The Primordial Hackers

Anyone above the age of 40 should remember Max Headroom, the fictional British ad-pitchman (New Coke, anyone?) who was the world’s first computer-generated TV host. He was said to have been modeled after the insincere and egotistical media talking heads of the day, in particular the smarmy Ted Baxter role from The Mary Tyler Moore Show. His stuttering electronic cadence made his voice instantly recognizable to viewers worldwide. He was such a pop success that the year following his TV debut, he even appeared in a now-forgettable film feature, 20 Minutes Into The Future.

Max

Max

[sidebar: computer graphics were not very advanced in 1984 when he debuted, so the ‘cyber host’ was actually portrayed by an actor in prosthetic makeup, a fiberglass suit, Ray Bans, and hand drawn backdrops]

[sidebar: the character’s name came from the supposed last thing that his consciousness saw before the fatal car wreck that claimed his corporeal self: “Max. Headroom: 2.3 meters” suspended across a tunnel entrance]

Max, however, had greater fame awaiting him: his role in the first documented hack of the computer age.

At 9:14 p.m. on 22 November 1987, the regularly scheduled programming at Chicago’s WGN was interrupted, and instead appeared on the screen a person wearing a mask in front of a non-descript retro-futuristic looking metallic backdrop. He strongly resembled Max, coming to haunt from the dystopian future. It was brief and silent. WGN technicians quickly switched back to the local news. But two hours later, during a broadcast of Dr Who, cross-town WTTW-11 experienced an identical break in service. On came the same figure, but this time there was an audio feed of largely unintelligible cackling, some mumbled threats to Chuck Swirsky (an area sportscaster), and the hummed theme song of a well-known cartoon series. The masked figure then mooned the audience, and a mysterious woman appeared who was trying to smack an airborne insect with a flyswatter. This went on for 90 seconds before regularly scheduled service was resumed.

In 2010, a Reddit user by the handle of Bpoag provided some add’n information. He claimed to have been part of a phreaking cell operating in the Chicago suburb of LaGrange in the late 1980s (phreaking was the slang term used at the time for those who could manipulate telephone networks and the systems that depended on them… in other words, the precursors of today’s internet hackers). Bpoag claimed to have been warned by two other members of the group – named J and K – to watch the TV on the evening of 22 November “for something big.” He did, and immediately recognized the handiwork of his fellow phreakers.

According to Bpoag, the actual hack was simple enough to accomplish, and didn’t require any advanced technical equipment beyond what an avid phreaker would already have had in his arsenal. He opined, “all that had to be done was to provide a signal to the satellite dish that was of a greater power than the legitimate one.”

Bpoag likened the stunt to a public service announcement: “it only lasted as long as it needed to get the point across, that point being that the airwaves were woefully unprotected, and easily exploitable.”

The feds were not amused and launched an investigation. But after almost three decades, the actual identities of the hackers have never been determined. But they no doubt foretold what would later become, for pranksters, governments, protesters, activists, and terrorists alike, a global and likely permanent phenomenon.

[Have an idea for a post topic? Want to be considered for a guest-author slot? Or better, perhaps you’d like to become a day-sponsor of this blog, and reach thousands of subscribers and Facebook fans? If so, please contact the Alienist at vadocdoc@outlook.com]

[Copyright 2013 @ The Alienist’s Compendium]

Peering Tom

We all know the expression “Peeping Tom,” but did you ever wonder who exactly is “Tom”?

To answer this question, we actually have to go all the way back to the 11th century, to Coventry. You must be familiar with Lady Godgyfu, or in modern English, Godiva. Her husband was Leofric, Earl of Mercia, and knowing his wife to be a prude, he said he’d lower taxes on the populace when she rode naked through the streets, the equivalent of “when Hell freezes over.” To her husband’s shock, she accepted the challenge, and then asked the townsfolk to avert their gazes. Being generally liked, unlike her miserly husband, the populace shuttered their windows and looked away as the good lady rode au naturel through the city streets for the benefit of all.

But men being men, there was at least (only?) one who had to sneak a peak. Thomas the Tailor drilled a hole in his shop’s window shutters so he could watch. And depending on your source, Tom was either permanently blinded by Godiva’s beauty, struck dead by God, or torn limb from limb by enraged locals who discovered his moral turpitude.

The problem is, there is no evidence to suggest that any of this is true.

First, the initial reference to the ride was not contemporary, but instead appeared a full two centuries after the subject’s death, in Flores Historiarum, written by one Roger of Wendover.

[sidebar: always be suspicious of stories that are appended years after a purported event; it would be the equivalent of one of my readers today telling heretofore unknown stories of George Washington]

Next, according to the contemporaneous Norman Domesday Book (1086), Godiva was one of the very few women of the day who were landowners in their own right. She apparently controlled vast swaths of territory in and around present day Coventry. So SHE would have set the tax rate, not her husband, and therefore there would have been no reason for her to ride to convince him of anything.

