Friday, January 24, 2014


 I am really not a sports fan, so news from the sports world usually comes to me obliquely and belatedly. Therefore, I only learned of Seattle Seahawks' Richard Sherman's story from watching a segment on it on Chris Hayes last night. In short, Sherman did some 'trash talking' about a player on the other team, which led various commentators to call him a thug, which in turn led Sherman to take it as a racial slur--which, given other racially inflected comments, it probably was.

To tell you the truth, when I hear the word 'thug', I don't automatically think of African-American men, though it seems that this has become a common association. My associations are older, going back to the kind of gangster movies that I'd see on television as a kid. For some reason, I see a little white guy, though probably not Anglo-Saxon, scrawny but muscular, in a big fancy suit. And a fedora. Definitely a criminal, whatever else.

The reason that 'thug' evokes a menacing black man for some, and a scrawny white brawler for me, is that the word is an example of that etymological drift that I find so interesting. It really starts in India, and comes from the Hindi thaggi, and goes back to the Marathi thag or thak,which meant "cheat or swindler". The Online Etymology Dictionary makes less decisive claims that it  probably goes back to the Sanskrit sthaga-s, and possibly to sthagayati, which means "he covers, he conceals".

"Thug" begins to come into our own sense of it, though, with the rise of a band of professional thieves and assassins in India who come into the written record by 1356 in The History of Firuz Shah. This group, apparently originally Muslim, but soon attracting Hindu adherents, sounds a bit like the Mafia in being a society with its own entrance requirements as much as a criminal enterprise. However their ritual practice of thuggee seems to have been a bit different than Mafioso style. Thugs would ingratiate themselves with travelers, and then, once they were part of the group, strangle them and rob them.

When Britain came to be a colonial power there, a task force was set to exterminate them, and seems to have succeeded. An informative article from The Guardian by Kevin Rushby shows how the word passed into our language. Its popularity stemmed from a novel called Confessions of a Thug, which was written by one Philip Meadows Taylor, who had been peripherally involved in the thug extirpation. He chose to fictionalize a real thug named Feringhea, who in Rushby's account, actually comes across rather better than his British captors.

Group of thugs, 1894
One thing that does seem to stay with the word is its ability to inflame lurid imaginations. As Rushby says, official interviews with captured thugs mention women infrequently, and when they are mentioned its to say that they are not legitimate targets. This did not stop subsequent popular accounts from portraying thugs as ravishers of the fairer sex. On that note, I thought an interesting aside on the Chris Hayes show was one person's comment that the real "problem" with Sherman's behavior was that he was getting too het up around the female sports reporter who was interviewing him, a sin of proximity only. Perhaps, Jung is right and the best thing we can do in this life is to withdraw our projections...

Here's the Chris Hayes segment. One thing that I found so interesting was to see the apparently intelligent and reasonable Sherman off the field as he articulated his discomfort about the thug reference. It's obvious that the rant was all part of the performance known as pro football.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Signal Hill

Every year for the past few years, right around December sometime, my sisters and I get a small oil royalty check from Signal Hill. In the grand scheme of things, especially petroleum based things, it's not all that significant, and in fact the people at Signal Hill have offered to buy the rights back for a better, though still not princely sum. I am not inclined to dismiss anything that gives me a little money every year no matter how small (you should see the royalties I get from the couple of story anthologies I have work in if you don't believe me) but I asked my sister, who tends to know more about these things, if it was maybe a good idea for reasons I wasn't thinking of. She said she was keeping hers--for the history apart from anything else.

The history? I asked.

There Will Be Blood? Upton Sinclair? she asked.

But I hadn't seen the movie and I definitely hadn't read the book. (Oil!, by the way.)

That's where the oil in them comes from, she said.

Where exactly is it, anyway? I asked. It hadn't really occurred to me that Signal Hill was an actual place. I thought it was just a company name, if I actually thought about it at all.

She knew it was in Southern California somewhere, but not a whole lot more than that, if I recall correctly. So I decided it would be a good topic for this blog.

