You Cut, I choose—and Danish Sound Dues

It has been a while since this Blog featured Kitch. That’s our term for silly vignettes, personal aphorisms or sheer nonsense — but still in keeping with our journalistic mission, of course!

This is Kitch, but it is a also true story. I was there. Now you can be a fly on the wall.

When I was a child, my father would often bring home a large baked treat for me and my brother to split. Imagine a huge eclair or giant scone.

I don’t think we have Greek heritage, but our favorite treat was baklava. Even today, visions of honey, walnuts and filo dough lead to drooling anticipation.

When this tradition started, Dad would give the treat to my brother, and say “Charles, cut this treat and give half to Ellery”. But I would inevitably end up with the smaller piece. Perhaps my brother did this inadvertently, but either way, it seemed unfair.

My dad got wise to the scheme and came up with a new rule: Charles would still cut the treat, but I got to choose which piece was mine. We called this rule: “You cut, I choose”.

So, do you suppose that it worked? You bet it did! From then on, whenever Dad came home with a treat, Charles would run to the tool box and get a tape measure, a protractor and a compass. Eventually he refined the process, adding a precision scale.

Cutting a parallelogram into even portions is pretty tricky. Imagine how much harder it is when our oldest brother was in town from university. Now, it must be divided into three equal portions. Yet, from every single perspective—mass, area, volume or calories—Charles became a master craftsman. Each portion had the exact same size.

I wonder if Dad got the idea from 16th century Denmark.

Cargo ships entering the sound were taxed at 1 or 2% of the value of cargo on board. But ship captains routinely under-reported the value of cargo. At first, the port authority enforced the tax by employing dock workers to impound each ship and take a detailed inventory. The job was costly and unpleasant. And it led to delays that would endanger perishable goods.

Of course, some things were difficult to value and this led to contentious disputes. How much is a pack mule worth if has only one eye? Are those jewels genuine and flawless? Even tulip bulbs fluctuated wildly in value.*

So, Danes came up with new method of assessing taxes. In fact, this clever idea dates back to 1429 when the novel assessment method was legislated by King Eric of Pomerania. Sea port authorities returned to trusting each ship captain to report inventory value. But local companies, bankers and tradespeople were invited to inspect each claim as the ship docked. If anyone felt that products were assessed lower than fair market value, the government or the experts could liberate the entire cargo at the exact cash value claimed by the captain. No penalty—just a perfectly fair exchange.

Problem solved! Once implemented, no one under-reported the value of cargo. In the rare case that a client had purchased materials at an unusually low price, ship captains would offer the tax man a higher value—simply so that goods were not bought out from an inland client who was already under contact.

Dad passed away 8 years ago. But I really wonder if he knew about this story when he came up with the rule “You cut, I choose”. The two rules seem eerily connected across the centuries.

* Tulip bulbs were even a currency during the 16th century. There hangs another tale!

  • Related: Danish Sound Dues; Clever law leads to fair tax assessment

    The Sound Dues were a toll on Øresund, a strait that forms the Danish–Swedish border. It  was often ⅔ of Denmark’s state income in 16th and 17th centuries. The dues were introduced by King Eric of Pomerania in 1429 and remained in effect until the Copenhagen Convention of 1857. (The toll was waived for Swedish ships between 1660 and 1712).

Betty’s Table: Something completely different

Let’s start with a backstory. The real story is in the last ⅓, but don’t jump ahead just yet! We’ll paint a backdrop of rich texture and introduce key characters: Me, Betty, my mom and brother, Betty’s son, Gaston and my daughter. But wait! I’m getting ahead of myself.

Do you remember Betty? Of course you do! She was friends with my older brother, Chuck, after he graduated from college. I was still in middle school, but I looked up to her and hoped that she would become my sister-in-law. How cool is that!

I grew up in a Chicago suburb. In this photo from the 1970s Betty prepares a Sedar meal at our home. (Hence, a box of Matzo on the right).

Betty and Chuck never felt the electricity needed for romance. But we didn’t lose Betty to the wind. She formed a close personal and professional friendship with my Mom. They worked together at Mom’s antique store and the two of them started several business ventures.

Eventually, Betty got married and moved to France with her new husband. He had managed a Chicago restaurant, but got a job at much fancier restaurant in Paris.

I visited Paris in the 1980s after graduating from college. Betty had already been there for 4 years, and our families had all but lost touch.

This was an impulse trip. Northwest Airlines started non-stop service to France. To announce the new flights, they cut the fare to $99 with no advance reservations needed. It was as easy as stepping onto a bus. And so, I flew to Paris for a long weekend. I had no plan, didn’t speak the language, and didn’t know anyone—except Betty and her son, Gaston.

When Betty moved to France, Gaston was just 8 years old. Now, at 12, he was speaking French more fluently than his mom. I borrowed him as personal translator and tour guide. (Today, he lives in Poland with his son and daughter).

On the left (1980s), 12 year old Gaston shows me the Eiffel Tower. 20 years later, I visited with my daughter (not shown). On the right, Gaston returns with his daughter. Life comes around!

Betty’s Rising Star

Any friend of our family—or Betty’s family—knows that she is incredibly artistic. She has always been oozing with talent. Regardless of the medium, painting and sculpture are second nature to her. In France, she became a sensation—living and working there for more than 20 years.

But recently, Betty divorced and moved back to Chicago. Eventually, she started a summer arts camp for children in Wisconsin. I am certain that she would have renewed many projects with Mom, but my mother died of Ovarian cancer years ago. That chapter has ended for all time.

Betty continues to thrive as an artist. She paints murals and is constantly offered private commissions to paint a specific thing—or for a special occasion. With rising stature and prolific output, she is doing well.

Poignant and Affective

Now that you have the background, here is a very short story. It’s more about me than it is about Betty. If you’re into happy endings, you may want to wait for the unwritten epilogue. This one is filled with happy memories, but very sad as it reaches present day. That’s because the happy memories may be only in the past.

Today, I experienced a pang of nostalgia and a terrible emptiness. To empathize or console, click to enlarge the photo collage and look closely at each image…

Betty paints a table for Ellery

Photos in the top row were taken 36 years ago. Bottom photos were taken today. This was my kitchen table for all but eight of those 36 years. It got lots of use, even after it was replaced in our kitchen. But now, I can’t bear to look at it. It sings out too many happy memories. Memories of the past. Memories that overwhelm my constitution.

Top Row (May 1983): Mom took the 3 photos in the top row. Betty is customizing an expandable table with a mural for my new home. Flowers and birds line up perfectly, with or without the expansion leaf. Just as with this ostrich egg, Betty’s Escher-like talent can wrap an illustration around a surface and lock it back onto itself like a jigsaw puzzle.  »

Bottom Row (August 2019): The bottom row shows the table being loaded onto a dumpster in front of my home. It saw its last meal a few months ago. Now, I am divorced and alone. My daughter has just left for college on the other coast. She is 2,700 miles away and the home is just too filled with stuff to sell, rent—or even to continue using on my own. I need to downsize. And to be honest, the happy memories of the past are too painful for this table too stay so close to me.

Homework at Betty’s table

In 2011, I flew across the country to care  for my ailing father. Back home, my wife remodeled the kitchen and bought a new glass table. Since then, Betty’s beautiful table has lived in our cellar. But, even after we separated, it came upstairs frequently—as if it wanted to be sat at and used. I have dragged it up and re-assembled it whenever we had a cookout, when my daughter operated a lemonade stand, and even after my wife left the nest. She occasionally borrowed it for an event of her own. I was happy to loan it to her. After all, Betty and this table have been a silent part of our lives for so long.

But now, it is time to shed a tear and say good bye.

This was a grand table. Just like the love for my daughter, it is still sturdy and functional. I love it and I will miss it. Even though the choice is mine, I cried as I took it out to a dumpster to become buried in a landfill of rubbish. Just like people, it will eventually return to its organic roots.

No one will ever sit at this table again. No one will ever eat at it. No one will ever think of Betty, when they gaze at the beautiful art—except, perhaps, in this sad story.

I wonder how Betty is doing today? I wonder if she ever thinks of Mom. I wonder if she will ever see this article. I may see Betty again, but once the dumpster is picked up, I will never again see Betty’s beautiful table. Perhaps, you will shed a tear with me. I just don’t know if I did the right thing.

I considered including a photo of my daughter’s princess wand next to my Halloween wig. But for now, I cannot bear to share it. Wig and Wand at the top of a box in a trash dumpster—too much to deal with.

The dumpster will be at my home for 10 days, as I sweep out a lifetime of memories—mostly happy ones. Why am I sad?

Whose face appears most on money?

Today, I was asked this question at Quora, a Q&A site that is popular among both experts and lay enthusiasts. It’s a great question for armchair economists. But allow me to suggest a slight rephrasing: Whose face is most recognized on a national currency?…

You might guess Abraham Lincoln, Stalin, Gandhi or Mao. After all, the countries in which these leaders reigned were either very populous (lots of people using currency) or they had massive and relatively stable economies—and so the money extended far beyond the country (e.g. the US dollar).

What about Queen Elizabeth? That’s what other experts suggested. In addition to being the queen of England, she is head of state or ceremonial figurehead to a dozen other nations.

But most recognizable? I doubt it!

Click to enlarge

The population of Zamunda is just under 260,000, and most citizens prefer to use the US dollar or packs of Marlboro cigarettes as barter. But, during Prince Akeem’s visit to Queens New York to find a wife, an image of currency with his engraved portrait appeared on thousands of movie screens across the world. As a result, the 100 pound note (value: ~US $36) became a popular collectible in most countries, according to Ebay. This statistic is still verified by Sotheby auctions and by Amazon sales ranking.

Interesting facts about Prince Akeem and the Trans-Zamundan pound…

▪ The Zamundan pound was introduced in 1956, when the kingdom declared independence from the British Kingdom.

▪ The pound has been recalled and devalued 6 times due to rampant inflation (two more than Zimbabwe, which printed 500 Trillion Dollar notes after its 4th and last devaluation).

