Sunday, February 28, 2021

Sunday morning music


A couple of months ago, I put up a Sunday morning music post with a song from each of the Moody Blues' first seven albums, generally regarded by aficionados as their "core" music.  However, they went on to produce eight more studio albums, as well as many compilations of their past hits.  I thought it might be worthwhile, for the sake of completeness, to include their later albums as well.

"Octave" was released in 1978, after a six-year hiatus since "Seventh Sojourn".  From that album, here's "Driftwood".

"Long Distance Voyager" was released in 1981, and saw the group regain much of its former popularity with a series of hits taken from the album.  I wore out a vinyl LP of the album in South Africa over the rest of that decade - it was one of my favorites.  Here's the closing tracks from that album, "Reflective Smile" and "Veteran Cosmic Rocker".

The group's next album, "The Present", is also one of my favorites, appearing in 1983.  From it, here's "Sorry".

"The Other Side of Life" was released in 1986.  It spawned several hits, including the opening track, "Your Wildest Dreams".

Next week, we'll select a track from each of the group's final four studio albums, and a couple of live performances of some of their classic hits.


Saturday, February 27, 2021

Saturday Snippet: The forgotten rear-echelon stalwarts of the Pacific war


Shortly after the end of World War II, in 1947, a book was published titled "One Damned Island After Another".

It told the story of the US Army Air Corps' Seventh Air Force, which island-hopped its way from Hawaii all the way to Okinawa and Japan by the end of the war.  Theirs was a tale of forgotten heroism, often ignored or neglected by war correspondents due to more "newsworthy" invasions, battles and campaigns.  Nevertheless, the Seventh played a vital role in helping to roll up the Japanese war effort across the Pacific.

I've always looked for the "inside story" in such efforts;  the small raids and actions that may not have received much publicity at the time, but which demanded real professionalism and enormous effort to bring off.  (One example is my in-depth article on the Balikpapan air raid of late 1944.)  As luck would have it, this book goes into detail on some of the behind-the-scenes activities of the Seventh Air Force;  the airport builders, medical personnel, technicians, and so many others without whom the war could not have been fought.  They didn't get the publicity, or the medals, or the promotions, but they were in it from start to finish.

For today's snippet, I chose a chapter describing how these behind-the-scenes heroes turned Saipan and the other Mariana Islands into a massive bombardment base from which to bring Japan to its knees.  In the process, there was more than a little humor.

(LANGUAGE ALERT:  This was published soon after the end of World War II, so some of the language used about the Japanese is not very diplomatic or polite.  That's the way it was back then, and I've chosen to leave such language unchanged in the interests of historical authenticity.  However, it may be disturbing to those of more modern sensibilities.)

WINNING THE MARIANAS WAS ONE THING, TURNING THEM into a springboard for the final B-29 air assault against Japan was something else.

It was the first time men in the Central Pacific, who had played a long engagement in the flat atoll circuit, faced jungles.

From these fever-ridden pest-holes of Saipan and Guam came swarms of malaria-bearing mosquitoes and nightly raids from remnants of the Jap garrisons who came to kill, sabotage and steal.

And these cocoanut-tree morasses were supposed to be turned into heavy bomber bases — a feat which Radio Tokyo scoffed at nightly as an impossibility — and a smooth-functioning advance headquarters base.

From Saipan, Guam and Tinian, correspondents transmitted thousands of words of copy on the pilots “who flew into the sunset to blast and burn Japan out of the war . . .”

But little was written and less published on the men who made these strikes possible — the weary Aviation Engineers, the greasy ground crews, the island-hopping pencil-jockeys, the G. I. medical technicians and scores of other “little” men who made up the Seventh Air Force.

Some of their stories, inscribed in official Army phraseology, were duly recorded (in triplicate of course) by the weary pencil-pushers. But most of these have long since vanished into that mysterious maze known as “Going Through Channels.”

So the stories of these men, for the most part, were written with bulldozers and monkey wrenches on the mud of untouched forests and the fuselages of shot-up planes. They were inscribed in the invisible ink of oxygen and morphine administered to thousands of wounded men evacuated from battle fronts by the forgotten enlisted medical technicians.

A few G. I. correspondents, who wrote many of the “glamour” stories regularly mimeographed for, distributed to, and released by Navy-headquartered reporters, saw some of the epics recorded by these little men.

So, fortunately, a few remain.

Staff Sergeant Bob Price, who was there, wrote:

“Today this tableland site on Saipan is covered with an airstrip built by the 805th Engineers in 17 days in an area only a half mile from the battle lines.

“Their surveyors traveled in halftracks, carrying .50 calibre guns in one hand and transits in the other.

“Following them were other engineers with 90 vehicles, 80 pieces of heavy machinery, 37 mm. guns, 1,800 crates and boxes (the total weighing more than 9,000 tons). They made their way over the treacherous roads to the high windswept site that was to be an airfield.

“The men were put on ‘two hour call,’ which meant that they were subject to order to hold up front line positions while assault troops reform.

“From this beginning, working night and day, the engineers completed an airstrip 5,000 feet long and 300 feet wide. This has a packed-solid 10-inch-thick top and seven and nine-feet fillings were made at both ends of the field.

“During this period they also constructed a tank farm to hold more than 40,000 gallons of gasoline, sealines, distillation units, a control tower, a coral pit that produces 2,000 yards of coral per day, a communications setup, an orderly campsite and a chain of usable roads.

“Such changing of the earth’s face appalled the Saipan natives. A family of five, hiding in the hills when the engineers went to work, were captured and brought back. They couldn’t believe their eyes.

“They saw the night shift operating the graders, carryalls, tractors, Diesel rollers, trenchers and graders on the spot that had been untouched a short time ago.

“The outfit’s 37 mm. guns stood guard against enemy breakthrough or infiltration. Each piece of machinery was mounted with a searchlight that cut the night with a powerful beam.

“Engineers, wearing campaign hats with red engineer cards, rode the big machinery with rifles at arm’s reach. There was the scream of brakes, knocking of gears and the slow chatter of generators. Coral flowed from dump trucks; heavy iron blades and rollers crushed it into place. Sea water flooded the field to make the strip compact.

“The native family saw it but still couldn’t believe that these strange, masterful giants had won and changed their land in a matter of days. They sat by the runway and jabbered, trying to understand the miracle.”

. . .

All through the Marianas, construction engineers faced deadlines that would have been regarded as impossible under the best peacetime conditions, much less under the wartime handicaps faced by the bulldozer brigades.

Schedules called for completing a B-29 base on Saipan in a little over 90 days.

The Superfortresses, with a gross weight of 135,000 pounds, require runaways at least 8,500 feet long and 200 feet wide — an area almost twice as great as the 150 by 6,000-foot strips used by the Liberators.

At Isely Field the final stage of development called for two parallel B-29 runways with 150-foot shoulders, six miles of taxi-ways, two 300 by 1,950 foot service aprons (each almost as large in area as most fighter strips formerly were), 390,000 square feet of warm-up aprons, and 180 hardstands, each 140 feet in diameter.

For this construction, about 30,000,000 square feet had to be cleared and graded, and about 10,000,000 square feet of this area paved. In addition, the engineers had to provide storage for 188,000 barrels of aviation gasoline and ready tank storage for 40,000 gallons.

In constructing the runways the engineers had little choice of location. For fighter planes and even for ordinary bombers a runway can be shifted slightly out of line from the prevailing winds to avoid such obstructions as ravines or bluffs. But for B-29s the runway must line up with the winds, and ravines must be filled in and bluffs cut down.

Topsoil was never more than a foot above the hard coral rock sub-surface, and over great areas there was no topsoil at all. The rock was too hard to be torn up by medium rooters; the grading job called for heavy rooters augmented by constant dynamite blasting.

And weather was another tough obstacle.

 Rains made quagmires of the roads, weakening front springs on 2 ½ and 4-ton trucks. Mud worked its way into the transmissions of all vehicles and choked the steel runners of the half-tracks.

On Guam, deadlines, weather and general conditions were just as bad. And there was even more jungle than on Saipan.

There was heat and sudden, drenching rains. The men worked 12-hour shifts. They lived in the jungle in tents with dirt floors, ate K and C Rations and watched nearby Navy personnel move about in comfortable quonset huts with electric lights and cooling showers.

