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July 21, 2014

PG&E and the Monterey pine that crashed into my back yard


One neighbor described the sound as a big “whoosh.” To me, just rousing myself from sleep at 2:30 a.m., it sounded like something crashing – a ladder against an outside wall or a bookshelf in my son’s room slamming to the floor. 

It was July 3, and the disaster – whatever it was – woke all of us up. Lights blinked on in various rooms of the house, and my husband, mother and I in our nightgowns and sweatpants rushed to check the house, inside and then out. We couldn’t see anything right away, after going through the different rooms and then walking outside the front and back doors.  We even looked over the fence into a neighbor’s back yard, and saw no sign of disaster.

But then I ventured further out onto our back patio. It is set against the side of a hill that slopes up behind our house. The light from our dining room shone on the patio, and I could see something unusual: a branch with pine needles lay on the ground, and nearby rested a greenish pine cone. Neither are among the the scattering of oak leaves or twigs that usually wind up on our backyard patio.  

I looked up the hill, into the dark, above a trellis my father long ago built over the patio.

And there it was, in the blue-black light, the outline of some giant hulking thing. My mind flashed to image of a ship run aground onto a beach into a storm, or the bones of some prehistoric behemoth.

I couldn't make it up the hill via an established walkway. It was blocked by the tree and its aftermath.  I moved around to the other side of the yard and made it to the top part of the back yard. Much of the top part of our back yard, where a redwood tree and apricot tree stood, was now a tangle of branches and needles.

A street runs behind our backyard. I walked a ways down it and saw that the downed tree was maybe at least 40 feet long and that its source was at the far end of our next-door neighbor’s yard near the street. The tree had broken off at the roots.

Several hours later, after the sun had come up, we joined some neighbors in waking to this strange situation. As it was, my vacation was starting that morning, a break that included a road trip to the Sierras for a wedding and then to Oregon. 

Fortunately, we immediately discerned that the tree toppling had caused no damage that required any immediate attention.

The tree was a Monterey pine, and it had crashed across our fence and probably destroyed the two other trees, though it was hard to see amid all the tangle of branches. It may have also caused a crack in our trellis. But no utilities were threatened, and our house was spared. We called to file a claim with the insurance company, and talked to neighbors, notably those next door who owned the tree. 

So has begun an interesting journey of trying to figure out who is responsible for the damage to our property and perhaps the even bigger cost of chopping down and removing the tree.

Our next-door neighbors feel terrible, and they are good people and good neighbors. They are an older couple, and have been very kind to our family and other neighbors over the years. 

They said they had been worried about the tree since the spring. That’s when PGE dispatched a company to come out and prune the tree’s branches which had been touching a power line. Apparently, those branches had caught fire sometime in the winter.

But our neighbors said the tree company hired by PGE had pruned the branches in a way that made the tree look dangerously unbalanced. 

Somehow, over the months, we missed all this. Then again, this particular tree, somewhat distant from our properly line, had never been directly visible from our back yard. There were other trees standing in the way. It never seemed to loom threateningly above us or our house.

But in getting out and talking to neighbors who live on the street above us, I learned that they, too, had been worried about the tree since PGE's tree-trimming work. And, they, too, thought the tree was leaning pretty precariously. One told me she worried the tree would crash into our next-door neighbors’ house or into ours' in any storms this coming winter.

According to PGE's website, its Vegetation Management Department is required by state law to maintain clearances around high-voltage power lines. It dispatches companies to do the pruning work. These contracted companies are described as “qualified” foresters who determine the amount and type of pruning based on, the website says: the tree’s growth and structure, wind sway, species of tree and environmental factors, among other things.

“As always, we also include a reasonable margin of safety above the absolute-minimum clearance requirements,” the website says.

When we got back from vacation, I called PGE,  and talked to one representative who listened, took the information and said she would send out a claim form.  A few days later, I received a call from another PGE representative – unfortunately I wasn’t able to hear or write down the department name. This person  sounded a bit confused about why I had called.  After I explained the situation, she huffed impatiently and suggested that PGE was in no way responsible; our neighbors are responsible because the tree was on their property….