▪ The original pound has 1 billionth the value of the newest pound. Since most notes were turned in during recalls, original notes have a collector’s value today of $4 US. In western nations, they are among the top 5 items offered on Ebay.

▪ Prince Akeem also appears on two coins, with face value 1000 £ (gold) and 250 £ (silver). These coins are never used in commerce, because the precious metal has a far higher value than the face value.

▪ The coins are the most trusted and authenticated coinage of gold, silver and–recently–platinum). By 2015, they became even more trusted, traded and used as reserve currency than the Krugerrand (South Africa), the Eagle (USA) and Englehard bullion (bars of precious metal).

▪ Prince Akeem is 58 years old (as of 2019). His birthday, April 3, 1961 is a national holiday in Zamunda and 6 island nations that fall under the Trans-Zamunda treaties.

▪ Prince Akeem’s parents are still alive and healthy: King Jaffe Joffer and Queen Aeoleon. King Joffer was born January 17, 1931. Today, he is 88 years old.

▪ In recent years, the Trans-Zamundan pound has become stable, trusted and has even increased in value. This is attributed to the reign of King Joffer. He is widely considered an astute economist and ethical leader.

▪ The prince’s best friend and sparring partner, Semi, had his own late night television show in the United States from 1989 until mid 1994.

▪ The photo at bottom-left is a 100-pound note that I brought back from Zamunda during a visit to my daughter. She is an exchange student studying the preservation and rehabilitation of giraffes in the African wild.

Are cats useful for controlling rodents?

Everyone hates rodents because they bring so much disease and damage your house. if you have a rodent problem then take a look at to see if they can help you out. However, can getting a cat help prevent the issue from ever occurring? We all know that cats are natural born hunters. Their brains are wired to catch mice and other tiny varmints. It’s their raison d’être-their primary purpose of existence.

But asking if cats can catch mice is very different than asking if they are good at controlling a rodent population. Far from it! In fact, a well fed, well cared for cat does exactly the opposite. It will infest a suburban home faster than an open door smeared with peanut butter and cheese. Allow me to explain…

I live in the suburbs of Boston. That’s my house below.

My neighborhood has no rodent problem. Apart from early morning walks with my dog into the woods, I have never seen a mouse, vole, gopher or chipmunk with one very big exception. I’ll explain later. Typically, the only rodents I see are squirrels on lawns and a pet hamster or gerbil in a neighbor’s terrarium…

That was before I became a cat owner. But, I have lived in the same house for 35 years. During that time, my family has had 6 cats (not all at the same time-But, thankfully, our cats have all lived past 20 years).

Our cats have access to the outdoors. They have their own door and can come and go as they please. They occasionally get into a scrape with a raccoon or another cat, but they have managed to avoid cars. But here’s the thing…

Earlier, I said that I never saw a mouse, a vole or a chipmunk. You might think this is because our cats scare them away or catch them on sight. Far from it! In my experience, cats don’t control or eliminate mice-they party with them!

Let’s be clear: Apart from a pet or a laboratory, I never saw rodents until I owned cats. In the Fall and Summer, they bring mice, voles and chipmunks into the house every single day. And they rarely kill or seriously injure the little critters. Instead, they drop them in the kitchen (where I am cooking or working) or at the foot of the bed (where I am trying to sleep). Anyone who knows cat behavior understands that they gloat over their accomplishment and that they consider it a treasure for their human companion. They want high praise for delivering a fresh, intact toy.

So, in response to your question, a well-fed suburban cat is a rodent magnet! It may be different, if you live in the city or on a farm, and if your cat is perpetually hungry. But my cats hunt for friendship and for gifts. And this results in a rodent influx rather than rodent control.

Postscript: Rabbits are a different story altogether

Our cats also bring in an occasional bird, frog and snake. As with rodents, they take care to minimize hurting the creatures that they bring into the house. They are either playmates or gifts for their human companions. But, rabbits get special treatment…

For some reason that I cannot fathom, my cats exhibit a more traditional, predatory behavior when it comes to rabbits. At least once each month, they bring a wild rabbit into the house. They systematically torture and then slaughter it-typically, before I wake up. They decapitate the poor thing, disembowel the intestines and dismember the carcass. Then, if I am still asleep or out of the house, they devour every little bit except the tail and heart. Seriously! Upon close inspection of the murder scene, there is no evidence of a skull, fur or teeth. Even the spinal cord is gone. The only explanation is that the perp eats everything. With the exception of the aforementioned tail and heart, there is only a smear of blood on the floor.

In the photo below, we stopped our rabbit killer before it completely eliminated evidence of it’s gruesome act. At left, is an empty hide and a leg. On the right is the large intestine. Had we not intervened, even the guts and fur would be gone.

Does mystery of Quantum Physics prove God exists?

Ironically, my more popular posts are ones furthest from my passion and core interests. They are larks—never intended to go viral. This is about one of them…

Apart from family, I typically steer clear of religious topics. I identify with a mainstream religion, but it is completely beside the purpose of this Blog, and it is a personal affair.[1]

Yet, here we discuss a religious topic, after all. Let’s get started…


Do atheists agree that the fact that we can’t understand quantum physics is at least somewhat evidence of Allah?


An Objective Answer

Do you assert that a failure to understand something is evidence of God?

I don’t fully understand a triple-Lutz (ice skating) or the Jessica stitch (needlepoint)—and I certainly don’t get why an electric dryer leaves moisture on light weight linens, when a gas dryer gets them bone-dry before the plush towels.

Is my inability to solve these mysteries evidence of Allah (or Yahweh, haShem or Y’Shewa)? Of course, not! It has nothing to do with God or religion. The fact that I don’t quite grasp every complex task or unexplained science is not evidence of God, it is evidence of my own ignorance.

On the other hand, I am fortunate to understand quantum physics—both academically and from an innate perspective. That is, behavior of waves and matter on a subatomic scale make perfect sense to me.

You would be correct to point out that certain quantum behavior seems to violate common sense:

  • Probabilistic behavior. (i.e. Schrödinger’s cat is both dead and alive at once)
  • Measure photons or electrons as a wave, and it no longer behaves like particles
  • Entangled electrons (Einstein called it ‘Spooky action at a distance’)
  • The EPR Paradox (entanglement experiment demonstrates causality based on future knowledge. It seems profoundly unbelievable!)

But these things only seem strange, because we do not experience them first hand given our size and our senses. As the math and the mechanisms are understood through research and experimentation, the behavior begins to fit within physical laws as we understand them. Then, we can extrapolate (predict) other behaviors.

For example, as we begin to understand quantum mechanics, we can design a computer, an encryption mechanism—and eventually a teleportation system—that exploits the physical properties and laws.

1 I do not appreciate the outreach of evangelism. In my opinion, religious discussion is best amongst a like-minded community.

An argument against Evangelism

This isn’t a rant against personal faith. It is a rant against the idea that you should ‘push’ your views on unrelated individuals, especially strangers—even if you believe that your view offers salvation.

Anyone who has lived in a home or apartment, dormed at a college or housed in the military has been approached by well-intentioned Mormons, Jehovah’s Witness, Baptists, Hari Krishna or other evangelicals. I hold nothing against such missionaries. They are marketing conscience and faith in what they see as an act of love. Unfortunately, society is worse off for this type of love. They are horribly misguided. They mean well and they may have the inside track on creation, but their understanding of equality and civil liberties is naïve.

Is this a position of Intolerance? — Quite the opposite!

Even in far off lands, instant communication, air travel and nuclear weapons render our fiefdoms meaningless beyond the realms of taxation, defense, and road repair. We live in a pluralistic melting pot. The shrinking planet demands that we coexist. I have always felt that the only thing of which we can be intolerant is intolerance itself.

So, why do I shun religious outreach? Because, arguing that your book is better than mine can only be won on faith—and faith is both personal and unprovable. Sure, tolerance is often built on religious ideals. To function as a society without killing each other, tolerance is a necessity. But, tolerance and humanity are also built into the Golden Rule and every democratic constitution. Any attempt to persuade others to adopt your core beliefs about origin, doctrine or blasphemy is pointless and an affront to everyone elses’ beliefs.

Whew! It took courage to get that off my chest. I hope that my friend, Hiawatha Bray forgives me.

What about the contradiction between science and religion?

I have never seen any contradiction. Only someone who believes that the Earth was created in the past 6,000 years ago sees a contradiction. That belief is as goofy as the sun orbiting the earth.

If there is a God, then I suppose it explains the energy and matter that surrounds us. And if this is the case, he followed up by proclaiming the finely tuned natural laws of physics and biochemistry, and set everything in motion. Oh rejoice in his splendor! Because, after billions of years, life arose—and we are the interim products of an expanding universe. It’s awe-inspiring, but it certainly presents no contradiction.

I don’t consider myself an atheist. And despite offering an agnostic explanation of the universe, my religion is my business and not yours. But, I certainly believe in science! I side with Bill Nye and the late Carl Sagan (he was my former professor). No one with a sense of their surroundings and an appreciation for facts can ignore that the Earth and the universe have existed for billions of years.

We may be the product of an intelligent God, but if we are, we will never know. We lack to tools to discern the question that predates all other questions. Pointing to ancient scripture is nonsense. The scripture was written by men, seeking to explain everything that they observed in their times. Yet, these men had fewer facts about the universe than we have now. The faith that most believers associate with scripture is based on respect for the practices and beliefs of their parents.

Moreover, the men who created these book (the bibles of any religion), also created God. Why? To deal with mortality, explain tragedy, control the masses—or perhaps as a mental exercise. It may even be a byproduct of what they were ingesting and smoking.

What if Apollo 11 had failed? Nixon‘s undelivered speech

In 1969, William Safire was President Nixon’s speech writer. He wrote the short speech shown below, and delivered it to Chief of Staff, H.R. Haldeman. The speech was to be read by Nixon in the event that the Apollo 11 lunar lander failed to launch or that some other problem caused the lander or mothership to crash back onto the surface of the moon.

