30 Years Ago: Mount St. Helens

Thirty years ago I was living at my Dad’s in Yakima, going to college. That Sunday was a beautiful day, and Dad was outside in the garden as I was getting ready to go to work. I worked for a photographer, who had a studio in the Yakima Mall. I liked working Sundays. Sundays were always quiet, especially when the weather was nice.

I heard a loud boom but didn’t think much of it. Yakima was right next to a military training center, and it wasn’t too unusual to have a hot dog pilot break the sound barrier. Some minutes later, my Dad yelled for me to come outside. I ran out and saw this ugly dark brown/black cloud rolling towards the town. We knew that Mount St. Helen’s had erupted.

We ran inside and quickly shut everything up, as fast as we could. My boss called to jokingly tell me that I didn’t have to go into work. Little did we both know that the Mall didn’t shut down the air intake system quickly enough, and when we were able to get into the studio three days later, all of my employer’s cameras would be ruined.

The day suddenly begins to turn into night. The ash started falling all around us. It was quiet, except for the ash, which made a slight hissing sound when it fell—like a snake who is only going through the motions. We turned the TV on, finding it interesting to see our quiet little town being the top story for most of the major networks. The President flew by. We waved.

My cat was still outside. Well, I say “my” cat, but Bonzo was really Dad’s cat—a case of love at first sight between those two. I thought he would come back when he saw the cloud, but evidently, the ash must have panicked him. I told my Dad I had to go find him. Dad was torn between wanting to keep me inside, and being worried about Bonzo. Go find him, Baby Doll, he said, But don’t stay out too long.

Yes, he called me Baby Doll. Dad’s been dead a few years now—I don’t mind telling you he used to call me Baby Doll.

I put on a plastic raincoat I bought on a lark, once, and never wore. It ended up being a perfect cover for the ash fall. I wet a handkerchief to wrap around my nose and mouth, though it didn’t work as well as I hoped.

Walking through the streets, looking for my cat, was like walking on the moon. The ash was very fine but so persistent. It covered everything, though it slithered off the plastic of my coat. After about half an hour, I couldn’t handle the ash anymore and came home— hoping Bonzo would be smart enough to find cover.

During the day, the ash cloud would sometimes thin out, leading us to hope the worst was over. Then the ash would thicken, the day darken again. I must admit to being more than a little worried about how long the ash would fall. Would we be evacuated if it fell for days?

Were we in danger?

Towards evening, we heard a faint meow at the back door. I opened it, and there on the step was a mound of ash with two brilliantly blue, and really pissed off eyes. Bonzo had made it home.

The ash fell throughout the day and into the evening. The darkness was oppressive, the acrid smell overwhelming at times. Sometime during the night, though, it finally stopped. When we woke the next day, we woke to another world. Ash covered everything.

I used to smoke in those days. I had run out of cigarettes, and we also needed milk and some other odds and ends. We couldn’t drive because of the ash, but there was a neighborhood store a couple of blocks away. I knew the store would be open—you’d have to bury that store under lava for it not to open—so I again donned my plastic coat and set off.

If the walk during the ash fall was unnerving, the walk the next day was surreal. You could see tracks of animals, including that of a bee that had become so weighted down, all it could do was squiggle along the sidewalk. Bird tracks, cat tracks, other small critters—no people though.

People were out and about, primarily shoveling ash off roofs, because the weight was enough to cause some real concerns. Others, seemingly indifferent to the effects of mixing ash and engine, were out driving, and their cars would send up clouds of acrid dust. Some of our more enterprising neighbors built a speed bump of ash mixed with water, which worked pretty good until the street crews knocked it down.

For the next three months, we cleaned up ash. In the beginning, we wore a lot of masks, and some folks took off for ashless climes. Silly, really, because bad stuff happens everywhere. If you’re going to leave a place, you leave it before the bad stuff happens. Otherwise, you’re just moving from bad stuff to bad stuff, like a ball in a pinball machine.

My Dad used some of the ash from around our place to mix into cement for a new sidewalk. Other people created souvenir statues from the ash. I bought a t-shirt that said something about the mountain and Yakima, but I can’t remember the words now. Probably something that seemed clever then, but would be stupid, now.

