October 18, 2017

The Vietnam War in Four Pictures

Like many Americans, I watched all 18 hours of the Ken Burns/Lynn Novick documentary The Vietnam War. Many have commented on the PBS program, so I won’t try to evaluate it here. Instead, I offer some very personal observations.

I lived through all of America’s involvement in Vietnam, so much of what I saw was familiar. Like any good documentary, The Vietnam War clarified chronology and, to a degree, motivations. I didn’t learn a lot, but there were revelatory moments. I didn’t know how much we had helped the French. I didn’t know that Lyndon Johnson knew before the election that Richard Nixon had discouraged Vietnam from participating in peace talks. I didn’t know much about post-war Vietnam. I was happy to have watched The Vietnam War, but I felt like I was getting my life back when it was over, having been relieved of so much obligatory TV viewing.

A few turning points in the Vietnam War are particularly memorable—Walter Cronkite’s commentary on the futility of the conflict, Lyndon Johnson’s pulling out of the presidential race—but the war, for me, was really captured in four photographs. Those photographs do not summarize the war or present a coherent or chronological picture of it, but they stick in my mind and tell compelling stories. (Click on photos for larger images.)

Execution on Saigon street
Eddie Adams, The Associated Press
This picture was taken by Eddie Adams in Saigon on February 1, 1968, the second day of North Vietnam’s Tet offensive. It captures the summary execution of ­Nguyễn Văn Lém by Brigadier General Nguyễn Ngoc Loan, chief of the South Vietnam police. Adams had not anticipated that Loan would pull out his .38-caliber pistol and shoot Lém through the head. Lém was a Vietcong prisoner who allegedly had led a squad of Vietcong that had killed the family of a friend of Loan’s. The photograph, which won a Pulitzer Prize, emphasized the brutality and lawlessness of the Vietnam conflict.

Kent State shooting
John Paul Filo
This photograph was disturbing is a way that not even pictures of the war itself were. It was not taken in Saigon, but in Kent, Ohio, by photojournalist student John Paul Filo. The date was May 4, 1970. National Guard troops had been called to the campus of Kent State University, site of student protests against the Vietnam War. Ostensibly, the troops were there to disperse protesters. It is unclear why they carried loaded rifles and even less clear why they fired on unarmed students, killing four and wounding 9. Filo’s photo shows 14-year-old runaway Mary Ann Vecchio kneeling over the slain 20-year-old Jeffrey Miller. This photo, cropped and edited—the fence post over Vecchio’s head was removed—also won a Pulitzer Prize. John Filo brought the increasingly unpopular war home to the United States and raised questions of free speech and assembly under the Nixon administration.

Napalm attack victims
Nick Ut, The Associated Press
 On June 8, 1972, a Vietnam Air Force plan dropped napalm on a group of Vietnam civilians and soldiers mistakenly assumed to be enemy combatants. Nine-year-old Phan Thị Kim Phúc was among the victims of this attack. She tore off her burning clothes and was photographed running naked by Nick Ut, who took her and other injured children to a Saigon hospital. Kim Phúc survived, and her picture is seared in the minds of all who have seen it. A cropped version of this photo ran on the front page of The New York Times and subsequently won a Pulitzer Prize. The picture illustrates the horrors of war and, especially, the ghastliness of the use of napalm. (I feel a special connection to this photograph, having written a poem about an adult Kim Phúc,)

Saigon evacuation
Hugh van Es, Bettmann/Corbis
 Long before anyone in the government was willing to admit it, it was clear that the United States and South Vietnam could not win the war in Vietnam. The U.S. turned the war over to the South Vietnamese not really believing that the South could hold against the North. The situation was even worse than we believed, however, and the U.S. embassy was caught off guard when, on April 29, 1975, North Vietnamese soldiers were about to overrun Saigon. A chaotic evacuation of the embassy and of Vietnamese who had worked with the Americans was quickly arranged. The above photograph shows an Air America (i.e., CIA) helicopter taking evacuees to safety on waiting American ships. An expensive, ill-conceived, and insincere war had come to an end, but other such wars would follow.

