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The Questions…

1. What breed of dog is the speediest?

2. Which state is the flattest, and which is the most mountainous?

3. The three angles in a triangle always add up to how many degrees?

4. When filmmaker George Lucas was in high school, what career did he plan to pursue?

5. What’s the difference between herbs and spices?

The Answers…

1. The Greyhound. In competitive racing, Greyhounds run at up to 45 mph. From a standing start, they can attain top speed in six strides.

2. Florida is the flattest, followed by Illinois, North Dakota, and Louisiana. West Virginia is, on average, the most mountainous. The mountains of Alaska, California, and Colorado are higher, but the valleys and plains in those states lower the average.

3. 180.

4. Young George was obsessed with motorcycles and fast cars, and he wanted to be a professional race car driver. His mind got changed three days before graduation when he barely survived a car wreck and spent months in a hospital. He went to film school instead.

5. Both come from plants, but herbs are from the fleshy, leafy parts, and spices are from dried, woody parts — root, stalk, seed, etc.

Armchair Psychology

Various observations related to brain function and dysfunction…

Emotional Intelligence

In 1995, author and journalist Daniel Goleman wrote Emotional Intelligence, an international best-seller that was printed in, like, 40 languages.

The term “emotional intelligence” means learning to understand your own emotions and those of others so you can act effectively and positively. Currently, Goleman works at Rutgers University and specializes in how the concept applies to organizations.

Empathy

In his 1995 book, Goleman said that empathy is not a single trait, but three — namely, cognitive empathy, social empathy, and empathic concern.

Cognitive empathy is understanding someone else’s perspective so you can communicate with the person more constructively.

Social empathy is sensing what the other person feels so you can establish rapport.

Empathic concern is going beyond understanding the other person’s situation and having a genuine desire to help them. Goleman says we do this by tapping into the “ancient mammalian system for parenting.”

Master all three, he says, and you can build healthy relationships, personally and professionally.

Empathy, it’s fair to say, is a complicated and important commodity. Because humans are such social animals, empathy helps the group function cooperatively and peacefully.

Empathy among all parties greases the skids; a deficiency of empathy, on the part of anyone in the group, introduces problems.

An Abnormal Deficiency

Years ago, I concluded that a root cause of the typical behavior of political conservatives — one of the fundamental reasons Republicans think the way they think, behave the way they behave, and are the way they are — is an abnormal deficiency of empathy.

(This deficiency is one of three common characteristics of present-day right-wingers. The others are an affinity for authoritarianism and being a white person.)

Empathy varies with the individual, of course, regardless of politics, but the conservative brain seems to be wired in such a way that it lacks a normal ability to feel a sense of charity, compassion, mercy, or sympathy for others.

This is why Republicans can justify separating children from their parents at the border as a scare tactic. And why they fear, distrust, and often demonize outsiders.

This is why the most evil boogieman they can imagine is socialism. And why they want to reduce the amount of your COVID relief check.

This is why they fall so easily for conspiracy theories. And why they turn so readily to racism and misogyny.

The Fiction Factor

The degree of empathy in you has an alleged connection to reading fiction.

In 2006, a study found that the more authors of fiction you know (which presumes that you read a lot), the higher you score on empathy tests.

One possible explanation is that empathetic people simply read more. But research indicates that the information you absorb from reading fiction acts to strengthen your empathy.

That’s because reading fiction exposes you to lives, thoughts, and motivations outside of your own. Even though it is fictional, the more you read, the more you are exposed to the experiences of others, which improves your ability to empathize.

Read more fiction, become a better person.

The Shopping Cart Theory

The Shopping Cart Theory is the concept that your willingness to return a shopping cart to the corral reveals whether you are the kind of person who will do the right thing without being forced to.

This theory asserts that returning the cart is universally seen as a proper act. You gain nothing by returning it. You return it because it’s the right thing to do, and you’re a nice guy.

If you don’t return the cart, you face no consequences. You are not punished, and very rarely berated, for failing to return a cart. Thus, abandoning the cart instead of returning it to the corral is evidence that you are inclined to do what is right only when it’s convenient or you face negative consequences.

I’ve read that the Shopping Cart Theory is too judgmental, and legitimate reasons may exist for not returning a cart. The weather is bad. You can’t leave children unattended. You have a disability. The corral is too far away. You think a store employee will collect the carts.

I say the theory is a legitimate test of whether or not you’re a jerk.

The Matter of Face Masks

Speaking of a test to identify jerks, the willingness to wear a face mask when and where you should, as medical experts plead with you to do, zooms to the top of the list.