But, somehow, through it all they were kept going by a sense of humor.

Their attitude about the holed-up Japs, for instance.

The jungles that spelled so much misery for the engineers was a break for the Jap troops that were well organized and lived in well-concealed bivouac areas all over the island.

The fanatic Nips, some who even today are still hiding in the Guam jungles, murdered scores of Americans at work and on sightseeing trips through the island. Yet, because they were Japs, they did a million unpredictable things, and from these eccentricities the engineers drew the stories with which they later welcomed the Johnny-Come-Latelies from Hickam and Hamilton Fields.

Many of these newcomers from the rear echelons, who came down after the fighting was past and Guam had been built into a teeming base, were natural pickings for the veteran engineers.

No one knew the exact origin of these stories and not everyone believed them, but they made the rounds and were excellent fodder with which to greet the flood of newcomers from the rear echelons. Arriving long after the island had been secured and built into a teeming base, the rookies, many of whom arrived armed to the teeth, were ready, willing and even eager to believe that there was a Jap hiding behind every tree and garbage can.

One of the best yarns had to do with one of the squadrons building a runway at North Field. Working near the edge of the jungle one morning, some of the engineers were startled to discover two Japs sitting astride the fence bordering the field.

The Japs, tattered from months of hiding in the jungle, were having a helluva time sidewalk superintending the construction job. They dropped from the fence and scampered off through the jungle when one of the men on a bulldozer reached for his rifle.

On the following day the Japs were back, boldly hanging over the fence with the same fascination people in large cities have for excavating projects. And the engineers, quite pleased to be working for an appreciative audience, kept an eye on them but permitted them to remain.

The Nips, who must have had their own two-man reveille, showed up promptly each morning and stayed throughout most of the day — evidently enjoying the show hugely. It got to a point that the engineers felt a little lonely when their audience would suddenly disappear into the jungle.

One morning the Japs failed to appear and the engineers, consummate hams by now, lost a little of their zing. They brooded but assured themselves that their audience would return the following morning. The Nips, however, never came back, and the engineers never quit speculating over what happened.

The thought that the Japs might have deserted them to watch the Seabees was too horrible to contemplate, so they think their fans were captured or killed and were always a little bitter about it.

Another of the favorite sagas was of the Jap who was a rabid baseball fan. One Brooklyn engineer even vowed that he’d seen the little Nip working at a Japanese restaurant on Flatbush Avenue and remembered seeing him at several games at Ebbets Field before the war.

This Jap turned out for every game played by one engineering squadron and sat on a bare hill overlooking the diamond, alternately cheering the engineers and raising hell with the umpires.

Whenever a decision went against the engineers, the Jap would jump up and scream something which, roughly translated, seemed to mean “Kill the blankety-blank so-and-so.”

One day the engineers were playing the Seabees and the game was going on inning after inning with the score tied. Finally an engineer caught a Seabee curve squarely and blasted it down the left field foul line. The umpire took one squint and then called the runner back — foul ball!

This was too much for the Dodger-bred Jap. He jumped to his feet, screaming curses in Japanese, and grabbed a piece of coral. Winding up like a sandlot pitcher, he beaned the umpire and then took off over the hill, followed only by the cheers of the engineer rooting section.

Later a Marine patrol — which the engineers vow was egged on by the Seabees — shot the Jap.

The 854th Engineers on Guam were active participants in numerous Jap shenanigans.

One night a chaplain attached to the outfit was awakened by a noise to find a Jap sitting on his footlocker calmly trying on G. I. shoes. Being unarmed, the chaplain lay quietly while the Nip found a pair that suited his fancy. Then he saw his visitor calmly disappear into the darkness.

On another occasion an 854th Guard, armed with a sub-machinegun, was standing guard while a group was erecting a tank farm. Suddenly he saw a fat chicken come scurrying out of the underbrush and, thinking in terms of a dinner substitute for the eternal spam, cut loose at the fowl. He missed the chicken, but a white flag suddenly appeared from the bushes followed by five gaunt and frightened Nips.

On another morning a Jap soldier climbed up a steep cliff to surrender to an 854th quarrying crew. The engineers were embarrassed when a quick search revealed that they had brought no weapons. The Jap didn’t seem to mind, however, and meekly crawled into a jeep to be driven to a stockade maintained by the Island Command.

Jap-taking, as a by-product of engineering, was one thing, but any other form of Jap-hunting, two 854th men learned, was looked upon with an officially jaundiced eye.

One day two of the men of this squadron were invited to visit the ranch of a Guam native. While there, they flushed and killed two Japs. As punishment the commanding officer made the two engineers return to the ranch and bury the bodies.

. . .

In addition to the mud, forests and Japs, the engineers in the Marianas were faced with another handicap which they found even harder to combat — mosquitoes!

The most extensive epidemic of dengue of the war hit late in the summer. The fever made its appearance soon after the assault but during the first few weeks there were relatively few cases because the rainy season hadn’t begun and mosquitoes weren’t numerous.

But with the beginning of the rainy season on August 1, fever-bearing mosquitoes became abundant and it was reliably estimated that on Saipan alone, there had been more than 20,000 cases of dengue before the epidemic was brought under control.

Handling this epidemic was a terrific problem because combat operations had left a multitude of insect breeding places in tin cans, shell cases and battle rubble. And men on the island were already engaged in so much other backbreaking work that large-scale assignment to extra details to fight this new foe was impractical. Conditions became so bad that anyone going through the area who hadn’t been immunized by a recent attack was almost sure to contract it.

A C-47 transport plane was fitted to carry six 53-gallon drums of DDT and mechanism to spray this deadliest insecticide ever produced. It was the first large-scale use of DDT in the war.

Captain Fredericks M. Wilkes, of the Transport Air Group, was pilot and Lieutenant Lieutenant John L. Maloney was co-pilot. Master Sergeant Robert R. Wells and Staff Sergeant Frank J. Petschar handled the spraying mechanism.

“We’d sweep back and forth over the island at levels from 35 to 50 feet,” said Wilkes. “In the first nine days we flew 31 missions and sprayed 8,600 gallons of DDT over a total of 15,650 acres on Saipan. At the same time applications of DDT residual spray was begun in all tents and living quarters of hospitals and AAF and garrison troops.”

The epidemic reached a peak on September 15 but by the end of September hospital cases on Saipan had been reduced to 44 and by October 6 they had dropped to 23.

But in spite of epidemics and other major handicaps, the engineers completed their assignments. They didn’t always get credit for the things they did. For instance, Navy-released pictures appeared in Life magazine claiming Guam fields as Seabee projects.

The engineers, who fought the Guam jungles, were a little surprised to learn that they hadn’t been there.

. . .

Of all the overlooked “little men” in a forgotten air force in a neglected theater, the enlisted medical technicians stand near the top of the list.

They were a part of the air evacuation teams, consisting of two flight nurses and one male technician, who tended the wounded being evacuated to rear base hospitals in Hawaii and San Francisco.

These technicians of the 809th and 812th Squadrons arrived in time for the Gilberts campaign and remained for the duration. They flew in the big two and four-engined transport planes and, on the long drags from the Gilberts, Marshalls and Marianas, saved the lives of scores of wounded by administering oxygen, plasma and penicillin in flight.

Later they also flew from Hawaii to Australia to pick up a load of wounded, flew back to Hawaii, and then to San Francisco. More than 7,000 miles — and most of it over water.

These Seventh AF men were called “Pacific Wanderers” and “Vagabonds.” These were apt names for these orphans. From the beginning, the single fact that they were men kept them in the shadow of the more glamorous flight nurses.

They were farmed-out to the Air Transport Command, and, like most men on detached service, received few promotions.

But most of them were philosophical about headlines and the other “breaks.” After tending so many men whose legs, arms and faces had been shot away, they realized how unimportant headlines can be.

Technicians attended Air Evacuation School at Bowman Field, Kentucky, where they learned the things required of flight nurses, for on regular trips they administered plasma, oxygen, and gave all the other treatments given by nurses. And when the planes went into battle regions they took over completely; women, of course, were not scheduled for flights until an island was secured.