I said I still wanted to file a claim and to obtain records of any work that had been done on the tree.  She said little else, other than that there would be a phone record of our call. 

I suppose that is reassuring -- the paper trail has been established! -- but the more I read about PGE's responsibilities around tree-pruning programs, the more I think pushing them for answers is worth my time. Two weeks since the tree toppling, I've also become worried that the tree could become a fire hazard, as its heap of branches and needles dry out in the hot summer weather. Shouldn't PGE be concerned in that regard?  

Meanwhile, I’ve heard from our homeowners' insurance company that it may only pay to repair the damage to the fence and to the trellis; but it won’t pay to remove the tree and all its branches. A tree removal company has given us an estimate of $3,300 to do that job. 

In the meantime, our community could also be dealing with an epidemic of toppling Monterey pines. The Contra Costa Times said last Wednesday a Monterey pine, across the street from Kaiser Permanente's medical campus in Walnut Creek, toppled over and landed on three cars. 


January 1, 2014

Mechnical ventalitation, other end-of-life medical measures for Jahi McMath? "What it buys is misery we would not inflict on a terrorist"



Thirteen-year-old Jahi McMath is dead. That's the conclusion of Paul Fisher, the chief of Pediatric Neurology at Stanford University, who was appointed by an Alameda Superior Court judge to examine the girl and make the final determination about whether this Oakland eighth-grader is alive or dead. He concluded that the child lying in the hospital bed at Children's Hospital in Oakland is in fact dead, with no hope of recovery.

He said she had an irreversible brain injury and shows complete absence of cerebral function, meeting all criteria for brain death, listed by professional societies and the state of California. 

Alas, that conclusion hasn't satisfied Jahi's grieving family, whose painful, tragic denial, fueled by what they call a strong religious faith, has been exploited and amplified by an attorney with questionable ethics, groups with a political right-to-life agenda, and media members who seem enamored with the made-for-TV-medical-drama suspense aspects of this storyline. 

If there is anything positive that can be gained from this situation is that it is prompting good discussions in responsible media outlets and in private homes about end-of-life issues. And perhaps it is encouraging people to consider carefully at how they would want to die, or how they would make decisions in regards to a loved one who is terminally ill or who has suffered a traumatic brain injury and can only stay alive through mechanical means.

Maybe the best place to look for answers to these questions are doctors and health professionals themselves. Find out what life-saving measures they would choose -- or rather, not choose -- for themselves. You would be very surprised.

"The Bitter End," is a January 2013 segment on the PBS radio show RadioLab that looks at a decades-long Johns Hopkins University study on doctors, including asking doctors about their own views on medical care and dying.

The study shows (see chart above) that up to 90 percent of doctors, surveyed for a hypothetical scenario in which they suffered irreversible brain injury, would decline mechanical ventilation, CPR and dialysis.  Up to 80 percent would say "no" to a feeding tube.  Of course, they know things we lay people don't know, including what it really means to get CPR (only about 8 percent of people survive, and the rest are in pretty horrible shape) and what it means to be kept alive by a breathing machine.

"What it buys is misery we would not inflict on a terrorist." 

This quote comes from Ken Murray, a doctor was interviewed for the RadioLab report and who has written several articles about how doctors think much differently about death than patients. 

The misery he refers to involves patients getting cut open, perforated with tubes, assaulted with drugs, and hooked up to machines -- specifically to mechanical ventilators -- in what doctors know is a "futile" attempt at care.  

"All of this occurs in the intensive care unit at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars a day. What is buys is a misery we would not inflict on a terrorist," he writes in an article "How Doctors Die: It's Not Like the Rest of Us, But It Should Be." 