In 1969, the space race was at full throttle. Russians were first to launch a satellite, send a dog and a man into space,* and perform an extravehicular space walk. America was under great pressure to fulfill John F. Kennedy’s promise and beat the Russians in landing a man on the moon. Today, former engineers at NASA acknowledge that they believed the chances of such a catastrophe were more than 50%.

William Safire was a brilliant orator and linguist, known primarily as a columnist and journalist. He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom (from George Bush in 2006). He died in 2009.

The Apollo 11 disaster speech is pure poetry. It fits Nixon’s demeanor, while inspiring the public to continue support for exploration despite such a spectacular failure.

William Safire’s speech for President Nixon—in the event of a moon landing disaster:

Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace.

These brave men, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, know that there is no hope for their recovery. But they also know that there is hope for mankind in their sacrifice.

These two men are laying down their lives in mankind’s most noble goal: the search for truth and understanding.

They will be mourned by their families and friends; they will be mourned by their nation; they will be mourned by the people of the world; they will be mourned by a Mother Earth that dared send two of her sons into the unknown.

In their exploration, they stirred the people of the world to feel as one; in their sacrifice, they bind more tightly the brotherhood of man.

In ancient days, men looked at stars and saw their heroes in the constellations. In modern times, we do much the same, but our heroes are epic men of flesh and blood.

Others will follow, and surely find their way home. Man’s search will not be denied. But these men were the first, and they will remain the foremost in our hearts.

For every human being who looks up at the moon in the nights to come will know that there is some corner of another world that is forever mankind.

* The US was first to send an animal into space. On June 11, 1948, Albert 1, a rhesus monkey, was launched on a V2 rocket. But this was a suborbital flight. It cleared the atmosphere but could not have sailed away from Earth’s gravity, nor even achieved orbit. The first animal to attain orbit was launched more than 9 years later. A dog, Laika, launched on board the Soviet Sputnik 2 spacecraft on November 3, 1957.


Vicente Fox: Message to Donald

I try hard to avoid pushing too many Trump posts into AWildDuck. The blog is intended to be more about technology, privacy, cryptocurrency and social policy.

But all too often, something like this hits the news and it’s tempting; like Adam & Eve and the apple, all over again!

I could be mistaken, but it appears that this video message to US president Donald Trump was really produced and presented by former Mexican president Vicente Fox. It does not appear to be an actor or comedian. The video is posted on President Fox’s Facebook page and his own personal web page.

Even if this is an actor portraying the Mexican president, it is clearly authorized. It is not only funny, but insightful and relevant—and very sad. That too! Funny, but sad…

Why properly oriented photos jump back to rotated

A year ago, I watched my good friend, George, create a new account at a popular dating service. It wasn’t a hook-up site, but rather a serious forum for like minded, intellectual, Italian Americans.

George Clooney-sSure, Ellery!…I bet that it was you surfing the
dating service—and not your imaginary friend.

No, seriously. That’s him on the right.               »
Anyway, the first photo that George uploaded is the handsome close-up shown here. But to his surprise, the dating service displayed the sideways photo shown below.

George was surprised, because he recalled that the camera displayed it this way when his mom took the photo. He rotated it clockwise even before uploading to a PC. Now, it displays correctly on both his camera and on his computer screen. He thought that the sideways photo problem had been resolved. He even emailed the photo to me, and it looked fine on both my phone and desktop PC.

George Clooney-Couterclockwise« But there it is at Somehow, the photo had jumped back to sideways orientation. What gives?!

I started to give George a tip about permanently correcting the problem, but he cut me off…“Ellery”, he said—“I just want to meet Sheryl411. She has incredible eyes. I haven’t been so smitten since I met Amal!

With a remarkably low threshold for technology glitches, he decided to leave the sideways photo at “I can’t imagine that a reasonable girl would care” He said. “After all, women love my mug. They can rotate it after saving it to their drive—Or, they can simply ask my agent to send a signed, 8-by-10 glossy photo”.

I grimaced. In my opinion, the sideways photo broadcasts a not-too-subtle message—It says that the person seeking companionship is a Luddite, rather than America’s premier hunk. George’s character in the film Up in the Air was ruthless, but had so much more common sense.

George and I were still sitting on the back deck sipping Shirley Temples, when the alert appeared on his screen. Even before he reached out to any of the beautiful, eligible women at, he had caught the eye of Sheryl411. What an incredible coincidence! But, sadly, her note to George was an unsolicited rejection letter:

Dear ‘Clooney-Actor-Hunk’,

I am fascinated by your wit and words—and I love your movies. I read about your break-up with Amal, and I just want to hold you to my breast and comfort you.

I wish that I could jet-set to your latest movie set in Casablanca or sail on your 164 foot yacht. But, I’m afraid that it is not meant to be. I could never date you…

If you can’t figure out how to make a sideways pic of yourself upright, then we are not a good match. I’m sorry… Darwin is making me do it.

I tried to sympathize with George. Sheryl411 represented his fantasy and passionate hopes. But Sheryl has a shorter tolerance for techno-averse actors than they do for figuring out how to rotate a photo.

So what is the problem—and how can it be solved?

In response, I am sharing with readers my reply to Sheryl. (I grabbed George’s laptop PC, and wrote this note back to the object of his lust)…

Dear Sheryl411,

I *love* your final comment to my friend George: “If you can’t figure out how to right a sideways pic…Darwin is making me do it”. Hawhh! And to think that I thought this was a problem related to a double-X chromosome!

It is, in fact, a tricky problem, because with some phones & cameras, the rotate-feature does not really rotate the image data. It only adds a tag that tells the display device that it should be rotated (90, 180 or 270 degrees). So, the user may see a properly oriented photo—even after they upload it to a PC. Yet, when they upload to the dating service, it jumps back to sideways. That’s because the dating site uses older rendering software that does not recognize the rotate instruction.

Sheryl411: George’s latest obsession

For this reason, I would give George a break (even though a sideways photo is one my pet peeves too!). Since cameras and PCs are not his thing, it can be tricky to realize that he needed to use the older method of rotating, which actually rotates and re-writes the image, rather than adding a rotate tag.

But wait! Things don’t really get better, because if you use an older process to truly rotate the image, it is likely to leave the embedded tag which tells newer devices to apply an additional rotation. Oy Gevalt! What to do?!

The best solution is to run a free utility, Autororate. It adds a right-click feature to your Explorer/browser. It rotates and re-saves an image file in place. If the file has a rotate tag, it syncs the underlying orientation and then strips the tag, with no loss of image quality.

And so, Sheryl—We have solved the problem. Now, that I have shown you that I know how to avoid sideways head shots, please consider dating  me  instead of George. He may be a hunk, but I have much more going on upstairs, if you know what I mean! 😉 Check out my dating site profile and my upright photos. If Darwin is your thing, visit my Blog, You are sure to be impressed by my intellect, eclectic wit, charm, wry sarcasm and incredible modesty.

Your future date (or mate-?),


I forgot to create my own dating page and give Sheryl my user name. So, she had no way to answer me. Later that night, she wrote to George asking for my contact information. (she could have used the Contact form here at Wild Duck).

When George saw her request, he went ballistic! He realized that I had put the moves on his girl. I have always thought of this Blog as a family-friendly site, and so I cannot relate the angry note that George sent to me. It drips with venom and profanity.

Today, Sheryl and I are married. George is still with Amal, and he is still angry with me. He refuses to rekindle our friendship, and so we don’t spend time on his Yacht or on set of his Casablanca movie (It is still being filmed). But we always see his films at the local theater and we raise a glass or two in his honor. After all, he introduced us!

No. I don’t really know George Clooney and I am not married to Sheryl411. I wrote this article to
explain JPEG image rotation. Yes, Sheryl411 is real, and she really can’t stand techno-Luddites.

21st Century Gender Sterotyping? Not so Fast!

Jennifer Wright (@JenAshleyWright) kicked up a firestorm last week, when she tweeted a photo of two side-by-side magazines on a newsstand. The contrast between cover features of Boys’ Life -vs- Girls’ Life is startling. With characteristic sarcastic wit, she tweeted:

“Why are you feminists always complaining?
We treat boys and girls exactly the same.”

For those who are reading this without the image below, the current issue of these magazines calls out to readers like this:

  • Boys: Would you like to build and fly the next generation of jet fighters?
  • Girls: What on Earth can you do with your hair and nails this weekend?


The difference between these covers suggests that the respective magazine editors are pushing 19th century aspirations onto the next generation of women. It’s a reminder of the differences in the way we perceive the sexes. But does this contrast present a fair and balanced comparison?

Certainly, there is work to do—but, the stark difference between these magazine covers may not point to a societal ill in the way that seems to jump off the screen.

  1. Despite similar titles, these magazines have very different audiences and goals. I doubt that Girls’ Life is aimed at the broader demographics of Boys’ Life. The subscriber base evolved to target the girls of Toddlers and Tiaras. I am exaggerating by pointing to a narrow demographic, of course! but it sells to girls who already aspire to be future homemakers, or who simply have the fashion obsession that is still the hallmark of many preteen girls.
  2. Unlike boys, girls really do have more options for viewing their future and their careers. Feminism and technological/political empowerment is not yet universal or even universally embraced. Some families, particularly among the south, among religious conservatives, and among hard-hat towns dependent upon muscles and mining, still promote the notion of TFRs onto the next generation (traditionally female roles). Right or wrong, it brings us to point #3…
  3. It’s clear that there is a stark difference between covers: “How can I build a jet fighter?” -vs- “What will I do with my hair tonight?” But, it is all too easy to assume that we understand cause-and-effect. That is, the difference is likely to be a reaction to market forces, rather than the publisher’s attempt to shape desires. One cannot find fault with delivering content based on consumer demand.

If you tell me that there are plenty of girls that hope to build or fly a jet fighter, I will nod in agreement. But if you tell me that there is an equal fraction of boys who obsess over their nails, hair and the color of a blouse, I will wonder if we live on the same planet.

