Schrödinger’s kitty

I have just returned from a thought experiment.

Specifically, I heard a thump somewhere inside the house and went downstairs to the spare room to check it out.

Why downstairs? Why specifically the spare room? Because we have a house guest. We’re cat-sitting our daughter’s newly adopted kitten while she’s away for a few days for work and travel.

We can’t let the kitty have the run of the house. For one thing, it’s been a long time since we had a pet; the house is no longer cat-proofed. Second, I’m being treated for an allergy to cats; especially on a day when I’m having the shots, it’s important that I stay away from them.

All’s quiet in the spare room. Thus the curious thought experiment.

I’m not the first to attempt such an experiment. Back in 1935, Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger used one to reduce an interpretation of quantum mechanics to absurdity. According to that interpretation, subatomic objects do not have definite properties until they are observed and measured. Until that happens they can only be predicted using probability.

Schrödinger said that was like sealing a cat in a cylinder with a poison that would be released when an atom of radioactive substance decayed. Without knowing whether the trigger had been activated, it’s impossible to determine whether the cat is alive or dead, even using probability. Open the cylinder and observe the cat, and you have the answer. Until then, you don’t — although clearly the cat is either alive or dead. It can’t be both.

Hypothetical-animal cruelty issues aside, it’s clear that more than eight decades later, Schrödinger’s theoretical cat would be no spring kitty. Yet I suspect our guest kitten is a distant relation.Is the cat alive or dead? Or less macabre: Is she sleeping or is she in trouble? If she’s sleeping, I don’t want to disturb her. If she’s in trouble, I want to rescue her.To complicate matters, unlike the dead-or-alive scenario, there are other possibilities. She could be playing quietly. She could be waiting to pounce on me or to escape when I open the door. She could be about to get into trouble.The only way to find out is to open the door. …She was in her bed, but her head popped up when she heard the latch click. No kitty rescue required.This time, anyway… 

In suspense…

Don’t look now, but I’ve been suspended.

That’s what the voice mail from the robocaller said.  The call came in with an in-state telephone number and Caller ID showing “Social Security Admin…” and the message was clear as day: “Your Social Security Number has been suspended because of suspicious activity. To restore it, press 1.”

220px-Keep-calm-and-carry-on-scanWoe is me! What did I do? What do I do now? I wasn’t home to press 1 when the call came in.

For that last question, at least, we had our answer. The caller was persistent. We got at least six different chances over the next few days to press 1 and fix the problem, and we missed them all. They all ended up on voice mail.

Yet life goes on. How can this be? Could someone have made a mistake?

The Social Security Administration — the real Social Security Administration — does not suspend Social Security Numbers for suspicious activity. That’s not their job. And so they won’t call you.

Neither, for that matter, will the Internal Revenue Service, which is another agency people seem to get a lot of calls from. If the government has a question or problem, they’ll write to you at your established address on official stationery and give you a verifiable way to get back to them. You can also check back with any government agency through their contact numbers listed in the phone directory or the agency’s website.

Another giveaway: The robocall came in to a number that wasn’t listed, and it asked for no one by name. The robot at the other end of the line could not have known who would be picking up the phone.

What we have, then, is just the latest scam that’s been making the rounds nationwide, according to published reports. Ignore it. Don’t give any personal information away.(Presumably if you do press 1 you’ll be connected to a real person who tell you they need your name, number and other personal information so they can verify your case. Don’t give it.)

According to the real Social Security Administration, here’s what you need to know:

  • The SSA will never (ever) call and ask for your Social Security number. It won’t ask you to pay anything. And it won’t call to threaten your benefits.
  • Your caller ID might show the SSA’s real phone number (1-800-772-1213), but that’s not the real SSA calling. Computers make it easy to show any number on caller ID. You can’t trust what you see there.
  • Never give your Social Security number to anyone who contacts you. Don’t confirm the last 4 digits. And don’t give a bank account or credit card number – ever – to anybody who contacts you asking for it.
  • Remember that anyone who tells you to wire money, pay with a gift card, or send cash is a scammer. Always. No matter who they say they are.
  • If you’re worried about a call from someone who claims to be from the Social Security Administration, get off the phone. Then call the real SSA at 1-800-772-1213 (TTY 1-800-325-0778). If you’ve spotted a scam, then tell the FTC at ftc.gov/complaint.

If you want your Social Security Number monitored for suspicious activity,  you can buy services that do that. We’ve had good experiences with LifeLock, which is another reason I was confident the phone call was a scam.

What a relief! I haven’t really been suspended, after all.

Sorry to keep you in suspense.

RSVP! It’s an emergency!

Although we’ve met on occasion in my former life as a newspaper editor, Waterbury (Connecticut) Mayor Neil M. O’Leary wouldn’t be able to recognize me in a crowd (I’ve tested this). The city’s police chief, Fernando Spagnolo, would know me by name only, if that. (I don’t think they have a mug shot of me hanging on the wall.)

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Yet when the two of them want to invite my wife and me to a party, it’s not only a big deal. It’s an emergency.

It said so right on the robocall we got this week: “Stand by for an emergency notification from CT-Alert.” They wanted us to come to the National Night Out, complete with face painting and balloon art.