He more specifically addresses the agony of mechanical ventilation in the RadioLab interview. To use mechanical ventilation, doctors need to paralyze the patient, so she can't move, though she might still be fully aware of what's happening around her, Murray said. Mechanical ventilators usually involve inserting an endotracheal tube into the windpipe. This can be profoundly uncomfortable, as sometimes, other reports say, the machine doesn't quite sync up to the patient's natural rhythm for breathing. 

When my father was on a mechanical ventilator for a few days after heart surgery in 2002, the doctors strongly suggested he be heavily sedated so that he wouldn't be mostly unconscious until it was removed. My father eventually came off the ventilator, and lived for another eight months, but had trouble swallowing and later developed pneumonia and other infections. Watching my father on the ventilator convinced me that I never want to be on one. 

In a blog post for the Center for Health and Media Policy at Hunter College, RN Mauricio Berrio Orozco asks whether prolonged mechanical ventilation causes needless suffering, especially in patients surviving a devastating brain injury. "Many of them are conscious, but a good prognosis is basically impossible. They do not have even the slightest chance of recovering their previous level of functioning."

Orozco also points out the serious problems that can arise from long-term ventilation. These patients are at serious risk for infections and ventilator-associated pneumonia, huge pressure ulcers and muscle atrophy from inactivity.

Murray adds that some of the treatments we offer to critically ill patients are often "worse than the disease. You may be prolonging life but not for very long. The life you have left is misery."

So, if Jahi is still alive, as her family and their supporters insist, then keeping her indefinitely hooked up to a mechanical ventilator carries the risk of condemning her to days and months of agony. If she is alive, it sounds like she'll need to be paralyzed, heavily sedated and constantly monitored for infections, ulcers and muscle atrophy.

The family has received support from a brain-injury treatment center dedicated to Terri Shiavo, the Florida woman whose case in the mid-2000s sparked a fierce nationwide end-of-life debate, according to the Contra Costa Times. The organization, run by a former hairdresser, revealed earlier this week that it was helping Jahi's family get her transferred to a facility in New York, that claims to be "about preserving life and treating brain-injured patients with care and dignity."

The mechanically ventilated reality of Jahi's death--or life, as her family asserts--seems a far cry from dignity. If she's alive, then it could be misery, as Murray describes. The medical interventions necessary could lead to profound suffering. Did the Terri Shiavo organization, or the facility accepting her transfer, explained those facts to her family?

But if she's dead, as all the experts say, the only misery and suffering would be to her dignity. It's time for her family, already coping with profound grief, to accept that she's gone.  

October 9, 2013

Should high schools do away with football and other sports?

Last Friday afternoon, I was sitting in the bleachers at Las Lomas High School, watching the Knights junior varsity team putting up a valiant struggle against the Acalanes Dons. It was a lovely, early October afternoon, T-shirt weather giving way to fall crispness as the sun went down and the stadium lights turned on.

That I even just wrote this sort of Friday Night Lights, American sports-speak paragraph feels a little strange to me because I never much cared about football--not until my son started playing as a freshman last year.

I certainly didn't care about football when I was in high school, and my team was the Acalanes Dons. I don't think I ever went to a Dons football game, and I didn't know any football players. As a member of the school's drama program, my friends and I considered ourselves to be something of what passed as the cosmopolitan elite in a suburban high school. Yeah, we were a bit full of ourselves. We joked about the jocks being too mainstream, and we stereotyped them as simple, "bust-heads" guys. We probably resented any primacy their team membership afforded them on campus, the fact that we had to attend pep rallies for homecoming, or the expectation that we get rah-rah about some vague notion of "team spirit."

I have a feeling this anti-football, anti-sports sensibility would have found much to like about The Atlantic's big new cover story, The Case Against High School Sports.

In the story, author Amanda Ripley argues that the American high school love affair with sports is hurting academics, at a time when our next generation of students cannot afford to get behind in terms of preparation for global competitiveness. She writes:

Sports are embedded in American schools in a way they are not almost anywhere else. Yet this difference hardly ever comes up in domestic debates about America’s international mediocrity in education. ...

