food budget would be cut in half.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

Monday, August 24, 2015

How much of your work is useless?

Are American companies generating a lot of make-work that keeps people on the clock for long hours without actually doing a whole lot of useful stuff?

Fifty years ago the popular media speculated about “automation” and bountiful technology that would lead to steadily increasing leisure time in the United States, and asked if the 30-hour workweek for full-time workers would become reality.

Alas. You can pop that balloon. Americans notoriously work longer hours than just about everyone in the Western Hemisphere.

Now Tim Wu at is asking why that is so.

He points out that measured productivity has risen hugely in recent decades, women have massively entered the workforce and our population has grown 76%.

What’s going on?

Wu mentions the unmentionable: are a lot of our hard-working white-collar professionals doing useless work while they’re putting in 50 or 60 or 80-plus hours a week?

Specifically, he says:
“[Consider] the question of whether the American system, by its nature, resists the possibility of too much leisure, even if that’s what people actually want, and even if they have the means to achieve it. In other words, the long hours may be neither the product of what we really want nor the oppression of workers by the ruling class, the old Marxist theory. They may be the byproduct of systems and institutions that have taken on lives of their own and serve no one’s interests. That can happen if some industries have simply become giant make-work projects that trap everyone within them…
“…in white-collar jobs, the amount of work can expand infinitely through the generation of false necessities—that is, reasons for driving people as hard as possible that have nothing to do with real social or economic needs.
“…The fact that employees are now always reachable eliminates what was once a natural barrier of sorts, the idea that work was something that happened during office hours or at the physical office. With no limits, work becomes like a football game where the whistle is never blown.

Let’s put this in simple words: are managers and bosses forcing their employees to spend time doing stuff that doesn’t really contribute to the mission and success of their business?

Did your boss ever make you do something that was useless or redundant?

Did you ever sit through a meeting that was a complete waste of time?

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

“…another little piece of my heart…”

On the one hand, prose; on the other hand, atomic prose.

Likewise, poetry and atomic poetry.

Getting’ right down to the real nitty gritty is a deep mystery and an elevating challenge for any writer.

Narrative Magazine recently posted a brief bit about “six-word stories.” I quote:
“William Faulkner famously said that a novelist is a failed short story writer, and a short story writer is a failed poet.”

Here’s a six-word story from Hemingway Himself:
“For sale: Baby shoes, never worn.”

Another, from Alistair Daniel, a British writer:
Without thinking, I made two cups.”

Try this one, I think you can sing it: (1)
“…another little piece of my heart…”

(1) From "Piece of My Heart" by Jerry Ragovoy and Bert Berns, immortalized by Janis Joplin

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Beatles’ first US concert: short and sweet

The Beatles started their first North American concert tour 51 years ago, on August 19, 1964, in San Francisco’s Cow Palace.

That first concert lasted 38 minutes. The Fab Four had to leave the arena under cover—in an ambulance—because the 17,130 fans went berserk.

They played 12 songs:

“Twist and Shout”

“You Can’t Do That”

“All My Loving”

”She Loves You”

“Things We Said Today”

“Roll Over Beethoven”

“Can’t Buy Me Love”

“If I Fell”

“I Want to Hold Your Hand”


“A Hard Day’s Night”

“Long Tall Sally”

My fave is “Roll Over Beethoven.”  It’s “a rockin’ rhythm record.” I guess you already know that.

By the way, Chuck Berry wrote the song in 1956.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

Friday, August 21, 2015

"The someday, faraway passages"

My friend, Bill, a writer and a poet, planted a lovely flower on his blog yesterday and I’m happy to share it.

I think it has melancholy, and resignation, and he makes a little room for a bit of vestigial willingness to live. Here’s an excerpt:

The want to be, could be,
should be
is too hard to be
and easier left for
another day
that’s faraway,

Take a look at his blog and read his poem, “The someday, faraway passages,” here

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Let’s redefine “work at home”

My hat’s off to the folks who have figured out how to “work from home” and to their companies that respect their employees and encourage such flexibility in the workplace.

I think most folks should be fighting to the bitter end if “work from home” means working your regular shift in the office and then checking the company email at 11 p.m. or responding to a text from the boss at 5 a.m.

The Gallup Poll reported recently that 37% of American workers say they “telecommute” an average of two days per month. Gallup asked “Have you ever telecommuted, that is, worked from your home using a computer to communicate for your job?”