Like just about everyone else in the world, we both carry smartphones these days. We’ve had the same numbers for years — back to when AT&T, then just about the only wireless game in town, issued them for the Waterbury area.

Over the years, we both signed up for emergency alert services both in Connecticut and in Vermont, where we have a summer place.  Both states offer people the chance to subscribe to notifications about emergencies such as criminal activity, natural disasters, winter storms, fires, major accidents, power failures, water main breaks and the like using SMS text messaging or automated robocalls to cellphones, landlines and other media.

These alerts can truly be life-savers. Over the years, we’ve used them to shelter from hurricanes and winter storms (which are all too common) and from tornadoes (less so, but too close to home). In doing so, we added the incoming SMS and toll-free numbers for both state’s services to our contacts.

That’s how we learned that both states appear to use the same emergency alert service. One day up in Vermont we received messages from what our contacts list identified as that state’s alert service that Mayor O’Leary and Chief Spagnolo were advising people that a water main break had closed, as I recall, Cherry Street in Waterbury.

I marveled at the coincidence. Not only did each state have a Waterbury, but both the big city and its tiny namesake had a Mayor O’Leary, a Chief Spagnolo and a Cherry Street!

Vermont’s Waterbury, population 5,064, has had to issue boil-water notices for the occasional water problem, but it doesn’t have a mayor or, as of last year, a police department. It is run by a select board (still known in Connecticut as the board of selectmen) and covered by two resident state police troopers. As far as I can tell, its only Cherry is Cherry Garcia at the Ben and Jerry’s tour.

No matter. Such emergency alerts are few and far between, especially if you sign up for only a few towns, such as where you live and work. In Connecticut, we had registered years ago for alerts from our home town of Southbury and from Middlebury, where we attend church, and Waterbury, where I worked for 35 years.

July 17Then, on July 17, coincidentally the day of the city’s Republican nominating convention and the day before the Democrats nominated O’Leary to run again, we got another one.

O’Leary and Spagnolo sent out an invitation to an open house to improve police community relations. An important program, to be sure; we need more community-building projects like that one, and like the National Night Out event we received notice of most recently. I’m all for them.

But is it really an emergency?

Both the mayor’s office and the police department are highly media-savvy: print, radio, grassroots organizations, websites, Facebook, Twitter, and the like. Even text messages would be appropriate, if the recipient were given the opportunity to opt into such social invitations.

Somehow, though, using an emergency alert system to invite people to a citywide community event seems an abuse of the medium. It might even backfire and lead people to ignore these text messages and robocalls. That could endanger public safety.

So, Mr. Mayor, if you really want to invite me to a party (seriously?), don’t robocall.  Don’t text. I’d rather read about it in the paper.

Howard Fielding is a retired editor and columnist for the Republican-American. 

Rhetoric referee: Heads I win, tails I win

Even before special prosecutor Robert Mueller filed his report on the two-year investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and claims of obstruction by President Trump, Democrats were calling for immediate release of the full, unredacted report and all supporting documents and testimony.


Attorney General William Barr

Attorney General William Barr released a four-page summary and promised to release a redacted copy of the full report by mid-April, but Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-California, said that was condescending and arrogant and that the documents should be released to Congress immediately so members could make up their own minds.

Republicans say Barr should be given time to review the 400-page report and redact information that will affect national security or identify individuals who have not been charged with any crime. This is the legal standard for redaction of documents from such investigations.


Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler

Today the House Judiciary Committee voted on party lines to authorize subpoenas for the full report, and supporting documents. Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-New York, said he will meet with Barr before serving the subpoenas, but will do so within days if he isn’t satisfied.

This is an example of a false choice, much like the false dilemmas and false dichotomies of the Groundhog Day scenario. A false choice assumes there are only two possible outcomes — in this case, either don’t release the report or release the report in its entirety.

To imply that the White House would not release the report at all is also a straw man. The president and attorney general have already both said the report should be released; there’s no controversy on that score although it serves their opponents’ objectives to imply that’s the intent.

The other choice — to release it in its entirety — is probably impossible for legal reasons. But given the false choice, failure to do so will be taken as evidence of obstruction.

It’s impossible to defeat this circular reasoning. Either choice will give the Democrats ammunition leading up to the 2020 national election.

Rhetoric Referee: False dilemmas


In celebration of Groundhog Day, let’s look at false dilemmas and false dichotomies.

Although it was sunny in Connecticut, Punxsutawney Phil, the nation’s most celebrated groundhog, failed to see his shadow in Pennsylvania, thus predicting an early spring. (If he sees it, the prediction is for six more weeks of winter.)

This is an example of a false dichotomy: There’s really only one outcome. Either way, spring will come at the same time, at the vernal equinox on March 20. That’s 46 days away, or about six and a half weeks. So six weeks is, by definition, an early spring.

A false dilemma is an apparent choice between two options, when actually there are others. The one that’s making the rounds now that 2020 presidential candidates are emerging: “Vote for an independent, elect Trump.” A third-party candidate might, and probably will, draw voters from both parties and thus could swing an election either way.