A day by day account at the Yakima Herald Republic.

St. Louis Today photo gallery.

Rethinking our Twitter Twitchy Actions

Cleaning up after the bird

Very interesting piece by Sam Bibble at Gawker on Justine Sacco. Sacco was the PR person who tweeted a bit of satire that blew up in her face, and almost destroyed her career.

The problem with Twitter is every post lacks context. You don’t know the person to know if they’re joking. You haven’t seen the build-up to know if the post is ironic, satirical, or a true belief. And it’s so damn easy to retweet the actions and reactions, and to get caught up in the rush to condemn. That’s the bad, the very horrid part of Twitter.

At the same time, Twitter can be damn useful. Anyone who closely follows the Ferguson events will tell you that you can find more up-to-date information in Twitter than any in any news site. We can find a lot of racist crap, true, but we also found livestream links, breaking news, and even thoughtful insight, 140 characters at a time.

Bibble’s advice for weathering a Twitter storm is good—don’t engage, you’ll only had fuel to the fire. But maybe we should seriously re-think our twitchy actions. There are two kinds of outrageous tweets at the core of these storms. The first is the satirical tweet, taken out of context; if we retweet these, we can be harming an innocent person. The second type of outrageous tweet is from those who want attention; if we retweet what they post, all we’re doing is giving them the attention they want.

I watched this happen with person claiming to be a journalist, who tried to write himself into Ferguson’s history and failed. Every new and outrageous tweet of his that got caught up and magnified resulted in him getting at least a hundred new followers. In our outraged reaction, we gave him exactly what he wanted, and now he’s been featured in publications such as the New York Times, Slate, and the Washington Post. We didn’t create the monster, but we sure gave it juice.

Torture and Learned Helplessness

image from Seligman's research

My senior psychology research project was about “learned helplessness”, based on the work by Martin E. P. Seligman. He saw it as the underlying basis for depression, while I was interested in its effect on workers.

I have written about learned helplessness in the past. Oddly enough, one of the writings is titled, Learned Terrorism, posted in 2002. Others are The Value of Anger, and What’s the Use?

I would never have dreamed that this theory would become the foundation for a system of torture used by the CIA against US prisoners. All I can say is the practitioners most likely discovered what I did, years ago: you can’t artificially engineer “learned helplessness” directly. Not to the extent these interrogators wanted. You can in dogs, but you can’t in humans. If anything, attempting to do so can have an opposite effect than the one intended. Rather than generate the helplessness that would, somehow, make the prisoners compliant, it could make them even more determined not to cooperate.

For learned helplessness to occur, circumstances have to meet a specific set of criteria. They would have to get the prisoners to internalize the current events; to see themselves as the cause for the negative circumstances. Yet individuals differ in how they internalize negative events–there is no one size fits all technique you can use to create the same effect with everyone. The person would also have to feel nothing they can do will change their circumstances. This runs counter to the seeming desired effect of the interrogators. After all, if you want a person to respond with information in order to prevent negative events, you don’t engineer in them a feeling that no matter what they do, or say, nothing will ever change.

So if they did, somehow, engineer “learned helplessness” in the prisoners, in the hope of showing that the effects can be mitigated by providing data, the prisoners would not have been able to make this association. The whole basis of the theory is that the sufferer would have been unable to see the solution offered. Either the engineering would fail, and the prisoner would dig in, even harder, against cooperating, or the engineering would succeed, and the prisoner would become completely apathetic. In both cases, the prisoner would either say nothing (because of anger or apathy), or they’d say everything—they’d blather along until their captors seemed satisfied with their blather, completely indifferent to any possible negative consequences for giving incorrect information, because no matter what they did, nothing would change.

Unbelievable. Not only was the psychology abused and twisted, it wasn’t even accurately applied.

Ferguson: Media, You are Hurting Us

screenshot of Jon Stewart on Crossfire

The story read that the FBI had arrested two New Black Panther members for buying explosives to bomb Ferguson protests. Not long after, though, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch posted a story that what really happened is the FBI arrested two men for providing false information when buying guns. And that New Black Panther association? Well, that’s implied because a “police source” made the connection. Not the men. Not officially from the FBI. A “police source”.