Here we sit, deep into a deadly pandemic. The infection rate in the US is the world’s worst, and under Trump, the governmental response was feeble, scattershot, and ineffective to a criminal degree.

Until recently, the only protections we had were wearing a mask, physical distancing, avoiding crowded places, and washing your hands.

Yet, vast numbers of people refuse to wear a mask, decline to remain six feet apart, and defiantly gather in crowded places. Whether they wash their hands is anyone’s guess.

The fact that mask-wearing became a left vs. right political issue isn’t surprising. Of course conservatives staked out the anti-mask position. Their nature compelled it when they saw that most liberals believe in wearing a mask.

Refusing to wear a mask is foolish and illogical, but they don’t care. Nor do they care, apparently, about the health consequences to themselves and their families. The behavior of these people is stupid, ignorant tribalism.

Why do so many people boldly go maskless in public places, dine shoulder to shoulder in restaurants, attend large gatherings, and pack the bars?

Some, I suppose, think the risks of COVID are non-existent or exaggerated. Others are weary of all the precautions and restrictions after a year of living with the pandemic. In some cases, malice, stupidity, or arrogance explain the behavior.

Beyond those motivations, I couldn’t identify a single valid, sensible reason for so much risky behavior.

It appears that consequences are needed in order to change the behavior of people who risk public health when the posted rules require a face mask.

My suggestion: for the first offense, one night in jail and a fine of $250. The punishment would double for each subsequent offense.

I’ll bet that would flatten the curve.

Pix o’ the Day

More favorite photos I’ve taken over the years.

This Just In

SAULT STE. MARIE, MICHIGAN — Lake Superior State University has released its annual list of words and terms that should be banned because they are over-used and irritating.

The 10 banishments for 2021 are COVID-19 (plus rona, coronavirus, and other variations), social distancing, we’re all in this together, in an abundance of caution, in these uncertain times, pivot, unprecedented, Karen, sus (short for suspicious), and I know, right?

The university has released the list since 1976 to “uphold, protect, and support excellence in language by encouraging avoidance of words and terms that are overworked, redundant, oxymoronic, clichéd, illogical, nonsensical — and otherwise ineffective, baffling, or irritating.”

The list has grown to over 1,000 offending words and terms. They are listed here by year.

LSSU President Rodney Hanley said the terms flatten the curve and new normal almost made the list, but not quite.

RIO LINDA, CALIFORNIA — A local man dressed as Santa Claus was rescued after he crashed his motorized parachute into power lines and became entangled, authorities said.

The incident happened shortly before Christmas as the man was flying to a school to deliver candy canes to the children. He swerved too late to avoid the power lines and wound up trapped and dangling upside down. Power to about 200 customers was shut off during the rescue.

Neighbors said the man flies his parachute around the area regularly, but this was his first time playing Santa for students. He was not injured in the accident.

BEIJING, CHINA — McDonald’s restaurants in China are selling a new “Lunchmeat Burger” consisting of a hamburger bun topped with two slices of Spam, crushed Oreo cookies, and a dollop of mayonnaise.

McDonald’s said the menu addition will be for a limited time and only available on Mondays.

Global brands in several fields are known to introduce offbeat, attention-getting products in China.

Based on comments on the McDonald’s website, Chinese customers have not reacted positively. One comment said the new item is ideal for “when you hate someone, but have to invite him to dinner.”

A comment that read, “There is no need to release unnecessary products” received over 2,000 “likes.”

Lessons o’ the Day

Useless Facts

More “Useless Facts for Inquiring Minds.”

● The first ATM went into service on September 2, 1969, at a branch of Chemical Bank in Rockville Center, New York.

● Most animals have only one heart, but there are exceptions. Squid and octopuses have three hearts, and hagfish have four. In their cases, the extra hearts are smaller and serve as auxiliary pumps. Earthworms have five hearts of equal size that evolved to deal with the worms’ length.

● In Latin, the word onion means “large pearl.”

● In 1989, rock star Billy Idol checked into a hotel in Thailand and threw a party that continued for three weeks. When he and his friends refused to leave, the Thai army was called in. Idol was shot with a tranquilizer dart and carried out unconscious on a stretcher. Damages totaled $150,000.

● When President Herbert Hoover and his wife Lou wanted to keep a conversation private, they conversed in Mandarin Chinese. President Calvin Coolidge and his wife Grace, a former teacher at a school for the deaf, maintained their privacy by using sign language.

● By long tradition, horse races in England are run clockwise. In 1788, in defiance of the Brits, the American colonies began conducting their races counter-clockwise. Today in the US, horse and auto races still move counter-clockwise; in England and Germany, still clockwise.

