Sunday, November 21, 2010

The TSA Must Go (An Open Letter to My Representative and Senators)

Enough is enough, and the recent intrusive searches by the Transportation Security Administration have exceeded the limit.

Past security measures have clearly been ineffective.  The TSA has caught not one shoe bomber after x-raying billions of shoes.  The TSA has caught not one liquid bomber after confiscating tons of shampoo and toothpaste.  They do find a few guns and knives; as far as a citizen can tell from news reports, all fall into the “Oh, no!  I forgot that was in there,” category.  Now we have underwear checks despite the fact that ten months have gone by without another attempted underwear bombing.

Every time some plot fails, Secretary Napolitano tells us, “The system worked.”  That is true only if “the system” involves depending upon inept terrorists who can’t set off their own bombs, and upon tips from others.

Her assertion that “naked x-ray” machines are safe is about as believable as “the system worked.”  In a news conference last week, Secretary Napolitano listed the agencies who had declared her machines to be safe, including the “U.S. Science and Standards Association.”  As far as I can tell, there is no such organization.  (I think the Secretary of Homeland Security must mean the National Institute of Standards and Technology, a government agency, which, with the FDA, assessed these machines in 2006.  If so, she has shown appalling ignorance in a very important area.)

The FDA and TSA, in an October 12, 2010 letter to Dr. John P. Holdren, Assistant to the President for Science and Technology, characterized the machines not as “safe” but as “presenting no more than a miniscule risk to people being scanned…”  I suppose that is somewhat like the miniscule risk of being killed by an underwear bomber, in other words, a risk the avoidance of which justifies extreme measures!

Regardless of who might have declared these machines to be safe, there is good evidence that the damage done by ionizing radiation (as is used in the backscatter x-ray machines) is cumulative.  The British Medical Journal, BMJ, published an article, “Risk of cancer after low doses of ionising radiation: retrospective cohort study in 15 countries” in their July 9, 2005 edition.  The New England Journal of Medicine published “Exposure to Low-Dose Ionizing Radiation from Medical Imaging Procedures” in their August 27, 2009 edition.  In the latter study, the authors worried that, “The growing use of imaging procedures in the United States has raised concerns about exposure to low-dose ionizing radiation in the general population.”

No matter how low the radiation dose from these machines may be, it covers the entire body by design, and the effects, according to medical experts, are cumulative.

Of course, travelers can refuse the naked x-ray procedure.  The alternative is a “pat-down” that people have likened to sexual assault.  This applies to children as well as adults.  One cannot even decide to forget the whole thing and go home without being threatened with a civil lawsuit!

Enough is enough!  I have stopped flying for pleasure and will reduce my business flying to the absolute minimum.  That’s two airline trips I won’t be taking in the next three weeks.  That will not bankrupt Delta, but making people detest flying will certainly not help the airline industry.

If enhanced searches of passengers will not improve airline security, what will?  Solid investigative and intelligence work, such as that which caught the “liquid bombers” in Britain before they could do any harm.

I call upon Congress to stop the funding of increasingly intrusive measures by the TSA and transfer the funds to the FBI for counterterrorism investigations.

And, in the meantime, I call upon Congress to require all TSA employees to undergo advanced imaging screening at the beginning of every shift.  After all, they are “on the front lines” according to John Pistole, and it is important to be certain they don’t bring any contraband into secure areas of airports, right?

Monday, October 25, 2010

Competing with China

I do a little work with the Girl Scouts, and we give the girls event patches when they come to the University campus for activities.  There's a group coming in two weeks for a "CSI" activity, and I discovered last week that I'm low on CSI event patches.

We buy the patches from a company in Pennsylvania, but they're manufactured in China, presumably on a numerical-control cutting and embroidery machine.

Last Wednesday we gave the folks in Pennsylvania a credit card number for a reorder of 350 of our custom CSI patches.   The process seems to be that the programming is sent electronically to the factory in China, the patches are made, coated with heat-seal backing, and packaged.  Then they're air-freighted along with a bunch of other orders, from China to Pennsylvania, and finally shipped by UPS to me.

This noon I got email from UPS telling me my patches had been shipped from Pennsylvania.  That's two full working days, plus about two half-days from the time we placed the order.