My teenage daughter is clearly in the former group: She imagines, asks tough questions, builds, tears down, and then builds a better gizmo from scratch. She codes Android apps and creates massive murals for the local shopping mall. But, some girls care about classic ‘girly’ things, at least during their early years. And here’s a surprise…

Many of these gilrly girls exhibit just as much technical proficiency and self-confidence as their empowered peers. They are assertive, independent, financially savvy, and aware of their equal political and career footings. Helen-Gurley-Brown-vintageYet, many of us feminists bristle at the thought of a female child who obsesses about their hair and nails (at least to the point of subscribing to a magazine in that venue). In fact, the two are not mutually exclusive.

So, can I still call myself a feminist in the mold of Betty Friedan or Gloria Steinem? Perhaps not. I am more likely to identify with a less militant Helen Gurley Brown. She was all about empowerment and sexual equality. Yet, somehow, she avoided pushing the sexes to be completely indistinguishable and androgynous.

Do you disagree? Do you think that I exhibit a Luddite attitude that is at the core of a chauvinistic society? Don’t just let it grate on you—Be a Wild Duck! Leave a comment.


Got Pokémon Go? Not Wesley Crusher!

If your a Trekkie, you remember Wesley Crusher, the young ensign, and son of the ship’s doctor on Star Trek, Next Generation. The character, played by Will Wheaton, appeared regularly for the first four seasons. But beginning with Season five, he made sporadic appearances as a guest star.

tumblr_inline_mqzrxpodNn1qz4rgpIn “The Game” (season 5, episode 6), Wesley locks lips with Ashley Judd, in her first on-screen kiss. It certainly wasn’t Will Wheaton’s first kiss. In “The Dauphin” (season 2, episode 10), he smooches with Salia, a shape-shifting alien with a penchant for morphing between a glowing pile of Jello into the more pleasing form thedauphin1-300x229of teen actress, Jamie Hubbard.

But I digress…

Wesley and his romantic interest hitch a ride on his former ship and discover that a virtual reality game is spreading across the crew like Ecstasy, or more specifically, like Pokémon Go, a Nintendo app that—just 5 tumblr_inline_mqznzssqzs1qz4rgpdays ago—no one had heard of. Now, it runs on one in five smart phones and is spreading like wildfire.

No phenomenon has ever spread across 20% of the population in 5 days. Not in the physical world—and not even in the digital realm. Edison’s gramophone and Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone are indisputably more crave worthy inventions than catching cartoon characters in imaginary balls. Yet, it took these earth shattering inventions twelve years to achieve market penetration.

Kitarian Game on Star Trek Next Generation

A quick pleasure? Use your thoughts to slide the red disks into the funnels.

The Tienanmen Square tank boy and the blue dress (I still claim that it is gold and white) are just bits and pixels. Yet, even these touchstone photographs spread across the country slower than the current Pokémon Go craze.

And just like the eyeglass-mounted game on the Enterprise, Pokémon Go taps directly into the pleasure center causing players to lose sense of where they are and what they had set out to accomplish. How can I be so sure of it’s nefarious capacity for mind control? After just five days, it is implicated in malware scams and armed robberies. It is every bit as addictive as crack cocaine, and possibly as destructive.

Forcibly tapping Wesley’s pleasure center via a game

Forcibly tapping Wesley’s pleasure center via a game

Do you think I’m kidding? When people are addicted to a VR app, bending their will is not difficult. Just ask 1,014 Star Trek crew members who were hypnotized and repuposed by a Ktarian mind control game. If it hadn’t been for the quick thinking of Wesley Crursher and his girlfriend, Ensign Robin Lefler (played by Ashley Judd), we’d all be speaking Ktarian today!

Postscript: This article is more about a Star Trek episode than it is about a new game app. I have always wanted to write a short post about a terrific television franchise that has touched so many people across three generations and all continents. The sudden spread of a new Internet sensation has simply given me the excuse to do so. Just like “Blink of an Eye”, The Game is indelibly written into my psyche. The parallels with an addictive new game that even captivates my AirBnB guest, Javier, and my neighbor, Lois, is eerie and raises questions about the causes, mechanisms and effects of mind control.

Gifts: Which of these things is not like the other?

Time for a pop quiz: Which of these things does not belong?


wristwatch      • wallet      • pen      • chocolates     • eyeglasses

Actually, it’s a trick question. If your giving to a man, four of these five gifts do not belong on your list—Not, unless you want smiles and gratitude as fake as a $3 bill.

I am a frequent contributor to Quora. For the most part, I write about Bitcoin and economics, but occasionally, I answer reader queries about physics and math. Sometimes, my answers are voted to the top of the heap.

Today, I was asked to describe what would qualify as the world’s worst gift. The topic is fluff, of course—but now and then, fluff can lead to a good thought experiment.

Of course, the concept of a good gift or a bad gift is highly personal. If you are allergic to flowers, then a bouquet of roses may be a very bad gift. Likewise, giving a bra may mean one thing to your lover, something different thing to your neighbor’s daughter, and with a completely different meaning when presented to your heavy set, male boss.

This may be my own emotional boil, but I have always told my family to avoid gifting me a wallet, watch, personal jewelry or a fountain pen. Today, I would add a mobile phone. (That is, unless my preferences have been published in a registry or gift list). For me, any of these gifts is very likely to qualify as a “worst gift”.

Why?! It’s not that I don’t like these things. In fact, it is the opposite. But I would rather make the choice for myself. To illustrate, think of the old standby for any businessman: The neck tie. Imagine how the giver feels when they realize that you never wear it. Imagine how you feel, when you realize that your little girl has never seen you wear it to work.

Some of these things shown above are functional and some are just ornamental, but each combines personal taste with identity and an individual’s unique sense of aesthetics. The choice of an accessory projects a unique style and taste. Unlike a box of chocolates or a dozen roses, the other gifts are not fresh or consumed and the giver expects these durable and personal items to be worn or used at some point down the road.

Without close consultation, you wouldn’t buy your friend eyeglasses or an expensive ring—even if you knew the prescription. For most men, a lot of thinking goes into the purchase of a cell phone, a wallet, a special pen or a watch.

Here’s a better idea: Skip the material gift altogether. It simply compels them to reciprocate, potentially leading to further stress. Instead, tell that special person how much he/she means to you. Offer to clean the house, take them to the doctor’s office, or sit with them in the aftermath of a personal tragedy.

Leather-iPhone-Wallet-by-PortelMost important, show your friendship and understanding when they are at their lowest. To help someone less fortunate, bring them on your next family vacation. These gestures demonstrate friendship, empathy and a sense of importance in your life. They mean more than a big screen television.

In case some generous reader disagrees—insisting on a culture of giving material things—consider getting me a wallet this holiday season. But not just any wallet. Get this one by Portel. I don’t use an iPhone, but I dig the slim fit and weathered style!

Ellery Davies is co-chair of The Cryptocurrency Standards Association and former
CEO of Vanquish Labs. He writes for Lifeboat Foundation and Naked Security.

Tiny Tim: Footnote to Falsetto

Miss Vicki, Tiny Tim wedding, Tonight ShowMost Americans over 50 remember Tiny Tim, an entertainer with a ukulele, a high pitch falsetto voice and a signature song. A sea of humanity watched him marry Miss Vicki on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. The episode was as highly anticipated and touted as the 1st moon landing. My family watched on a black & white TV in my dad’s bedroom.

Tiny Tim rocketed to fame in the late 60s as an effeminate oddity, with his warbly, high-pitch voice, a tiny plastic ukulele, and a face that was a blend of Howard Stern, The Joker and Jimmy Durante.

That Tim was a social outcast, ill at ease, and a weird performer is beyond dispute. For example, he refused to let anyone see him eat, even his new bride. Meals had to be consumed at separate times or in separate rooms. He attributed the behavior to some fringe religious observance. Nonsense! His mother was a Polish Jew and his father, a Lebanese Catholic. Tiny TimIn both religions and regions, food is celebrated and central to socializing. He was just very weird.

Could his affectations and quirks have been trumped up to buttress his stage persona? His biographer and a consensus of Wikipedia fans insist that Tiny Tim was the real deal: “Pundits and journalists debated whether the character presented was an orchestrated act, or the real thing. It quickly became clear that he was genuine. He is best described as a lonely outcast intoxicated by fame—and a romantic in pursuit of his ideal dream.” Either way, Tiny Tim and Michael Jackson shared a weird awkwardness when they were not performing. The big difference is that Michael Jackson oozed with raw talent. No one really thought that Tiny Tim had talent. He was just a nice man whom you felt a bit sorry for.

d443d59e535801c82617201e016ddad2Even if you recall Tiptoe through the Tulips, you may be unaware that Tiny Tim also sang in a deep bass voice.  Check out his rendition of Earth Angel, the 1955 doo-wop hit by the Penguins. Although he starts and ends with a deep voice, he reverts to falsetto in the middle. In an alternate version which was removed from YouTube after this article was published, he drops to his knees and smashes an air guitar on the floor. This song is not be the type that is typically accompanied by smashing instruments, but, somehow, the awkward behavior fits with Tim’s persona.

In September 1996, Tiny Tim was 64. As he was beginning to perform at a ukulele festival in western Massachusetts, he suffered a heart attack on stage. Although he survived the event, his doctors urged him to stop performing immediately. Weakened by diabetes and a heart condition, his constitution could easily be overtaxed by his schedule and performing style. Two months later, Ignoring his doctors’ advice, he died, on stage, at a gala benefit in Minneapolis.

Pet Peeve #4: Time zones are for locals

Have you ever made a list of pet peeves? I’m not referring to the behavioral quirks that couples develop over years of cohabitation. That’s part of every relationship and it is only addressed through give and take and a lot of patience. Rather, I refer to the little things that have become institutionalized all around us—and yet, we know that they are just plain idiotic. The problem is that they are too small to be picked up by the national news and too common to believe that they can be avoided.

Let’s say that you are driving along a road that comes to an end by forming a ‘T’ at the side of a much busier road. The cross street is busy, but it’s not divided. You plan to make a left turn after clearing a string of high-speed cars approaching from the right.

