John Wilcock column header


The Column of Lasting Insignificance: May 22, 2010

John Wilcock

“When I was in college it was understood that argument ad Hitlerum was no argument at all. In other words, any time you resorted to comparison to Hitler, or otherwise brought Hitler into the discussion, everyone knew you had run out of anything useful to say and the conversation moved on. I wish more people in the U.S. had the benefit of that sort of education.”
letter from Erin Miles, Oakland, CA, in Extra

ONLY A FEW  COUNTRIES appreciate what a valuable resource the post office is, but England and America are not among them. Both countries are under the sad misapprehension that this nationwide network, with branches in even the smallest places, must pay for itself by just delivering mail. And as e-mail undermines this function, the response has been to diminish the network which, in turn, results in fewer customers. Not a brilliant business model.

In Britain, scores of tiny villages without even a bus route, no longer have a pub, a grocery store, a bank, or branch library; why couldn’t the post office be buttressed to house any or all of these functions? Until a few years ago, Britain’s Post Office Savings Bank was a godsend to poor people who didn’t trust banks (boy, were they right!) and that system worked wonderfully. It still does in Japan where millions of people who bank at local post offices have made Japan Post what the Wall Street Journal claims is “the world’s largest financial institution by assets with $3.3 trillion on its balance sheets.”

The U.S. post office savings network had $3bn in assets — the equivalent of $30bn today — when it was abolished in 1960.

 “When Congress created the postal savings system nearly a century ago, one of the goals was to encourage savings among the large number of low-income immigrants,” says the New America Foundation’s Michael Lind. “A new system would help today’s immigrants as well as the native poor. Banks are not interested in people with so little money, many of whom are preyed upon by payday lenders and credit card companies.”

But savings is only one way this unrivaled network could be used. A model could be the highly efficient Swiss Post, deep into digital age data networks, and whose vp Frank Marthaler says: “We believe we are in the communications business, not just in the physical letter-mail business.”

At a time when 35% of Americans and 50% of rural residents still have no broadband Internet access at home, reports the Nation, the Postal Service remains universal. Its 596,000 career employees travel more than four million miles to deliver more than half a billion pieces of mail each day. “Americans do not often talk about the Postal Service as a crucial underpinning of the democratic infrastructure, but we should”.

Calling USPS “a national treasure that provides an immense and irreplaceable public service,” the magazine charges that the people who currently run it “are so fixated on the bottom line they cannot see the public good…. in this indispensable service.”

WHO COULD POSSIBLY not be a fervent admirer of Doctors Without Borders whose members are often the first to arrive at any international disaster? Titled “Hospital in a Hurry,” Popular Mechanics showed one of its typical 100-bed facilities, neatly packed into a 64,000 square foot site in Haiti, water and power supply units, a staff of 30 working in shifts around the clock, and a sketch of the tents which have no rigid parts and are air-inflated. (Become a Field Partner of DWB by donating monthly).

ONE WAY TO END what he describes as the “partisan rancor” that has paralyzed Washington, is to rearrange where Congressmen sit. So writes Joe Reeder, who claims that today’s segregated seating arrangements “shelters our representatives from opposing points of view, reduces the need for common courtesy, reinforces the worst tendencies of a two-party system and undermines efforts at cooperation.” Because the intense animosity is aggravated by the physical separation, he suggests in the AARP Bulletin,  that one way to defuse the wrangling would be to seat members alphabetically, by name or state, and periodically rotate them.

“There is no unified theory for Lost, nor do we think there should be…. The great mysteries of life can’t be addressed. We just have to tell a good story and let the chips fall where they may. We don’t know whether the resolution between the two timelines is going to make people say ‘Oh, that’s cool’ or ‘Fuck those guys, they belly-flopped at the end’ But the fact that we’re nervous about it and that we’re actually attempting it –that is what we had to do. We had to try to make the dive.”
Co-producer Carlton Cuse in Wired, as the mystifying six-season TV serial draws to a close

MATCHLESS MELLOW MERLOT was so over-produced in the last decade that it was ridiculed in the wine-tour movie Sideways after which consumption dropped dramatically. But some of Napa Valley’s top winemakers are starting to return to the fruity grape, reports Fortune, with drinkers seeking a break from the ubiquitous Cabernet; one winery’s sales are up 300%. “Merlot was just so uncool for so long,” says Brian Smith, director of a NYC wine bar. “Now it’s cool again.”