Add’n, ‘Thomas’ is not an Anglo-Saxon name. But in the 15th century, long after Godiva, it became a common moniker for a generic common man, the equivalent of our ‘average Joe.’ There exists a painting from the mid-16th century that shows the ride and a man looking at Godiva from his window. Not long after the painting’s creation, people commonly held that the man was just some leering ne’er-do-well, a Tom, violating the lady’s requested privacy. Interestingly, art historians have since determined that the Tom in the work is actually Leofric watching his wife, and his money, heading down the road. But the common perception stuck.

In the late 17th century, the bored inhabitants of Coventry started reenacting the ride yearly, the Godiva Procession, with the chosen woman naked some times, others not, depending on the sensibilities of the city fathers of the day. And what is a parade/ party without a villain on which to focus the mock-indignation of the alcohol-sopped crowd? Tom effigies began to crop up, and the locals went after them with gusto.

With centuries of evolution of the tale, the actual phrase “Peering Tom” (not “Peeping” then) first appeared only on 11 June 1773 in Coventry municipal records, documenting the purchase of a wig and paint to fabricate an oaken effigy of Tom for the then-upcoming procession.

By the late 18th century, we finally have an actual definition: Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1796) is the first to include Peering Tom as “a nickname for a curious prying fellow.”

So there you have it. Peeping Tom wasn’t a real person, but a 17th century legend attached to an 11th century myth of a noble that, despite having no basis in fact, persists today in popular culture because it involves a famous woman who got naked in public.

Not much, it seems, has changed.

[Have an idea for a post topic? Want to be considered for a guest-author slot? Or better, perhaps you’d like to become a day-sponsor of this blog, and reach thousands of subscribers and Facebook fans? If so, please contact the Alienist at vadocdoc@outlook.com]

[Copyright 2013 @ The Alienist’s Compendium]

Fay Ce Que Voudras

From the (historical) ‘Boys Will Be Boys’ file, we remember today the Brotherhood of St Francis of Wycombe, founded in 1749 by Sir Francis Dashwood. You are forgiven if you thought that the ‘St Francis’ referenced is he of Assisi, of Caricciolo, of Paolo, of Sales, or of Xavier – all recognized and venerated hallows of Christendom. Instead, it references the founder, Dashwood, which may suggest that this organization is not one’s standard religious order.

Other suggestions that this group was far from standard includes their motto, fay ce que voudras, which translates to “do as you please,” along with their initial meeting place, London’s George and Vulture pub.

This fraternity was dedicated to debauchery, the Enlightment’s anti-clericism meeting Animal House.

This wouldn’t be so notable were it not for the fact that, over two decades, many prominent member of British society counted themselves as members, and regularly attended the conclaves.

There was Dashwood himself, 15th Baron le Despencer, Chancellor of the Exchequer. There was John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich, Postmaster General and First Lord of the Admiralty. There was George Dodington, 1st Baron Melcombe, close friend and financier of the Prince of Wales who also ran a highly-regarded anti-Jacobite spy ring. There was John Wilkes, a prominent member of Parliament who was an early radical pamphleteer and supporter of the American colonies. There was also another well-known MP, Thomas Potter, an accomplished attorney who also happened to be the son of the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Members referred to themselves as ‘brothers,’ the leader as ‘abbot,’ and the women of loose virtue in attendance as ‘nuns.’ The group ate, drank, gambled, and fornicated at will, always a winning combination when trying to recruit add’n converts. As the brotherhood grew, Dashwood, no longer satisfied with the pub, leased Medmenham Abbey, a rundown former haunt of the Cistercians, close to his ancestral home and residence. He proceeded to rebuild the ruin, and excavated an extensive network of caves and tunnels that reached over 1500 feet into a nearby hillside. This honeycomb came to be known as the Hellfire Caves, where the group – by then sometimes called the Order of the Monks of Medmenham – conducted, er, business. It was over the caves’ entrance that was found the motto carved into a granite cornice.

In Nocturnal Revels (1779), a two volume anonymously-authored work on Georgian nightlife and prostitution, there is a contemporary if wordy description of activities of the meetings:

“They always meet in one general set at meals, when, for the improvement of mirth, pleasantry, and gaiety, every member is allowed to introduce a lady of cheerful lively disposition, to improve the general hilarity. Male visitors are also permitted, under certain restrictions, their greatest recommendation being their merit wit and humour. There is no constraint with regard to the circulation of the glass, after some particular toasts have been given: the ladies, in the intervals of their repasts, may make select parties among themselves, or entertain one another, or alone with reading, musick, tambour-work, etc. The salt of these festivities is generally purely antic, but no indelicacy or indecency is allowed to be intruded without a severe penalty; and a jeu de mots must not border too much upon a loose double entendre to be received with applause.”

Or as parliamentarian and Brother John Wilkes said more succinctly, the club was “a set of worthy, jolly fellows, happy disciples of Venus and Bacchus, got occasionally together to celebrate woman in wine and to give more zest to the festive meeting, they plucked every luxurious idea from the ancients and enriched their own modern pleasures with the tradition of classic luxury.”

While rumors grew of Satanist rituals being conducted, other than their general licentiousness, there is no evidence to support that anything darker was actually occurring. Interestingly, Dashwood was a major benefactor and protector of the nearby St Lawrence’s Parish, a real house of worship that had fallen on hard times.

