"Only dull people are brilliant at breakfast"
-Oscar Wilde
Brilliant at Breakfast title banner "The liberal soul shall be made fat, and he that watereth, shall be watered also himself."
-- Proverbs 11:25
"...you have a choice: be a fighting liberal or sit quietly. I know what I am, what are you?" -- Steve Gilliard, 1964 - 2007

"For straight up monster-stomping goodness, nothing makes smoke shoot out my ears like Brilliant@Breakfast" -- Tata

"...the best bleacher bum since Pete Axthelm" -- Randy K.

"I came here to chew bubblegum and kick ass. And I'm all out of bubblegum." -- "Rowdy" Roddy Piper (1954-2015), They Live
Thursday, October 01, 2015

The Man Who Poisoned America
     The man who supposedly apologized to the relatives of some of the nine victims of his tainted peanuts seemed at stark odds with the executive who'd fired off an email to a manager alerting him to salmonella contamination, "Just ship it."
     Unmoved, Federal Judge W. Louis Sands, a Clinton appointee, sentenced Stewart Parnell to 28 years in prison for knowingly sending out tainted food products, obstructing the investigation and falsifying evidence (conspiracy). In other words, this sentencing, which was 775 fewer years than the judge who'd found him guilty wanted, was nonetheless the toughest one ever handed down to a major executive in a food borne illness and death case.
     Stewart's poison would kill at least nine people, sicken 714 others (half of them children), which doesn't include how many pets were killed or sickened, across 46 states. His peanut butter paste was sold by his brother to Kellogg's, which used it in snack crackers and his product even found its way on airplanes, meaning his salmonella could've been exported to countless other countries, which could've theoretically produced a pandemic. Indeed, when the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta has to calculate the human carnage of your greed, you know you've taken a wrong turn around the bend.
     What's getting less press is his former QA manager, Mary Wilkerson, who got a surprisingly light sentence of just five years for obstruction.
     Let's focus on that for a minute, shall we?
     As some of you may recall from my prior comments and posts from time to time, just prior to and after 9/11 I used to be a QC inspector for an automotive/aerospace/aeronautics firm. We made silicon rubber gaskets, seals, hoses and all kinds of applications for silicon rubber. My job as the only non-dedicated QC inspector in the lab was to do all the day-to-day inspections that didn't require specialized and certified expertise (such as GE's aircraft engine parts, which required DSQR certification and a week's worth of classes).
     This required I know the rudiments of good quality control, which is a whole 'nuther animal from Quality Assurance (but more on that later). Part of a good skill set from a QC inspector is knowing when to ignore executive management when they pressure you to rubber stamp CoCs (Certificates of Compliance). This usually comes toward the end of the month (the last Friday). The sooner we ship something out, the sooner they can invoice it. The sooner they invoice it, the sooner they can grab their commissions and bonuses.
     Each CoC is supposed to be validated by the inspector's name or initials as well as their inspector number. Assuming the Peanut Corporation of America was ISO-certified, this would've been mandated. No one likes to fall on their own sword but this is nonetheless an unspoken rule in quality control/assurance. Sometimes, when you're given an order by a President and CEO of a corporation that's a leader in the field, you have to defy orders when human lives are at stake.
     Now, I'm going to get a bit into the difference between QA and QC. QC is the art of saying, "You didn't do this right." QA is the art of saying, "You're not doing this right." The difference is something called SPC, or Statistical Process Control. I'm not going to bore you with the science and mathematics involved in SPC but let's just say QA is a much safer and cost-effective way to inspect your product because it requires you remove at least one person in your lab and put them on the production line.
     From a purely cost-effective standpoint, QA makes sense because if the inspector, during a spot inspection, finds a grievous flaw in the process, s/he has the power to stop the presses. Manpower hours and the cost of raw materials is saved and the inspector doesn't sit on their ass in the lab waiting for the entire order to be filled.