These men flew an average of 350 hours for every three-month period. Army pilots, for a like period, are limited to 300 hours flying time.

The worth of these technicians was never more graphically illustrated than during the Marianas campaign. During the month of July alone, more than 1,500 wounded were evacuated from the strip at Saipan.

“Many of these injured men would have died if they hadn’t been rushed to rear base hospitals,” said Major Andrew D. Henderson, of Mobile, Alabama, commanding officer of the 809th Squadron.

“Badly wounded men could be rushed back to Hawaii in a short time through the medium of air transportation. There and in San Francisco, in well equipped hospitals, they could be given the best plastic surgery and the most advanced medical treatment in the world.”

The first air evacuation plane went into Saipan on D-plus-10. “When we received orders for this first flight, I called all the men of the 812th together and told them the story,” said Major Dominick Lasasso, then commanding officer of the squadron.

“They knew that they would fly down on an unarmed, unescorted plane and land in the middle of a battle. Yet, when I called for a single volunteer, the entire squadron stepped forward. Lots were then drawn and Technician Third Grade Victor Mitchell of St. Louis, Missouri, won.”

“Our plane arrived after dark and fighting was still going on all around us,” said Mitchell. “All night we were under constant Jap fire and this prevented us from loading and taking off until the following morning.

“This time lapse was unusual, however, for we usually landed, loaded, and were ready to take off in an hour and a half.”

These wandering men of the Seventh AF flew under almost constant adverse weather conditions in the unpredictable Central Pacific. They learned more about psychology than most students do in class rooms from handling mentally disturbed men and badly wounded men who, during flights through the sudden tropical storms, had to be “talked-out” of going into shock.

The technicians, especially when working with flight nurses, had to be eternally watchful, for men with battle-shattered minds might suddenly go berserk and do almost anything.

“It was especially difficult when we were carrying a load of badly wounded men and ran into bad weather,” said Technician Third Grade Raymond Netzel.

“Everything would be going smoothly and then we’d hit a storm front. The plane might suddenly shoot a couple of thousand feet up or down. Then you’d have to appear nonchalant and kid the patients, for fear could throw a man into shock — and shock can bring death very quickly.”

During the campaign these orphans probably learned more about the different branches of service than any other G.I.’s in the Air Forces. They evacuated Army, Navy and Marine personnel of all rank. And they worked in planes flown by pilots of the 7th AF, the Transport Air Group, ATC and Marines.

“Most of them were swell,” said Technician Third Grade Raymond Fischer. “Anything necessary for the patients they’d do. On one of my trips from Saipan I had a number of patients with head injuries and for several hours the pilot kept the plane 50 feet above the water so as to not cause discomfort for the injured. The radio operators and co-pilots often came back and assisted us.”

Flying unarmed over Jap islands was no cinch, either.

“On one trip out from Tarawa,” said Private Ted Newman, first medical technician into Kwajalein, “our pilot, by mistake, flew over Mille. Guns from the ground cut loose at us, and although no one was injured we later found bullets lodged in the life raft in the rear of the plane.”

On another flight a C-54 hospital plane, enroute from Tarawa to Canton, lost two engines and had to limp into Canton on the remaining two. The 23 patients and technician were loaded into a Navy PBY and the flight continued.

“But such cases were the exception,” said Technician Third Class Myron Lamb, who, at the time, had more flying hours than any other man in the 812th.

“Usually the mechanics of the flight were routine. We took off from Hickam Field, flew to a battle station and picked up our patients. But the trips were never dull, for each patient was entirely different. You had to know exactly when to administer morphine, plasma, sulfa or penicillin. Some men could be kidded out of going into shock. Some guys just wanted to talk and if you were a good audience you could help by just listening.”

How well these men covered the Central Pacific was demonstrated in a scene at Saipan where Technician Third Class Foster was preparing to take off with a load of patients for Oahu.

Foster had a cigarette lighter inscribed with a log of the islands to which he had flown on evacuation trips. His list included Saipan, Guam, Leyte, Roi, Guadalcanal, New Guinea, Funafuti, Makin, Kwajalein, Johnston, Christmas, Apamama and Engibi.

“I’m running out of space now,” said Foster. “Either I have to get a larger lighter or start carrying two of them around.”

Another lost outfit in this theater was the Transport Air Group. They were, in fact, so “lost” that they were never quite sure for whom they were working.

“Hell,” said one of the TAG officials, “one day we were taking orders from the Air Forces, the next day we were flying for the Navy, and then the Marines would shoot us an order.

“On August 1, we evacuated 200 casualties from Tinian to Saipan and on August 7 we set up the regular Saipan-Guam air evacuation service. During the first ten days after we moved into Guam we’d evacuated more than 1,500 wounded, and for the month moved 2,083 from that island.”

These pilots flew the first cargo planes into every island in the Central Pacific. They also moved some of the most diversified cargo, including new parts for heavy engineering equipment to be used by the Aviation Engineers, anchor chains for Navy ships, blood plasma for the Marines and — the gem of all — a pre-fabricated latrine that was flown into Saipan, soon after the island was secured, for the private use of a high ranking officer!

When the Bar Flies, which was a typical Seventh AF group as far as living conditions were concerned, came into Saipan, they pitched their puptents in a half-burned field of sugar cane and kafir corn. Down the slope toward the sea were trees and someone told them that there were seacliff caves nearby which were infested with Japs.

Revetments of salmon-pink earth stood around them, giving good protection for infiltrating snipers. There they planted their shelter-halves and dug foxholes right by the front entrance.

By day there were red ants and by night there were huge landcrabs, flying foxes, mosquitoes and lizards.

All building materials had to be salvaged from the half-destroyed Jap farmhouses. The pilots’ first ready-room was under a captured Jap tent.

At first the men ate off low crates with K-Ration boxes for seats. Flies and ants were thick and men ate with one hand and fanned flies with the other.

Another good story told by the veterans to newly-arrived personnel had to do with the eating situation.

“Hell, you never had it so good,” the old timers would quip when the new men griped at the C-Ration-spam diets. “When we came down on the invasion it was really tough. At first we were kinda particular and took time to pick the ants out of the K-Rations. Then we’d just sort of brush them off and start eating. Then we got to where we’d just eat and let the ants look out for themselves. Finally it reached a point that when the ants started crawling off we’d catch ‘em and put them back in the food where they belonged!”

Conditions were more or less the same on Guam and Saipan.

Clerks set up their administrative offices on boxes, and portable typewriters began to pound out reams of “triplicate” copy.

Souvenir hunters had a field day and great heaps of wrecked Jap planes were picked as clean as skeletons in a desert. Samurai swords sold from $100 to $300, Jap flags from five dollars up and a pair of officers’ binoculars sold for $40. A 1907 American five-dollar bill, bearing Constance Bennett’s signature and taken from a Jap pilot who crashed on the field, brought $25.

Marines did a brisk business in cowbells, lewd Jap postcards, pistols and goodluck charms.

The seemingly inherent American characteristic of souvenir seeking caused the deaths of many men in the Central Pacific.

Three clerks of the Seventh AF, wandering in the hills of Saipan on July 26, escaped this fate but it took one of the strangest accidents of the war to save them. The men involved were Technical Sergeant Albert F. Parsons, a survivor of the Pearl Harbor attack and sergeant major of his fighter group; Corporal Clifford E. Gilham, operations clerk; and Technical Sergeant Ellis E. Shelhamer, a personnel clerk.

“We had a few hours off and were walking along a jungle trail near the top of Mt. Topatchau when we saw someone walking ahead of us,” said Parsons.

“Thinking he was one of our group, we yelled. He turned and we saw he was a Jap.

“We fired and saw him go to his knees and then fall behind a boulder. We surrounded the spot and closed in.

“Suddenly all hell broke loose. An American sniper patrol was nearby and they thought we were Japs and cut loose at us with machine guns, automatic rifles, carbines and hand grenades.

“We were in a tough spot for we were pinned down with no way of identifying ourselves. “Then the damnedest thing happened. A hidden Jap machine crew, also mistaking us for Nips, cut loose at our patrol on the nearby ridge.

“This fire-coverage gave us protection and we got the hell out of there.