I'll have my custom-embroidered patches less than a week after I ordered them, even though they were manufactured halfway around the world.  They'll be here faster and cost less than if they'd been made right here in Marietta, Georgia.

That's what we have to compete with if we are to compete against China for light manufacturing.

I'm glad I'll have the event patches so my Girl Sprouts won't be disappointed, but I am not a little worried.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Junk Phone Calls and the Battle to be Let Alone

I'll probably be the last person in Atlanta to have a land-line phone.  I've had the same number since it was DRake 3 instead of 373.  That's more than 40 years.

Over those forty years, I've fought a battle of wits and technology to keep my phone free for my friends and neighbors, and to keep it free of junk phone calls of all sorts.  The Federal do-not-call list has helped, although the politicians exempted themselves and certain others.  Grrrr...  Laws regulating automated phone calls with recorded messages have also helped.  But, as with the do-not-call list, there are exceptions.  There's also very little enforcement.  Some companies simply ignore the law.

A somewhat newer threat is the predictive dialer.  It's a computer system that uses statistical models to predict how many calls are likely to be answered at a given time.  It also uses statistics to try to predict when human "agents" will be available to be connected to an auto-dialed call.  The idea is that the computer dials calls and detects when a call is answered.  It then connects that call to an agent, thereby getting around laws against recorded announcements and keeping the agents busy talking instead of dialing.

So, if you get a call and say something like, "Hello? Bob Brown speaking," and there's silence, then a click, then someone saying, "May I speak to Bob Brown?" you've been called by a predictive dialer.  The "agent" never heard you identify yourself because he or she wasn't connected until after you answered.  (Hilton Hotels is infamous for this.  They think the time of their telemarketing agents is more valuable than the time of their guests.  Remember that the next time you need a hotel!)

There's an even worse evil in predictive dialers: hang-up calls.  The financial imperative in a predictive dialer operation is to keep the agents busy.  So, the machinery is adjusted to place more calls than there are agents to answer them.  What happens when the computer has an answer but no agent to put on the line?  You guessed it in one!  The computer hangs up in your ear.  There's a Federal regulation that says they can't "abandon" more than 2% of dialed calls, but guess what... there's no way to measure that from the outside looking in, and so that regulation is even more likely to be ignored than others.

If you're getting a lot of "hang-up calls," it's more likely predictive dialers than someone deliberately trying to harass you.  Grrrrr...

There are even more legitimate wrong numbers than there used to be.  Fifty years ago, the phone company assigned telephone numbers carefully, and in a way that meant a single mis-dialed digit was more likely to reach a fast busy signal than a wrong number.  (That fast busy is called a reorder tone by the phone company, and unassigned numbers, called "vacant numbers," were connected to the reorder tone.)

Now we're so short of phone numbers that almost all available numbers are in use.  It got so bad that we kicked Mexico out of the North American Numbering Plan in 1991.  Area code 706, which used to be northwest Mexico, is now assigned to Georgia, roughly north of the fall line.  So, even with the same number of mistakes in dialing, there are more wrong numbers because there are more numbers in use.

The last source of annoying calls I want to gripe about is debt collectors.  I pay my bills on time, but I also have a very common name, and debt collectors troll through the phone listings, hoping to hit upon the person they're looking for.  So, I get calls for Richard Brown and Rachael Brown and Roger Brown and Rosa Brown.  Not to mention calls for the innumerable other Robert Browns who might be behind on a bill or two.  AAaarrgghh!

I had a non-published number for a long time, which kept it out of the hands of trolling debt collectors.  When the economy went down the tubes, Georgia began to furlough college teachers, and I gave up the non-published number to save a few bucks each month.  Big mistake!  As soon as my name appeared in the book, I started getting more junk calls.  (It's non-published again, but it'll take years to undo the damage done by letting it be listed.)

What to do?  What to do?

Well, the first line of defense is that non-published number.  That'll keep you off a bunch of lists and stop the debt-collector trolls in their tracks.  Do not believe you can become anonymous by using just an initial or two.  Listing myself as "Brown, R." got me calls for Rosa and Roger and Richard and Rachael.  Unless your name is Theophilus McNulty (yes, I actually did know someone of that name) you probably want to keep it out of the phone book.  Maybe even if it is Theophilus McNulty.