Conditions are good and there are no obstructions. There is no one coming from the left. Looking to the right, you can see a mile down the road. There are 4 cars speeding toward you, a long space and then a major throng of cars that will tie up the intersection for minutes. You get ready to drop the hammer as soon as that 4th car passes the intersection. You are patient, in a good mood and your car is well tuned.

Traffic Intersection

What’s the dumbest thing that the driver in car #4 could do? Does he have the power to ruin your day and raise your blood pressure while trying to be a nice guy? He sure does!

He can hesitate—slowing just enough to get honked by the parade behind him and just enough to close your window of opportunity. If you are in a hurry to get somewhere, he will ruin your morning faster than you can mime “Move your friggin’ tailpipe!!”. He is oblivious to the fact that his gesture of good will has backfired.

Cross street drivers who let up on the gas are one of my three pet peeves. But today, I was reminded of another minor irritation. From now on, I will call it “Pet Peeve #4”.

I have a good friend in Germany. He is a high tech entrepreneur and tends to move about the globe. His businesses are in Australia and New Zealand, and he spent a long part of the past year in Shanghai. I never know where he will be. But he is currently in Germany and he knows that I am in America.

Realizing that we need to discuss an important matter, he asks me if I will be available during my weekday mornings, between 9 and 11 AM my time. Noting that he has already contemplated the time difference, I check my calendar. “Sure. That works for me,” I tell him… “Why don’t you set the schedule? Any morning this week is good.” He commits to have a colleague figure out the final date.

Taj MahalMinutes later, I receive a Google Calendar link for my approval. It asks that our meeting be established on Wed 26 Nov 2014 from 21:30 to 22:00, India Standard Time. I was unprepared for the involuntary groan that arose from the pit of my stomach. Here, is an open letter to my buddy and the colleague who scheduled our conference to be held on India Time…

C’mon guys / gals… The Internet works on “Internet Time”, also known as UTC or GMT. It is effectively Earth time. It never changes with seasons, war, edict, accidents or daylight savings. It just moves forward as the universal heartbeat of the Internet.

clocksPlease don’t make me translate your Indian Standard Time. I will get it wrong. I always do.

And please don’t figure it out in “USA-Eastern Standard Time”.  Here in the US, politicians shift Daylight Savings dates, sometimes splitting it by local counties. In some areas, they change it by only 30 minutes for border towns. (Yes! We are that nuts).

So please: Just tell me the time in UTC. It is the only time that should ever be cited when dealing with anyone that you can’t reach with a personal handshake.

P.S. Don’t take insult when I post your suggested meeting time (and this sarcastic response) to A Wild Duck. Sure, you helped me to discover a new peeve—But you have also hit upon my funny bone!

Faithfully yours,

The Baby Exchange

Can telling a white lie to a child backfire? It did for me.

From time to time, at AWildDuck, I offer an observation or op-ed on a topic of human interest. This one is not about current events, the price of gold, law or politics. Nah. It’s just Ellery relating a personal experience and a lesson learned…

When my teenage daughter was 3 or 4 years old, I took her with me for a routine blood test (my test and not hers). On the way to the hospital, I explained that we would be visiting the same hospital where we ‘bought’ her. She seemed to accept the explanation. She even asked if the hospital had a variety of babies from which new parents could choose.

car seat tantrumLater, during that same ride, she became irritable and whiny. She complained about something unrelated to our hospital conversation. In an effort to calm her, I made a terrible blunder. Actually, it was just a joke. At least that’s how I saw it. But to my daughter, is was an ominous threat…

I told her, “If you don’t calm down and behave, I will ask the doctor if I can return you for a refund or maybe exchange you for another model.”

Suddenly, she became very quiet. I assumed that she had simply stopped fretting over whatever was bothering her. I interpreted the sudden tranquility as evidence of good behavior.

[One hour later]…

Throughout the appointment, my little girl remained as quiet as a church mouse. I figured that she must simply be processing the fact that blood can be drawn from a person’s arm. When I completed the brief procedure, I realized that we were directly across a hall from the obstetrics ward. I hadn’t visited since my daughter was born. It seemed a good idea to check it out under less stressful circumstances. Holding my girl’s hand, we walked over. Almost Immediately, I spotted the doctor and head nurse who delivered my daughter.


Dr. John DeLoge & Trish Hardigan, RN

“Cupcake”, I said. “I want you to meet some very special people. This is the doctor and nurse that brought you to Mommy and Daddy.” My daughter froze. At first, she offered only a blank stare, Her eyes were as big as saucers.

Gradually, I realized that my precious cupcake was in a state of shock. Her eyes welled up in tears. She began to wail at the top of her lungs while hyperventilating.
“P-l-e-e-e-z-e, Daddy! Don’t give me back to the hop-pis-tal. Don’t exchange me for another baby!! Pleeeze don’t do that!! I promise that I’ll be good! I will never whine or talk back again—EVER! I promise, Daddy! I want to live with you and Mommy! Don’t exchange me!”

Realizing that my precious girl was terrified and that the terror was caused by me, I held her tightly and explained that I was wrong to tell her what I did. I explained that Mom & Dad’s love is unconditional and that parents never return babies.

She calmed down and we headed for the parking lot. But not before the nurse reminded me that a parent must never place a child’s security in doubt—nor assume that a toddler could understand a joke that trifles with the security of the family unit.

I agree.

Leaving USA? Learn Elvis’ middle name

In the late 1980s, I was between careers. I had an itch to visit the Soviet satellite republics—especially Romania, Czechoslovakia and Poland. Political upheaval was threatening to change the borders and alliances of Eastern Europe. It was shortly before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

I had not yet met the woman that I would marry, and so I trekked through Europe with Sam, a former college buddy. We were seasoned independent travelers. No need for a tour package, hotel reservations or even an itinerary! The tools of conventional tourists were antithetical to our nature. We backpacked across the continent by train and by foot, moving freely between big cities, small hamlets and farms.

We talked our way into schools, homes and offices, gaining a perspective of communist life before the collapse of the USSR. We stayed at hostels or with Gypsies. On one occasion, we stayed overnight at a refugee camp. We chuckled at commentary in Foder’s and Fromer’s travel guides, because their view of political and cultural affairs was laughably distorted. But, we gained respect for The Lonely Planet. That series confirmed our observations and conclusions.

Romania was our last destination; near the end of a 3 month trip. After an eye-opening visit to Transylvania, we made our way to Bucharest to prepare for our separate flights home.

Sam picked up a travel companion along the way, a Canadian woman almost twice our age. She was completing her medical degree in Romania. Realizing that we had backpacked across Eastern Europe, and that we had rarely stayed in a full service hotel with reliable electricity and hot water, she suggested that we visit the US Embassy with her for our last evening on the continent. She explained that the US Embassy welcomed both US and Canadian citizens and that they had American fast food, ATM machines affiliated with our own banks, reliable phone service, and even showers and a disco.

After 3 months of dust and twisted ankles (we spent New Year’s Eve hiking across the frontier from Svidnik Slovakia to Tylawa Poland), and after getting into an altercation with a police officer in the Bucharest city square (he pulled the film from our cameras, because we snapped photos of a bread line), the idea of a Burger King Whopper, clean showers, and a Bank ATM appealed to us. Don’t get me wrong—In each country, we ate and moved about like locals. But in just one more day, we would be greeted in Chicago by my mom’s business partner. I had no desire to greet her in threadbare shorts and unkempt hair!

USEmbassy_RomaniaBack in the day, the US maintained a palatial embassy in Bucharest—practically a city block along each side. But this was the cold war era. Relations with Nicolae Ceaușescu were awkward and tense. And so, the Romanian government cordoned off a city sector for an additional block in all directions. The area, including the US embassy, was 9 square blocks, and was restricted to foreigners with embassy business and locals who worked at the embassy or directly supported the embassy (suppliers, landscapers, maintenance vendors, restaurants, dry cleaners, etc).

Entering the embassy district required visitors to pass two checkpoints: At the perimeter, a Romanian police sought to prevent petitions for asylum, while at the embassy itself, a US Marine guard, verified citizenship, identity and intent. Even though our visit was in the cold war era, this was before 9/11. There was no threat of violence against Americans. And so, I was only mildly amused that a Canadian citizen could access the US embassy for the purpose of dining, banking and recreation. So be it.

guard-booth-1Sam and I were flagged as we passed through the outer perimeter. A Romanian policeman in a snappy uniform waved us to a booth that was situated right in middle of traffic. “Passports please?”. We complied without any words. He looked at our female companion. “You are Canadian. Are you here to dance, eat or shower?” referring to the discotheque, restaurant and changing rooms within the embassy. “All of the above” she responded.

“O.K. my friends. You may pass. Do not talk or trade with Romanians between this checkpoint and the embassy.” We had heard this type of request from hotel proprietors and store keepers, but I was surprised to hear it from an official person with defacto boarder authority. I wondered what difference is there in talking to Romanians inside or outside of the US embassy sector?

HackySack-2aMaking our way through a working class neighborhood, we spied a circle of children playing hacky sack. They weren’t just playing, they were talking—and in English!

In Western Europe, seeing a group of preteens talk in English wouldn’t merit a second glance. Everyone learns English in school and more recently, the Internet spreads English like dandelion seeds in a windstorm. But in the 1980s, Romania had no Internet and few children spoke English. Sam and I looked quizzically at each other. Sensing a mystery, we crossed the street to get a better read on these boys. We weren’t planning to engage them…we just wanted to know what they were talking about.

Still a half minute away from the boys, were could here one boy bark questions with command excitement. Apparently, he was the leader. One by one, the other children responded:

  • “Who won the 1963 World Series?”              “The Dodgers”      “Correct!”
  • “What is Elvis Presley’s middle name?”        “Aaron”                “Correct!”
  • “Who was Richard Nixon’s vice president?”  “Agnew”
                 “Full name please …”                     “Spiro T. Agnew”   “Correct!”

Sam and I were flummoxed. What game requires detailed answers on issues of US cultural minutiae? Momentarily forgetting our instructions to refrain from engaging locals, I addressed the tallest boy. He was about 12. “What is the purpose of this game?”