“From then on,” he said, “we bought our souvenirs from the Marines!”

An informal Jap-hunt, by drivers of the 27th Bombardment Squadron of the 30th Bomb Group, almost got the enlisted personnel involved in trouble. But, it too, had a happy ending.

Staff Sergeant Hudson H. Paddock, Sergeant Glenden R. Burrowes, Corporal Pat R. Deleretta, Private First Class Desmond L. Walker and Private Richard M. Richards were the men who took part.

“For some time we had been missing G. I. equipment from our outfit and we figured that Japs were responsible so we rounded up a patrol to search the woods about 500 yards south of our squadron area,” said Burrowes.

“When we got into the wooded area we split up, and as Richards and I walked along we saw a Jap bivouac area. We sneaked up with our guns ready and spotted three Japs in the camp.

“They saw us and ran, refusing to halt when we yelled, so we cut loose and killed two of them. The other was hit but disappeared in the woods.

“We beat the woods for him and a Marine patrol with dogs looked, too, but weren’t able to find him.

“The camp contained a rifle, pistol, knives, enough rice to last the three Japs a month, and stolen Marine equipment that included mess kits and canteens.”

For this officially frowned-on pastime the men were sternly reprimanded. Then they were called up and decorated!

. . .

Keeping clean was one of the main problems in the Marianas. One of the pencil-pushers of the 11th Bomb Group on Guam wrote:

“Morale dipped to its lowest ebb when we first arrived here. Everyone worked long and hard and there wasn’t too much complaining about having to stand up to eat, sleeping without bedding or mosquito nets, but the shortage of water for drinking and bathing drove you crazy.

“And as soon as we got water and everyone could take a bath morale bounded back.”

On Saipan the same conditions existed. From there, another soldier set down these immortal words:

“Water has had the highest priority. For the length of this long battle we have been waiting for rain. The dust has piled up in the roads and the wells and cisterns are running dry.

“Finally the rains came. For a couple of early morning hours the thirsty earth sucked in the water and a cool breeze blew across the plateau.

“Then, in the middle of the heaviest rain, the first two watering wagons seen on this island came up the road, flooding the mud that was already two inches deep.

“We don’t know where they got the water. Here we haven’t even been able to take showers or wash clothes. Still, they completed their watering project in the midst of a heavy rain.

“There is something grand about War!”

Ingenuity, that saved the lives and added to the comfort to so many Americans at war, helped make the Marianas more livable.

Clerks and mechanics rigged up windmills from salvaged Jap materials and made their own washing machines. This seemingly universal American characteristic also solved the problem of cold drinking water in the humid islands.

Each time the Thunderbolt pilots took off there was a long line of men waiting with canteens. Wrapped in a wet cloth and hung over the cockpit cooling vent, a canteen of the most tepid water, taken to 20,000 feet altitude, could be cooled to stateside taste.

Ingenuity, a sense of humor and a good knowledge of soldier psychology solved many problems. One of the most amusing had to do with the job of flooring tents of a Seventh AF squadron.

Captain Thomas E. Smith, squadron commanding officer, had managed to cadge a load of lumber for this purpose. Ordering the men to put in the floors, he knew, would bring on a siege of grumbling.

So he had the lumber unloaded at the edge of the area and atop the planks he put a sign: “Government Property.”

Night came, and nights can be very dark in the Pacific.

Came the dawn and not a scrap of lumber remained. Even the “Government Property’’ sign was missing.

From the tents came sounds of sawing and hammering. The men were joyfully putting floors in their tents!

That was their war.  Could America respond as well today, given the present culture and social climate?  I don't think so.


Friday, February 26, 2021

Artificial intelligence: who's in charge here?


The BBC has an interesting article about how artificial intelligence learned from its environment a navigation technique for high-altitude balloons that its creators had never considered.

The gaggle of Google employees peered at their computer screens in bewilderment. They had spent many months honing an algorithm designed to steer an unmanned hot air balloon all the way from Puerto Rico to Peru. But something was wrong. The balloon, controlled by its machine mind, kept veering off course.

Salvatore Candido of Google's now-defunct Project Loon venture, which aimed to bring internet access to remote areas via the balloons, couldn't explain the craft’s trajectory. His colleagues manually took control of the system and put it back on track.

It was only later that they realised what was happening. Unexpectedly, the artificial intelligence (AI) on board the balloon had learned to recreate an ancient sailing technique first developed by humans centuries, if not thousands of years, ago. "Tacking" involves steering a vessel into the wind and then angling outward again so that progress in a zig-zag, roughly in the desired direction, can still be made.

Under unfavourable weather conditions, the self-flying balloons had learned to tack all by themselves. The fact they had done this, unprompted, surprised everyone, not least the researchers working on the project.

"We quickly realised we'd been outsmarted when the first balloon allowed to fully execute this technique set a flight time record from Puerto Rico to Peru," wrote Candido in a blog post about the project. "I had never simultaneously felt smarter and dumber at the same time."

This is just the sort of thing that can happen when AI is left to its own devices. Unlike traditional computer programs, AIs are designed to explore and develop novel approaches to tasks that their human engineers have not explicitly told them about.

But while learning how to do these tasks, sometimes AIs come up with an approach so inventive that it can astonish even the people who work with such systems all the time. That can be a good thing, but it could also make things controlled by AIs dangerously unpredictable – robots and self-driving cars could end up making decisions that put humans in harm's way.

There's more at the link.

The article provides a number of interesting examples of how machine learning has surprised its creators, and those nominally in charge of it.  I knew of some of them, but not all.

I was involved in an early implementation of "expert systems" (applied AI) in the computer field, back in the 1980's.  We used an expert system to automate the design and programming of commercial computer systems, in an attempt to cut out much of the low-level drudgery and free our programmers and analysts to concentrate on higher-end, more complex problems.  It worked, after a fashion, but was primitive in the extreme compared to some of the systems now on the market.

That's one reason why programming wages have dropped so much, comparatively speaking, compared to half a century ago.  Back then, we were highly skilled, very scarce professionals, paid because we were the "magicians" who made computers do what their owners wanted.  Nowadays, all the basic stuff has been written so many times that it's easier and cheaper to buy a software package than write your own.  When it comes to specialized systems, sure, companies still need programmers and analysts, but they're working at a much higher level than they used to, leaving the drudgery to pre-written code modules that they call in when needed to do the donkey-work.

Given our mention yesterday of automation in the farming industry, one wonders just how far AI and expert systems can go.  I suspect we ain't seen nothing yet . . .


Emergency meal replacement "food": what's your experience?


Commander Zero published an article yesterday about Soylent, which is apparently a meal replacement "milkshake", and a protein powder supplement.  He linked to an article by someone who lived almost exclusively on the stuff for a month, and had no problems.  (Yes, I wish they'd chosen a better name for it, but what can you do?)

Some of his readers chimed in with comments about their experiences.  There's another, similar product called Huel that some recommended.  There were a few warnings about powders that didn't dissolve completely, or possible digestive effects, but overall people seemed to think that these products are reasonably effective at what they do - replace a meal, or several meals.

I'm interested in them as an emergency food item for vehicle and "bug-out" packs.  If one can take a few sachets of a powder like Soylent or Huel, plus a mixing vessel, and toss it in the back of one's car or into a backpack, it would be much less bulky and heavy than trying to load a packet or a can for every meal for three days or so.  That might be very convenient.  Another alternative for that are Coast Guard-approved so-called "lifeboat rations", which I already have.  However, they have a limited shelf life, and their flavor isn't to everyone's taste (you should pardon the expression).

Have any of my readers used Soylent, or Huel, or lifeboat rations, or anything equivalent?  What can you tell us about them?  I'm sure many of us would find the information useful.


Read it and weep, gun owners!


Courtesy of a mention by SNAFU Solomon, we find this tweet by Calibre Obscura:

So standard 5.56mm ball is just $0.55 a round in a street bazaar in Iraq!  Don't bother sending care packages to your buddies stationed over there.  Ask them to send you ammo packages instead!

Calibre Obscura has a number of interesting tweets on his Web page and his Twitter channel.  (The latter informs us, for example, that used full-auto military-issue M16's can be had in Iraqi street markets for $1.8K to $2.1K, depending on manufacturer.)  I learned quite a lot from scrolling through his timeline.  Firearms enthusiasts may enjoy spending some time there.