     And with both QA and QC, at times scientific tests and lab results are crucial to making a determination if a product is fit to be shipped. What Mary Wilkerson did probably was either fudge, falsify, switch out or outright bury a lab result that one of her subordinates would've needed to make a wise and informed decision.
     There are several possible reasons why she would've done this. She could've acted to protect her boss or herself or both. Either way the last thing either she or Parnell wanted was for the material to get RMA'd back then have to explain at an executive MRB (Material Review Board) why the initials and inspector number of one of her subordinates got sent out with her blessings along with a ton of tainted food. The MRB is often months after the fact and the fastest way to lose one's job when asked how this could've happened is to point to the CEO and say, "Ask that asshole."
     See how long that CEO and the shareholders will let you stick around after that.
     Now, I could make a case as to how this got by Kellogg's and the other food companies that had bought Parnell's poisoned product but that'll be a post for another day. (I will say, however, that every ISO-certified company is mandated to have incoming QC inspectors whose job it is to test the standards and viability of any product that comes through their shipping bay. Why this was never questioned is a mystery).
     Parnell made his standpoint clear when he sent that terse email to his manager who'd voiced concerns about potential salmonella contamination. When he said, "Just ship it," he'd encapsulated a universe of meaning within those three little words and ten letters. "...or you're fired." It's the kind of unambiguous directive from on high that every QC person understands and dreads, especially when their name and number goes on the bottom of that cert.
     And the fact that PCA had a QA setup makes the sanitary conditions of the plants especially unforgivable. A good QA manager or inspector should be almost preternaturally aware of their work environment, especially in plants where food is produced and/or processed and cleanliness is paramount. Inspectors found evidence of vermin, roaches, bird droppings, mold and a leaky ceiling. In other words, Parnell's plants were the perfect breeding ground for the vigorous cultivation of salmonella.
     That's another fact I'd like to address: From having worked in manufacturing plants much of my life, those of you who also have know that regulatory agencies such as OSHA, FDA, Board of Health etc always, for some perverse reason, announce their inspections ahead of time. It always struck me like telling a batter what pitch you're about to throw him and how fast it'll be. But in advance of such visits, nervous managers always hand out the goggles and any other form of PPE, appropriate and mandatory signage and anything else that'll make the inspector happy.
     We're getting no indication of that. Even if only to pass a health inspection, you'd think PCA would've cleaned the place but they didn't think that was important. Maybe Parnell had thought hiring a roofer for a day or two to fix a leaky roof or devoting a person to do janitor duty (I get the impression they didn't have a janitor, since they were a company employing just 90 people) was a drain on the bottom line.
     In the end, Mary Wilkerson set herself the impossible task of trying to shield herself and/or her boss from scrutiny and prosecution. The product was tainted with salmonella. At that point, when your lab results confirm that, the QA game gets real simple, much simpler than mine ever was. Whereas we had the option of scrapping or reworking a certain defective product or arriving at some sort of other corrective action, their choices were simpler: Throw out the batch and clean the shit up off the floor that had caused it. But she did not think to do this. If she had fallen on her sword or at least made some attempt to report Parnell to the proper agencies, nine people wouldn't be rotting in their coffins right now.
     But corporate profits will always win out over human lives.
     We need to fund the programs that are geared toward strengthening food regulatory agencies. We need to invest the FDA and the USDA with recall powers instead of making recalls a purely voluntary function.
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Friday, June 26, 2015