Dashwood may have been a most convivial host, but he was tone-deaf in his respectable professional role. As Chancellor of the Exchequer, he imposed a tax on adult beverages by passage of the Cider Bill of 1763, an act which resulted in riots and his hasty resignation… odd for a man who threw alcohol-fueled bacchanals in his free time, albeit for a very limited and well-heeled crowd.

The aging of the attendees, and Dashwood’s resignation, spelled the end of the Order. By 1766, the Hellfire Caves were silent, stripped of their scandalous adornments, and the wild rumpuses had ceased. But not, it should be noted, before a diplomat and scientist from the Colonies, one Benjamin Franklin, was documented to have attended a number of the meetings when he was in London on, er, business.

[Have an idea for a post topic? Want to be considered for a guest-author slot? Or better, perhaps you’d like to become a day-sponsor of this blog, and reach thousands of subscribers and Facebook fans? If so, please contact the Alienist at vadocdoc@outlook.com]

[Copyright 2013 @ The Alienist’s Compendium]

Piety and the Oval Office

“Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful” ~Seneca the Younger (5 BCE – 65 CE)

Anyone who has been following this election cycle knows that with very few exceptions (e.g., Bernie Sanders), our current crop of politicians tend to trip over themselves to declare their faith in, and commitment to, perceived Judeo-Christian values. One only needs to hear the uber-capitalist Donald Trump state that the Bible is his favorite book to realize that affirming ones piety has become a prerequisite to aspiring to higher elective office.

[sidebar: ongoing defamation of Barack Obama aside, there is not a single known/ admitted atheist currently holding national-level elected office. The last two were Rep Pete Stark (D-CA) who left Washington in 2012, and Rep Barney Frank (D-MA) who left the following year. It is particularly interesting to note that Frank felt more comfortable admitting to his same-gender sexual orientation decades earlier in his career than his non-theism, which he admitted only AFTER he left Congress.]

In looking back at our collective history, there were the administrations of Washington, Lincoln, and FDR, times during which the nation faced truly existential crises that might reasonably have called for some divine intervention. And yet none of the three wore their devotions on their sleeves.

Certainly those Presidents – probably all Presidents – have invoked some religious imagery in their public statements. But until comparatively recently, any such invocations have fallen into the category of what Dean Eugene Rostow of Yale’s Law School first described in 1962 as “Ceremonial Deism,” an observation later legitimized in Supreme Court decisions by both Justices William Brennan (Lynch v. Donnelly, 465 U.S. 668) and Sandra O’Connor (Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow, 542 U.S. 1). Ceremonial Deism describes a nominally religious statement made by a public official that has been watered-down to mere rote by reflexive habit or long-standing precedent. In short, it’s meaningless tradition, the political equivalent of the non-ecclesiastic amongst us uttering “bless you” when a stranger sneezes in public.

With Western Europe and Japan – other advanced and developed democracies – becoming less overtly religious during recent years, how is it that America’s modern leaders have all set a far more spiritual tone for the body politick?

It seems to be the handiwork of Dwight Eisenhower.

The Eisenhower Administration (1953-61) did occur during the height of the Cold War. Perhaps Ike saw his first landslide win as a mandate for a national tent revival, and his stewardship as a chance to contrast his conservative Pennsylvania Dutch roots with the Godless Communism then seemingly threatening our existence in every corner of the globe. While running for office, Scotty Reston of The New York Times likened the campaign to “William Jennings Bryan’s old invasion of the Bible Belt during the Chautauqua circuit days.” True to form, it was during Ike’s tour in the White House that “In God We Trust” was placed on U.S. currency, and the Pledge of Allegiance (originally written in 1887) was altered to include the phrase “Under God” (1954).

At a transition meeting with his cabinet nominees after his first election, Ike announced that the nominees and their families were invited to a special religious service at Na­tional Presbyterian Church the morning of the inauguration. Perhaps then recalling that Constitutional inconvenience about separating Church and State, he added hastily that no nominee should feel pressured to go to his Presbyterian services, and that anyone could go instead to a church of his own choice.

Needless to say, everyone present opted to be seen with the President-elect.

Immediately after taking the oath of office, Ike asked those in attendance – and by proxy the millions on TV and radio – to bow their heads so that he might lead the nation in “a little private prayer of my own [that I wrote this morning].” This caused a sensation at the time, not because of anything particularly radical that he said, but that he said it at all.

Shortly thereafter, Ike became the first President to be baptized while in office.

And right after the baptism, he broadcast from the Oval Office an address for the American Legion’s “Back to God” campaign, urging millions of listeners to recognize and rejoice in the (unsaid but inescapably Christian) spiritual foundations of the nation.

Four days later, he was the guest of honor at the first National Prayer Breakfast, which has since become not only an annual tradition, but a stump from which the currently-elected leader and his immediate circle can try to outdo themselves in their stated devotions to the Almighty. At that first breakfast, Ike made this statement: “The very basis of our govern­ment is that we hold that all men are endowed by their Creator with certain rights. In [that] one sentence, we established that every free government is embedded soundly in a deeply-felt religious faith or it makes no sense.”