Now, that’s a significantly limited definition of “working from home.” I think most folks would describe “working from home” as spending the day at home, doing the kind of work one would do at the office. Of course that involves communicating, but most jobs involve a whole lot more than that.

I suspect that many of those 37% really aren’t “working from home.” Instead, they’re checking email and swapping text messages and taking calls that may or may not be vitally important to their companies, and maybe they’re doing it voluntarily, and maybe they’re not.

I think too many folks are trapped in involuntary servitude by managers and companies who wrongly insist that being “on call” and “checking in” after regular work hours are part of the job.

I think too many folks are “working from home” and not getting paid for it.

I think “working from home” is supposed to be a benefit for both the company and the employee.

If you’re “working from home,” how does it feel to you?

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

The wisdom of Theodore Roosevelt (part 5)

The most practical kind of politics is the politics of decency.

Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919)
26th President of the United States

Generally I respect the pithy wisdom of the first President Roosevelt.

In this case, I have to say I don’t know what Teddy was smokin’ when he uttered these words.

In his day, politics was every bit as roughshod as it is today, even though candidates weren’t able to make asses of themselves on Twitter and we didn’t have any faux debates on television.

Today some of us amuse ourselves with over-indulgence in the political arena, and some of us think we’re watching the slow death of democracy.

The politics of decency isn’t on the mind of any candidate, as far as I can see.

Honestly, I’ve given up wishing for it.

Maybe we need another Teddy with a big stick to bang some sense into the heads of the frontrunners, because that decency dog don’t hunt no more.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

No surprise here

Making profits and the foibles of human nature don’t seem to have any trouble co-existing, and they have done so for a long time.

I came across this somewhat incidental observation in a book on the history of clocks and timekeeping:
“This maritime struggle was linked to commercial rivalry. For both countries the eighteenth century was a period of rapid growth of trade and competition in what were known as colonial wares: sugar, coffee, tea, tobacco—what I like to call Europe’s ‘big fix.’ “  

The author, David Landes, was referring to the long-running naval policy and tactical conflicts between England and France.

The thing that struck me is: all four of those “colonial wares” are addictive commodities. There wasn’t any difficulty about selling the stuff. The rivalry was all about who would transport it from the colonies to Europe, and who would cash in when it was finally sold to the end users.

Eighteenth century mercantilism had many dimensions, and this was one of them.

David Landes, Revolution in Time: Clocks and the Making of the Modern World (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1983), 159.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Energy company profits are simply theft

If fossil fuel energy companies actually paid the true economic costs of their business, they wouldn’t be profitable.

Another way to say this is: Big Energy is making big profits because it isn’t paying the pass-along costs of global climate change. You’re paying these costs, and your grandchildren will pay them, too.

The pass-along costs are what economists call the “external costs” of producing energy, namely, the dreadful and rapidly worsening impact of greenhouse gases and global climate change and global warming. The energy companies largely escape paying for this environmental damage. That means that somebody else—everybody else—has to pay for it.

Every person in the world and every business and every government is paying these costs, in addition to buying coal and gas and electricity from fossil fuels.

Some basic data has been analyzed by the International Monetary Fund and by the University of Cambridge, click here.

Think of the payment of these external costs as a global subsidy to the energy companies. The IMF estimates the magnitude is more than $5 trillion per year.

The folks at University of Cambridge calculate that coal companies, for example, pass on such economic costs to society that are 200-900 percent higher than their reported profits.

We need a worldwide tax on carbon emissions, paid directly by the companies and consumers that create and benefit from them. We need it now, because we're cooking the planet.

Our grandchildren will be living on this planet. Let’s start cleaning it up.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Woodstock: that was a music thing, right?

The pleasure palace at Woodstock opened 46 years ago, on August 15, 1969.

Wasn’t there. Didn’t do that. Maybe you did. So, you can have my share of the memories.

As it happened, I was at Fort Benning near Columbus, GA, doing officers’ infantry basic training. 

Not saying that was a better way to spend some summer days in August. One thing: seems like we probably had better weather in Georgia, the Woodstockers got rain several times.

Of course, no one is surprised whenever I mention (at least four times in the last 46 years) that I didn’t go to Woodstock. Even if I hadn’t been on active duty, I wouldn’t have gone.

Wasn’t my thing.

But it was a big thing.

Woo hoo.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

To err is….

Well, let’s just talk about mistakes for a sec.