We are privileged to be alive today
Posted by Jill | 8:57 PM
In our all-too-short lives, we are lucky if we have the privilege to be present for a moment in our history that shows us at our best. There aren't many of them, but today is one. Oh, there is ugliness, to be sure, and there will be more in the coming days. But today we get to enjoy an America where for hopefully more than one brief and shining moment, love is truly in the air.

I was too young to remember the signing of the Civil Rights Act.  Most of the Momentous Moments during my lifespan have been tragedies:  The Kennedy assassinations.  The murder of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Various indelible photographs from the Vietnam War.  The resignation of Richard M. Nixon.  9/11.  I can only recall three Momentous Moments in our nation during my life when I really felt, to quote Michelle Obama, proud of my country.  And Barack Hussein Obama was part of all three of them.  They are the day he was nominated by his party for the presidency, the day I woke up and this country had actually elected a black guy named Barack Hussein Obama, and today.

In fairness, there's another guy who was part of all three of them, and as tweeted by his wife, was running around today, just a few weeks after burying his son, wearing a rainbow flag like a cape and high-fiving everyone:

I mention Joe Biden because back in 2012, he threw down the gauntlet about gay marriage, which hastened Obama's own "evolution" on the subject, thus laying the groundwork for a united White House advocacy of civil rights for ALL Americans.  I'm not mentioning Biden to try to get a white guy into this, but let's give credit where it's due.

For six years, Barack Obama has been the Cautious president -- too willing to try to "reach across the aisle", to compromise with people who loathe his very existence, old Confederates and Christofascists for whom the idea of a black man living in the White House whips them into a rage.  And I'm just talking about Congress, never mind people like Dylann Roof, who apparently decided that a girl he liked deciding to date a black man meant he should start a race war, going into a church and killing nine people in cold blood who were guilty of nothing more than inviting him to pray with them.

In the last few weeks, we've seen the President Badass that many of us wished for for the last six years finally come out.  He's spoken eloquently about the human right to affordable health care, with which six members of the Supreme Court agreed yesterday.  He's spoken eloquently about the right to marry, with which five members of the Court agreed today.  And he capped off this incredible week with a eulogy for State Senator and Reverend Clementa Pinckney that was loving, admiring, respectful, but yes, also angry -- angry at a country that has people -- and politicians in a major party --  in it who still believe that people should be eliminated because of the color of their skin.  Angry at a country in which 150 years after the Civil War ended, vast swaths of the south (and some people who should know better) still don't see the Confederate flag as the symbol of bigotry and racism that is is.  Some still believe in the secessonist dream, of a world in which black people can be owned by white people and treated as chattel (or worse).  He couched this anger in terms of grace -- the grace that brought black and white together today in Charleston, South Carolina to mourn the loss of nine people who just wanted to worship together in praise of their deity by a young man who spent his adolescence awash in the wingnut noise machine that legitimized the hate that glowed inside him until it erupted because he thought he had the right to "own" a girl he liked because of white privilege.

We've known for years that Obama does some damn fine speechifyin'.  We've also know that his eloquence is often followed by disappointment, as he continues to try mightily to straddle the two worlds in which he has spent his life, as parts of this nation underwent a kind of collective emotional breakdown around him as a result of his election.  But not today.

It's been quite a week in this country -- one which began in mourning and ended in celebration.  It began in mourning for the nine people who followed in the footprints of the four young girls who died in September 1963 simply because they were black -- casualties of bigotry and small-mindedness.  It ended with an affirmation that the best part of us is the part that loves; that loves so deeply that we simply cannot imagine our lives without the other person who joins with us to form a unit called "us" that lives in conjunction with the units called "me" and "you".  It ended with an affirmation -- and a shot across the bow to the bigots and the closet cases who hide from themselves behind a cloak of religion -- that they no longer run things; that their days are numbered.  This is OUR time -- time for those of us who strive to embrace our better selves, not our worst.  

I join with my LGBT brothers and sisters today -- with Gabriel and Dennis and Jay and  "S." and Billy and Maggie and Margot and Bob and Dominick and so many others -- to celebrate and to say "Mazel Tov!"

And to say thanks to America for electing Barack Hussein Obama, who appointed Justices named Kagan and Sotomayor to join with Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Stephen Breyer to confirm what should always have been obvious to everyone.  And to Justice Anthony Kennedy, who somehow managed to find his own better nature.

It is truly a wondrous day.  Some might call what we experienced today "grace."