Please read that last part again: the President of the United States stating unequivocally that unless one sees a faith-basis in our form of governance, what we are doing makes no sense. The Declaration of Independence. The Constitution. The Bill of Rights. Other amendments. The United States Code. The common law. All make no sense.

Before long, prayers had become de rigueur at the openings of cabinet meetings.

Perhaps Ike’s faith was sincere – it’s really impossible to know for certain what dwells deep inside one’s breast – but he created the soapbox from which all manner of suspected opportunists and charlatans have preached since.

[sidebar: “And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men.” ~Matthew 6:5, KJV]

But even Pious Ike needed to get acclimated to the demands of his new role as Pastor-in-Chief. His personal secretary recalled that after one of the first cabinet meetings, the President emerged from the room and stopped abruptly to exclaim, “Jesus Christ! We forgot the prayer!”

[Have an idea for a post topic? Want to be considered for a guest-author slot? Or better, perhaps you’d like to become a day-sponsor of this blog, and reach thousands of subscribers and Facebook fans? If so, please contact the Alienist at vadocdoc@outlook.com]

[Copyright 2013 @ The Alienist’s Compendium]

Grown-Up Toys and the Uber-Wealthy

On April 18th, 2014, a gun said to have been used by Wyatt Earp during the famous shootout at (actually near) the O.K. Corral sold through a Scottsdale Arizona auction house for the princely sum of $225,000, well above its pre-event estimate of ‘only’ $100,000 to $150,000.

Note that I said, “said to have been used.”

Wealthy aficionados always run up auction prices for the rare and unusual. Anything with a purported Earp or Old West provenance is certain to bring big money.

[sidebar: speaking of gunslingers in general, see my earlier post on the sale of the pistol of Bonnie Parker – of Bonnie and Clyde fame – at http://alienistscompendium.com/hybristophilia/]

A well-heeled collector from New Mexico, who was absentee-battling over the phone, placed the winning bid for the .45 Colt single action army revolver, the so-called Peacemaker model known from every western movie ever filmed. The Colt in question came from the estate of the late Glenn Boyer, an author of several books on Earp who collected Earpabilia until his death in 2013.

Peacemaker

Peacemaker

The gunfight near O.K. was actually a small event in a time and place known for not-infrequent barroom brawls and the public brandishing of weaponry. It really wasn’t until 1930 – the year after the subject died – when Stuart Lake published the then-definitive biography of Earp that the gunfight began to assume mythical proportions.

[sidebar: the gunfight wasn’t the only thing that experienced an apotheosis; Earp too became a larger-than-life lawman thanks to Lake and, later, Hollywood, despite evidence that strongly suggests that he was an opportunistic con-man, pimp, and horse thief who skirted both the spirit and letter of the law more than once in his life]

In other words, a small law enforcement action in a backward town in desolate southern Arizona probably wouldn’t have drawn much notice at the time… and it’s uncertain if anyone would have actually paid attention to the weapons used in the immediate aftermath.

And predictably, its sale price notwithstanding, there exists some controversy about that auctioned Colt.

For one, the revolver appears to have had its grips and cylinder replaced, and the serial numbers rubbed off.

There was suspicion that Boyer tweaked the history in his tome to magnify the value of a gun already in his possession.

And further, two other academics, D.K. Boorman and Joseph Rosa, in their respective works, stated unequivocally that Earp carried a Smith & Wesson Model 3, and not a Colt single action army, at the O.K. Corral. Even biographer Lake, who actually interviewed his subject, noted that Earp “preferred” the Smith & Wesson, though he was silent on whether that preference translated into possession on the fateful day in October 1881.

S&W Model 3

S&W Model 3

[sidebar: if true, Earp kept good company, as Jesse James, John Wesley Hardin, Pat Garrett, Teddy Roosevelt, and Billy the Kid were all said to prefer the Smith & Wesson model as well]

So why the outrageous price with so much uncertainty? Is there more to the gun than is immediately apparent? Or might such uber-wealthy buyers be more interested in (unsubstantiated) bragging rights than in the decidedly non-glamourous research that should invariably accompany such relics.

No word yet on any buyer’s remorse.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Addendum, but this time involving old wine: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2007/09/03/the-jefferson-bottles

[Have an idea for a post topic? Want to be considered for a guest-author slot? Or better, perhaps you’d like to become a day-sponsor of this blog, and reach thousands of subscribers and Facebook fans? If so, please contact the Alienist at vadocdoc@outlook.com]

[Copyright 2013 @ The Alienist’s Compendium]

The City of Lights and Medicine

Denizens of the 21st century complain of how super-specialized the practice of medicine has become. Few modern medical students aim to be generalists – even the discipline now known as Family Practice is a specialty – as most aim for many additional years of training to become expert in scientific minutiae.

It would appear, however, that our world has nothing on 19th century Paris.

The City of Lights in the epoch between Napoleon and the Franco-Prussian War was an epicenter of medical study, one reason being that French citizens were entitled to free medical care by royal decree. Students and young doctors flocked there from all over the continent, and from across the Atlantic, because of the amazing proliferation of facilities dedicated to very specific conditions and illnesses. No where else could doctors-in-training see so much pathology at the sides of renowned clinicians all in the same place.