One of the many sources who have added to the confusion and alarm associated with the Ferguson protests. The same sources that both Twitter users and mainstream press reporters have quoted without fact or verification. There is some excuse for the Twitter users: it’s not their job to fact check what they retweet. The same cannot be said for the media, who have done a piss poor job of covering Ferguson.

Even today, the Chicago Tribune and Washington Post have stories about a $5,000 bounty placed on Darren Wilson’s head by a black militant group. The only problem is, it’s all fake, a fraud. There is no black militant group. There is no $5,000 bounty. It’s all one anonymous Twitter user making the claim among a set of overly fantastic and conflicting claims, in an account that demonstrates glaringly obvious disconnects in linguistic styles. A Twitter account for a group that has absolutely no hint of existence outside of Twitter. Even photos purportedly showing the Twitter user’s hands holding a box of ammo, with dark implications of future mayhem, generated little but doubt from other Twitter users primarily because the hands looked remarkably white, and what most people missed, remarkably feminine. So much for discussions about “fellow warriors”.

(The only other reference to the group was a pulled Go Fund Me page.)

It was all fake, yet these stalwarts of the press, these icons, dutifully copied each other without any of their journalists once going, “Hey. Maybe we should fact check this or something.”

CNN writes last week about a Grand Jury decision on Friday, and it wasn’t because they had inside information, as the implication might be. No, it was nothing more than a guess. So we end up having a press conference and all sorts of stories on Saturday about no Grand Jury decision happened on Friday. That’s the same as saying, “We didn’t get hit by an asteroid this weekend”, or, “There’s a lot of snow in Buffalo”.

How much confusion has been generated by dutifully quoting Chief Jackson from Ferguson, as he makes assertions in the AM, only to add “clarifications” later that day or the next? By the time the media report the clarifications it’s already too late: the seeds of doubt are sown, and mismatched stories get flung about in Twitter, like stones fired from slingshots.

All these stories do is add to the tension and distrust. They generate unnecessary suspicion, and add fuel to an already volatile situation. It is like members of the media have gotten together over a beer somewhere and said to each other, “You know, riots in Ferguson would be good for ratings. What can we do to make it happen?”

What did Jon Stewart say on Crossfire years ago? Before his appearance on the show signaled its impending doom?

Stop, stop, stop, stop hurting America.

Media, you are hurting us.

Healthcare Sign Up: New and Improved

I signed up for healthcare coverage for 2015 at Healthcare.gov. Unlike last year, absolutely no problems with the system. The only hiccup occurred with United Healthcare when I tried to review its provider network—that system seems to be unable to stand the load. The government site, though, was a piece of cake.

I was able to get a plan that was about a third of what I paid this year. It’s more of a managed plan where I have to use a set of providers, but I’m OK with the providers. I stayed with Coventry because they provided good coverage this year, and they seem to be the only provider who has its online act together.

Only one problem with this year’s sign up, and it’s bureaucratic not system specific: proving income.

To be eligible, I have to mail (hard copy), or upload proof of income for 2015. I have to send in one of the following:

   Wages and tax statement (W-2)
 · Pay stub
 · Letter from employer
 · Self-employment ledger
 · Cost of living adjustment letter and other benefit verification notices
 · Lease agreement
 · Copy of a check paid to the household member
 · Bank or investment fund statement
 · Document or letter from Social Security Administration (SSA)
 · Form SSA 1099 Social Security benefits statement
 · Letter from government agency for unemployment benefits

I’m a self-employed writer, which means my income is erratic. According to the notice, the self-employment ledger can be pre-filled in with estimates. I keep a spreadsheet, which I guess will have to become my self-employment ledger. Or I can send a copy of my lease or bank statement, but that doesn’t really prove my income. It’s bizarre, and more than a little irritating.

There’s a thing called the 1040—why this isn’t acceptable, I don’t know.

Anyway, I’m all finished. Now what the hell will the GOP have to bitch about if they can’t bitch about Healthcare.gov?