AT ONE TIME considered potential presidential timbre, New York governor Eliot Spitzer flamed out spectacularly after his involvement with high-priced prostitutes became public knowledge in 2007. Since then he has written a twice-monthly column for Slate and taught class at New York City College, but there are doubtless more ambitious plans in his future writes Peter Elkind in Rough Justice. “I love politics,” Spitzer told the author, “I never said I would never consider running for office again.”

With gold prices above $1,200 an ounce, mom-and-pop mines once abandoned, are reopening all over the country but there are many disappointments. “They buy picks or pans, camp out near the river, but few last more than two weeks,” says Bob Schoose, mayor of the appropriately-named Arizona ghost town of Goldfield where he owns two mines of his own. In 1892, a strike which produced $3m of ore expanded the community’s population to 4,000, but — almost deserted today — the tiny town survives on the tourists who come to visit the myth-encrusted Superstition Mountains nearby.

IN THE NEAR FUTURE tiny robots may be projected through our intestines to examine parts of the body that until now have necessitated invasive surgery. With further advances in miniaturization, says the New Scientist, “opportunities grow for getting medical devices inside the body in novel ways.” Already tested is a camera inside a capsule tiny enough to be swallowed, and more sophisticated versions are being developed that can both release drugs and take samples. So-called “keyhole surgery” already allows surgeons to sit at a control desk and manipulate instruments from far away with greater precision (and less hand tremors) than can be achieved alongside the patient.

MOST BUSINESS WRITING is not only boring but “numbingly banal,” writes Jason Fried who asks: “Who writes this stuff? Worse, who reads it and approves it? What does it say when tens of thousands of companies are saying the same things about themselves?” He lists such phrases as full-service solutions and provider of value-added services as the kind of clichés that make every company sound like every other and he blames years of language dilution for turning “the powerful descriptive sentence into an empty vessel (of) vapid expressions.” Some companies (he writes in Inc.) know how to make their pitch interesting, but those that don’t should hire a good writer. “But make sure that writer truly understands your business. Remember, it’s not about telling a story; it’s about telling a true story well.”

WHAT’S KNOWN AS “peak water” is the term that describes when the demand for water outstrips the supply, and it’s a situation that the world is rapidly approaching. That’s the warning from Alexander Bell who forecasts that it will inevitably be followed by “social instability and conflict.” In the New Statesman, he predicts that Yemen will be the first country to literally run out of water; Pakistan and Cyprus are close behind. “Soon there will be floods of people, too. Should we fail to solve our water problems people will begin moving in great waves from country to country, searching for the one commodity that is essential to life.” How long will it be before the world realizes that the only eventual solution is to purify the oceans?

THE WILCOCK WEB: Hypocrisy or democracy? They’re the same thing when Afghanistan’s corrupt Hamad Karzai is feted in Washington…..One million copies of Sarah Palin’s second book, America by Heart, will be published in November….And former hotshot police chief (of NYC and LA) James Bratton might be the next FBI chief when Robert Mueller’s term expires in September….… Cuba may legalize prostitution next year….. Annie Haven packages dried cow manure on her farm in San Luis Obistro and sells it in small bags online to gardeners who mix it with water to make their own manure….What do all those overpaid Pentagon generals actually do?…… The mayor of Mogliano in Italy has erected highway signs warning motorists not to be distracted by the growing number of hookers who now line the town’s streets at night…..Two months after the publication of the Rev. Gabriele Amorth’s book Memoirs of an Exorcist declaiming “the smoke of Satan in the holy rooms,” an anonymous priest told Newsmax: ”There’s a terrible persecution of the clergy going on”….. The Mattel company is making dolls of four characters from the TV series Mad Men….If so many huge U.S. corporations don’t pay taxes why on earth should anybody else?……Writing in the London Times, columnist Camilla Cavendish says Britain’s politics would be greatly improved if they copied America. “Right now we have the worst of both worlds: a quasi-presidential system but without the checks and balances of American politics”…..After declaring more than half of its 22million population to be overweight, Romania is planning to tax junk food as soon as it decides how to define it Former president Jimmy Carter says he never won an argument with his wife Rosalynn, “and the only times I thought I had, I found out that the argument wasn’t over yet”…. A  $4.5m federal grant is helping a Massachusetts firm’s quest to create a cellulose substitute for corn currently diverted to make biofuels,….Sears is inviting discarded car dealers to reopen as Sears Auto Centers…. NYC’s Dept. for the Aging is promoting in four languages a free  game that can be played single or in groups to teach old people about financial scams (…”If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” — Albert Einstein (1879-1955)