That was about a year ago. In fact, it probably came up in exactly the way it has now, which is that a check has come, making me think about it again. Meanwhile though, we've traveled between L.A. and Oceanside to visit my aunt a few times, and there is actually a Signal Hill turnoff on the highway. We've never had time to explore, but maybe someday we will.

The reason we have these royalties is that my grandfather invested in oil leases or rights back in the 1920s. I'm not sure how he got involved, not that it was probably so uncommon back them. He had been a poor kid who lived out in the middle of nowhere on what I like to think was a ranch but may not have been so glorious as that, and by dint of effort put himself through law school at night and ended up with a pretty fancy office in downtown L.A. So it may have been through his lawyerly social connections, or it may have been through his knowledge of the Southern California "outback" that he thought this a good idea, I really don't know.

I do know though, that both my mom and my aunt were born in the nineteen twenties, and I heard mention of a pitcher of martinis in the refrigerator even though it was the era of Prohibition, and I've had other indications that the social crowd was, well, not sedate. So I can imagine my grandfather knowing some people who would maybe know people like those in the book and the movie. But we're getting into pretty speculative territory here, as I imagine my grandfather "knowing" people from fiction I haven't read or watched. So let's move on.

Signal Hill, it turns out, is an actual hill smack dab in the middle of Long Beach. It's 365 feet high. According to several sources, the Tongva Indians of the region used it to set signal fires, which could be seen as far as Catalina Island. (Actually, that's not all that far away, but I quibble.) It was part of the first large rancho land grant in Alta California, while the state was under Spain's jurisdiction.

Before the discovery of oil, Signal Hill played quite a different role. It was sought after property because of the view, so there were mansions built on top of it. At the bottom, more poignantly, there were many Japanese truck farms. The disappearance of these, though, is not something we have to blame the rise of oil for.

Although I remember seeing oil pumps at work in my Southern California childhood, I didn't know that oil was so ubiquitous in the region until I started research for the trivia book I coauthored. As The Center for Land Use Interpretation notes in this interesting looking online exhibit:

Los Angeles is the most urban oil field, where the industry operates in cracks, corners, and edges, hidden behind fences, and camouflaged into architecture, pulling oil out from under our feet.

Signal Hill might be described as the epicenter of all oil exploration in the region. (And "epicenter" is always a good word to have in the frame when it comes to California.)

Here's what happened. After some initial failures by the Union Oil Company in 1917, things looked bleak (or, I suppose, good, if you didn't want a lot of oil drilling in your back yard) until the Royal Dutch Shell Oil Company struck gold, black gold, on June 23rd, 1921. Although the hill had also been the site where Balboa Studios shot outdoor scenes for the likes of Buster Keaton and Fatty Arbuckle, all that was gone the moment "Alamitos Well #1" sent forth a gusher 114 feet in the air. Before too awfully long, there were a hundred oil derricks on the hill and, as Wikipedia mentions, Signal Hill " because of its prickly appearance at a distance became known as "Porcupine Hill"."

It was incorporated as its own city a scant three years later to avoid zoning restrictions and paying taxes per barrel to Long Beach. Notably, it elected Jessie Nelson, the state's first woman mayor. As the city of Signal Hill proudly proclaims of itself:

Ultimately one of the richest oil fields in the world, it produced over 1 billion barrels of oil by 1984.

I think Signal Hill is the slight swell in the distance here.

Things didn't stay that way, of course. They never do. But it is still an oil producing city, a city on a hill, sending my grandfather, his daughters and his granddaughters in turn a little money every year, which I for one will try to spend in a mitigating sort of way. There won't be blood if I can help it.

I wasn't successful in finding a picture of my grandfather, but in the course of doing so, I found a very nice picture of my mom, back before she had married into the Graham family and long before I was anything at all.

Carolyn Stanley Brunton, (future) oil heiress.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

The Gallup Poll--my testament

I was polled by Gallup this afternoon. Has this ever happened to you? It's the first time for me, to the best of my recollection. I found it to be a somewhat disconcerting experience. In the first place, I'm kind of surprised I agreed to participate, and in the second that I agreed to continue. Perhaps it's just the nature of polls, but reflecting back on it, I felt somewhat manipulated. But I suppose this is the problem with all multiple choice question formats--you rarely get to say exactly what you want.