He stared at me blankly. At first, I thought that he might not be permitted to talk with a foreigner or perhaps he perceived a threat because I was a stranger. But then, in very broken English, he struggled to respond: “Sorry…No speak Ainglish. No understand”. The other boys were even less helpful. They didn’t speak a lick of English, not even the one who posed the questions and responded with the word “Correct!”

Of course, this presented an even bigger puzzle. These boys were playing a word game, and they didn’t even understand the words. Even more bizarre, they responded to each question with a correct answer.

Unable to communicate and with onlookers beginning to take notice, we moved on. During the remainder of our walk, Sam and I speculated on the nature of their play and dreamt up possible explanations—each more bizarre than the other. In truth, we had no idea from where they heard these questions or how they knew the answers.

Eventually, we made our way to the US Embassy. A marine guard snapped to attention and greeted us with military discipline. “Passports please.”

Marine GuardAfter a few seconds of comparing our photos with our faces, he looked each of us from head to toe. Referring to Sam’s friend, but staring directly at us, he said: “I know this woman. She has visited before. But what about you? What is your business with the Embassy?”

I offered the only explanation that I could think of: “We’re at the end of our trip. We are looking for a transition—something familiar and western. We heard that you allow unofficial visits from tourists.”

“That’s correct. And your Canadian friend is welcome too. But, you know, boys—it’s not difficult for some Romanians to acquire an altered or forged passport. I see them frequently, and some are difficult to detect.” Then he asked where each of us was born.

I sympathized with the task of an embassy gate keeper and I was prepared for a delay. I imagined that he would check our airline tickets, verify identities against a computer database, or even call our personal references back in America. “…And so, boys, I’d like to ask you a few questions. Just a little quiz to help me confirm citizenship…”

“Who won the 1963 World Series?”

This set my mind alight…I knew the answer! After all, I heard this question 15 minutes ago. What a coincidence! “I think that it was the LA Dodgers, but I have to confess…”

The marine guard cut me off, mid sentence. “Do I look like a priest? I didn’t ask for a confession or commentary Just answer the questions, please.

Now then: What was Elvis Presley’s middle name?”
        “Aaron—But wait. I just…”

“No talking! I am asking the questions. Who was Richard Nixon’s vice president?”
        “That one I know — It’s Agnew!”

“Full name please …”
        “Now hold on a second!”

The marine wouldn’t permit any interruption. Even if I could tell him about the boys and the game in the alley, I suspect that he wouldn’t care. He had protocol and procedures and was sticking to these methods with military discipline and precision.

Fortunately, Sam and I recalled every question and answer that the hacky sack youths had exchanged. Eventually, we were admitted. We had a fun evening with the embassy staff and a few other tourists. The food wasn’t free, but it was terrific!

This was all before 9/11 and before the Benghazi bombing and a other anti-American incidents at embassy’s around the world. More than twenty-five years have passed. I wonder if the embassy in Bucharest still uses the Trivial Pursuit quiz. I wonder if the locals still rehearse all the answers — and just how many of them enjoy the disco inside the embassy!

Who’s on First? What’s on Second


Whenever a waiter asked my father if he had decided on something to eat, he always responded in the same way: “I’ll have number 27 on toast!” He followed with a big smile and a sharp sniff, sucking in a full breath in a split second. That was his way of showing that he thought he had said something very witty.

27_on_toastIt didn’t matter if the menu was numbered or if they even had 27 different entrées. He thought this response was knee-slapping funny. He even paused with comic timing, locking eyes with the waiter. I think that he expected him to laugh out loud at the riotous joke. The problem is that no one understood Dad’s humor—not the waiter and not even our family. Typically, the waiter barely managed a chuckle and waited for Dad to decide on an item that was actually printed on the menu.

With Dad, it didn’t end with number 27. Throughout my childhood, he had a slew of one-liners. Each was a snappy answer to a simple, everyday question. Some of the quips made sense, and some were so quirky, subtle or complex, that any sense of meaning was lost on us. I don’t think that even Dad could explain some of the obtuse one-liners of which he was so proud.

These retorts were so autonomous and repetitive, they were drilled into our individual psyches. Eventually, I found myself snapping back with the same answer when going out for a bite with friends…

Sir, are you ready to order?
          “Sure…I’ll have number 27 on toast!” [sniff]

Since I have absolutely no idea why I utter these words, I probably lack the panache of my father’s delivery. When I use the line, restaurant employees appear dumbstruck—even more than with Dad.

Yeah—Joe What!

Perhaps my father’s most memorable snappy answer was to that common American expression: “Do you know what?” In response, he would snap back without any delay: “Sure—Joe What! Met ’im in the army!”

Again, I had no idea what on earth this meant. Not even a clue. In fact, I never even parsed the words. But over the course of a lifetime, I heard it thousands of times. Eventually, when someone asked me “Do you know what?” I would respond instantly “Sure…Joe What! Met ’im in the army.” I’m pretty sure that it sailed past people around me without a thought, but for those that were tied to me by circumstance (my roommates at college or anyone I dated more than a few times), it actually rubbed off. Somewhere in upstate New York, there is a community of former acquaintances who continue to use the phrase even to this day! Just like me, none of them know why they say it or what it means. In fact, even my children respond in this way. It rolls off the tongue naturally.

Surprise Visit

During my 3rd year at college, I decided to surprise my parents by flying home over a long weekend. I recall feeling proud that I had managed to travel without asking my folks for air fare, or even a ride from the airport.

1945-EBR Formal-2Upon entering our home, my mother was so excited; she gave me a big hug. It was exactly the response that I had sought. “Where’s Dad?” I asked, hoping that he was also at home. I wanted to gauge his surprise and excitement. Mom explained that my father was in his upstairs office meeting with an old friend that he hadn’t seen in years. It was an emotional reunion of sorts, and Mom suggested that I wait for him to come down.

As I snacked on my first home-cooked food in months, I relished in the fun I would have surprising Dad and catching up on family affairs. Eventually, Dad descended the big curved staircase into our living room. At his side was a guest that I had never met. Both men were in World War II officer uniforms of the U.S. Army Air Corps. In all these years, I had never seen my father in uniform. He looked pretty snazzy! Just like in the old photos from before he was married.

“Hey, Ellery. You’re home!” he called out to me. “Do ya’ know what?!” I responded without even a nanosecond delay: “Yeah—Joe What. Met ’im in the army.”

“Exactly!” my father exclaimed. That’s right!

“Huh?” I was puzzled. I had expected a small groan, upon recognizing my quick return of his trademark quip.

“You got it right!” Dad repeated. “How did you know?”

“Know what?” I replied.

“Yes, Watt!”, Dad said. “How did you know?”

I felt like I was in an Abbott and Costello shtick. Yet, I had the distinct feeling that I was Costello.


For a few seconds, Dad’s army buddy, Lieutenant Joseph Watt, was as clueless as me. But just as we were about to hit the reset button a second time, Joe started to smile. “Let me guess, Ellery…” A thoughtful finger rose to his lips. “I bet that your dad has used my name as part of a stock expression throughout your childhood. You never realized that ‘Joe Watt’ was a real person, and that I met your Dad in the army. Is that right?”

Brain freeze. I was speechless. Joe What. Met him in the army…I get it! This is Joseph Watt, an army officer with whom my Dad served during the war. So That’s Watt!

Nice to meet you, Joe. You’ve been part of my life forever.

2nd Lieutenant Joe Watt (left) with Dad

2nd Lieutenant Joseph Watt with Dad at Weidner Memorial Library, Harvard Yard

The Literalist: A case of Adult ADHD

Edward worked alongside me as co-founder and senior engineer at two high-tech ventures. He was a classical musician and had performed as a timpanist for the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra. Yet, Edward had no problem slipping into the role of senior software test engineer—and later—as operations manager for our computer network start up. He entered the venture knowing nothing about computer networks or the HVAC market that we planned to service. Yet, whatever the role—and no matter how technical—Edward made up for the background that he lacked.

Suffice it to say that Edward was one sharp business manager.

But Edward was a literalist and occasionally a procrastinator. At first, his colleagues and subordinates dismissed these traits as endearing eccentricities. Upon coming across Edward many years later, I learned that his peculiar way of processing information and an inability to communicate with those who are less precise not only lost him a job, it had a profound impact on his life. Ultimately, his symptoms—and events they provoked—led Edward to a diagnosis and treatment. But first, he had to acknowledge that he had a problem.

Let me illustrate one of Edward’s idiosyncrasies…


Edward in mid-thought

One morning, I was standing in line at McDonald’s. As I waited my turn, I heard a voice in the line ahead of me:

“I’ll have the Scrambled Egg Breakfast
—with the eggs ba-a-r-r-r-e-ly cooked”

 A wagging finger rose high above the crowd—to emphasize the syllable: ba-a-r-r-r-e. A trill hung in the air for several seconds. I recognized the phrase and the voice instantly. It was one of Edward’s lovable affectations. I knew exactly what was coming next. Well, at least I thought I did…

I had occasionally met Edward at other breakfast restaurants. He always asked for nearly-raw eggs in that same voice and with a wagging finger. Often, the order taker would explain that the restaurant cannot serve under cooked eggs. At a few franchise outlets, Edward was offered a liability waiver. This allowed them to serve under cooked food, but it explained that raw eggs may contain high levels of bacteria—and that compared with a supermarket supply chain, restaurants have diminished capacity to ensure continuous refrigeration. (I have always felt that the second method of dealing with this request is more reasonable and, certainly, more accommodating!)

But the counter clerk did not object to the preparation request nor did he produce a legal form. Instead, he simply pointed to a portable clock on top of a coffee machine and explained that breakfast had ended five minutes ago. “Is there anything I can get you from the lunch menu?”

Edward stared at the clock. He was stunned! He glanced alternatively at his watch and then back at the clock. For a long moment—he was speechless. Finally, he put together a very earnest and coherent question. In fact Edward was always precise in his choice of words. He said:

“In the future, can I assume that your switch-over will invariably be triggered
by a clock that is 7 minutes ahead of local time, as determined by a recog-
nized time standard? Or is it possible that your clock is accurate, but that
you adhere to something other than Universal Coordinated Time?”