I’ve always tried to live with the conviction that a mistake is a temporary wrong thing….as long as you catch it and fix it. Nothing to get really worried about. Nothing to start a fight about. Often, it’s not really a performance issue in the workplace.

Confucius said much the same thing:
“If you make a mistake and do not correct it, this is a mistake.”

It may seem that this is rather circular and, perhaps, imperiously silly. Still, I think the old teacher was peeling away the layers of the mistake onion—a false step, if corrected, loses its meaning and its impact.

Anybody who never makes a mistake won’t have any idea what I’m talking about.

Here’s another thought, from The Little Corporal:
“Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake.”

Mistakes may indeed be tactical or even strategic—if someone else is making them.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Guacamole is an Aztec word

Long before Jamestown, long before the Roanoke Colony (“Lost Colony”), long before the first English attempts to gain a foothold in the Americas, Spanish explorers and adventurers were hard at work trying to plant the royal flag of Spain in Central America and South America.

On August 13, 1521, Hernán Cortés and his small force captured Tenochtitlán, the capital of the Aztec empire, on the site of present-day Mexico City. This conquest marked the downfall of the Aztecs’ far-flung domain, as Cortés became the de facto ruler.

Before the fall of their capital, the Aztecs’ empire embraced almost 500 small “states” with a population of 5-6 million people. At the pinnacle of Aztec power, the capital city had more than 140,000 inhabitants and was the most densely urban city that ever existed in Mesoamerica.

Disease played a role in the transition of power, as it did later in the conflict of European settlers and Native Americans in North America. An outbreak of smallpox among the Aztecs in 1520 substantially weakened their ability to resist the Spanish conquistadors. Almost 250,000 Aztecs died in the fighting for Tenochtitlán.

By 1530, the Spanish conquerors had renamed the Aztecs’ domain and called it “New Spain.”

The Aztecs had an advanced culture, including sophisticated science and highly developed commerce and arts. Familiar words in our modern conversations can be traced to Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs: these include avocado, chocolate, coyote and guacamole.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Student debt: the wrong solution

I’m supporting Hillary Clinton for president, but I’m not getting behind her recently announced $350 billion plan to get kids through college without piling on the student debt.

The essence of her plan is to throw federal aid to colleges so that students don’t have to borrow money to pay for a degree.

This approach does nothing to investigate and reduce the cost of a degree. It costs too much at too many colleges to finish the degree program. That burden must be changed.

We need to show students how to attend colleges that cost less than average. We need to stop giving federal aid to students who attend colleges with outrageous costs and poor graduation rates. We need to figure out how to offer the essentials of college degree work without paying $50,000 or $60,000 a year.

And by the way, Yahoo Finance makes an interesting point here. Much of the nation’s $1 trillion in student debt is held by graduate students, many of whom are on the hook to pay off more than $100,000. What are they thinking?


Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Big Pharma uses your money to do drug research

The annual budget of the National Institute of Health is about $30 billion. Most of it supports health and drug research. Most of it goes to private companies that develop treatments and drugs that they sell for a profit.

One estimate is that our tax dollars are paying for about 33% of drug research.

The 11 largest Big Pharma companies made about $85 billion in profitss last year. The U. S. drug companies could easily pay back the federal aid that supported their research. Why didn’t they?

The Massachusetts legislature is considering bills to cap some drug prices and force pharmaceutical companies to publish their actual research costs and how much federal money they get for research.

I think that’s a great idea.

Now, as soon as the federal government authorizes the Social Security folks to start negotiating drug prices with the manufacturers, we’ll be ready to take the next step.

Health care costs too much in America. Some folks who provide health care are making too much money doing it.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Science ruins everything

The world and universe we live in is what it is, although some folks insist on their right to believe otherwise.

Let’s be straight here: for example, believing that the earth was made in six days doesn’t make it so.

The reference to 1543 calls to mind the work of Nicolaus Copernicus, a Polish mathematician and astronomer of the Renaissance who startled the Western world by publishing his evidence (De revolutionibus orbium coelestium) of a heliocentric solar system—sun at the center, planets revolving around it. It took a while for that to sink in.

Full disclosure: Copernicus had nothing to say about Santa Claus.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Same old, same old....

Politicians and representative government have been around for a long time in the United States.

The first legislative assembly in the North American colonies was called to order on July 30, 1619 in Jamestown in the Colony of Virginia, with the professed intention of providing “just laws for the happy guiding and governing of the people there inhabiting.”