● The full name of actor Richard Gere is Richard Tiffany Gere; his mom was Doris Ann Tiffany.

● Among the mammals, only the platypus and the spiny anteater lay eggs instead of giving live birth. Both are native to Australia, New Guinea, and Tasmania.

Quotes o’ the Day

The cure for poverty has a name. In fact, it’s called the empowerment of women. If you give women some control over the rate at which they reproduce, if you give them some say, take them off the animal cycle of reproduction to which nature and some doctrine — religious doctrine — condemns them, and then if you’ll throw in a handful of seeds, perhaps, and some credit, the floor of everything in that village — education, health, and optimism — will increase. Try it in Bangladesh, try it in Bolivia. It works. It works all the time. Name me one religion that stands for that, or ever has.

Christopher Hitchens

###

America will never be destroyed from the outside.

Abraham Lincoln

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A sign of intelligence is an awareness of one’s own ignorance.

Niccolò Machiavelli

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Water and air, the two essential fluids on which all life depends, have become global garbage cans.

Jacques Yves Cousteau

Hitchens

Cousteau

The Hill We Climb

When Amanda Gorman stepped to the podium to read “The Hill We Climb” at Biden’s inauguration, I had no idea who she was. I was impressed enough to find out.

She is 22, born in Los Angeles, has a twin sister. She was raised by a single mother, a sixth grade English teacher. Amanda attended private school K-12. She went to Harvard College on scholarship and is a member of Phi Beta Kappa, the academic honor society. She graduated cum laude in 2020 with a degree in sociology.

In kindergarten, Gorman was diagnosed with an auditory disorder in which the brain doesn’t properly interpret what is heard. She also has a condition that affects her pronunciation of certain words. With therapy and hard work, she was able to overcome both conditions.

Gorman began writing poetry in high school. In 2014, she was named the Youth Poet Laureate of Los Angeles. In 2015, she published her first book of poetry. In 2016, she founded a nonprofit to promote writing and leadership for young people.

In 2017, she was named the first National Youth Poet Laureate. In 2018, she was named one of Glamour Magazine’s College Women of the Year. In 2019, The Root Magazine named her one of the 25 best and brightest young African-Americans.

When the Bidens asked her to read a poem at the inauguration, “The Hill We Climb” was already written. Gorman amended it after the riots at the Capitol on January 6.

Last month, she signed with IMG Models, an international modeling agency. She plans to run for President in 2036.

The Hill We Climb” has a few rough spots, but it is powerful, positive, uplifting stuff nonetheless.

This lady is smart, talented, focused, and aimed in the right direction. President Gorman sounds good to me.

The text of her poem is below.

Mr. President, Dr. Biden, Madam Vice President, Mr. Emhoff, Americans, and the world…

When day comes, we ask ourselves,
where can we find light in this never-ending shade?
The loss we carry,
a sea we must wade.

We’ve braved the belly of the beast.
We’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace,
and the norms and notions
of what just is
isn’t always “justice.”

And yet, the dawn is ours
before we knew it.
Somehow we do it.
Somehow we’ve weathered and witnessed
a nation that isn’t broken,
but simply unfinished.

We, the successors of a country and a time
where a skinny Black girl
descended from slaves and raised by a single mother
can dream of becoming president
only to find herself reciting for one.

And yes, we are far from polished.
Far from pristine.
But that doesn’t mean we are striving
to form a union that is perfect.
We are striving to forge our union with purpose,
to compose a country committed to all cultures,
colors, characters, and conditions of man.

And so we lift our gazes not to what stands between us,
but what stands before us.
We close the divide because we know, to put our future first,
we must first put our differences aside.

We lay down our arms
so we can reach out our arms
to one another.
We seek harm to none and harmony for all.

Let the globe, if nothing else, say this is true:
that even as we grieved, we grew.
That even as we hurt, we hoped.
That even as we tired, we tried.
That we’ll forever be tied together victorious.
Not because we will never again know defeat,
but because we will never again sow division.

Scripture tells us to envision
that everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree
and no one shall make them afraid.
If we’re to live up to our own time,
then victory won’t lie in the blade,
but in all the bridges we’ve made.
That is the promised glade,
the hill we climb
if only we dare.

It’s because being American is more than a pride we inherit.
It’s the past we step into
and how we repair it.
We’ve seen a force that would shatter our nation
rather than share it.
Would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy.
And this effort very nearly succeeded.

But while democracy can be periodically delayed,
it can never be permanently defeated.
In this truth, in this faith, we trust.
For while we have our eyes on the future,
history has its eyes on us.