Next, get anonymous call rejection from the phone company.  That'll intercept calls that don't send caller ID at all.  Your phone will never ring.  (No, I don't own stock in AT&T, but maybe I should buy some!)

That's about all the phone company can do for you.  Now it's time for self-help.  I have a few old telephones; they're not true antiques, they work on modern phone lines, but I like showing them off.  Some years ago I bought a little phone system (Panasonic KX-TA824) to supply dial tone to my old phones.  When my answering machine died, I bought an inexpensive Panasonic voice mail system.  (This was before budget cuts and furloughs.)  It turns out that you can make these gadgets do automated attendant and custom call handling based on caller ID.

So, now my friends (if I've programmed in their numbers) hear, "Please wait a moment" and my phone rings.  Others hear, "If you know the extension number you wish to reach..."  Of course, there aren't any extension numbers in Emory Cottage, but the message concludes, "Otherwise, please press two."  Any human being can get through to me by pressing two.  Automated calling systems are defeated.  Some predictive dialers are defeated, too.  Those that detect a recording just hang up.  As for the others, often by the time they connect a human, the "please press two" has already passed.  I've wasted their time and my phone never rang.  Good!

That was the good news about caller ID.  There's some bad news, too. Any company big enough to need 23 or more phone lines can get a "primary rate interface" circuit from the phone company.  If you have a PRI, you, not the phone company, decide what will be sent for caller ID.  Legally, it has to be a number that you control.  But, a collection agency in New York can get a cheap Atlanta cell phone and legally send a 404 number in the caller ID, making it look like a local call.  And, as with the other laws pertaining to bothersome phone calls, not everyone bothers to obey the law.

The bill collector types are serious about trying to find out whether "R. Brown" is the Rudy Brown they're looking for.  They'll have a real person on the line who will press two, and they'll send you bogus caller ID information to try to trick you into answering.  About the best you can do is note the number and try to block future calls.

The phone company's call block service often doesn't work because it won't block out-of-area calls, and the phone company knows the "real" phone number, not what's sent as caller ID.  Just telling them to buzz off doesn't work (although the law says it should) because, for each call, they're looking for a different R. Brown deadbeat and hoping it's me.  Aha! My little phone system gadget can do tricks with caller ID.  I've now programmed in the (mostly bogus) caller ID numbers of the most egregious callers.  They get a message telling them their calls will not be connected because of misleading caller ID information, and that the best way to reach me is through a letter to my home address.  The thought is that someone who really needs to reach me will actually have my home address, and if it's important enough, will drop a stamp to get in touch.  The dweeb who's looking for Raymond Brown is frustrated and looks elsewhere.  I hope.

That's the current state of the battle, and at the moment I'm winning.  I'm sure the turkeys who want to interrupt my dinner will come up with some new way do do it and I'll have to come up with a new defense.

One last thing... you can do some call screening like I've described without buying the kind of phone gear I bought for another purpose.  Type "call screener" into Google for a look at the possibilities.  And, either list your full name in the phone book or have a non-published number.  Listing just an initial will get you those bill collector calls.

If, for some reason, you did want a setup like mine, you can get it from Ablecomm, Inc.  Expect to pay about $1,200.   You will need to be something of a techie to install it and set it up.  Ablecomm's technical support is outstanding!

Saturday, February 27, 2010

An Open Letter to the Georgia General Assembly

If you've read my blog before, you know that the subjects dear to my heart are education and food.  Today I am writing an open letter to the members of Georgia's General Assembly on the more important of those two subjects.
Dear Senators and Representatives:

We are at a critical moment in the future of higher education in Georgia.

I’m sure you know that Governor Perdue has recommended in his budget for the coming fiscal year a cut of nearly $300 million in the appropriation to the University System of Georgia.  According to the Atlanta Constitution last week, you who are elected to the General Assembly are considering cuts of an additional $385 million.

This cannot be allowed to happen because a cut of this magnitude threatens Georgia’s economic future.