We do not know whether the killer of Reverend Pinckney and eight others knew all of this history.  But he surely sensed the meaning of his violent act.  It was an act that drew on a long history of bombs and arson and shots fired at churches, not random, but as a means of control, a way to terrorize and oppress.  (Applause.)  An act that he imagined would incite fear and recrimination; violence and suspicion.  An act that he presumed would deepen divisions that trace back to our nation’s original sin.
Oh, but God works in mysterious ways.  (Applause.)  God has different ideas.  (Applause.)  
He didn’t know he was being used by God.  (Applause.)  Blinded by hatred, the alleged killer could not see the grace surrounding Reverend Pinckney and that Bible study group -- the light of love that shone as they opened the church doors and invited a stranger to join in their prayer circle.  The alleged killer could have never anticipated the way the families of the fallen would respond when they saw him in court -- in the midst of unspeakable grief, with words of forgiveness.  He couldn’t imagine that.  (Applause.)  
The alleged killer could not imagine how the city of Charleston, under the good and wise leadership of Mayor Riley -- (applause) -- how the state of South Carolina, how the United States of America would respond -- not merely with revulsion at his evil act, but with big-hearted generosity and, more importantly, with a thoughtful introspection and self-examination that we so rarely see in public life.
Blinded by hatred, he failed to comprehend what Reverend Pinckney so well understood -- the power of God’s grace.  (Applause.)  
This whole week, I’ve been reflecting on this idea of grace. (Applause.)  The grace of the families who lost loved ones.  The grace that Reverend Pinckney would preach about in his sermons.  The grace described in one of my favorite hymnals -- the one we all know:  Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.  (Applause.)  I once was lost, but now I’m found; was blind but now I see.  (Applause.)  
According to the Christian tradition, grace is not earned.  Grace is not merited.  It’s not something we deserve.  Rather, grace is the free and benevolent favor of God -- (applause) -- as manifested in the salvation of sinners and the bestowal of blessings.  Grace.  
As a nation, out of this terrible tragedy, God has visited grace upon us, for he has allowed us to see where we’ve been blind.  (Applause.)  He has given us the chance, where we’ve been lost, to find our best selves.  (Applause.)  We may not have earned it, this grace, with our rancor and complacency, and short-sightedness and fear of each other -- but we got it all the same.  He gave it to us anyway.  He’s once more given us grace.  But it is up to us now to make the most of it, to receive it with gratitude, and to prove ourselves worthy of this gift.

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Saturday, June 13, 2015

The Prodigal Blogger Stops By
Posted by Jill | 7:58 PM
Hello, Seekers!

It's been quite a long time since Your Humble Hostess has written on this here blog.  If the truth be told, I have had little inclination to write about the things I used to.  Grief is exhausting, and leaves little room in the soul for ranting about politics.  It's not that I don't care anymore, it's that I ranted into the wilderness for the better part of a decade, and where did it get us?

Those of you who are my Facebook friends know that I haven't been silent.  But between the Job That Ate My Life, a bad case of Widow Brain that has left me virtually unable to concentrate on the impossible project I've been handed at my job, and the emotional struggle of feeling neither here nor there as I prepare to take a leap of faith, ditch it all, buy health insurance on whatever is left of the health care exchanges after the GOP and Supreme Court get through with them, sell my house, pack up the cats and head south to North Carolina, where frankly, they need my vote desperately.

Shortly after Mr. Brilliant died, I had set up a new blog called Don't Call Me a Widow.  Oh, I was fine, yes indeedy I was.  None of that grief stuff that my mother had done for twelve years for me, nosirree.  I had dinner with friends at restaurants that Mr. B. didn't like.  I cooked things he would never eat.  To be honest, it was a relief for a short time to have it all over with and to not have to be the recipient of someone's frustrated rage at being ill and disappointed.

That lasted about six months.

Two weeks after Mr. B's death, I joined a Meetup for widows and widowers.  I met several very cool women, and professed my I'm-just-fineness.  The woman who runs the group, who lost her husband at 42 from lung cancer, patted me on the back and said, "Oh, honey, you're still numb.  It hasn't hit you yet."

But at about six months, it did.

For lo these twenty months now, I've been going nonstop.  Until recently, when my job role changed and I began reporting to someone in Germany, where they have a workers council and take their 40 hour weeks very seriously, I continued to work 50, 60, 70 hours a week.  I went out.  I had a lot of remodeling done in the house.  I went to Italy with friends.  This spring I went to Prague for work.  I got rid of a ton of stuff, donating and freecycling as much as I could.  Now I'm prepping the house to sell so I can head south.  If I've been given this blank slate on which to write a new start, it can't be in a place where a mere trip to the dentist is full of "We used to buy crumb cake here" and "Remember when we lived here and had parties?" and "Remember how good the chow fun was here?" and just too damn many memories.  I moved to Bergen County, NJ to be with Mr. Brilliant and even though I've been here 32 years, it just doesn't feel like I belong here anymore.