This is the era of just redemption
we feared at its inception.
We did not feel prepared to be the heirs
of such a terrifying hour,
but within it, we found the power
to author a new chapter.
To offer hope and laughter to ourselves.
So while once we asked,
how could we possibly prevail over catastrophe?
Now we assert,
how could catastrophe possibly prevail over us?

We will not march back to what was,
but move to what shall be.
A country that is bruised, but whole.
Benevolent, but bold,
fierce, and free.

We will not be turned around
or interrupted by intimidation
because we know our inaction and inertia
will be the inheritance of the next generation.
Our blunders become their burdens.

But one thing is certain:
if we merge mercy with might
and might with right,
then love becomes our legacy
and change our children’s birthright.

So let us leave behind a country
better than one we were left with.
Every breath from my bronze-pounded chest
we will raise this wounded world into a wondrous one.

We will rise from the gold-limbed hills of the west.
We will rise from the wind-swept northeast
where our forefathers first realized revolution.
We will rise from the lake-rimmed cities of the midwestern states.
We will rise from the sun-baked south.
We will rebuild, reconcile and recover.

In every known nook of our nation,
in every corner called our country,
our people, diverse and beautiful, will emerge,
battered and beautiful.

When day comes, we step out of the shade,
aflame and unafraid.
The new dawn blooms as we free it.
For there is always light,
if only we’re brave enough to see it.
If only we’re brave enough to be it.

Best-Laid Plans

It seems that author Alfred Coppel had a fondness for surprise endings. He springs one in the story below, as he did in this Coppel story I posted in 2019.

Task to Luna” is a cold war tale written in the early years of the Cold War itself, when you couldn’t help but ponder nuclear annihilation. I get the feeling Coppel understood the lunacy (pun intended) of those times.

———

Task to Luna

By Alfred Coppel
Published in Planet Stories, January 1951

The rockets started almost simultaneously. From two widely separated points on the great curving surface of Earth they reached upward and outward — toward the Moon.

It wasn’t really so strange a coincidence. Space navigation is governed by mathematics and logic, not politics. The fact that man-carrying spaceships happened to be developed concurrently on two sides of an iron curtain meant little to the Universe. It happened, that’s all. And there is a proper time to launch such missiles. When that time came, they were launched.

In a manner of speaking it was a race. A race wherein the prizes were such things as: “gravity gauge” and “surveillance point” and “impregnable launching sites.” The contestants were earnest, capable men; each certain that the Moon must not fall into the hands of the opponent.

It made a stirring and patriotic picture, vivid with nationalistic fervor. It was thrilling with its taste of high adventure and self-sacrifice. For each rocket pilot it was a personal crusade against the thing he had been raised to regard as the enemy.…

But somehow under the steady, cold scrutiny of the eternal stars, they must have looked a little ridiculous… perhaps just a tiny bit tragic, too.

———

Harsh was the moon. There was black and there was white. Great jagged cliffs and razor-backed mountains slashed the pocked surface of the crater floor, humping themselves at the huge unwinking stars. The sun was a stark disc of fire, incredibly white, hung in the black sky. The shadows were bottomless pools. Within them there was nothing. In the sunlight, the pumice soil glared white.

The Russian rocket had crashed on landing. Randick could see the tiny, buckled shape of it high on the mountain. No doubt the pilot was dead, but he had to be sure. The risk were too great for any unsupported assumptions. He had to go up there and see for himself.

Ponderous in his pressure suit, Randick emerged from the open lock of the Anglo-American rocket. He slogged across the pumice of the crater floor toward the spot where the mountain’s sheer talus erupted skyward.

If there were no trouble from the Russki, he would return to his own ship and begin setting up the first cell of what would soon be the Anglo-American Moon Base. As soon as he signaled a safe landing and no opposition from the Russian, other rockets would come to add their cells, and presently there would be an atomic rocket pointed dead at the heart of every Russian population center. A rocket each for Moscow, Leningrad, Kiev, Vladivostok.…

Randick frowned. It would be a lot simpler if the crash had finished the Russian pilot. He knew the Russians had exactly the same plan for the Moon. Only the rockets would be aimed at Washington, London, Paris, San Francisco. The slight weight of the one-man bazooka on Randick’s back seemed suddenly very comforting.

Randick knew himself to be on the very edge of known territory. His map showed him that he was in the highest part of the Doerfel Mountains. Behind him lay the two great bowls of Bailly and Schickard, and far to the north he could see, as he climbed higher, the smooth surface of the Mare Humorum.

He looked up to the spinelike ridge beyond and slightly above the wreck of the Russian ship. There was a deep pass that slashed like a wound into the backbone of the range. He felt a slight thrill. Beyond that cleft lay… mystery. The other side of the Moon.