The Virginia House of Burgesses had 22 members elected initially by the free adult English males in the colony’s 11 boroughs. Soon after the first election Polish and Slovak artisans in the colony were given the franchise.

The first law set the official minimum price of tobacco at three shillings per pound. In the burgesses’ first six-day session, they passed laws prohibiting gambling, drunkenness and “idleness,” and also approved a bill that established mandatory observance of the Sabbath.

Does any of this sound familiar?

Legislation that arbitrarily regulated the price of an important commodity (think “milk”).

Bills aimed at preventing some people from doing some things that are obviously suited to our human nature but don’t measure up to the moral/religious standards of some other people (think “medical or recreational marijuana”).

A law to require everyone to conform with the religious scruples of the dominant group in the community (think “abortion restrictions”).

The Burgesses didn’t have to be concerned with raising gas taxes to fund transportation infrastructure repairs, or the ravages of global climate change, or squabbling about the national debt and “shutting down the government.”

That first legislative assembly got the job done in six days.

Arbitrary, short-sighted, ideologically constrained government was an easier gig in 1619.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

That thing, you know, the “debate”…. says 24 million people watched at least part of the Republican “debate” on Thursday night on Fox News. That’s 24,000,000 adults, about 10 percent of the grown-up population of the United States.

So, how do we assess the performance of the 10 wannabe nominees?

My guess is that about 14 people thought the whole debate was a worthwhile exercise in real-life politics that helped inform some of the electorate in useful ways about the substantial issues in public policy that must be addressed by our elected leaders.

My guess is that the other 23,999,986 viewers had other opinions.

A different debate, different time....

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Homelessness....think again

Here’s some recent data on our fellow Americans who are homeless:

It costs about $87 a day to keep a homeless person in jail.

It costs about $28 a day to take care of a homeless person in a shelter.

Of course the problem of the homeless is not one-dimensional. I don’t suggest that any part of it is easily solved.

It’s obvious that our public policy and our private charitable impulses should be focused on shelters for the homeless, not the hoosegow.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Beguiled by speed….

In early August 1866 the first successful transatlantic telegraph cable was laid on the ocean bottom between Newfoundland and Ireland.

It was literally a world-changing event for the people who lived in North America and Europe.

Imagine that you had wanted to find out, in July 1866, if your Aunt Callie in Liverpool had recovered from her illness, or if your company’s London office had secured the big contract with the wine exporters in France.

The best you could hope for was a three-week turnaround on your letters of inquiry. The speediest steamships operated by the Cunard or White Star lines could manage a top speed of about 14 miles an hour in 1866. New York to London is a 3,459 mile trip. Your letters might cross the ocean in a bit more than 10 days.

Today we don’t marvel any more about being able to text or talk to anyone in the world who owns a cell phone—right now.

Imagine that you could text “Whassup?” to your best friend, Shauna, and in only three weeks she’d get back to you with “Nada, u?”

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Miep Gies saved Anne Frank’s diary

Annelies Marie "Anne" Frank

On August 4, 1944, Anne Frank and her family were arrested by the Gestapo in Amsterdam and sent to their deaths in German concentration camps. Only her father, Otto, survived.

No one knows the name of the Dutch informer who revealed the Franks’ hiding place.

Few people know the name of the brave woman who helped hide and shelter the family before they were captured, and who saved Anne’s heartbreaking diary.

Miep Gies before WWII
Miep Gies (1909-2010)) was one of many stalwart Dutch resisters who hid Jews during World War II in the Netherlands. She was born Hermine Santruschitz in Austria. As a child, she adopted the surname of her foster family in Amsterdam. With her husband and three others who protected Anne and her family, Miep worked for Otto’s father in the building where the Franks hid from July 1942 to August 1944. After the Gestapo raid, she found the 15-year-old girl’s diary in the ransacked rooms where the family had desperately survived.

Miep kept the diary—but never read it—and gave it to Otto when he made his way back to Amsterdam after the war ended.

Here’s a chilling note: Anne had innocently written in her diary the names of all the resisters who concealed and fed her family for so many months. After it was published, Miep told Otto that if she had read the diary after Anne disappeared, she would have destroyed it to protect herself and the other Samaritans of No. 263 Prinsengracht in Amsterdam.

Miep Gies was a brave and wonderful woman. If she had been a curious lady, Anne Frank’s name would have died with her at Bergen-Belsen in early 1945.

The only known video of Anne Frank, as a young girl looking out a second-floor window at the wedding of a neighbor in 1941, see it here

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.