Obstetrical complications? That would be Hôpital de la Maternité, with no fewer than a dozen births per day. Gravely sick children? The largest such hospice in the country was Hôpital des Enfants-Malades, sadly filled to capacity. Venereal diseases? There were two: for the women, Hôpital Lourcine, and for the men, Hôpital du Midi – the former being a house of tertiary-staged horrors, and the latter, while equally ghastly, mandating in the earliest years the additional ‘treatment’ of public whippings to teach patients to stay away from strumpets and keep their trousers on.

Lunatic women of childbearing years, idiots and imbeciles and morons of both genders, the terminally ill, the deaf, the blind, the dumb… all had their own specific destinations in the capital. There was a hospital for elderly married couples who wanted to die together in the same room (they could bring their own furniture and effects, the price of admission in part being bequeathment to the facility on joint passing of all personal property).

Lepers, however, were not welcomed, and instead were shipped out of the city limits should any show up at the front doors.

There was even Hôpital des Enfants-Trouvés for homeless children (distinct from an orphanage, as Enfants-Trouvés had physicians on staff to tend to the lesser ailments of the abandoned whose sicknesses didn’t quite require admission to Enfants-Malades). Some of the arrivals were orphaned when their mothers died at la Maternité (1:50), while others were voluntarily surrendered by caretakers unable to provide for their special needs. When these youngsters were deemed medically stable, they were offered for public adoption, though without surprise, many stayed at Enfants-Trouvés until they reached majority and were turned back to the streets by the hundreds.

Enfants-Trouvés had an anonymous drop-zone called le tour d’abandon (‘the desertion tower’) where sliding doors and a small bell would herald to the nurses within the arrival of a new human deposit. The citizens of Paris were encouraged to mark their children so they could potentially be reclaimed, though very few were ever later sought.

The American doctors in town, however, were most astonished by École Pratique d’Anatomie. While not a hospital per se – it was more of a pathology foundation – it allowed any physician, for the equivalent of $6, to access his own personal cadaver for dissection (no doubt many of whom were unfortunate former patients of Paris’ other healing institutions). In the early 19th century, human dissection remained illegal in the U.S., and many practitioners there had to resort to grave robbing to obtain specimens. In Paris, for a modest fee, cadavers were plentiful for the taking.

There was one small catch. The stuffy and warm dissection room often contained two dozen physicians whittling away on unpreserved corpses. The smell was said to be overpowering, and at the end of the day, leftover chunks of the deceased were tossed to packs of snarling street dogs who waited out back.

[Have an idea for a post topic? Want to be considered for a guest-author slot? Or better, perhaps you’d like to become a day-sponsor of this blog, and reach thousands of subscribers and Facebook fans? If so, please contact the Alienist at vadocdoc@outlook.com]

[Copyright 2013 @ The Alienist’s Compendium]

Oxygen From Thin Air

All who fly the friendly skies regularly can probably recite from memory the safety instruction that bored-appearing flight attendants are mandated to present as planes at U.S. and Canadian airports taxi for takeoff. But as a parrot ignorantly mimics its keeper, oftentimes I wonder if any of the proffered information is actually sinking into stupefied passengers?

For example, we all know from being told countless times that if there is a change in cabin pressure, oxygen masks will fall from the overhead compartments; hopefully you also recall that you’re supposed to yank on the tubing, and then put your own mask on first before helping those next to you, especially since, depending on the altitude, you might have less than 15 seconds of useful consciousness left once the masks deploy.

Why that yank? And where is the oxygen stored that will sustain a hundred or more passengers, all breathing through masks at the same time? Has anyone who is not in the aviation industry ever stopped to think about that?

Actually, there is no oxygen stored on planes. Not only would such a combustible be dangerous to have onboard, but the storage needed – either one big centralized tank, or many smaller individual ones – would take up valuable space within the limited confines of the jet fuselage.

When you pull on the tubing, the tug triggers a spring-loaded mechanism that sets off a spark inside a small generator, the size of a canister of tennis balls, that is located over each seat. The resulting spark ignites tablets of lead styphnate and tetracene, which in turn generate heat. A mixture of sodium chlorate, barium peroxide, and potassium perchlorate inside the canister, once heated, releases oxygen.

[sidebar: of course, you might also smell a faint burning odor from the spark and heat, but this is no cause for alarm in light of what else is probably ongoing at that time all around you. In fact, if the plane is actually on fire, the masks usually won’t deploy, so as not to make the fire even worse due to the addition of extra oxygen in the immediate environment]

This chemical reaction won’t last for long, and production inside the canister starts to fade after ~15 minutes. But assuming that you put on your mask as soon as it dropped from the ceiling, you should have enough oxygen from the bubbling compound overhead to sustain you until the pilot can quickly get the stricken jet below 10,000′ altitude. At that point, ambient air pressure will be high enough for relatively normal atmospheric breathing.

Bon voyage!

