What We All Know

I’m old enough to remember when Charles Whitman hauled a footlocker full of guns and ammunition up to the top of the University of Texas tower and started shooting people. It was the summer of 1966, and part of the horror — and fascination for my 12-year-old self, to be honest — was that the mass murder Whitman carried out was unique. Nothing quite like it had happened in many years, and it would be years before we saw anything similar.

But now?

So many massacres have happened so frequently over so many years that the details now blur and each episode of death and destruction brings to mind others that aren’t so far in the past. A massacre at a Texas school? Without thinking too hard about it, several other school massacres come to mind: Newtown, Connecticut; Littleton, Colorado; Stockton, California; Parkland, Florida. To name just a few.

We’ve gotten used to that — the sudden appearance of the teenager or 20-something bent on slaughter, the death, the litany of thoughts and prayers, the outrage and vows of action. And we wait for the next killer to make his entrance. (I started trying to write this the evening of the white racist 18-year-old’s terror attack on the supermarket in Buffalo. Even though it is just a matter of time before the “next killer makes his entrance,” I’m stunned at how quickly the Texas attack followed the one in New York.)

As a people, if that’s what we can be called, we’ve surrendered to those who insist that their freedom means you accepting the minute-to-minute possibility that anyone you stumble into — on the street, at the store, at work, at school, at church, on the train — can murder you and everyone around you on a whim, for any reason or for no reason at all.

Kate, my wife, went off to spend the day as a substitute teacher this morning. I kissed her goodbye, and when I did, I thought about the possibility that she might not come home later today because someone with a gun had settled on her school as a target. I didn’t say anything, and off she went. The odds are everything will be fine. And that’s exactly what the children, the parents, the teachers and police and everyone else in Uvalde, Texas, thought when they began their routines yesterday morning.

None of this is beyond our capacity to begin changing it. It’s hard to have faith in that notion right now. But would it be so hard, for instance, to ban the sale of assault rifles to people under 21? Or to finally move on a bill to require universal background checks? Will it take a 10-million-parent march on Washington to make those things happen? I don’t know. But one way to ensure that changes like that never occur is to remain silent. And we all still have a voice.

Saturday Rabbit Hole: The $100,000 Bill

The $100,000 gold certificate, printed for only three weeks in 1934-35.
Reverse of U.S. $100,000 note.

The question came up a few mornings ago: What’s the largest denomination currency the U.S. Treasury has ever released? I had vague recall of a $100,000 bill with Woodrow Wilson’s picture on it. Or was it Salmon P. Chase? It was easy to find out.

Per the U.S. Treasure’s Bureau of Engraving and Printing:

“The largest note ever printed by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing was the $100,000 Gold Certificate, Series 1934. These notes were printed from December 18, 1934 through January 9, 1935 and were issued by the Treasurer of the United States to Federal Reserve Banks (FRB) only against an equal amount of gold bullion held by the Treasury. These notes were used for transactions between FRBs and were not circulated among the general public.”

And Salmon P. Chase is on the no-longer-circulated $10,000 bill, if you were wondering.

In any case, I liked the images of the 100-grand note and thought: That’s a quick, easy post I can put up without spending most of an afternoon on it.

Or maybe not.

A second page on the engraving bureau’s site advises that the $100,000 note “cannot be legally held by currency note collectors.”

Is there a rabbit hole I can go down here?

There is. So let’s get to it.

A Smithsonian Institution page on the $100,000 bill also mentions the prohibition on private individuals owning these notes. The page allows public comments, and a few have been left there over the years. The most recent comment is signed by a Richard M. Sales, who said this:

I possess several of these 1934 Gold Certificate Banknotes presented to me personally by former Heads of State and Sultanates. I would like to know the specific legal statute that states I cannot own or sell them. It is my understanding that the 1974 Executive Order issued by President Gerald Ford released the restriction of owning, trading or selling of all gold certificate banknotes issued by the US Bureau of Engraving. Can I sell these publicly or must I redeem the face value from the US Treasury?

Richard M. Sales

Thu, 2021-12-09 10:05

What an intriguing possibility — someone out there in the world who actually has gotten their hands on not just one, but several of these notes.

Following standard rabbit-hole protocol, I pondered that possibility for a few seconds, then googled “Richard M. Sales.” If you do the same — use the quotation marks — you’ll find United States v. Sales, a federal criminal prosecution, near the top of the results.