This time, it was the order taker who was stunned. He stared at Edward trying to figure out if he was encountering humor, insolence or anger. Actually, he was encountering none of these emotions. Quite simply, Edward is a literalist. He is given to being punctual and precise. He is exceptionally bright, and—at the time—in constant need of reminding that not everyone else is so literal, demanding or bright.

I felt sympathy for both Edward and the order taker. Although I was several steps back in line, I inserted myself into the conversation, speaking loudly so that both could hear. I said “Look Edward! At some time in the minutes before 10:30, the restaurant stops the setup of breakfast ingredients. When they can no longer make a variety of items on the breakfast menu, they shut down the grills and switch over the cash registers and overhead menus!”

I really didn’t know if this is how McDonald’s works, but I wanted to move the conversation away from a discussion of clock precision. After all, no one could maintain a clock as carefully as Edward. Not the phone company. Not Big Ben. Heck—not even the folks who run the atomic clocks in Greenwich and Colorado. They probably take their cue from Edward!

Not surprisingly, the counter clerk considered me to be his new best friend. Suddenly excised from a predicament, he raised his eyebrows and flashed a big smile. He pointed to me and exclaimed “Yeah! Exactly what he said!”

Edward acknowledged my presence in the line behind him, but quickly froze again. He slowly raised a crooked finger to his lips and reflected for awhile—too long for a person holding up a line of hungry patrons. Then he looked at the clerk with a serious but welcoming gaze and warmly said “Suppose I were to visit at 10:15 or earlier—according to my clock which is synchronized with my mobile phone service. If I visited earlier, could I reasonably expect that you will still offer me breakfast?”

As before, the question was phrased with über-precision. Not the precision of a nerd or Geek, but the precision of someone who relates only to those who communicate in the syntax of a peer-reviewed, technical journal. But this time, the clerk understood the question: Edward just wanted a breakfast routine that he could count on. He wanted to know how early he had to arrive, so that he wouldn’t miss the morning menu.

The clerk beamed with a smile. “Yes, Sir!” He exclaimed. “If you arrive fifteen minutes early [according to any reasonable clock, I presumed], I am certain that we can serve you eggs!”

Crisis resolved. At least regarding the change of restaurant menus…

Calamities Brewing

Back at our computer company, Edward’s professional relationship with the executive team was deteriorating. We admired his skill and liked him personally. But, our venture was small, underfunded and trying to cover 3 jobs for every manager. Edward’s difficulty in thinking quickly and his need for precise and literal language made it too difficult for any of us to make progress. During the next quarter, the board voted Edward out of our computer start up. Because he was also a board member, we stood on shaky legal ground. But we simply lacked the funds and the patience to be stuck in a looping-thought every time we needed a meeting of the executive staff.

There was a brief legal battle over Edward’s severance. No animosity; just a quick exchange of papers, a group conference and a resolution that everyone could live with.

I lost touch with Edward. The last time we saw each other was 17 years ago. I never learned that he lost his home and his girlfriend over the same peculiar idiosyncrasies. Perhaps the events surrounding our professional separation made each of us too timid to look up the other. Occasionally, I reflected on our former friendship with melancholy. I missed Edward’s wit, his smile and especially, his sense of humor. In many ways, we were kindred spirits. I wondered if he ever heard that I met and married a wonderful girl, that I now have a child, and that I still think of him occasionally.

The Present  [17 years later]

During the time that I lost contact with Edward, he was diagnosed with adult ADHD and treated by pioneer in the field. It’s not schizophrenia and it’s not a sign of bipolar disorder. In adults, it is the inability to deal with organizing thought and action, especially in advance of the last minute. It is not a problem with knowledge or learning. Those functions take place in the back of the brain, but they must later be accessed by the fore brain to execute effectively.

Edward’s inability to accept imprecise language is just one of the symptoms that can lead to a diagnosis of ADHD. It is more often expressed by procrastination, an inability to focus—and sometimes—unreasonable demands for rapid answers from others.

Over the years, I have encountered others like Edward. At first, it never occurred to me that these traits are anything other than endearing eccentricities. But those who study these things consider it to be a disorder. And to their credit, they have developed effective treatments.

Certainly, it seems a stretch to call it a ‘disorder’ for individuals who are successful in both their career and their family life. For these individuals, I think of ADHD as a symptomatic label rather than a disorder. But, what if the difficulty in communicating with others—or the inability to organize thought and execute on a deadline—interferes with earning a living? What if an individual demands answers from loved ones with the precision and rapidity at which their mind functions?

In such a case, might these interfering traits be a “condition” that warrants evaluation and treatment? If it is not treatable, I would think that something about their environment needs to be adjusted to suit an unalterable condition.

What Can be Done?

Today, adult ADHD is highly researched. Pioneering, academic and clinical research from Massachusetts and South Carolina have resulted in enormous strides in treatment. These methods are being adopted by clinics all over the world.

Fortunately, Edward connected with one of these pioneers even before the clinics began adopting their methods. He credits that relationship to cognitive improvements that have percolated throughout his personal and business affairs.

But don’t take it from me. I’m just a columnist. For information about adult ADHD, click on the video below and get it from the proverbial horse’s mouth. That would be Dr. Barkley.

Normalization of the Dingo Berry

Gulf+Western Building-sYears ago, I sold an east coast consulting firm to a larger competitor on the west coast. That firm was in the process of being acquired by Prentice-Hall which was in turn being acquired by Gulf+Western (a multinational that is now called Paramount).

In very short order, I became the youngest VP throughout all subsidiaries of a Fortune 500 company. Gulf+Western was huge. They owned a Hollywood studio, the New York Knicks, Simmons Mattress company and 119 other diverse ventures.

Our new corporate parent threw a lot of money our way. My new boss, Bill, was CEO of the acquiring firm. He instructed me to hire a new General Manager for Eastern Operations.

Martin S. Davis, Gulf+Western-sUpon placing ads and hosting a career fair, I whittled the list down to 3 candidates. Bill assured me that the hiring decision was all mine. But knowing that I planned to leave the firm within a year, he explained that he would fly out to watch me conduct the final interviews. After all, in short order, the new east coast manager would be reporting to him.

The next morning, I got to my office at 7:30 am. I was surprised to find that Bill had arrived earlier and was working in an unlit corner of our big conference room. He had talked his way past a security guard in the lobby. Throughout the day, he sat quietly and watched me grill the final candidates. I recall each one vividly. There was:

  • A white male
  • A black male
  • A white female

Each of these final-picks was a credible candidate. All seemed qualified. With a few reservations, I suspect that each was up to the task.

Because Bill was my superior (and because he flew all the way across the country to observe my hiring process), I politely asked for his opinion before verifying references and making a final decision. Bill declined to express a preference. Again, he assured me that the hiring decision was mine, alone. He was only in town to lend moral support and to observe candidates up close.

Before retiring to make the decision, Bill asked me for a preliminary assessment. I cautiously told him that I was discounting the female candidate for weaknesses that I discussed (it was not sexism…Our staff and senior management were ⅔ female).

Thus, I was left with two male candidates: One Caucasian and one African American.

During the acquisition of my firm, some of Bill’s statements and gestures suggested to me that he might harbor prejudice toward African Americans. Far from certain, I was braced for him to pressure me to drop the black candidate. But, to my surprise, he said “If your decision is between the two male candidates, then I certainly expect that you will hire Henry!” (the black candidate).

Harrison’s dingo-berry

Harrison Ford’s dingo-berry

Noting my surprise, Bill said: “If you are thinking that I am a racist, you are dead wrong. But I’ll be damned if we’re going to hire a regional manager with a dingo-berry in his ear!”  (The white candidate had a tiny diamond in his left ear lobe).

These events took place in the mid-1980s. They were cross over years for men with jewelry. For me, the “dingo-berry” barely registered. I probably would have been as firm as Bill if the jewelry was in a candidate’s upper ear, eyebrow, nose, tongue or nipple. But I had given up on ears years earlier.

Post Script

I ran into Bill this past year. It was the first time that I had seen him in decades. He was older, of course, but looking healthy and fit. To my surprise, he has a tiny earing in one ear. His wife had none. My, how things have changed!

Incidentally, I don’t recall which candidate I hired. But I do recall that my new hire was replaced shortly after I left the company. No hard feelings, Bill.

Class Action: Unexpected dividend

Have you ever received a notice of a class action lawsuit, or seen an announcement about one that might apply to you? If so, then you will identify with my story…

Classify this as a personal interest piece. On one level, it’s fluff. But in the process of telling a short story, we review the mechanisms of a class action lawsuit-at least from the perspective of a solicited class-member litigant. At least as it seems to a Wild Duck.

Who Joins Class Actions?

I respond to about ? of class actions to which I am potentially eligible. Generally, I fill out paperwork only if an action is related to individual stocks that I purchased as an investment. For about 10% of companies in which I have had equity, someone down the line discovers a reason that we investors have been wronged. Perhaps it was something that the stock broker did–or perhaps it was something that the company failed to do. Either way, when a lawyer comes knocking at your door, informing you that you have been wronged, why argue?

class-action-1Of course, a large settlement fund is a motivator, but what about the paperwork-isn’t it time consuming and complex? Yes, but ironically, that burden might provide further incentive to sign on, when you consider that that it often eliminates more than half of the prospective class participants. More about the qualification barrier later. [1]

At one time, I was a frequent stock trader. It can be a great way to make money, especially if you buy netflix shares uk. Looking back on that phase of my life, though, I believe that the volume of my trades reflected investment immaturity. I have participated in lawsuits regarding brief equity positions in MediaVision, DoubleClick and Lernout & Hauspie. I collected over $100,000 on the Lernout and Hauspie action, much more than my investment-and despite the fact that I made good money on that investment. [2]

But I rarely participate in a consumer action regarding a retail purchase or one that is promoted in a TV commercial or newspaper ad: Did your doctor give you a bad drug? Do you wake up with ringing in your ears. Did your bank finance a house even though you probably should never have applied for a mortgage?… Why not sue them?!

class-action_Hair loss & intimacy

It’s not that I am disquieted by the new model for drumming up victim-clients (although I am!). And it’s not that I feel guilty about failing to accept personal responsibility-weighing risk & benefit and accepting the consequences of my action. (In most cases, this is precisely the cause of product liability litigation rather than negligence on the part of a vendor or manufacturer)… It’s just that I doubt that the burden of joining and the hassle of follow-up will yield a meaningful payout.[3]

But five years ago, I broke that rule of thumb and acted on a PSA published in The Wall Street Journal and elsewhere. It sought members for a class action against De Beers, the global diamond cartel and others associated with the wholesale diamond industry. They were accused of colluding for the purpose of manipulating the retail market. The announcement offered class status to anyone who had a receipt from a diamond merchant or retailer related to a purchase over the course of two decades.

diamond-01sI have purchased only one gem in my life; a diamond to soften my girl’s heart and seal our engagement. That was 16 years ago.