It's not that life is so bad.  It's not even that I'm lonely.  I've always been able to enjoy my own company.  It's just that I've become an impostor in my own life.

I don't know what the future holds.  I'm toying with the idea of writing a book about this whole experience.  I might start a blog about being a Tarheel transplant.  I might finish my Great Sweeping Novel.  Or something else.

I don't know if anyone even still reads this blog, which is kind of sad after all these years.  But things change.  Life changes.  And then we're gone.  The question for me now, not to get all Gandalf on you, is to decide what to do with the time that has been given to me.


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Saturday, March 14, 2015

Good Times at Pottersville, 3/14/15
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Tuesday, February 03, 2015

To Resurrect a Mockingbird
(By American Zen's Mike Flannigan. on loan from Ari.)
     After a 55 year-long silence, Harper Lee is publishing a sequel to her classic To Kill a Mockingbird. From just a purely literary viewpoint, this is huge news. Imagine a new J.D. Salinger novel coming to light about Holden Caulfield 20 years later. That's essentially the premise for Lee's "new" novel, Go Set a Watchman. I say "new" in quotes because, according to Miss Lee's account, Watchman was written first and the flashback chapters about Scout Finch's childhood so captivated Lee's editor that he asked her to expand upon it. So, while Watchman was written first, she and her publisher decided to go with Mockingbird, which was actually a prequel.
     As with Agatha Christie's "final" novel, Curtain, which was written during the London blitz when she was still at the height of her powers (In case she was killed during the Nazi shelling, leaving Hercule Poirot's legacy unfinished), Lee's manuscript then got misplaced and she thought it was lost until her attorney found it last year in a "secure location." (Lesson to authors: Always back up your manuscripts.) Ergo, the long-awaited second Lee novel will come out on July 14th and Harper's publisher (also Harper) will come out with an initial print run of 2,000,000 copies.
     So, this is all good news for book lovers, especially fans of Miss Lee, and is the biggest news in the book business to come out in years. But how relevant will a second Scout/Atticus Finch novel be in 21st century America, especially decades after the undeclared death of what used to be the Civil Rights movement? Indeed, should we care about a new Scout Finch novel or what happens in Maycomb, Alabama 20 years later in the mid 50's when Scout, now a mature woman, returns from New York like a prodigal daughter? Why should a sequel be relevant to a "post-racial" America now boasting an African American president, no need for a Civil Rights movement or Affirmative Action and with a gutted Voting Rights Act of 1965? Why should we greet Go Set a Watchman with anything other than literary curiosity?
     Would it be any more relevant than, say, a sequel to Uncle Tom's Cabin were one to come to light? A new Harriet Beecher Stowe novel continuing the saga would be a literary curiosity but hardly relevant in a nation that abolished slavery 150 years ago with the ratification of the 13th amendment. So, how relevant is Harper Lee and the Finches considering both books were written years before the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts?
     All too much.
     Considering it's one of the most famous stories in modern American fiction, one hardly needs me or anyone to relate the abstracts of a book that's been taught in schools for over half a century. But for the sake of context, I'll give you the throughline:
     A classic Bildungsroman work of fiction, To Kill a Mockingbird features widowed attorney Atticus Finch, father of the protagonist Scout. A black man, Tom Robinson, is accused of raping a young white woman named Mayella Ewell and Finch agrees to defend him. Generally viewed as a model of legal integrity, Finch fights tooth and nail for his client and, despite essentially proving Robinson's lack of guilt, the jury convicts him, anyway. Robinson is then shot and killed as he tries to escape from prison.
     There is some justice in To Kill a Mockingbird (Tom Ewell, father of the raped woman, seeks revenge despite the conviction and "fell on his own knife" as the Sheriff tells Finch) but not much. The epitome of the Southern Gothic novel, one reminiscent of Tennessee Williams and Faulkner, Lee's book offers an unflinching look into the "Just Us" system of the Deep South and the unjust persecution and prosecution of innocent African Americans we still see in the present day.
     Bewildered by her father's moral code that made him risk both their lives during those three years in the Great Depression in his defense of an innocent man, Scout returns from the Big Apple and, according to Harper Collins, then tries to understand her father Atticus better. It is important to remember that Miss Lee had written Watchman in the mid 1950s, even before I was born. It was not intended to be a period novel or a snapshot into a bygone age yet that is the prism with which we necessarily need to view it.
     Yet, while Lee's masterpiece  is a brutally honest scrutiny of her small Alabama hometown (many of the characters are based on her relatives and neighbors), the United States, particularly the Deep South, has, if anything, gotten even uglier. Black males, most famously the Scottsboro Boys and 14 year-old Emmett Till (who was murdered the same year Watchman was drafted), were commonly charged, convicted or outright lynched over alleged crimes to white women. Jurors tended to be all white and prosecutors racists if not secretly Klansmen.
     But the persistent racism we're seeing rearing its pointy head since the election of Barack Obama in 2008 goes several steps further than even Lee's pitiless probity ever envisioned or anticipated. With the street executions of Michael Brown, Oscar Grant, Amadou Diallo, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin and all too many others, juries and grand juries refuse to indict policemen or police groupies like George Zimmerman. And instead of being charged with crimes they didn't commit, more and more innocent black males are being charged with crimes and even bad behavior when they weren't even the defendants (usually because they were dead).
     Instead of ropes, we're now using strings of binary on Twitter, Facebook and blogs to lynch black males (and, in some cases, even black women) long after they've been laid in their graves or sent to prison. Meanwhile, we're also treated to the news of white privileged males getting off scot free after killing four people in a stolen vehicle while under the influence with the bottomlessly absurd defense of "Affluenza."
     Scout Finch may return to her southern roots mystified by her heroic father's motives for risking everything to save a man he never knew in the real world as well as by the twisted ugliness of those roots. But she'd be even more mystified by a 21st century United States that's actually come full circle and, in some ways, has gotten even more racist and vicious than the Alabama of the Great Depression. So, yes, Go Set a Watchman may yet teach us some lessons in racial harmony, however unheeded, six decades after Lee had written it.
     You go, old girl.
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Saturday, January 31, 2015

