On The Fence

To sit on the fence is to be undecided between two options. Wikipedia adds an implied motivation:

… inability to decide due to lack of courage. This is farm-fence-mddone either to remain on good terms with both sides, or due to apathy regarding the situation and not wanting to choose a position with which one doesn’t actually agree. As a result, someone who “sits on the fence” will maintain a neutral and non-committal view regarding any of the other parties involved.

I didn’t find many sites suggestingan origin.

Superbeefy listed an amusing story that combines the phrase with an American hero and a wise slave:

During the Revolutionary War, a prominent New Jersey jurist, Judge Imlay, hadn’t yet committed to either the revolutionaries or the loyalists. So when Washington encountered one of Imlay’s slaves he asked him which way the judge was leaning.
Washington was so amused by the response that he retold it enough times for it to become part of our language. He said, “Until my master knows which is the strongest group, he’s staying on the fence.”

The site offers no citation, but I like the story.

I’ve Always Believed We’re Stuck With Republicans and Democrats – Maybe I’m Wrong

Maine is a small state. It seems like a world away to me, living in rural New Mexico. But Maine has accomplished something – by intent or by happenstance – that could lead the nation.

Independents in the Maine state legislature now hold the balance of power. A “fulcrum” of 6 independents and 1 Green Party member has denied both major parties a majority.
The 74 Democrats and 69 Republicans in the chamber must now work with either each other and/or the bloc of independents to pass legislation. Rep. Martin Grohman, a former Democrat, recently disaffiliated from his party because he thinks he can accomplish more as an independent. centristproject.org

One of the depressing aspects of the last presidential election was the pitiful choice given voters. I believed voting for a third party candidate or staying home was a waste of my vote. Maybe independents do offer a way out of our current partisan mess to a brighter future. And all hope is not lost for the traditional parties.

Maine Senator Susan Collins is a perfect example of the outsized influence that principled, centrist politicians could have. Collins is a moderate Republican who demonstrated the power of bucking party bosses.

Be sure to watch for independents in state and local elections, and for third parties and moderate ‘Pubs and Dems’ who may lose their primaries but run as independents. Sanity can return and moderates can regain their voice. I know it can happen because it has happened.

Over a Barrel

barrel.svg.medTo be over a barrel is to be helpless, at another’s mercy.

The Phrase Finder identifies this as an American expression from the mid-20th century, and refers to a cartoon from the Pennsylvania newspaper The Clearfield Progress in 1938.

Worldwidewords found an earlier citation: “Woodland Daily Democrat of California, dated January 1896: “To use a vulgar expression, a Republican congress gleefully assembled in Washington for the express purpose of getting President Cleveland ‘over a barrel.’ The humiliating predicament…” As often the case, it seems the writer expected his readers to recognise this easily.

The OED suggests that the allusion is to placing a person rescued from drowning over a barrel to clear their lungs of water. This might sound rather unlikely, but there are many references in the literature to show this was once a common practice…


There are instances recorded from this period and earlier of a person being placed on or rolled over a barrel as a humiliating punishment. One case was that of a student hazing at a college in Ohio, reported in the Frederick Daily News in Maryland in 1886: ‘Once inside he was at the mercy of his captors, and the treatment he received was cruel. Bound hand and foot, he was rolled over a barrel.’ This is by far the more likely origin, since a person held over a barrel is helpless, whether face down or face up. It fits the meaning of the phrase much better than the resuscitation one does.

Plutonium – the Most Deadly Substance Known to Man – I Heard That Someplace…

Pu238 powers spacecraft

Pu238 power source for Mars rover Curiosity

Long time readers know we once worked in the American Nuclear Weapons Complex and, specifically, at the Rocky Flats Plant. This blog began when the excellent, first-hand account An Insider’s View of Rocky Flats was published. Since then we’ve ranged far away from Rocky Flats.

Today I’d like to return to my transuranic roots, as it were. Plutonium-239 is an effective bomb because it’s relatively easy to handle in a military setting.