Some of you may not know that a study conducted by Georgia Tech in 2003 determined that University System of Georgia students who graduated from 1993 to 1997 contributed $1.25 billion to the state’s economy in 1998 alone, solely because of increased earnings due to their USG degrees.  Imagine how much more University System graduates are contributing to Georgia's economy today.

Although I am a teacher in the University System, I’m not particularly worried about my own job because I’m old enough to retire and spend the rest of my days reading and writing if I need to.  I am worried about our students.  Cuts of the magnitude proposed will mean reductions in faculty and staff throughout the University System.  That, in turn, will mean larger and fewer classes.  Fewer classes will mean delayed graduation, suspended job searches, postponed weddings, and, for some, the end of the dream of a college degree.  Those people won’t be making the contributions to Georgia’s economy that our graduates have made in the past, or their contributions will be delayed, perhaps for years.

Declines in tax income are a grim reality, and cuts have to come from somewhere to keep Georgia’s budget in balance.  I understand that.  I also understand that the General Assembly has a harder job than ever this year to find the cuts necessary to balance the budget.

However, I hope those of you elected to the General Assembly will consider the future implications of this year’s budget and find a way to continue the investment in Georgia’s economic future that is represented by the University System.

With best regards,
Bob Brown
If you want to let your elected representatives know what you think of their plans to decimate higher education in Georgia, you can find information on your elected representatives by starting here: and put in your ZIP code.  Then fill in your complete address on the next page.  You'll find links to your state senator and state representative just below the information about the governor's office.

Write an actual letter... yes, on paper... and send it to them by fax or even {gasp!} by postal mail.  Do it soon, Monday or Tuesday, because they'll likely be voting on this matter next week.

In your letter, tell your elected representatives how such cuts will affect you personally and those whom you know.  Express politely that you believe education is an investment in Georgia's future, and ask politely that they reconsider priorities in setting the budget for the University System.  (And remember, all they can do is "reconsider priorities."  They cannot borrow money or otherwise make this problem go away.  Be sympathetic to the difficult job they're doing.)

You might also consider writing to Representative Earl Ehrhart, Chairman of House Appropriation Subcommittee on Higher Education, email:, and Senator John Wiles, Senate Appropriations Committee – Higher Education, fax: (404) 657-0459.

If you're on Facebook, there's a Facebook group, USG Students for Quality Education, devoted to this issue.  The link is or just type "USG Students for Quality Education" into the search block.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Some Thoughts on Yeast

Yup, yeast.  The stuff one buys in little foil packets and uses to bake bread.  At least, I used to buy yeast in little foil packets until I figured out how much it was costing me.

Three of those packets (they're sold together in threes) cost $1.99 at the super market.  Each packet holds 1/4 ounce, so one is paying $2.65 an ounce, and that's before taxes!

Alternatively, one can buy two pounds of yeast for about $10 and get free shipping if one is an Amazon Prime member.  That's 34 cents an ounce.  To look at it another way, when you've avoided buying the sixth one of those foil packet threesomes, you're money ahead.

Well, almost.  Active dry yeast will keep almost indefinitely when frozen, so you'll need something to keep it in.  Get one of those air-tight acrylic canisters with the lever-locking lid for another $12.  Now you need to have bought 12 of those three-packs to break even.  I use enough yeast to account for 30 3-packs a year, so I saved enough money in the first year to buy a pretty nice bottle of wine.

Keep the canister of yeast on the freezer door.  When you need yeast, get it out, measure what you need, and put it back.  Never let the contents warm up.

According to Harold McGee (author of On Food and Cooking), yeast should be dissolved in 110° water.  That feels pretty hot to the touch.  Use a thermometer until you have {ahem} the feel of it.

Yeast "works" best at about 95°.  I put yeast breads in the oven with the light on to rise.

So, you've saved a bunch of money and you're baking better bread.  Glad we had this little chat!

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Kids! (Reprise)

Kids! They are just impossible to control,
Kids! With their awful clothes and their rock and roll!

Oh, wait! That was me!

I am extremely lucky to have been invited to judge the junior division of the Fulton County Schools' Science and Engineering Fair earlier today. The junior division is middle school students, seventh and eighth graders. I saw middle-school kids in suits and {gasp!} dresses!