Thursday, February 25, 2021

Raise the minimum wage? Hello, robot labor!


I've long warned that automation threatens tens of millions of blue-collar jobs (and, increasingly, millions of white-collar ones) over the next couple of decades.  With the pressure on the Biden administration from the progressive left to increase the minimum wage to $15/hr, the responding pressure to reduce or eliminate labor costs is going to become well-nigh irresistible.  We've already seen how one supermarket chain, faced with "politically correct" city wage regulations, simply closed some of its stores in response.  (I'm sure the workers there are grateful to their councillors for dumping them on the dole, instead of letting them earn their daily bread.)

Now we see how cost and other pressures are driving automation in the farming industry.  Here's a video from Israeli company Tevel Aerobotics Technologies.

An article about the technology states:

The FAR robot can work 24 hours a day and picks only ripe fruit. It uses AI perception algorithms to locate the trees and vision algorithms to detect the fruit among the foliage and classify its size and ripeness. After choosing the right fruit, the robot then works out the best way to approach the fruit and remain stable as its picking arm grasps the fruit.

Several FAR robots can harvest the orchards without getting in each other’s way thanks to a single autonomous digital brain in a ground-based unit. Tevel’s fruit picking robot delivers the highest performance at the lowest cost, along with high levels of flexibility that enable the harvest of multiple fruit types, including apples, pears and avocado. They also work on thinning and pruning functions.

“There are never enough hands available to pick fruit at the right time and the right cost. Fruit is left to rot in the orchard or sold at a fraction of its peak value, while farmers lose billions of dollars each year,” the company says.

Such robots and artificial intelligence always bring up the topic of human unemployment. However, the company states that its robots are designed to complement human fruit pickers rather than replace them.

The Israeli start-up Tevel wants to market its first autonomous fruit picking robot-drone by 2021. To help it, the Japanese agricultural machinery manufacturer Kubota has recently invested $20 million in its project.

There's more at the link.

By all accounts, there are tens of millions of seasonal workers engaged in harvesting America's crops every year.  Many are from Mexico and other countries, some with legal work permits, others illegal aliens.  If legislative pressure to pay them more becomes too great, I can see an awful lot of farms - particularly those owned and operated by Big Agriculture - saying "Enough is enough!", and switching to automated farming on a large scale.  The field is developing fast enough that it won't be long before that's entirely feasible.

What will become of those deprived of earning their living?  I'm betting most will become public dependents via the welfare system - which the Biden administration will encourage, because the more people they can make dependent on the government for handouts, the more control they can exercise over how they vote.

Don't ever think the "minimum wage" pressure is about justice for labor.  It's not.  It's all about the politics of control.


War and PTSD, and how a marriage can help to heal it on both sides


Miss D. and I have an unusually in-depth and trusting relationship, in our experience of such things.  We work hard at mutual communication, striving to understand each other and help each other over any "rough spots" caused by past problems or cultural clashes.  (The fact that I was born and raised in immediately post-colonial-era Africa, and she's an American "military brat", should immediately highlight some of those complications!)

Back in 2012, when she asked me to watch the movie "Act of Valor" with her, I described it as "a punch to the gut".  It unlocked an awful lot of memories I wish I didn't have, and helped the two of us to talk through them and sort out a number of unresolved issues.  (You can read her impressions about that here.  You might find it useful to compare and contrast how we experienced it.)

Recently she's been reading two books concerning post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in a military marriage.  The first is by Tom Satterly, retired Command Sergeant Major of Delta Force, titled "All Secure".

The blurb reads:

One of the most highly regarded Tier One Delta Force operators in American military history shares his war stories and personal battle with PTSD.

As a senior non-commissioned officer of Delta Force, the most elite and secretive special operations unit in the U.S. military, Command Sergeant Major Tom Satterly fought some of this country's most fearsome enemies. Over the course of twenty years and thousands of missions, he's fought desperately for his life, rescued hostages, killed and captured terrorist leaders, and seen his friends maimed and killed around him.

All Secure is in part Tom's journey into a world so dark and dangerous that most Americans can't contemplate its existence. It recounts what it is like to be on the front lines with one of America's most highly trained warriors. As action-packed as any fiction thriller, All Secure is an insider's view of "The Unit."

Tom is a legend even among other Tier One special operators. Yet the enemy that cost him three marriages, and ruined his health physically and psychologically, existed in his brain. It nearly led him to kill himself in 2014; but for the lifeline thrown to him by an extraordinary woman it might have ended there. Instead, they took on Satterly's most important mission-saving the lives of his brothers and sisters in arms who are killing themselves at a rate of more than twenty a day.

Told through Satterly's firsthand experiences, it also weaves in the reasons-the bloodshed, the deaths, the intense moments of sheer terror, the survivor's guilt, depression, and substance abuse-for his career-long battle against the most insidious enemy of all: Post Traumatic Stress. With the help of his wife, he learned that by admitting his weaknesses and faults he sets an example for other combat veterans struggling to come home.

Miss D. reports that it's a thrilling book as a memoir, and a gut-wrenching account of how post-traumatic stress disorder almost destroyed CSM Satterly until he - with his wife's help - learned to cope with it.

Jen Satterly has also written a book about lessons learned in dealing with PTSD with and through her husband.  It's titled "Arsenal of Hope".

The blurb reads:

A guide that empowers family members combating post-traumatic stress on the home front, offering hope, purpose, and tangible solutions.

This book provides definitions and real-life examples of complex PTSD and complex secondary PTSD (seen in a rapidly rising number of spouses and children), and the problems that arise when untreated. Arsenal of Hope aims to help soldiers, first responders, their families, and civilians with trauma—including those dealing with COVID-19 chaos or death.

Jen Satterly is a certified coach and respected authority on PTSD, having been embedded with Special Operations during large scale military training missions and married to a Delta Force Command Sgt. Major. As a cofounder of a nonprofit for warriors and their families to heal after the trauma of war, her stories, research, realistic advice, and sometimes humor, are told through a military lens. Written with award-winning collaborative writer Holly Lorincz, Satterly uses her firsthand knowledge and medical expertise to deal with each issue. Most importantly, she illustrates how to change and create habits to circumvent the symptoms of post-traumatic stress.

I haven't read either book, not because I don't want to, but because I've had so much else on my plate that my "To Read" pile of books has got completely out of hand.  If I stopped working today and did nothing but read until I'd got through it, it'd take months.  Sadly, that means the Satterly's books remain on my "To Do" list.

However, Miss D. understands quite a lot about PTSD, partly through talking with me and other combat veterans in the North Texas Writers, Shooters and Pilots Association, and partly through her "military brat" background.  She regards both books as masterpieces, really useful attempts to talk through a subject that's all too often shuffled aside and not confronted as it needs to be.

She's written an in-depth summary of what she's learned from both books.  You'll find it at her blog.  I highly (very highly) recommend that you click over there and read it, and then consider buying both books yourself.  I think it's a very important subject, and one too often neglected by too many.


COVID-19 update: I'm not out of the woods yet


Miss D. and I continue to recover from our extended bout with COVID-19.  She's been largely symptom-free for eight days, but I'm not doing so well.  Two nights ago I began running a fever.  Yesterday morning, three readings an hour apart showed 100.4°, 99.6° and 99.8° (all temperatures Fahrenheit, of course).  I also had (and still have) an abnormally elevated pulse rate.  I'm still running a fever, 36 hours later:  a few minutes ago, it was 100.2°.

I've gone back onto the prophylactic treatment for flu symptoms, just to make it easier to breathe, and I've begun taking a "cocktail" of Azithromycin and Doxycycline, which is the recommended combination for symptoms of pneumonia (one of the known risks of COVID-19 after initial recovery).  I'm very grateful that as part of our general emergency preparations, a couple of years ago, I laid in a small supply of commonly used antibiotics.  I therefore had them available when I needed them, without having to go out to a pharmacy to get them, or expose others to infection to deliver them.  I hope most of you have done likewise;  if you haven't, consider this a wake-up call to do something about it.