Don’t misunderstand me. It’s still a bomb, and a powerful and scary bomb at that. It must be guarded against misuse, whether accidental or intentional. But the plutonium inside is not terribly radioactive as it sits there (not compared to some medical isotopes) and, provided you keep it contained so no plutonium dusts are inhaled and it doesn’t catch fire, it doesn’t present a huge danger. Not even to Navy personnel who practically sit on nuclear warheads in submarines.

But that’s about radiation. What about toxicity?

Plutonium recently appeared on one of my favorite sites, Skeptoid. The researcher and host, Brian Dunning, periodically posts corrections to past podcasts, and posted this:

I mentioned plutonium as being the most toxic substance known… It’s one of those bits of pop culture knowledge that I uncritically parroted.

[A listener responded.]

The myth of extreme plutonium toxicity can be traced to unsubstantiated statements made by Ralph Nader and other anti-nuclear activists of the 1970s. He was challenged by renowned health physicist, Dr. Bernard Cohen of the University of Pittsburgh, who offered to ingest the amount of plutonium that Nader considered lethal.

I don’t know that I’d volunteer to swallow a dose of plutonium. The government would follow me to collect all my bodily effluvia for way too long to be convenient. But, yeah, as a healthy adult it would mostly pass through me, with little being dissolved or absorbed.

Dunning’s listener provided a link to “a list of substances…which are determined to pose the most significant potential threat to human health due to their known or suspected toxicity and potential for human exposure. Plutonium appears at number 120.” An American federal public health agency keeps the list here. The benzene used at Rocky Flats, once common in college and commercial labs, is more hazardous.

(In case you’re wondering, arsenic, lead, and mercury top the list, followed by vinyl chloride and polychlorinated biphenyls.)

The list was prepared for “substances that are most commonly found at facilities” at hazardous waste sites being cleaned up by the government. Plutonium was not commonly used at such sites. Fallout from old above-ground testing is everywhere, however, so if plutonium were the most hazardous substance known to man (a phrase I recall reading) it would be present at all sites, and should show up higher than #120.

This doesn’t mean the hazards of plutonium should be ignored or that clean-ups are unnecessary. It means that anyone, even a fine researcher, may repeat common claims without much consideration – inculcated, to use a favorite word, by repetition. That’s an error we’re all likely to fall into from time to time. We humans are more likely to believe something if we hear it over and over. I hope, when I’m corrected, I’m as gracious as Dunning.

“Violence Here is the Social Norm”*

Question_Callout_WHYAnother week, another under-the-radar lunatic goes on a killing spree with his AR-15, and another round of recriminations from gun control advocates leveled at Congress for not passing stricter gun laws, at the NRA for existing at all, and at law-abiding gun owners for not saying “enough” and remorsefully schlepping their weapons to the local police station to give them up.

Gun ownership advocates, as usual, managed to throw off this guilt and continue to insist that putting more guns in more places, carried by trained individuals, will deter the maniacs or at least minimize the carnage.  Each group cites statistics supporting its position, bringing to mind the old saw about statistics being used the same way a drunk uses a lamppost – for support rather than illumination.

We do have a lot of guns – a recent NY Times article alleges that Americans own some 300 million – four out of every ten private firearms in the world.  We also have a lot of anonymous, deeply troubled individuals who are one fight with the in-laws away from going postal.  No law of God or man can be expected to keep all of society’s crackpots away from all those lovely, deadly weapons, and the gun argument is distracting us from another discussion that we desperately need to have.

Crazy people killing other people – not just with guns, but with rental trucks, homemade bombs or box cutters – is a relatively new phenomenon here.  The U.S. has always had a surplus of firearms and lunatics-in-waiting, but the growing number of high-casualty events seems correlated with our growing fascination with – and tolerance of – brutal, graphic conflict in every form of our entertainment, from TV and movies to the internet to video games to sports, even music. Today, more than ever, potential assassins are at risk of having their worst impulses constantly reinforced whenever they tune in or log on.  Less violence soaked cultures (including a fairly recent version of our own) have suffered fewer, and smaller, mass-casualty incidents, no matter how many guns (or rental trucks) their citizens have access to.  But today America has normalized violence to the point where a crazed assailant has to kill at least a dozen innocent people in order to get noticed.