... Even in eighth grade, American kids spend more than twice the time Korean kids spend playing sports, according to a 2010 study published in the Journal of Advanced Academics. In countries with more-holistic, less hard-driving education systems than Korea’s, like Finland and Germany, many kids play club sports in their local towns—outside of school. Most schools do not staff, manage, transport, insure, or glorify sports teams, because, well, why would they?

But I'm not in high school anymore, and my son plays high school football and is really enjoying it.  I really enjoy going to his games. I read this kind of story, and I find my mind grousing, almost like some Fox TV news fan, about more media attacks against the great American institution of football.

Actually, I do seriously wonder if those arguments about American high school students falling behind their counterparts in other countries is a bit overplayed, tired--and simplistic.  For one thing, can you really compare the academic achievements of students from the much more culturally and economically homogenous population samples that you would get from Korea, Finland and Germany against the United States, where students come from hugely diverse segments of society?

OK, for me to attempt to make the argument that these educational hand-wringers are comparing apples and oranges, I would need to dig into the data. But from reading the article, Ripley doesn't demonstrate she did much digging into the usual data either -- which is disappointing, considering this is The Atlantic and I expect its writers to produce better evidence.

Meanwhile, she seems to measure the "success" of American students by test scores and in terms of their potential as producers in an economy. In her argument, where do other indicators of success come in? I'm talking about students growing into adults who feel well-rounded and happy and contribute to society in other ways. Those sorts of attributes don't show up in standardized test scores.

In her narrow idea of success, she also seems to diss the argument I've developed for supporting any extracurricular activity--including sports--in high school programs by saying this about a former Tennessee high school principal:

His argument is a familiar one: sports can be bait for students who otherwise might not care about school. “I’ve seen truancy issues completely turned around once students begin playing sports,” he says. “When students have a sense of belonging, when they feel tied to the school, they feel more part of the process.”
OK, so what if it's familiar argument, if it's true for a lot of kids? When my son said he wanted to do freshman football and start practicing the summer before freshman year, I was happy. It meant he wanted to somehow get involved in school and have in place a social network before the academic year started.

He's become friends with the guys on both the football and wrestling teams. Being on both teams has given him confidence, a sense of belonging and an investment in the school community -- which I believe makes him much more engaged academically.  

But sports wasn't the only way he-- or any other student -- could find this sense of engagement. He could have found it, like I did, doing drama. Or, like other friends of his, who write for the yearbook or play in the band.

Ripley's strongest arguments come when she picks apart the huge financial investment -- which often come in the form of hidden costs -- that schools make in their sports programs.  She tells the story of a Texas rural school district, whose superintendent made an absolutely radical decision, especially in the spiritual home of Friday Night Lights. He decided to eliminate the high school's sports programs and focus on academics.  The district faced being shut down by the state due to academic failure and financial mismanagement. Football at the high school cost about $1,300 a player; math, by contrast, just $618 a student.

It turns out the school and the community missed football less than they thought. While some football players transferred to other schools, others took up club sports. Meanwhile, the rate of students passing classes went up 30 percent, and rowdiness, fights and other behavioral issues on campus declined. And, for the first time in many years, the district had a healthy operating balance and no debt. “Learning is going on in 99 percent of the classrooms now,” the school's former football coach, who also teaches history, told Ripley, “compared to 2 percent before.”

I've watched -- and loved -- Friday Night Lights. Certainly enough to know that there are places in America where sports truly overwhelms the culture of the schools and of the surrounding communities. I would have suffocated in a Dillon Panthers kind of school, and I'm sure there are a fair number of kids in those high schools who suffer because they don't care about being part of football-dominated school spirit.

Ripley's arguments probably better apply to the Friday Night Lights kinds of places.

Meanwhile, she has these curious paragraphs and bits of information near the end of the her article that undercut her arguments.