If my fever hasn't broken by later today (Thursday), I'll see a doctor for a checkup;  but we all know what's wrong, so that's a bit superfluous.  All they'll do is recommend that I take exactly what I'm taking.  If the post-nasal drip becomes worse, or I start coughing up large quantities of phlegm, I'll be heading for the hospital, because those will be warning signs of what they call a cytokine storm.  One of our friends has already spent five days in hospital with that, and didn't enjoy it one little bit.  (He's at home now, recovering.)  I don't want to take the risk of developing what they're calling PASC, which is basically a collection of long-term debilitating consequences of COVID-19.

So, friends, be warned.  Just because you get over the initial attack of COVID-19, and appear to be recovering, is no guarantee that it won't sneak up on you again.  I'd be grateful for prayers from those of you who are so inclined, and I'll keep you posted on developments.



Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Well, well, well - the answer really was 42 all along! Take a bow, Douglas Adams!


It seems a huge fossilized tree in New Zealand has got the scientific world all abuzz.

A perfectly preserved ancient tree fossil has offered scientists a unique peek into a moment 42,000 years ago when the Earth’s magnetic field went haywire. The impressive study paints a picture of temporary environmental chaos, potentially influencing everything from an increase in cave paintings to the extinction of the Neanderthals.

. . .

Geomagnetic excursions are short-lived, and involve temporary changes to the Earth’s magnetic field lasting anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand years. The most recent recorded geomagnetic excursion is known as the Laschamps excursion and it took place around 42,000 years ago.

"The Laschamps Excursion was the last time the magnetic poles flipped," explains Chris Turney, co-lead author on a landmark new study investigating this transformative event. "They swapped places for about 800 years before changing their minds and swapping back again."

Scientists have known about these dramatic magnetic pole events for a long time but it’s never been clearly understood what kind of impact they have on life or the environment. That is until a few years ago, when an ancient fossilized tree was discovered in New Zealand.

Workers preparing a site for a new power-plant unearthed the massive kauri tree trunk, perfectly preserved for 42,000 years, with its rings offering up an incredible 1,700-year record of the Earth’s environmental conditions exactly spanning the period of the Laschamps Excursion.

"For the first time ever, we have been able to precisely date the timing and environmental impacts of the last magnetic pole switch," says Turney. "Using the ancient trees we could measure, and date, the spike in atmospheric radiocarbon levels caused by the collapse of Earth's magnetic field."

. . .

The results reveal an incredibly dramatic period of environmental change, particularly in the stretch of time leading up to the few hundred years the Earth’s magnetic field was reversed. The study calculated a depleted ozone layer, higher levels of ultraviolet radiation and increased atmospheric ionization all coalesced about 42,000 years ago. In tribute to author Douglas Adams – in whose book The Hitchhiker's Guide the the Galaxy, the supercomputer Deep Thought calculates the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything is "42" – the researchers named this specific period the “Adams Transitional Geomagnetic Event.”

"The more we looked at the data, the more everything pointed to 42," says Turney. "It was uncanny.”

Alan Cooper, co-lead author on the study, suggests a number of novel environmental conditions would have appeared during the so-called Adams Event. Auroras, for example, would have been widespread across the entire planet, alongside extraordinary volumes of electrical storms due to increases in ionized air.

“Early humans around the world would have seen amazing auroras, shimmering veils and sheets across the sky,” says Cooper. “It must have seemed like the end of days.”

There's more at the link.

I can't help wondering how prehistoric humans - if they were actually human by that stage;  opinions differ - would have experienced that.  Without any scientific framework to speak of, everything would have been explained through superstition and mythology.  How many ancient pantheons had their genesis in the weird play of light across the night sky during the Laschamps Excursion?  We'll probably never know . . .

This is the kind of discovery that a young scientist, having just completed his doctorate, can start work on as a researcher, and retire forty or fifty years later without having finished his work.  It's going to keep them busy for decades.


A health care reform I can really get behind!


This is from Stephan Pastis' strip "Pearls Before Swine".  Click the image to be taken to a larger view at the comic's Web page.


Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Nobody knows what's coming, but we can all feel it in our bones


"Thoughts from Frank & Fern" is a blog I've read occasionally for a long time.  Now and again the couple who write it come up with really good, thought-provoking posts.  Their latest is well worth reading in full.  Bold, underlined text is my emphasis.

The relationship of government to the people [supposedly] began where the government servants were for the benefit of the people. Now that relationship has flipped. You had better do what you’re told or else. Or else what? We will raise the price of your medication, control the medical attention you can receive, force you to pay for our medical insurance, regulate your business [or shut it down all together, because, you know, COVID], take your guns, brainwash your children and tell you that you better be damn happy while we’re doing it. No, wait, they’re already doing that. Are you enjoying the symbiotic relationship you have with your government? Federal or local? Is it a give and take situation that benefits both parties or have you become a slave to ‘the man’?

. . .

Ladies and Gentlemen [the only two genders on the planet in the realm of reality], this is where we are. The symbiotic relationship of our country, our government and all of it’s interwoven companions in crime, have entered the stage of over extension in so many areas that an implosion of all systems is inevitable. This is not something new in the last few months, it has been developing for years, even decades. Remember the statement, “You’re either with us or you’re against us.”?

Think of an area that has a season of abundance that allows the rabbit population to increase dramatically. What happens? The predators, coyotes for example, also increase in abundance until one day, the situations changes. There is no longer enough for the rabbits to eat, they become sick and die. The coyotes don’t have enough to eat. What happens? The system collapses back into a more manageable condition.

It appears that some factions of our country have reached the tipping point where they will no longer sit quietly by. You know we have done that for decades now. Appeasement. Does it work? Never has. So this where we are. We have brought ourselves to the point of listening to the government tell us to sit down and shut up. Are we going to? A lot of us are. It’s scary not to. We don’t want to lose everything we have – home, job, retirement, family, societal recognition. But the situation with the election and impeachments, the current avalanche of executive orders appear to have created a backlash of sorts. Will the country remain united? That has yet to be seen. There are a lot of theories being postulated out here in internet world. Some seem more plausible than others.

This is where we are. If you aren’t in a situation, location, state of mind where you can provide for your NEEDS, not wants, when the system implodes or declines to the point of not supplying the basics for everyday life, then please work diligently with all of your might to get that way. Sometimes the decline of a system is rapid, sometimes it’s slow and you can see it coming more clearly and make the needed adjustments. Everyone we talk to, everyone, normal everyday people that up to now didn’t have a care in the world, shopped everyday for dinner and went about their lives, KNOWS something is very not right. It’s in the air, in our bones, invading our thoughts and feelings. The world is not right. Something is coming.

Be as ready as you can. It’s important. It’s beyond important. It’s beyond words important.

There's more at the link.

None of us know what's coming, but I think we can all agree that the "signs of the times" point to serious disruption in our way of life.  The "blue states" are showing signs of reverting to socialist dictatorships.  The "red states" are rebelling against attempts to force them into that same mold, and resisting as best they can.  Within each state, "blue" or "red" enclaves are resisting the other side, and trying to build their own little fiefdoms, insulated from views and policies with which they don't agree.  There's no longer a sense of a shared national identity.  We've become a nation at war with ourselves.

Nobody knows what's coming . . . but something's got to give, sooner or later.  I have a feeling that we may have less than a year before things get out of control, at least somewhere in these formerly United States.  Be as ready as you can to protect and safeguard yourself and your loved ones if and when that happens - and if you're in an area where you think the danger is particularly great, leave.  Now.  You may have less time than you think.


A tragedy in Indiana: the reality of thug life behind bars


One prison guard is dead and another seriously injured after an assault in an Indiana correctional facility.

The attack occurred at Indiana State Prison in Michigan City around 2:40 p.m., the agency said in a news release.

Tymetri Campbell, 38, faces several preliminary charges including murder, the state police said.

Officials said the officers were attacked in a common area.

The officers were transported to St. Anthony's Hospital in Michigan City, where one was pronounced dead and the second was listed in serious condition. They were not immediately identified.

There's more at the link.

Such an incident should lead to a re-evaluation of sentencing criteria and "warehousing" prisoners for life-long terms in conditions that offer no hope of improvement . . . but it probably won't.  Too many Americans prefer the "out of sight, out of mind" approach to convicted criminals;  lock them up and throw away the key, and don't remind us of them ever again.  We don't want to know.