[Have an idea for a post topic? Want to be considered for a guest-author slot? Or better, perhaps you’d like to become a day-sponsor of this blog, and reach thousands of subscribers and Facebook fans? If so, please contact the Alienist at vadocdoc@outlook.com]

[Copyright 2013 @ The Alienist’s Compendium]

[From The Medical Records Dept] Kakorrhaphiophobia

[Originally published two years ago, I have reposted and added an addendum from this weekend past]

Psychological literature classifies kakorrhaphiophobia broadly as the ‘abnormal fear of failure,’ but it takes many nuanced forms. It can be seen in the pursuit of relationships, especially first dates. It sometimes rears its head in job interviews and requests for raises or promotions. It may prove the bane of academic pursuits. And in the entrepreneurial world, its presence can render one a hopeless fundraiser, a useless solicitor, or a wholly inept seller of Girl Scout cookies or encyclopedias.

In more serious cases, it’s a self-fulfilling prophesy. Those afflicted can be insecure, less-assertive, and easily manipulated due to the pathological desire to please and avoid conflict. The feared failure is, in fact, the usual outcome. Consequently, severe kakorrhaphiophobia can be crippling regarding even simple life activities.

I suffer, but in my case, it’s nothing that serious; it’s more an annoyance, stemming from my intense dislike of retail negotiating – haggling or bartering, if you will – and the desire to avoid looking foolish and being duped in the process. As a matter of fact, the only such ‘negotiating’ I enjoy is that of Priceline.com or eBay’s ‘Make an Offer,’ probably because they’re anonymous and done online – with no face-saving needed in such a venue.

I am the sort who detests buying new cars, making offers directly to owners at estate sales, or visiting native bazaars in Third World countries. I just want to learn the cost and then figure out if I can afford the item or not. I’ve been known to pay the damned price just ‘to make it all go away.’ No theatrics. No gamesmanship. Just the facts, ma’am.

My late father, who enjoyed what I deem tortuous, is spinning in his grave. Thus, imagine my chagrin at feeling as though I wear a sign, visible to all but me, that boldly proclaims, ‘Easy Mark.’

Case in point: my second child recently turned 18, and I promised her a father-daughter trip somewhere as a belated celebration. She was excited for a long weekend jaunt to NYC, complete with a Broadway show and all of the usual tourist activities.

Then she dropped the bomb: “I want to look for some knock-off designer stuff!”

I could see it coming.

The recent Saturday afternoon in question found the two of us near Mulberry and Canal Streets in lower Manhattan. We enjoyed a delicious sushi lunch and then spent time wandering up and down the avenues looking at the exotic wares, tourist schlock, and – more interesting for me as a psychiatrist – the humanity flocking the area. But paradoxically, there wasn’t a single brand-name rip-off to be seen anywhere.

I’ve spent time in Italy in years past, and I recall the Senegalese street merchants in both Florence and Rome with their counterfeit goods spread on the sidewalk on blankets (to make it easier to pack up and depart quickly when lookouts announced the approach of the Carabinieri). These hucksters were totally out-in-the-open until the cops arrived. One didn’t have to go looking in Italy, as they always found you. In droves.

But apparently that’s not so in this part of NYC. Everyone appeared – dare I say? – above-board.

I don’t consider myself naïve re: human nature, especially given two decades in penal and related forensic circles. But it took my college-age daughter – who had never been to Manhattan before – to opine the obvious:

“Maybe we have to ask someone for it?”

That seems reasonable in retrospect, but I was still remembering Italy and didn’t think any New York shopkeepers would say, “What’s that? You want some of my illegal stuff? Well, right this way….”

Nevertheless, my daughter boldly approached the closest merchant while I hung back. She asked him something. His eyes darted around. He answered her. I couldn’t hear their words, but he gestured for her to follow him. I quickly hurried to catch up, not wanting to lose her in the labyrinthine alleyways as she disappeared from sight.

The three of us snaked our way through the narrow streets for several blocks and then entered a second shop, at which time words were exchanged in a hushed foreign tongue. Quickly a large laminated card was produced. It was folded in half lengthwise and had pictures on it. From a few yards’ distance, it looked like a restaurant menu, while on closer examination, it displayed color photos of numerous ‘designer’ goods, all grouped by (purported) manufacturer, and all fake as a $3 bill.

Vuitton

Vuitton

Our guide into the seamy underbelly of retail then told us that the items were kept off-site, but we could choose a few and he would go and get them for our examination.

My daughter was delighted with the options, and pointed to two Louis Vuitton handbags. The slippery dude nodded and disappeared out the door. He was gone for at least ten minutes while we cooled our heels. Finally, carrying a non-descript shopping bag, he reappeared and gestured for us to approach. I went to peer inside the bag and lift out the contents, but he quickly grasped my arm and pulled me closer behind the counter – apparently he thought the bag was still visible from the door and he didn’t want passers-by to see what was being shown.

Inside were two lovely Vuitton-looking bags. They were surprisingly well-constructed. The metal grommets and small bits of hardware were heavy and nicely formed. The interior was lined with fabric and leather of the appropriate style, and all of the trademarks were in place. The bags were wrapped in Vuitton tissue. Even the paper tags that were attached to each item were written in French and looked entirely correct.