The case involves a December 2017 wire fraud indictment issued by a federal grand jury in Eugene, Oregon. The indictment alleges Richard M. Sales scammed would-be investors out of $900,000 as part of a scheme that promised as much as 100 percent return on investment within as little as 60 days.

From what source was this incredible river of returns supposed to flow?

“Although Sales’ description of the details of the investment varied,” the indictment says, “generally, the investors were led to believe that Sales possessed the ability to recover hundreds of millions of dollars worth of U.S. Treasury Notes that were located in East Asia and the Pacific.”

And according to the grand jury, Sales assured investors he was well connected:

“Sales represented that he was the ‘Commissaris’ of a secret group comprised of heads of state, world-renowned economists, the Vatican, and others. He claimed the ‘doctrine of our syndicate’ carried the signatures of John F. Kennedy, Pope John Paul VI [sic], Golda Meir, Chang Kai Shek [sic}, Lee Kuan Yew, Queen Victoria and many others.”

Queen Victoria!

Federal agents arrested Sales in Indonesia and brought him back to the United States to answer the charges in early 2018. As the case proceeded, his fanciful claims about his access to heads of state and immeasurable riches raised questions about whether he could assist in his own defense. U.S. District Judge Ann Aiken ordered a competency evaluation, and two M.D.s and a licensed counselor met with the defendant. Aiken’s later opinion summarized their findings:

Both Dr. Truhn and Dr. Guyton diagnosed defendant with delusional disorder, grandiose type. Defendant’s alleged delusions involve his self-reported previous work and life history. In short, defendant told his examiners that over later portion of his life he was involved in high level international diplomacy and humanitarian efforts. He represents that he has met, interacted with, and advised world leaders such as Margaret Thatcher, Mikhail Gorbachev, and Boris Yeltsin among others. According to the reports, defendant maintained that he has access to large sums of money and assets related to the Bank of China which he used for his humanitarian efforts. At oral argument, defendant explained the history of some of these beliefs which involve thousands of years in history and assets worth trillions of dollars.

But Judge Aiken noted “the diagnosis of a mental disorder alone does not mean defendant is incompetent to proceed to trial.” She found that other evidence — Sales’ clear understanding of the proceedings and the charges against him and his ongoing consultations with his defense counsel — showed he was competent.

In the end, no jury heard the case. Sales pleaded guilty to one count of wire fraud and in October 2021 was sentenced to time served in jail and three years of supervised release and ordered to pay $1,028,010 in restitution to his victims.

Sales’ attorney noted in his sentencing memorandum that his 72-year-old client was recently divorced, that he was suffering from heart trouble, and that his sole source of income was a $924 monthly check from Social Security. I’ll add that the terms of his restitution agreement require him to pay at least $25 a month to help liquidate his $1 million restitution debt.

And that’s that, except to note that Judge Aiken passed final judgment on Sales on December 13, 2021. That was four days after Sales, or someone using his name, was inquiring about the legality of the “several” $100,000 notes he claimed to have in his possession.

Ukraine in the Classroom

Mrs. B— not her real name — has been a schoolteacher for some time. She’s retired from full-time work, but continues as a science curriculum consultant, as a substitute and as a volunteer for a very program called Trout in the Classroom.

The program is the work of Northern California conservationists and fishing groups and teaches about one of the native wonders of our state, the rainbow trout, Oncorhynchus mykiss. The program distributes specially prepared fish tanks and other equipment to classroom and delivers rainbow trout eggs. The kids get to study the fish as they emerge from the eggs and grow just big enough over a couple months to release in local lakes. (Given the state of some of our urban East Bay lakes , sometimes that doesn’t seem like such a great deal for the baby trout. But I guess Nature and Science Education have a plan.)

The other day, Mrs. B was at a nearby school where she was helping an elementary grades science teacher set up her trout tank. When she was done, she was invited to stay for lunch, and she did that.

She went and asked a group of second- and third-graders if she could sit at their table. “Oh, sure,” they said. “We’re just talking about the war in Ukraine.”

Road Blog: The Murk, Continued

Sept. 2: Highway 33, near Tetonia, Idaho, looking toward Grand Tetons from the west.
April 2018: Google Streetview image of the same stretch of Highway 33 in image above, near Tetonia, Idaho, looking toward Grand Tetons from the west.
Sept. 2: Jackson Hole from Teton Pass.
Sept. 2: Grand Teton National Park
Sept. 2: Yellowstone Lake, Wyoming,
Sept. 1: U.S. 93, north of Ely, Nevada.
August 31: Along Nevada Highway 376.