She is critical of the fact that only 40 percent of seniors participated in sports, which means that 60 percent do not. But last I checked, 40 percent still translates into a fairly significant number of kids in any school population. Then she writes:


Though the research on student athletes is mixed, it generally suggests that sports do more good [italics mine] than harm for the players themselves. One 2010 study by Betsey Stevenson, then at the University of Pennsylvania, found that, in a given state, increases in the number of girls playing high-school sports have historically generated higher college-attendance and employment rates among women.
Finally, she cites this study, by a Columbia University researcher, which backs up my earlier assertion about the overall value of extracurricular activities, including sports. This study ...
... found that teenagers who participated in extracurriculars had higher college-graduation and voting rates, even after controlling for ethnicity, parental education, and other factors.

So, here in suburban San Francisco, we're blessed with pretty good to outstanding public high schools that usually offer a range extracurricular activities.

I'm sure there are some kids at Las Lomas who just want to focus on academics -- and they can. If Las Lomas is anything like Acalanes was when I was a student, then you can, if you choose, mostly tune out the sports culture -- with the exception of the occasional pep rallies.

And then there are some kids who don't like school, or don't thrive in your typical, large American comprehensive high school. Maybe they are otherwise brilliant, or entrepreneurial, or self-starting, and they will find their own way to succeed in life.

And when they become rich and successful CEOs, they will bemoan how mainstream public education dulls the mind and fails to help our next generation stay competitive in our global marketplace. They will send their kids to Waldorf schools, or whatever new alternative education trend comes along, and they will start their education foundations and donate to programs that support charter schools or small-school communities. Such efforts are laudable considering that there certainly are kids who would thrive in those kind of education environments.

However, I would guess that a majority of students are relatively content with the blend of academics and extracurricular activities they get at larger comprehensive schools. They want the opportunity to have something besides academics to engage them creatively, socially, physically or intellectually.

As it happens, some kids will find that sense of engagement in the swimming pool, on the basketball court or on the football field.

October 4, 2013

The politics of white teeth and America's income inequality

I've been going to the dentist to get fillings and a couple crowns replaced. It's work that I've needed to have done for a while, but put off because of the cost. I have insurance but have to pay for much of this work out of pocket. I know it's a bad idea to put such things off and that good oral health is necessary for overall physical health. But, well, it seems that I'm not alone in putting off necessary dental care.

Never mind getting the kind of treatment -- professional teeth whitening --  that seems to be de rigueur among Americans trying to project an image of health, happiness and prosperity. 

When I first met with this new dentist about six months ago, I filled out a general form that asked various questions, such as what I thought of the appearance of my teeth. Well, given that's it's fashionable to have that bleached-teeth look, I noted on the form that I wish my teeth could be whiter.  But my dentist and I didn't even go over the possible cost of what is essentially a cosmetic procedure. More pressing matters prevailed -- notably the fact that, if I didn't address the problems with two back molars, I was setting myself up for a scenario in which I could one day be in terrible pain.  

Ever since that realization that professional teeth whitening would be out of the question for me financially, I've become self-conscious about my teeth. I've started to feel less than attractive and, well, poor. I wonder how my less than pearly white incisors would affect my prospects in getting work, and I start to see another doorway to opportunity closing.

It turns out I have reasons to worry.  I came across this story in the Salt Lake City newspaper the Deseret News:  
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Studies show bad teeth prevent otherwise qualified candidates from getting jobs or promotions. Although the U.S. is on the cutting edge of innovations in dentistry, many Americans have poor oral health and crooked or missing teeth and don't go to the dentist because they don’t have insurance and can’t afford to pay out of pocket for care. The scope of the problem is widespread: close to half of Americans are without dental insurance, according to data from the Department of Health and Human Services.

More specifically, researchers have looked at the social and economic cost of going without dental care. We're not talking about people who can't afford teeth whitening, but who can't even deal with basics, like dealing with caries or gum problems. It's not a pretty picture for people who can't afford it:


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Numerous studies show a strong correlation between appearance and income. Research by Daniel Hamermesh, professor of economics at the University of Texas, found that better than average looking people earn 5 to 10 percent more than average looking people, who earn 5 to 10 percent more than below average looking people. “Teeth are an important component of physical appearance,” Hamermesh said.