My spawn didn’t appear disturbed by potential ethical or legal issues in the least. Like a true consumer, she immediately attached to the brown one, at which time I asked the seller the price.

He quoted X. I countered with Y (in cash). He parried with X-$30. I suggested Y+$10. He shook his head gravely and offered X-$40. I caved and said okay. For me, making two counter-offers during a negotiation was about the limit of my tolerance, and besides, the bag appeared of above-average quality and my daughter really liked it. I wasn’t about to quibble (or was it merely my kakorrhaphiophobia kicking in?)

Still, poor girl, she violated the primary tenet of such transactions before the hour was up. Even I knew better than that.

Riding back to our mid-town hotel on the 6-train, we were talking about our afternoon when an Irish couple standing near us overheard the conversation. They gestured to a bag the woman was carrying – a Michael Kors, apparently one recently obtained and of dubious provenance. Broad and knowing smiles were exchanged along with some shouted pleasantries over the background din of screeching rails as we hurtled through the dark tunnels.

And then, as only Europeans and ill-bred Americans can do, they asked the question: “what did you pay for it?”

Before I could deflect, my excited companion blurted out X-$40.

The Irish couple looked surprised and quoted a price almost half of our figure. Granted, theirs was a mere Kors, but the message was unmistakable.

“You were had.”

I am now looking for kakorrhaphiophobic support groups in the area.

– – – – – –

Predictably, my youngest daughter, Anna Maria, decided that she, too, wanted to go to NYC to experience the Big Apple… and find some knock-off designer haute couture and accessories. To be fair, we headed to Manhattan this weekend past to have a three-day stint of Broadway, museums, and support of illegal trademark infringement, two years to the week since my last delve into the dark side.

She worried all the way on the plane: “what if we can’t find anything there? I mean, Suzanne seemed to know where to go, but what if there’s nothing for us to purchase?”

I assured her that, as Newcastle is to coals and Eskimos are to ice cubes, we would find that for which she was looking.

We landed at LaGuardia, took a shuttle to our hotel in Times Square, and then hailed a taxi to Canal Street to get some good Chinese food for lunch and scratch AM’s itch.

As we were disembarking from the cab, I turned to pay the driver, and an elderly Asian woman approached AM and said, “you like Chanel?”

AM turned to me with a look both incredulous and confused.

“Talk to her.”

“Do you have any Louis Vuitton?”

“Of course.”

Photographs were produced on the street corner before I had even completed tipping our cabbie. A purse was selected, and out of a doorway materialized the product, wrapped naturellement in plain brown paper.

AM was delighted. But Suzanne was annoyed when she heard of this later.

“I had to work hard to find mine. AM didn’t have to do anything.”

I guess business is slow in Chinatown these days.

[Have an idea for a post topic? Want to be considered for a guest-author slot? Or better, perhaps you’d like to become a day-sponsor of this blog, and reach thousands of subscribers and Facebook fans? If so, please contact the Alienist at vadocdoc@outlook.com]

[Copyright 2013 @ The Alienist’s Compendium]

There’s No Such Thing

When attending on a modestly-sized, community-based, high-volume psychiatric crisis unit, it isn’t always possible to immediately access the full-spectrum of diagnostic resources that are available at the big tertiary centers. For example, if a patient is admitted to a large university inpatient ward and shows signs of forgetfulness, a battery of neuropsychological testing can be readily ordered as a first step to see if, in fact, the patient is suffering from measurable cognitive decline, and if so, to determine the best course of action. The academic centers, because of their focus on education and training, are quick to do ‘the million dollar work-up,’ and many patients who probably don’t need it are nevertheless blessed with the attention of numerous mental health sub-specialists.

But if you are in a small town, short-staffed, and have no neuropsychologist on your treatment team, you may have to rely on simple screening tools that can be administered at bedside; only if there persists evidence of cognitive impairment on such screenings would you then make the (sometimes outside) referrals to further delineate what is ongoing.

The Mini Mental Status Exam (MMSE) is a relatively quick 30-point questionnaire that examines cognitive facets such as short term memory, word recall, object identification, and simple task performance. But if you’re backed-up with six admissions, the ten minutes to perform a MMSE on each subject means an hour of extra work in your already chaotic day.

You’re blessed if you have a medical student or resident to do an MMSE for you, but if you don’t, you need the simplest basic memory/ concentration screening possible.

Just ask the patient where they are. Ask the day, date, month, year, and season. Ask the most recent holiday. And ask who is the U.S. President. No, this isn’t the most sensitive tool, but a person with delirium or dementia will usually stumble, and throw up the requisite red flag indicating the need for referral for more detailed examination.

In this current election cycle, though, I’ve added for fun one add’n question of my own design: name any one person who is running for President (recall at one point, there were more than 16 declared candidates between the two parties). For all but the truly addled, it’s nigh impossible to live in America of 2016 and not be aware, even in passing, that primaries and caucuses are brewing.

In asking this specific question of hundreds of patients with every imaginable mental disorder over the past six months, I’ve observed a very interesting phenom.