Unfortunately, that means those who must keep them behind bars, and attempt to provide at least a modicum of humanity towards them, are at risk when their violent tendencies break out, and they snap and lose control.  I've seen that at first hand myself on too many occasions during my service as a prison chaplain.  Some people are extraordinarily dangerous to be around, and there's no predicting or controlling what they might do when triggered.

Here are a few excerpts from my book about prison chaplaincy, to illustrate some facets of the problem.

Pancho’s another real headache. He’s an older man who, in his youth, was among the founders of one of the most vicious of the criminal Hispanic gangs. It’s spread across many States, and is a major problem to law enforcement. He and some of his sons are doing hard time, and his grandchildren look set to follow in their footsteps. Not long ago one of his relatives was murdered by a rival gang. It’s alleged he put out a contract on the lives of the (unidentified) killers. Authorities suspect he used coded communications in letters and phone calls to do it, but to convict him of that means it has to be proved beyond a reasonable doubt. It’s very difficult to find people willing to testify against him, because many of those who’ve done so in the past (and/or their families) have later been murdered, very slowly, painfully and messily. The prison authorities passed a warning to law enforcement agencies in the area concerned, and for several weeks they were on high alert. We heard rumors that the murderers had been traced to a hiding-place in Mexico and ‘dealt with’ there by Pancho’s gang, but we’ll probably never learn the full truth.

Pancho’s gang members (there are a couple of dozen behind bars with him) are cocky, pushy and on a hair-trigger for any perceived insult or disrespect. They’ve caused more than one riot in the prison system, and they’re not afraid to instigate bad trouble at any moment. We watch them very carefully. They’ve tried to use the Chapel as a cover for illegal activities in the past. Some of them joined a small ‘fringe’ religious group and started to attend their weekly ceremonies. Discreet inquiries revealed that they were sitting at the rear of the chapel during the services, not paying any attention or participating, but instead conversing in low tones. Clearly they were using the religious service to organize their criminal activities in the prison. This was duly brought to the attention of those who could do something about it.

Finally, let’s take Howard. He got drunk one night and began to smash the furniture and fittings in his uncle’s home. His uncle tried to stop him... a fatal mistake. Howard beat him until he collapsed, then for two days and nights drank himself into a stupor, periodically getting up to kick and stomp his uncle as he lay moaning on the floor. Howard eventually passed out. He was found next morning, unconscious at the table, with his uncle dead on the floor beside him. He’d been in enough trouble with the law on previous occasions that this crime earned him a life sentence without parole. He’s still a relatively young man, and still just as violent. He’s been known to get bombed out of his skull on prison hooch (of which more later). When he gets that way, everyone steers clear of him, even the prison ‘hard men’ — all except the reaction squad, who have to subdue him and put him in the Hole to sober up. He’s quite capable of killing anyone who crosses him.

Howard’s eyes scare me. They’re pitch-black and utterly lifeless. When one looks into them, one strives to detect a spark of life, of humanity, of the person inside the body... but it’s not there. I’ve never looked into the bottomless pits of Hell, but I’ve got a good idea what they must be like after working with Howard. He’s one of the few convicts who genuinely frightens me. I take care not to show it, but I also try to have support available if I’ve got to see him about something. He could snap at any moment (and has in the past). I want to make sure that if he does so while I’m around, I have the best possible chance of coming out of it relatively unscathed.

. . .

(A conversation with an inmate.)

Yeah, you ain’t seen me before ’cause I just got transferred here, Chaplain. Why am I inside? I killed two old ****s. Didn’t mean to, though. It was their own stupid ****ing fault. Should never have happened.

**** it, man, I needed a car to go see my woman, and they had one. I jumped ’em as they stopped at the corner. Hadn’t even locked their doors, the dumb ****s! If they’d only listened and showed sense they’d have been all right, but that old **** started acting up when I hauled his woman out in a hurry. ****, he musta bin eighty years old, a real feeble old ****er. I punched him. That’s all — I just hit him. He fell down and hit his head on the curb and went real quiet. Out like a light. Then his damn fool bitch started screamin’ and hollerin’ that I’d killed him. I had to shut her up — people were startin’ to look outta their windows. I tried to put my hand over her mouth, but I musta twisted her neck somehow. There was this funny crackin’ noise, and she went limp. I didn’t stop to check, man — I dropped her and jumped into that old car and burned rubber outta there. Damn thing even smelt like old ****s inside.

The cops stopped me before I got halfway to my woman’s place. Those ****ers were mean, man! They ****ed me up real good. Rights? What rights? If the cops want you, they park their cruisers so those dash cameras don’t see ****, and they walk you down the road a bit so the mikes won’t hear the noise, and they go ape**** on your ***, man. They took me back to town and threw my *** in a cell, still bleeding and hurting bad, and those ******s wouldn’t even get me to a doctor for almost a whole day. Mother******s!

****in’ DA charged me with murder and I drew life twice. Murder? **** no! I didn’t mean to kill either of ’em. Those two old ****s were on their last legs anyway. I only did what they made me do with their damnfool hollerin’. Hell, I probably did ’em a favor! No pain, no waiting to die while their minds went crazy — just a quick, easy out, both together, no mess, no fuss. At worst I shoulda got five years for each of ’em. It’s all they had left! ****in’ judge an’ jury didn’t see it that way, of course.

I’m twenty-five years old, and they tell me I’ll live another fifty years or more in here. No way, man. I’m not taking this **** for the rest of my life. I’ll be outta here one way or another. Either I’ll escape, or they’ll kill me when I try. They’ll have to, ’cause I’ll sure as hell kill them if they try to stop me or bring me back here. No other way, man. You watch. You’ll see my name on the news one night. I’ll be dead, or I’ll be out — and either way I’ll be ****in’ free.

Now, what about that phone call, Chaplain? I gotta talk to my woman. Word is she’s goin’ with some other ****. Can’t have that, man, her dis-ree-spectin’ me like that. If she don’t listen to me, I’ll have to get my homeys to take care of the bitch — and her new guy. I mean, you unnerstan’, right? A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do. Right, Chaplain?

. . .

Violence is a constant undercurrent to life in a high-security institution. Most of the inmates are predators, after all, and our rules and regulations can’t change that deep-rooted reality. They’re going to go on looking for prey — and in the absence of innocent victims, they’ll prey on each other. Many of them are members of various gangs (of which more later), or join gangs once they’re incarcerated. The gangs act like packs of predators, preying on individuals, other gangs and anyone else available.

There are also particularly dangerous individuals who hold themselves aloof from gangs. We shipped one off to Supermax after holding him in isolation in SHU for a long time. He’d murdered his cellmate, and used to boast that he was going to kill one of the staff before he left. He had nothing to lose, after all. He’s going to be in prison until he dies. If he succeeded in killing a staff member, how could we punish him? Another life sentence wouldn’t make any difference, and the death penalty would actually be merciful compared to the many decades he faces behind bars. You may be sure that we were very careful in how we handled him. He never left his cell without being shackled hand and foot, and guarded by a three-person escort under the command of a Lieutenant. We all breathed a sigh of relief when he left us — all except the crew assigned to escort him to Supermax. Their language reportedly scorched paint from the nearest wall when they were informed of their selection! (I’m pleased to report that they made it back safely.)

In every Federal penitentiary there’s what’s known as the ‘Posted Picture File’ or PPF. It used to be on paper in multiple files, kept in the Lieutenant’s Office and updated frequently, but is now online. Every member of staff is required to read it on a regular basis, and certify that they’ve done so. It contains a page for every inmate regarded as dangerous, with his photograph, a description of the crime(s) for which he’s been incarcerated, and the reason(s) he’s considered a threat. Prior to its automation, our institution’s paper PPF filled two thick binders to capacity. They contained records for a very significant proportion of our inmate population. Their history of attempts (many of them successful) to suborn or seduce or assault or murder prison staff and inmates, their vicious attacks on fellow convicts, and their conspiracies with those outside prison to target others (including the families of other inmates and prison staff), made for very chilling reading indeed. We don’t get complacent inside the walls, believe me.