And: 


When Israeli researchers digitally manipulated the teeth on the subjects in photographs and asked people to give their first impressions, they noted similar patterns of discrimination against people with poor oral health. People with crooked, discolored and missing teeth were judged to be of limited intelligence, low class, bad parents, less professional, less physically beautiful and lacking social skills.


At least my teeth aren't crooked--thanks to my parents who paid hefty fees to an orthodontist in my childhood and early teens. Those fees, by the way, helped this orthodontist go helicopter skiing in British Columbia every winter. Yes, his treatment rooms were lined with black and white photos of his helicopter skiing exploits. 

And, I'm not missing teeth. Not yet.  And, nearly half of all Americans, I have insurance to pay for check ups, and am able to pay for the current needed treatment, which is more than a lot of people have. Then again, getting my teeth fixed means we probably can't go on vacation or various other amenities in life that other people I know take for granted.

Still, as we continue the conversation about income inequality in the United States, it's worth looking at the likely extent to which lack of access to various health services, including dental care, compounds the gap between the haves and the have-nots. The Affordable Care Act expands dental coverage to children, but not to adults. The attitude therefore persists that dental care, like mental health care, is almost a luxury not a necessity.  


Meanwhile, if I want to address my teeth-whitening concerns, maybe I'll have decent results with those teeth-whitening kits that are available at the pharmacy. It's worth a try. And, if anyone has any recommendations, let me know.

September 22, 2013

My Excellent Hacking Adventure: Life Lessons Learned from an Identity Thief

Anyone who knows me understands that I tend to be a half-glass-empty kind of gal, or have been for quite a while. I have been slowly trying to change, especially since reading various stories about the new "science of the mind," and how, through various daily practices, we can reset our neural pathways to create mindsets that allow us to be more happy and optimistic.

Writing more than a year ago, I reflected on a US Army program that tries to build mental and emotional resilience in soldiers going into combat and other dangerous situations.  The idea behind this training is that soldiers who are more optimistic are more likely to survive injury, capture, torture and other adversity. That innate optimism gives them the faith, or whatever, that the awful moment or moments will pass and life will get better. One daily exercise assigned to these soldiers is to write gratitude lists. It forces the soldiers for just a few minutes to reflect on people, situations and moments that have made their lives just a little bit better. In an an article on the army's U.S. Army's website, it is said that this daily practice of "hunting the good stuff" can, over time, reset thinking, and it's something we can all do to build our sense of optimism. 

Actually, I didn't have to do too much hunting the good stuff when this situation arose over the past few days. My email account was hacked sometime late Thursday night, early Friday morning, and someone sent out emails to various people in my contact list, soliciting money. Yes, not a good situation, a disturbing one actually, but somehow that's not how I came to view it.

Here's how it started. This is the note that went out to friends, acquaintance and work colleagues and acquaintances: 

Thanks for getting back to me, I really did not want to disturb you with this but I had no one else to turn to. I'm in Toulouse, France to see my cousin who lives there. He's critically ill and needs family support. He was diagnosed with (Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia) - a type of Blood Cancer in 2005 and had been undergoing treatment since. The chemotherapy treatment was going fine until last week when the doctor noticed that the disease has relapsed and the only way he can survive is by undergoing a BMT (Bone Marrow Transplantation). My sister whose marrow matched his has agreed to be the donor and he shall be undergoing the transplant soon at the Claudius Regaud Centre hospital Toulouse, France . The estimate for the transplant is $5,550 USD . I have already spent approx. $3,500 US towards his treatment. Since the amount is huge, I request you to lend out a helping hand and support me with a loan of $2,000 USD.

Since I don't know your financial status at the moment, any kind of help whatsoever will be deeply appreciated. Any amount will be accepted with gratitude and paid back after the surgery. Please let me know how much you can loan me so that I'll provide you with the details to get the money sent to me and I will pay back as soon as I return. I will check my email every 30 minutes for your reply.