The sun’s rays beat down brutally. Even through the heavily insulated suit Randick could feel their searing touch. All around him stretched a jumbled nightmare of black and white. He was suddenly very glad that he could not see the Earth in the sky. The homesickness would be unbearable.

Randick found himself frowning. He had no time for such thoughts. He was a soldier. He reminded himself that up there in the tangled wreckage of the Russian spaceship there might be another soldier, ready to kill him. Two human beings on the Moon. Each eager to kill. Randick shook his head angrily. He had no right to let his mind dwell on such things…

He was within a hundred yards of the wreck when a streak of fire and a soundless blast drove him into the shadows. Pumice showered him from the star-shaped depression where the explosive missile had struck. Randick cursed heartily. The Russki was very much alive, and there wasn’t a thing wrong with his eyesight. The shot had been uncomfortably close.

Unslinging his bazooka, Randick began to work his way around behind the Russian rocket. A slight movement among the wreckage caught his trained eye and he launched a projectile at it. It flared wickedly, tearing fragments of metal loose and flinging them fantastic distances down the sheer slope of the ridge. There was no return fire.

Randick broke out of the shadow and ran for the cover of a large pumice stone boulder farther up the draw. A sun-bright flash of fire spattered the loose soil a dozen feet from him. He slid for the darkness on his belly. That one had been a near thing!

Behind the boulder lay a trench-like depression that sloped away up the draw toward the pass. Randick dropped into it and began to crawl laboriously upward. If he could flank the Russki he could finish this with one good shot. Another explosion rocked the boulder he had just left. Randick didn’t even look back.

He felt his breath rasping in his throat and his body felt hot and sticky inside the bulky pressure suit. Glancing down and to his right, he could see the proudly erect shape of his own rocket far below on the floor of the crater.

It took him almost thirty minutes to reach the edge of the shadow that spilled from the side of the mountain pass. To his left, not ten feet away, was the sudden white glare of the pumice floor. He was well above and almost behind the wreck of the Russian’s ship. His flanks were heaving with the exertion of the climb as he searched the buckled mass of the crash for his opponent.

There seemed to be a dark shape wedged in between two twisted bulkheads. It looked like a man. With pounding heart, Randick murmured a prayer and lifted his bazooka, aimed, and pressed the firing stud. The shadow vanished in silent white fire.

The return blast almost knocked him down. For a moment Randick was stunned, wondering foggily where the shot had come from. Then his brain cleared and he realized that the Russki too had climbed to the pass, leaving Randick to fire at shadows.

Randick cursed himself for his dangerous stupidity. The other must be among those shadowy rocks directly across the bright floor of the pass. He raised his bazooka carefully, searching the Stygian blackness for some sign of movement. His finger curled around the firing stud…

Out of the corner of his eye he saw the flare. The Russian rocket erupted in a gout of bluish flame and the whole mountain seemed to rock. Randick stared stupidly at the glowing crater where the ship had been. For just an instant he thought that perhaps a meteorite had struck it, but the explosion had been unquestionably… atomic.

The Russian must have been stunned, too. For he moved out into the light, empty-handed, his helmet turned woodenly toward the rapidly cooling lake of magma where his space ship had been.

They both saw the bright arc of fire that raced up from beyond the ridge and curved down gracefully toward the floor of the crater far below. Open-mouthed, Randick watched his ship vanish into flame and he felt the vague tremor of the ground under him as the shock rumbled across the face of the Moon.

The Russian rocket was gone. The Anglo-American rocket was gone. Moon Base was gone before it had ever been.

The weapon fell from Randick’s hand, and he stepped unsteadily into the light toward the Russian. Suddenly human companionship was very, very important. Panicky terror was plucking at his throat.

The two men stumbled toward each other across the pass cut deep into the jagged back of the Doerfel mountains. As one they turned and looked out across the vast expanse of the Moon’s hidden face.

They were soldiers. They knew an invasion base when they saw one.

As far as the eye could see, lines of sleek mammoth spaceships of unknown design stretched away into the distance. The face of the vast unnamed mare was covered with them.

Suddenly Randick felt himself beginning to giggle. He tried to stop, but the laughter welled up inside of him, echoing wildly within his confining helmet.

He could see that the Russian was laughing too, white teeth gleaming behind the plexiglass faceplate. They laughed until they gasped. Their sides hurt with laughter, tears rolled down their faces.

They were arm in arm and still laughing when the third rocket arced down on them from out of the black and star-flecked sky.


Original illustration from Planet Stories by Earl Mayan.