That's the reality in many US correctional facilities today.  Despite the authorities' best efforts, sometimes an inmate will explode under the pressures of confinement and his own criminal instincts . . . and those trying to keep him under control are all too often the ones who suffer as a result.

May the deceased officer's family and loved ones receive what comfort they may;  and may the authorities at that prison learn from his death, and do what they can to prevent similar tragedies in future.


So the jury box, too, has been shut down. Are we one step closer to civil war?


As most readers are by now aware, the Supreme Court refused to proceed with challenges by President Trump and the Republican Party to the outcome of certain states' elections in November 2020.

Democrats and Republicans in Pennsylvania had clashed in court over the three-day extension. Democrats contended that the coronavirus pandemic was sufficient reason to extend the deadline to accommodate a significant expansion of mail-in voting. The state Supreme Court agreed, granting the extension over the objection of the Republican-controlled legislature.

Republicans argued that extending the deadline violated the Constitution and federal law and asked the U.S. Supreme Court to block the state court's ruling.

There's more at the link.

To me, the biggest problem with SCOTUS' decision is that it leaves US voters out in the cold.  The court refused to intervene prior to the results of the election being announced;  but, now that they have been announced, it states that it would be "moot" to intervene at this point.  In other words, there is no avenue of jurisprudence available to voters like you and I to challenge such results.  As SCOTUS would put it, we "lack standing" before the fact, and our challenge would serve no purpose after the fact.

Justice Thomas expressed this dilemma well in his dissent.

"The Constitution gives to each state legislature authority to determine the 'Manner' of federal elections... Yet both before and after the 2020 election, nonlegislative officials in various States took it upon themselves to set the rules instead. As a result, we received an unusually high number of petitions and emergency applications contesting those changes. The petitions here present a clear example. The Pennsylvania Legislature established an unambiguous deadline for receiving mail-in ballots: 8 p.m. on election day," Thomas wrote.  "Dissatisfied, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court extended that deadline by three days. The court also ordered officials to count ballots received by the new deadline even if there was no evidence—such as a postmark—that the ballots were mailed by election day. That decision to rewrite the rules seems to have affected too few ballots to change the outcome of any federal election. But that may not be the case in the future. These cases provide us with an ideal opportunity to address just what authority nonlegislative officials have to set election rules, and to do so well before the next election cycle. The refusal to do so is inexplicable.

"One wonders what this Court waits for. We failed to settle this dispute before the election, and thus provide clear rules. Now we again fail to provide clear rules for future elections. The decision to leave election law hidden beneath a shroud of doubt is baffling. By doing nothing, we invite further confusion and erosion of voter confidence. Our fellow citizens deserve better and expect more of us," he continued.

Again, more at the link.

I think Justice Thomas is exactly right.  SCOTUS had a golden opportunity to clarify an important point of law - and failed.  It punted, rather than settle the matter.  That means the next time there are such disagreements, those challenging the results will believe, right from the start, that they're going to be cheated out of a fair, honest and trustworthy election, and that the courts will do nothing to stop this.

I can only regard SCOTUS' inaction as deliberately choosing to throw gasoline onto burning flames.  If anything can rouse good men and women to fury and direct action, it's the knowledge that their voices don't count, that they're seen as irrelevant.  If you don't remember the Battle of Athens, Tennessee, shortly after World War II, go read about it.  I think we're going to see that again in some centers.  We're also going to see the opposite of that battle, where the entrenched forces of dishonesty and corruption will take up arms to stop anyone trying to take away their stolen powers.

In so many words, this decision is yet another contribution towards civil war.  It's not the only one, or even the strongest one . . . but it's another nail, and a big one, in the coffin of civil society.  What's more, when SCOTUS finds itself ignored by all concerned, it'll have only itself to blame, for not acting when it could have done so.

Go back and watch the reports of Pennsylvania Democratic Party officials restricting Republican Party poll watchers, openly revelling in the fact that they're about to steal the election and they know nobody will stop them.  Stand by for more of that in future - and stand by for direct attempts to stop it.  I don't see how they can be avoided, now that SCOTUS has abdicated its responsibilities.  There are more than enough hot-heads on both sides who'll act first, think later.

Today, thanks to SCOTUS, the rule of law is even more tenuous and fragile in the USA than it was before.  No thanks to them for that.


Monday, February 22, 2021

Your smartphone makes you a valuable source of business information


We know that personal privacy is largely a myth these days, thanks to being tethered to the Internet and electronic devices like smartphones.  New cases of our data being used, abused and misused pop up in media reports almost daily.

Some people wonder how their information could be of value to anybody.  After all, they're just small-time consumers who don't have a lot of money and aren't really of interest to those looking to profit from them - so why all the attention?  Well, a recent report from Wolf Street illustrates one way in which even the most impoverished consumer's data can, in aggregate form, mean money to businesses.

Owning retail has been challenging since the Great Recession. You likely know the reasons why: overbuilding, the internet, rapacious private equity, too many lackluster tenants. You also know that every move you make—every breath you take—is recorded by your mobile phone. This latter circumstance has allowed a clever company, Placer AI, to develop the most useful tool for commercial real estate since Hewlett Packard introduced the HP-12C in 1981.

While Placer’s software is no doubt breathtakingly complex, its tool is—in essence—as simple as a bouncer counting a nightclub’s patrons with a clicker. Placer allows one to set up a “geofence” around a shopping center, a retail building or even a tiny tenant’s space and then calculate that finite area’s walk-in traffic by counting the phones crossing its threshold. By using those phone visits and an algorithm or two, Placer delivers an accurate traffic count of the geofenced area.  A Swiss Army knife looks like a spoon compared with the multiple uses this traffic count offers.

On offense, a landlord can use Placer to prove her center has more foot traffic than, say, three competing centers and thus entice potential tenants to lease her vacant space.  She can use this data to figure out the “path to purchase”, that is, where her center’s customers are coming from and, incidentally, where they live. (If your phone stays put long during the day, the algorithm says you work there; at night, that you live there.) With this information, she can approach a tenant already in the trade area, show it’s getting no traffic from a key zip code and argue that it should add a new store at her center to fill that void.

On defense, it works like this: The tenant says, “I have no customers, I can’t pay rent.” The savvy landlord replies, “Actually, Placer says your foot traffic is fine. Pay up.”  Or when it comes time to renew a lease, that multi-billion dollar purveyor of coffee says, “You need to drop our rent by 20 percent or we’re walking.” You hand over the Placer data that ranks your store’s traffic in the top quartile of coffee’s northern California stores. Coffee sighs, stops the saber rattling and quietly exercises its option.

. . .

We ... have a major tenant with a lease option coming up at fair market rent. As part of the negotiations, we asked this tenant for its profit and loss statement for our store and got crickets. Then we asked our go-to broker to placer the store’s traffic for us. That report put our store’s traffic in the top 10 percent of this tenant’s nationwide portfolio. A useful bit of information.

A final note: foot traffic is great, but it’s only one of the two variables you need to calculate the tenant’s gross sales and thus its profitability (your ultimate goal). The other? That particular tenant’s average ticket or basket size.  That might take some sleuthing, with the internet being a good place to start. The net will tell you, for example, that the average basket for a supermarket is $55. If Placer says your store has 750,000 customer visits a year, you can guess that it’s doing around $41,000,000 in annual sales. Good luck.

There's more at the link.

Geofencing like that is just one way in which your personal information can be aggregated with that from other consumers to become an important factor in profit or loss for a business.  That's why efforts to improve personal privacy are being fought tooth and nail by Big Tech - because they make money out of us in so many ways we can't even begin to imagine it.  Cut off their flow of information, and you cut off their flow of money as well.

The trouble is, the "nanny state" is deriving just as much benefit from our information as the corporate world.  Just look at the use of customer's private financial activity to identify those of potential interest to law enforcement in Washington, D.C. last month - without so much as a single search warrant or a "by your leave" to those involved.

I can only suggest that those of us who care about our privacy should try to leave our "electronic leash" at home whenever possible.  I do so regularly.  I see no reason why I should make it easy for those wanting to track me, to do so.  My daily activities are none of their business.  For the same reason, I conduct much of my business in cash, and use credit cards as little as possible.