Inbox: Salmon Extinction Alert

A (slightly edited) email that just landed in my work inbox from John McManus, the president of the Golden Gate Salmon Association:

Dear Reporter:


If you’re covering the news from the California Dept. of Fish and Wildlife documenting the lethal effects of the drought on federally protected winter-run salmon, consider this from CDFW’s updated winter-run data file (which you can download from:  https://www.calfish.org/ProgramsData/ConservationandManagement/CentralValleyMonitoring/CDFWUpperSacRiverBasinSalmonidMonitoring.aspx

7-6-21: Continued hot weather above 100 degrees for periods in late May, early June  and past two weeks continuously will lead to depletion of cold water pool in Shasta Lake sooner than modeled earlier in season.  This hot weather is leading to more demand downstream for water (flows from Keswick Dam from 8,500 to 9,250 cubic feet per second on July 4th).  Previously modeled season long cold water availability scenarios used steady flows in the 7500 cfs range  from Keswick.  Those earlier scenarios had very high expected juvenile mortality due to warm water later in August-October that would be lethal to incubating eggs and alevins in the gravel.  This persistent heat dome over the West Coast will likely result in earlier loss of ability to provide cool water and subsequently it is possible that nearly all in-river juveniles will not survive this season.  Counts of carcasses continue to indicate a large run of winter-run this year. Unspawned fresh females for the season are 71 with an overall percentage of 12.3% of all fresh females this season were unspawned.

If you are looking for a quote for a story, consider this one from me:

“Californians should be alerted that the extinction of a native salmon run is underway right now as a result of government inaction to stop it.  State and federal water managers have apparently decided it’s politically inconvenient to reroute short water supplies to prevent extinction if it means a few less acres of crops.  We’re losing winter run salmon right now and the fall run salmon that supply the sport and commercial fisheries will be decimated too.  Californians who care about the environment need to hold government officials accountable for allowing the loss of the state’s natural resources on their watch.”

That Corrosive Effect

Monterey Avenue, Berkeley.

It’s the day we have an apparent victor in the presidential race. As a journalist working for a middle-of-the-road outlet that doesn’t hold with political activism — not something I’m arguing with for the purposes of this post — I’m not given to broadcasting opinions on the record. This preserves an appearance of fairness in the way I approach my work. Not to say that the appearance is an illusion, because being open to new people, facts, ideas and opinions, to listen, to try to understand them, weigh them, judge them and convey them fairly is central to the work.

But having developed a habit of thought like that also makes me constantly check myself and my own conclusions and to approach many — most?— claims I encounter in the world with at least a little skepticism. So on a day like this, when so many people around me — friends, family, community — are celebrating, I’m not inclined to join in the party.

As I wrote a friend earlier, my pessimism is not to be easily tamped down, and I think the celebrations are a little premature given the reality that our defeated incumbent seems determined to put up a fight before acceding to the will of the voters. Foremost in my mind are fears about what the next chapter of the election battle — the recounts and the court fights — will look like and how much damage the disappointed loser can still do to the government and our democracy while he still controls the levers of power.

The net effect is a little corrosive to any sense of joy I might have. Yeah, the celebrations are ongoing, and it’s good to see the people around me relieved and happy. I just can’t stop myself from thinking, “It ain’t over till it’s over.” As my friend said in regard to the current occupant of the Executive Mansion, “Two and a half months is a very long time for a wounded sociopath of his magnitude to occupy the presidency.”

Speaking Approximately, This Is Historical Titillating

This is an old blog that has mostly outlived its relevance, if any, though I know in the back of my mind it’s out there and every once in a while I’ll read back on something and think, “Not bad” or, “How the heck did I miss that typo?” I still write the occasional post, though only a handful ever get any readership to speak of.

The site still gets lots of comments, though — spam comments, by the dozen every week, most promoting some sort of fly-by-night Viagra site or athletic shoe site or transparently dumb money-making scheme. I’m sure all of them are the product of bots of some kind that spit out nearly random words and hit enter, then move on their relentlessly mindless way to the next rarely visited site. Because there’s a spam filter on the comments, they don’t get published. It’s a small pain to go through and delete them all from the filter queue; that’s not something I need to do, really, it’s just sort of a rote, mechanical chore, and I only read enough to make sure there’s not an actual comment hidden amid the garbage.