Focusing on guns as either the root of, or the counter to, this savagery is a cop-out.  Those 300 million weapons are an effect, not the cause, of the culture we have allowed to evolve; a world in which “fake” violence is so pervasive that it has become background static.  Whenever some tortured soul decides to embrace the real thing, we seldom pause to consider his motivation. We are too busy arguing about his methodology.

We have to start recognizing the fake violence that surrounds us for the empathy suppressant that it is and seeing real violence as the insidious cultural sickness that it is.  Until we do there will be more – and given the glorifying publicity lavished on them by the media, worse – incidents of mass murder in our future.  If we really want to stop the bleeding, the discussion has to go beyond the “how” and the “who”.  We need to look in the mirror and ask, “why?”

*Rehumanize Yourself – Sting and The Police

Too Much Success

One of the largest and most-venerable cooperatives in AmericaFair use in Commentary has folded. I read about this in the Garbanzo Gazette, my own small-town co-op’s monthly newsletter.

Berkeley’s co-op was founded in 1937. Back then, many Americans looked favorably on communism with a lower case “c” and people didn’t realize, or denied, that every Communist with a capital “C” country was a dictatorship or oligarchy.

Berkeley was a “first wave” co-op, founded for political reasons but expanding over the years to sell food, hardware, gasoline, and more. On-site childcare was provided as parents shopped and there was even a co-op burial society.

Communes seldom survive much beyond their founders – subsequent generations aren’t as enthused and willing to suffer for the ideal. Perhaps some of that attitude affected Berkeley, but it survived for 80 years and at its peak had over 116,000 members.

There were clear reasons for the failure… Overextending in the Bay Area food marketplace was clearly one and the weirdness of the way their board operated (very contentious) another… [They began cutting programs to save costs.] It was all downhill from there. Garbanzo Gazette

My local co-op opened in 1974 in the “second wave” where co-ops were about “brown rice, organic pintos, tamari and things like that… a quaint little hippie store.” The political angle was still there, but food trends were more important.

I joined (though our co-op is open to non-members) for the bulk dried food and bulk spice sections. The hippie atmosphere continues – incense is a big seller – and some members never step foot in the local Walmart, but that’s not me.

I suppose that’s why our co-op is in financial trouble.

Organic. Non-GMO. Free trade. Cage-free eggs. Quinoa. Supplements. Those trends succeeded throughout America. Huge corporations like Walmart embraced these emerging consumer demands and there are even chains like Whole Foods that specialize in them.

Companies have learned to watch for trends, and buy-out or simply take-over new ideas like meal kits. Blue Apron’s stock is worth half of its IPO and I can buy frozen meal kits at Walmart – fresh kits can’t be far behind. There’s less space for upstarts to persist in the highly-competative grocery marketplace.

My co-op is losing its niche in foods, and the niche of people-who-hate-Walmart simply isn’t big enough. The board is looking for a way to survive, but a recent attempt to add a restaurant failed. Maybe local-sourced food can be a winner, but we’re not a big farming region. Besides, I see one of the smaller, non-Walmart, groceries is selling local meats, so the niche may already be filled.

Berkeley’s demise points to pluses and minuses. More people have access to food trends, and trends will be more standardized than in the past. Crazy trends will spread more quickly with corporate power behind them, but so will beneficial ones.

Of course, when a trend runs its course and is dropped by Walmart (which, for example, has very little bulk dried food today, and when’s the last time you saw a giant-chain-store salad bar), small competitors don’t benefit because they’re long gone.

You can’t fight progress. At least, not for long.
Read more about the Berkeley co-op.