I decided to look into the Gallup Poll after the call, and wasn't surprised to learn it had been created by a man named George Gallup in 1935. I was a bit surprised, though, that according to Wikipedia, Gallup, Inc. was purchased from Gallup's heirs four years after he died by a company called Selection Research International, who wanted to buy the 'brand' to give their polling more credibility and therefore increase the number of responses it got. (Hey, it worked on me.)

As I suppose is the nature of any reliable poll, the questions are precise, and are meant to be answered in a specific sort of way. So when I was asked if the pollster was speaking to the oldest resident of the house who was over eighteen and I said I'm over eighteen and I live here alone, that wasn't acceptable. Apparently pollsters are not allowed to use the process of deduction, not even of the simplest kind.

Although I suppose most of the questions gave a fair number of options, the first one that relied on opinion rather took me aback. It was something along the lines of, Do you approve of Barack Obama's presidency or disapprove? Although most of the other questions had choices that were more nuanced, so that you could say "somewhat", or "somewhat not", this one was strictly a two choice question. I said I approve, because I'm not in the camp of his haters, but there are plenty of his decisions that I don't care for. Did I ever tell you about the time he bailed in his pre-presidential days as key note speaker for my cousin's fundraising dinner for at risk kids with almost no notice? Yeah, we've had a rocky relationship ever since.

The personal questions were the hardest--not because they were so invasive, or any more so than anything of this type is, but because I don't really fit into the boxes so well right now. Am I unemployed or retired? How much do I make a month? How many hours did I work last week? Do I wish I could work more? These are all a bit subjective or variable. When I said that my income varies from month to month, the pollster invited me to 'take a guess'. I did. He didn't specify how wild a guess it could be.

I found the pollster to be patient and polite, but the experience  was ever so slightly irritating. So I was rather surprised at the end that, when he asked if someone could call me back with more questions, I said yes, rather than the more truthful "No". He asked me for a first name. "Seana," I said.

I even told him how to spell it.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Cashier's check--the scam

Happy New Year! As a little present to readers, I thought I'd post a public service announcement about a con that almost happened to my sisters and me. We own a house together that we rent out as a vacation rental sometimes, and my sister handles all inquiries. She could tell this story better than I can, but in any case,  recently she had a prospective tenant send her a cashier's check for a deposit, which seemed fine. The only odd thing about it was that somehow the woman had paid twice the amount, apparently mistakenly sending the money for another rental to her. She asked my sister for the excess money back. Sure, a little fishy, but it was a cashier's check, right? And the money had already come into our account. So my sister was all set to send her the requested money back when my cousin happened to call and the situation came up. My cousin said, that sounds like a scam--I've heard about this kind of thing.

So luckily my sister did not send the woman the money and we didn't end up losing money to a con artist. Like many people, we had naively thought that a cashier's check pretty much had to be on the up and up. This, however, is not true.

The loophole that the con artist exploits here is that the Federal Government Insurance Corporation requires banks to make funds available from cashier's checks, teller's checks and certified checks within one to five days. So the check will appear to have been deposited in your account. But this may be considerably before the issuing banks has honored it. And that gives a person sending a fraudulent check more than enough time to maneuver. There are many variations on the scam, but one basic device is that the scammer persuades you to send money back on what appears to be an overpayment before the check is revealed as fraudulent. Any misgivings the payee may have are mitigated by the 'good as gold' reputation of cashier's check, as well as the fact that the money appears to now be safely in their account.

The scam is still relatively new, which is why many people who aren't involved in commerce in a day to day way may still be unaware of it. When I used to work in the bookstore, we became aware of a Nigerian credit card scam using stolen cards over the phone. For some odd reason, they always seemed to be wanting to buy Black's Law Dictionary in quantity or something equally dubious. The cashier's check scam too seems to have originated in West Africa. But if our story is anything to go by, the Ukrainians seem to have taken a fancy to it.

For more detailed examples, here's Snopes, and here's the OCC with their own examples. Oh, and here is a blog post by an artist named D. Michael Coffee, telling the story of how a scam was attempted on him. I include it because it's informative and because he has a photo of fake cashier's check at the end, annotated with what is wrong with it.