Taking a look at the spam queue last night, I realized that perhaps I’m being too harsh in my judgment of comment quality. After all, it’s usually quite complimentary of the high and very helpful nature of everything I’ve ever published. So, as I delete the latest mini-volley of spam comments, here are some of the choicer ones:

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A Moment Amid the Turmoil

I came across the photograph below in the excellent slideshow the Los Angeles Times posted summarizing two days of protests and associated unrest in the city. (The slideshow is part of the Times’ running story on the George Floyd protests. The large version of the image is here.)

To my eye — and I’ve got one good one — this is a thrillingly beautiful image. The combination of the deserted freeway (with the completely jammed adjacent lanes visible), the skateboarder in perfect focus, the police vehicles out of focus down the slope, the spectators on the overpass in the background recording the scene: such subtly balanced elements.

And it’s just a moment. It passed in the smallest fraction of a second. The skateboarder was in motion, no doubt, and everything else, including the photographer (the Times’ Wally Skalij), likely shifted slightly, too, before the next frame fired.

The skateboarder’s relaxed body language belies the urgency and strangeness of his situation. There’s more assessment than defiance in his stance. I have no idea what he was headed for, what he was thinking, whether he was looking for an escape route, or whether there was any way off the freeway without getting arrested. The whole scene kind of reminds me of Steve McQueen trying to outrun the Germans in the motorcycle sequence in “The Great Escape.”

Last, reality has been suspended here. A man engages a photographer in a space that neither would ever inhabit together except in the midst of a catastrophe. The tragedy that brought both of them to this spot is dimly visible here in the flashing emergency lights in the distance. But the pain and rage sweeping over the city and hanging over the world beyond, the police officer throttling the life out of a man on the pavement, the terrible indifference to the dying man’s pleas, have been pushed nearly out of sight. For just this moment.

Hamburg and Paradise

The other day, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection — Cal Fire, for short — caused a little bit of a ripple when it issued a report that likened the conflagration that recently consumed most of the town of Paradise with the World War II Allied bombing of the German city of Hamburg.

The comparison was included in a Cal Fire green sheet — a preliminary report the agency does to review the circumstances surrounding firefighter deaths and injuries. I’ve become a regular reader of the reports mostly because I’ve been editing stories by a colleague in the KQED newsroom who started getting them several years ago.

The green sheet on the Camp Fire — the blaze that killed 86 people, by the current count, and destroyed 14,000 residences in Paradise and two nearby communities in Butte County — came out late last week. The bulk of the report recounted how five firefighters suffered burns during the first 24 hours of the blaze. But in setting the scene for how the injuries, sustained in two separate incidents, occurred, the report also sets the scene: the drought, the high winds, the low humidity that helped the fire become so monstrously destructive so rapidly.

The green sheet drops this remark about the fire’s character:

“When the fire reached the town of Paradise, an urban firestorm began to spread from building to building, independent of the vegetation, similar to the firestorm that consumed Hamburg, Germany, in 1943. … It is evident in many areas occupied by high densities of residential and commercial structures that the heat from the fire was transferred horizontally to other structures and ground vegetation by strong winds. “

I like a striking historical reference as much as the next human. But the Cal Fire offers no further context or detail about “the firestorm that consumed Hamburg, Germany, in 1943.” Maybe it was a super-bad wildfire.

Of course, the year “1943” suggests a connection to a major historical event that’s known even to most ahistorically minded Americans: World War II. Even if you’re not a historian, you may be familiar with the heavy bombing that took place throughout the war and several noted incendiary bombing attacks, mostly by U.S. and British air forces against targets in Germany and Japan.

Thanks to Google, a couple of pretty good accounts of what happened in Hamburg pop up when you search the name of the city along with the word “firestorm.” One of them comes from the BBC, which describes the relentless British and American bombing that touched off the inferno, the winds that accompanied it, the appalling casualty count, and the harrowing stories of survivors.

“I struggled to run against the wind in the middle of the street. … We couldn’t go on across [the road] because the asphalt had melted,” one witness is quoted as saying. “There were people on the roadway, some already dead, some still lying alive but stuck in the asphalt. They must have rushed on to the roadway without thinking.”