Young. Old. All races. Every level of education. Both genders. Psychotic. Neurotic. Organic. On Rx or off. I hear it every day.

“Trump”

Now, there are variations. Sometimes it’s just his surname. Other times, unmistakable descriptors such as “the crazy guy with all the money, the fake tan, and the hair,” or “that dude who thinks the Mexicans are going to pay for a wall.” But there’s no doubt whom they mean.

Even the ones whom I suspected had early dementia answered as the rest.

A couple of times, I thought I had uncovered a heretofore unheard reply, only to have my hopes dashed at the very end with a compound answer:

“Rubio… and then there’s that guy Trump.”

“Christie… and that rich bastard with the Atlantic City casino.”

“Bernie… and that slick New York billionaire with the big mouth.”

“Cruz… boy I wish he’d put the Donald in his place.”

Only once – ONCE – in the past months did someone say “Hillary.” And then stop. I must have appeared expectant (“and…?”) as the patient looked at me quizzically, breaking my train of thought and resulting in the fumbling of papers.

My point in all of this? Probably nothing. And come November 2016 it’ll be back to the simple vanilla questions. But in the meantime, I can’t help but appreciate the late great P.T. Barnum’s old saw that “there’s NO such thing as bad publicity.”

[Have an idea for a post topic? Want to be considered for a guest-author slot? Or better, perhaps you’d like to become a day-sponsor of this blog, and reach thousands of subscribers and Facebook fans? If so, please contact the Alienist at vadocdoc@outlook.com]

[Copyright 2013 @ The Alienist’s Compendium]

[from the medical records dept] Sanctioned Theft

[I’m engaged in a segue to a new job and state, which hopefully explains the relative dearth of fresh material recently. In the meanwhile, this post, from early 2014, remains one of my favorites]

As a psychiatric resident in the late 1980s, I didn’t sleep much (at least for the first couple of years), my diet consisted of carry-out or unhealthy hospital fare, and I was paid a pittance. This was the expected rite-of-passage through medical specialty training. But because of the hardships, seemingly minor things took on great significance: a girlfriend who would cook for you, a freebie from a drug rep, an afternoon of total peace and quiet – all are lovely, but all are even more lovely for those who feel so deprived.

thank you, Mastercard

thank you, Mastercard

Which is why taking blatant advantage of our chairman’s credit card was so much darned fun.

In the autumn of each year, we would host senior medical students from around the country who were looking for places at which to do their post-graduate residencies. These were important visits in the eyes of program faculty everywhere. If potential applicants enjoyed their visits, they were more likely to rank the program highly on their ‘match list.’ If the visit were a disaster, though, the program would get ranked lowly, or not at all. This directly effected the quality of the incoming class at every residency program in the country. Thus, heads of departments of all specialties everywhere wanted to see happy visitors at the end of the day.

Enter the credit card lunch scam.

At UVa, we had potential applicants come to the medical center on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays during ‘the season,’ which stretched from September through early December. A sign-up sheet would be posted near our on-call room for those residents who were interested in going to lunch with the visitors on any given day. Because the season stretched for more than three months, and there were several designated days per week, it was not uncommon to host relatively small groups of visitors – three constituted a busy day, and more often than not there might only be one potential applicant visiting.

But for that one visitor? Many times half-a-dozen or more residents would sign up to take her to lunch. I recall once that there was a single interested party… and thirteen residents going to eat.

And as we were taking said prospective applicant out to eat, the chairman’s secretary always handed over the gold MasterCard and told us to bring back the receipt. That was it. No other instructions. No limits. No preferred restaurant list. Just go and enjoy.

So naturally we were cost-conscious and went to modest restaurants. Not.

It was during one of these junkets that I first sampled escargot. Seafood bisque was ordered around the table more often than not – often with seconds. Can’t decide on which appetizers to order? Heck, get them all. And while I don’t recall any ‘Surf and Turf,’ that wasn’t because we couldn’t have done so – it was because the restaurants in town didn’t serve such on their lunch menus.

Hundreds of dollars later, we’d return to the secretary that well-worn credit card, only to repeat the sanctioned theft later in the week.

We thought we were pulling the wool over our chairman’s eyes, and marveled that he didn’t put a stop to it when he saw the bills. But he never did.

Actually, I realized much later that we were doing his bidding without knowing it.

Happy well-fed residents put across the best faces possible for potential applicants. Smiles and laughter were all around. I know that research grants and faculty-to-resident ratios are important, but when those same applicants were later sitting at their homes, finalizing their match lists, they remembered how contented were the residents at the various programs and not necessarily how many papers were published by a particular medical center.

Thus, UVa always had a bumper crop of excellent residents back then. And I think that the chairman’s credit card and our ‘abuse’ of same were in no small part responsible.

[Have an idea for a post topic? Want to be considered for a guest-author slot? Or better, perhaps you’d like to become a day-sponsor of this blog, and reach thousands of subscribers and Facebook fans? If so, please contact the Alienist at vadocdoc@outlook.com]

[Copyright 2013 @ The Alienist’s Compendium]