OK... appearances aren't everything, and sometimes they aren't anything, but I am encouraged that these kids are learning that appearances do count.  It looks like they're learning that from their parents, too.  One can hope that they're learning other, equally important, lessons at home, and it seems likely they are.

In some cases the science was a little shaky, but in other cases the kids nailed it dead.  What struck me in almost every instance was curiosity and a desire to learn.  (These kids need to figure out that Wikipedia isn't everything, but that will come.)  I met one child whom I'd be happy to have in my college classroom.  I can find it in my heart to hope I live to see one of these kids become President.

Meanwhile, back in reality, I came home to read on about a child the same age as the kids I was working with being taken away in handcuffs for doodling on a school desk with a marking pen.  Morons!  When I was in high school, it was not uncommon to find something like "Joe {heart-with-arrow} Cindy" actually carved into the desk with a pen knife.  (All boys were Joe, Bob, or Bill, and all girls were Cindy, Kathy, or Barbara in those days.)  Of course, if a boy got caught doing this, he'd find out how compatible his bottom was with the assistant principal's paddle, but no one would have even thought about it being a matter for the police.  (Don't know what would have happened to a girl.  As far as I know, the paddle was reserved for boys.)  Having a pen knife at school today would probably get you 20 years in Leavenworth!

Modern school desks seem to be made of wood-grained impervium.  A little scouring powder will remove anything.  This kid probably should have had a finger shaken in her face; handcuffs are way beyond the pale.

All might not be lost.  The CNN story quotes a Clayton County (Georgia) juvenile court judge as saying "zero intelligence" about such "zero tolerance" cases.

I don't have to run for election, so I can say, "dumb as a doorknob!"  Parents, "zero-tolerance" laws and regulations do not protect your children; they threaten your children with arrest records.  Remember in November.  I came home ready to write about how great kids are today and ended up writing about how dumb adults are.  What a shame!

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Pasta with Broccoli Fleurettes and Cheese Sauce

I got home from school late and hungry.  (That happens when one teaches evening classes.)  Although I "cook leftovers" on Sunday expressly to deal with this contingency, none of the usual suspects appealed.  The freezer had various types of frozen meat, frozen French bread, and less than a serving of frozen broccoli.  Not inspiring... at least until I thought of pasta.

Idea: pasta and broccoli fleurettes with an Italian-esque cheese sauce.

I set water to boil for the pasta and took the first step for any sauce: first you make a roux.  I cooked a tablespoon of butter and a tablespoon of flour to the roux blonde state, and then began adding chicken stock, a little at a time.  (Cream would have been better, but chicken stock was better for me!)  I tossed in a handful of Publix shredded Italian cheeses stuff.  (Mostly Mozzarella, I think.)  Stir.  Shake in some Tabasco.  (I used five shakes, which turned out not to be enough, but it tasted right at the time.)  Adjust consistency by whisking in more chicken stock.

In the mean time, fling some vermicelli into the boiling water and cook for two minutes.  Fling in the broccoli and cook for three more minutes after the water has returned to a boil.  I was afraid the broccoli would dye the pasta green, but it didn't.  (Good.)  Drain and serve with the sauce and a modest red wine.

This turned out to be quite good, but not up to the standard of a Recipe from the Kitchen at Emory Cottage, which is why you're reading about it here.  It has potential, though... Let's  think!

Vermicelli is the wrong thing for a thick sauce.  Next time I'm trying orecchiette, or even sea shells.  The sauce needed more bite, and not from Tabasco.  What it needed was 1/3 part Parmigiano, Gruyère, or even Cheddar, plus a dash more Tabasco and some salt and pepper.  I think there's a place for some Prosciutto if one is not serving vegetable-tarians, and some croutons sautéed in garlic, olive oil, and maybe a dash of Worcestershire to add interest to the texture.

If one served the revised dish preceded by a cold antipasto with white wine, like a Santa Margherita pinot grigio, and followed it up with a hot dessert, like crème brûlée with strong coffee, it'd make an elegant meal.  Maybe I'll mess with it some more. (If you mess with it, please let me know.)