Several months after Germany’s May 1945 surrender, the U.S. War Department published an exhaustive review of the air war in Europe. “The United States Strategic Bombing Survey: Over-all Report.”

The survey’s purpose was, in part, to measure the effectiveness of the Allied bombing strategy, which had aimed to achieve “the destruction and dislocation of the German military, industrial and economic system and the undermining of the morale of the German people to the point where their capacity for armed resistance is fatally weakened.”

In a passage cited in “The Oxford English Dictionary” as an early use of the word “firestorm” to describe the effects of aerial bombing, the survey mentions in brief, clinical detail what happened in Hamburg and the tactics behind such attacks.

For residential areas … fire was the chief cause of the damage that resulted from bombing. … The principal weapon for setting fires was the incendiary bomb. This weapon was most effective in causing destruction in city residence areas. …

Many German cities presented partial areas of vast devastation. Perhaps the outstanding example was Hamburg, where a series of attacks in July and August of 1943 destroyed 55 to 60 percent of the city, did damage in an area of 30 square miles, completely burned out 12.5 square miles, wiped out 300,000 dwelling units, and made 750,000 people homeless. German estimates range from 60,000 to 100,000 persons killed, many of them in shelters where they were reached by carbon-monoxide poisoning. The attacks used both high explosive and incendiary bombs as it was thought by the Air Forces and later confirmed that the former created road blocks, broke water mains, disrupted communications, opened buildings, broke windows, and displaced roofing. Most important, they kept the fire fighters in shelters until the incendiaries became effective. But, of the total destruction, 75 to 80 percent was due to fires, particularly to those in which the so-called fire-storm phenomenon was observed.

Fire-storms occurred in Hamburg, Kassel, Darmstadt, and Dresden. Differing from an ordinary peacetime conflagration which begins at a center and then spreads, these storms occurred when incendiaries started many fires within a relatively short time over an extensively built-up area. It was estimated that, in Hamburg, within 20 minutes, two out of three buildings were afire within a 4.5-square-mile area as the result of incendiary bomb strikes. The intensity of the bomb fall was so great that fire-fighting efforts were fruitless. As the many fires broke through the roofs of buildings, there rose a column of heated air more than 2 1/2 miles high and 1 1/2 miles in diameter, as measured by aircraft flying over Hamburg. This column was turbulent and was fed at its base by inrushing cooler ground-surface air. One and one-half miles from the fire this draft increased the wind velocity from 11 to 33 miles per hour. At the edge of the area the velocities must have been appreciably greater, as trees 3 feet in diameter were uprooted. In a short time the temperature reached the ignition point for all combustibles and the entire area was ablaze. In such fires complete burn-out occurred; that is, no trace of combustible materials remained and only after 2 days were the areas cool enough to approach.

The evidence is that the bombing served not only to destroy much of Germany’s second-largest city, but also, as intended, to shock and demoralize the population.

In one sense — the scale and meaning of the events — the parallel between Paradise and Hamburg is all wrong. But in others — the physical characteristics of the fires, the way they consumed whole communities and left survivors with little or nothing of their prior lives — maybe the comparison is fitting.

‘Individual Acts of Hospitality Are Not the Answer’

I think a lot about homelessness, about what it represents in our society, about our responses to it collectively and individually, about the many encounters — with a man named Charles, instance, and with Eric, and with Perry — with the destitute and down and out I’ve had over the years. And about the meaning of personal gestures.

The New York Times just published excerpts of the prison letters of Nelson Mandela. One, to his son Makgatho, talked about effective responses to poverty:

I have been reminiscing a great deal … Those were the days when you lived a happy life free of problems and fenced from all hardships and insecurity by parental love. You did not work, grub was galore, clothing was plentiful and you slept good. But some of your playmates those days roamed around completely naked and dirty because their parents were too poor to dress them and to keep them clean.

Often you brought them home and gave them food. Sometimes you went away with double the amount of swimming fees to help a needy friend. Perhaps then you acted purely out of a child’s affection for a friend, and not because you had become consciously aware of the extremes of wealth and poverty that characterized our social life. …

It’s a good thing to help a friend whenever you can; but individual acts of hospitality are not the answer. …

This is not a problem that can be handled by individual acts of hospitality. The man who attempted to use his own possessions to help all the needy would be permanently ruined and in due course himself live on alms. Experience shows that this problem can be effectively tackled only by a disciplined body of persons, who are inspired by the same ideas and united in a common cause.