Good Times at Pottersville, 1/31/15

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Friday, January 30, 2015

Top 10 Reasons Why Mitt Romney Won't Run for President in 2016
     Perennial Republican contender Mitt Romney has recently decided that he will not seek the presidency for a third time in 2016. His reason, as he told potential investors supporters in a conference call was, "I’ve decided it is best to give other leaders in the [Republican] Party the opportunity to become our next nominee." Romney's departure from the field frees up a lot of cash and delegates while at the same time not supporting the heir apparent to the Republican nomination, Jeb Bush. But Mr. Romney told his supporters there were other reasons for withdrawing his name from consideration. What were they?

  • 10) Slowly dawning realization that being unemployed isn't so tough, after all.
  • 9) Losing $10,000 bet that he was more unpopular than HIV in the Castro.
  • 8) Skull session with Jeb Bush in Salt Lake City earlier this month ended with Karl Rove slipping a length of piano wire in his luggage. 
  • 7) Unwillingness to stand more of Ann's constant notes in his lunches such as, "Every day you don't kill a 43 percenter is like a day without sunshine."
  • 6) Last Christmas Eve was haunted by three ghosts of Seamus, John Lauber and the IRS Commissioner.
  • 5) Presidential campaign would've conflicted with preplanned barbeque with Joseph Smith in the Kolob star system.
  • 4) Became suspicious when his most ardent backers turned out to be Hillary Clinton voters.
  • 3) Discovered Sarah Palin wanted to be his running mate.
  • 2) Josh's announcement he couldn't get a good price on all the Diebold voting machines necessary to ensure a Romney victory, which would've been virtually all of them.
  • 1) Apparently, the other 53% of the electorate only make up 1%.
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