When I read about the class action, it seemed likely that I would meet the criteria. But could it be worth the time and effort to participate? The announcement boasted of large settlement to which the diamond importers had already agreed. It just needed court approval. But, the eventual payout to individual class members depends on many other factors, and so I did a quick calculation based on assumptions and estimates:

  • How many people bought diamonds during the class period and know where to find a receipt?
  • How many would actually qualify or even bother to complete the paperwork?
  • How many will be turned away or discouraged by the ludicrous trip wires? [1]
  • How does the cost of my diamond compare with the mean cost of other claimants?
  • How much would lawyers take as their cut in cooking up this scheme?

My first assessment suggested that participating in a settlement hardly seemed worthwhile. But upon consideration, I decided that a meaningful payout was unlikely, but the effort to make a claim might be negligible:

  • I had a receipt for my purchase
  • It was a big purchase
  • The qualification routine appeared to be simple and quick

In fact, this was an unusual case. The paperwork, at least initially, was trivial. I filled out a one page form and attached my receipt. The rules required a record of the GIA certification. I still had it. In fact, I kept it with the receipt. Altogether, I spent 3 minutes complying with the submission criteria and another 2 to address and post an envelope.

Although the registration process was quick and easy, I expected a deluge of further mailings asking for more information or explaining the grounds of disqualification. Instead, I received nothing for years. Not even an email. I forgot about the whole thing. Even if it were successful, the class could include tens of millions of consumers. I figured that the settlement would amount to the value of a postage stamp at best.

Now, after 5 years (and 16 years since my diamond purchase), and without any interim communication, I have received a letter and settlement payout: “Dear Ellery: Your claim was reviewed and approved. Your settlement check is enclosed: $187.54.”

It certainly won’t pay the mortgage, but still, it is nice to receive a 1.5% rebate after 16 years! If I had invested the cash at 6% rather than purchasing a diamond, I would have doubled my money. But perhaps it is better to have a diamond, a wife and $187.54.

More About Class Actions

It is not necessary to hire an attorney nor even meet with one to be a member of a class action and to collect from the settlement kitty. In fact, typically, the only individuals who hire a lawyer (those who are both eligible and who suffered injury or injustice), are the few people who wish to go it alone. That is, they don’t feel that the class will pay enough for their particular situation and so they risk launching their own pursuit of compensatory damages.

class-action-2Class actions are rarely initiated by aggrieved individuals. More often, they are the brain child of law firms who hire legions of paralegals to comb the media, fishing for a cause. Once they identify a “Should have known” situation perpetrated by an evil doer with deep pockets, they drum up clients, often going to great lengths to find them.

Some would argue that this model serves a noble purpose, because the potential for punishment and settlements discourages manufacturers and vendors from misrepresentation, or cutting corners especially as it relates to safety. That argument has merit, and it is not my intent to dispute it. But the lawyers still manage to approach these matters with ambulance-chasing methods for which they are often despised.

Perhaps one of the most despicable aspects of a class action is that training and funds are rarely directed at client qualification and communication. These roles are relegated to a call center. The individuals who apply rules that were blessed by a judge somewhere, have no access to an empowered and concerned administrator. They also have little guidance from the court, the bank or the company paying damages. So they typically turn down the application of every class participant at least once.

[1] As a member and student of many class actions, I have learned a something about the game of ‘member substantiation’. It is my experience that class attorney’s always turn down an applicant’s proof of class membership on the first few submissions. I have a hunch that it is just to pump up the value of a split between a smaller group.

For example, in the case of Lernout & Hasupie, a spectacular collapse in equity value after it was alleged that the founders lied about massive sales in Asia, I succeeded in collecting a very large settlement (much larger than my investment). Yet, my father, my brother and even the founders of a company acquired by L&H were all turned down. For one reason or another, they were told that they failed to qualify-even though their status was the same as mine. I pushed hard to prove my qualifications, and it paid off.

[2] I did not lie to receive more than my total investment. Rather, the grossly disproportionate payout was the result of a ridiculous formula for awarding payouts and an abominable inspection/arbitration protocol which eliminated almost all other investors, often for inexplicable reasons.

[3] I did not sign on for class actions against the phone company or the airlines. They were expected to yield a very small coupon and it would be difficult to demonstrate eligibility. Perhaps more importantly, I didn’t feel wronged. (OK, so I am a hypocrite).

Ellery Davies blogs on law & public policy. He is co-chair of The Cryptocurrency Standards Association,
CEO of Vanquish Labs, host & MC at The Bitcoin Event, and inventor of Blind Signaling and Response.

Cause and Effect: Salt, ball games & heart risk

Years ago, I began to hear warnings about salt consumption. Salt is known to cause high blood pressure, and high blood pressure is a risk for heart disease or at least undesirable heart events.

This puzzled me, because we had known both of these things for decades, but—somehow—I felt unsure that the two facts were transitive. That is,

If A leads to B and if B leads to C
does A necessarily lead to C?

I was also puzzled, because my mother used to give me salt pills on very hot days, whenever I was drenched in sweat after physical activity. Salt pills help retain fluids and they also re-establish electrolytes, along with plenty of water, of course. Was my mother ignorant of the dangers of salt? Why didn’t she realize that it leads to heart disease?

Later, as the salt scare reached a crescendo, I was seeing a cardiologist every 6 months. I visited him for my regular checkups, accessing his services as if he were an internist. But he wasn’t an internist. His other patients were referred to him as a high-value specialist. And he wasn’t just any cardiologist. He was a heart surgeon affiliated with the famous Framingham Heart Study. He was a pioneer in health research and respected as a teacher.

Relax. It’s not cocaine! It’s just salt.

Relax. It’s not cocaine! It’s just salt.

I asked this cardiologist about salt. First, he explained that his opinion was in the minority (i.e. I should take it with a grain of salt! — pun intended). He said that there was no merit to the popular fear about salt consumption. He felt strongly that, someday, the salt bogeyman would be de-mythed.

While he agreed that blood pressure is an indicator of cardiovascular health (because blocked arteries cause an increase in pressure), an increase caused by a temporary stimulant, such as salt, caffeine or exercise, was not cause for alarm. He believed it to be a risk only for individuals with long term hypertension due to an existing, systemic condition.

The experience taught be to be vigilant for the very common error of overlooking cause and effect. This can be tricky to unwind, because the nature of our language makes it subtle and because we all tend to make this mistake. And so, I prefer the following ‘Ball Game’ example. It is not part of my cardiologist’s explanation, but he agrees that it perfectly illustrates the point:

In the 1960s, a historical study of several thousand middle age males in the Chicago area found a high correlation between those who attend 2 more professional sporting events each week and a reduced incidence of heart attack. Although the study was not a double-blind, clinical trial (it was conducted by survey), the controls were rigorous. It included verification of facts, re-interview, and a statistical analysis to ensure that selection and participation represented a random cross section of the population.

The study concludes that men who frequently attend ball games have fewer heart attacks and live longer. But wait!… That’s not how the results were reported. Or at least, it’s not what people remember after hearing of the results.

What most people chose to hear was this:

       “If you go to two or more ball games each week, you will live longer”
       “If you go to two or more ball games each week, you will live longer—even if you hate professional sports”

David Wells

Former Yankees pitcher, David Wells, loves baseball

Of course, neither statement is true. Not even the first one. The first words, “If you”, distort the conclusion. In fact, they suggest the opposite result! The report said “People who”, not “If you”

To say that ball games improve or prolong life is to confuse cause and effect. Although the study didn’t isolate cause and effect, a bit of reflection suggests that perhaps the reason people who regularly attend ball games live longer is because they…

  • are doing something that they love
  • have the luxury of spending weekdays away from work
  • have more money and less stress than individuals of average means
  • have partners who allow time for their favorite leisure activity

Now, suppose you don’t care at all for professional sports. If you twist the conclusion and assume that ball games cause health or wealth (rather than the other way around), then giving up your job and forcing yourself to attend sporting events will probably lead to marital problems, stress, poverty and premature death. In fact, this contradicts the conclusion of a good study.

So what about salt?

Today, the Wall Street Journal published a very short article at the bottom of page A7. Although it is called out as a feature story, I think that it is getting far too little attention. Low-Salt Benefits Questioned. It ends with these words:

“The chairman of the committee that wrote the report said [that it] fo-
on actual health outcomes rather than just high blood pressure.”

In the mid 1980s, perhaps my cardiologist was ahead of his time. Or, perhaps salt will be implicated again, when new studies control for cause and effect. But my point was not about salt or ball games. My point was to illustrate a famous statement that is alternatively attributed to Mark Twain and to British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli:

“There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”

Learning to recognize that a conclusion has made an assumption of cause and effect (or more likely, that ‘cause’ was attributed by someone rephrasing the conclusion of a study) goes a long way to restoring the validity and value of an accurate statistic.

Ellery is neither a linguist nor philosopher. But he is troubled
that cause-and-effect are so often confused or overlooked.