It was signed by me, and asked that people respond to a faux Martha Ross email address. 

It looked like the mass emails started going out early Friday morning.  By 7 a.m., I had received my first alert from a friend, via a text. Then calls, emails, Facebook messages and other texts started coming in, including from friends from various parts of the country and from different eras of my life. I hadn't spoken to some of these people in years. All recognized the email plea as bogus, though their alerts came with words of concern. Most expressed sympathy for the fact that my email had been hacked--and that someone was trying to appropriate my identity. But a few also admitted they just wanted to make sure this wild story wasn't true, and I had to reassure them it wasn't.

As I went through the ATT help desk to get my password changed and account secured, I got caught up with some wonderful friends: I learned how my Northwestern friend James has a new house in Chicago and his daughter just started first year of college at University of North Carolina. Another friend, who goes by Jim not James, included in his Facebook message the news that he was leaving a one job and starting another that sounded very cool: as a communications director for a well-known Sonoma winery. 

A Las Lomas mom and I compared notes about our son's grades and teachers, while my sister said she had received a note from our uncle in Seattle, just wanting to make sure all was OK. I also heard from a UCSF professor I had just finished interviewing for a story, as well as the owner of my gym. 

 My Chicago friend James, always one for mischief, decided to have fun with the hacker and sent an email to the faux Martha Ross account, asking for more details on how to send money. He received this response:

Thanks so much for your concern and willingness to help. He shall be
undergoing the transplant soon at the Claudius Regaud Centre hospital
Toulouse, France ) What we need now to balance for the transplant is
$2,000 USD . i do not have direct access to make  transactions on my
bank account from here. Please i need your assistance. Please find a
Western Union outlet closer to you at any Post office,or Shopping
Malls to make the transfer, any kind of help whatsoever will be deeply
appreciated. What you can help with at the moment will be accepted
with gratitude and paid back after the surgery.
The hacker gave a return address in Toulouse, which turns out to be a Western Union office near the esteemed Institut Claudius Regaud (see Google map above), where "my cousin" was receiving his life-saving transplant from my sister.  

OK, neither of my sisters is in France. I saw my older sister yesterday afternoon at my son's JV football game. Oh, and she had received the bogus email, as had another football mom who came up to me and said, "Martha, I received the strangest email from you today!"

This sounds corny, but I realized that, even in my glass-half-empty moments, my life is still pretty full with some amazing friends, family and acquaintances. 

It took a hacker to remind me of this fact.  It also took this hacker's attempt scam to inspire me to go on a virtual tour of Toulouse France! It sounds like a nice city to visit! A part of me wishes I were there. 


 Feeling a strange sort of benevolence, I emailed the hacker a note last night, at the return Martha Ross email address he/she had given out to send money. Actually, I assumed my professional journalist persona, and told the hacker I was interested in learning more about his/her business of hacking. Primarily, I was interested in hearing my perpetrator's side of the story.

I wrote: 
"I'm guessing there is little I can expect from law enforcement in hunting you down and arresting you. You're probably in a different country.  Since, you're not likely to get anything out of my friends, and I'm not likely to see you get into trouble for this, I figured I might as well see if something else constructive can come out of this. And that could be seeing if there is a story I can do about phishing and hacking. What would make the story better would be if I could hear from someone who does this, and learn from that person not only how they do it but why."

I then posed such questions as: 

--"I wonder if you're living in really difficult circumstances that make you want to turn to scamming people. Are you?" 

--"Do you work on your own or with someone else? Are you being forced to do this?"

--"Have you ever been successful with one of these scams? How much can you earn a year doing this"

--"How old are you? Are you married? Have kids? 

--"What are your dreams for the future?"

Alas, soon after I sent out these interview questions, I realized I had already disabled the hacker's phony Martha Ross account, so I had likely cut off my connection to him or her. 

Darn, it would have been fun if someone had actually responded.