Are these the photographs you remember from the Vietnam War?

Clueless Comcast Technical Support

People seem to love to complain about their cable company. Admittedly, cable service seems universally too expensive, a fact that is causing many to abandon cable for other sources of entertainment media. Price aside, however, I have been very satisfied with the functionality of Comcast’s Xfinity X1 platform, which provides both my cable TV and Internet service. Additionally, I have been generally satisfied with Comcast’s technical support. In my experience, telephone technical support has been provided by savvy technicians who are knowledgeable and patient. In-home service technicians have gone the extra mile to assure that my service was up to par.

Either I had an uncharacteristically bad experience last night or Comcast has decided that providing excellent telephone support isn’t important enough to justify its cost.

I am a fan both of baseball and of The Rachel Maddow Show on MSNBC. Particularly during the fall playoffs, this presents a dilemma. Last night, for example, the Dodgers-Cubs game began at the same time as Rachel Maddow. My DVR is set to record all the Maddow shows, giving me the option to watch at a later time (often the next day). What I planned to do last night, however, was what I have often done when Pirates games conflict with my favorite political show, namely, watch the game on the television without sound while watching Maddow on my phone or tablet. Last night, I got error messages on my phone and tablet when I tried to access the Maddow Show. I also had this problem the night before as well and had simply put up with it. (I viewed Maddow after the game.) I had encountered this problem some time ago and remember a technician walking me through a fix. Unfortunately, I had forgotten what the fix was, so I called Comcast to solve my problem.

Things went badly from the beginning. In the past, it was reasonably easy to get connected to a technical support person. Last night, however, I was immediately connected to someone who spoke barely intelligible English and who didn’t seem to understand my problem. I asked where he was and was told that he was in the Philippines. We didn’t communicate well, and, without my requesting it, he soon connected me to a woman who seemed to be an American.

After listening to a description of my problem, this next person put me on hold for a while. When she returned several minutes later, she assured me that the problem was an outage in my area that had begun that morning. I asked if the error code I had received indicated an outage and what the nature of the outage might be, since my TV and Internet services were working fine and had been all day. I received no satisfactory answers to my questions and asked to talk to a supervisor.

It took a few more minutes to speak to a supervisor, who, I was told, was helping another customer. After yet another explanation of my problem, I was told that, in fact, the system would not allow me to do what I was trying to do. I could not watch a program on my tablet that was currently being recorded on my DVR; I had to wait until the entire program had been recorded. (Meanwhile, I was missing Maddow and the baseball game, as the telephone call was requiring all my attention.) I protested that what I “couldn’t do” was something I had done many times before. My protestations that I most certainly could do what I wanted to do fell on deaf ears. The supervisor seemed as technically clueless as the last two Comcast employees I has spoken to. At this point, I gave up and said that, no, the supervisor couldn’t help me with anything else.

I looked forward to the telephone quality survey in which I had agreed to participate at the beginning of my call. When I received the automated call-back, I, sadly, was asked only two questions: Was I the person who had called for support? How would I rate the service on a scale from 1 to 5? The answers were, of course, yes and 1.

After my DVR finished recording The Rachel Maddow Show, I again tried to view the recording on my tablet. I received the same error message. About 20 minutes later, however,  I was able to begin viewing my recording on my tablet. However, about 40 minutes in, the recording repeatedly reverted to a position about a minute earlier. I had never seen this behavior before. I finished watching the Maddow recording on my television.

I decided to document the fact that the supervisor didn’t know what she was talking about. I arbitrarily chose an in-process program to record. The program was Ink Master: Angles (whatever that is) on Spike. After a couple of minutes, I brought up the recording on my phone. I then took the pictures below of my phone and TV.

TV and phone screens showing that program is being streamed
TV and phone screens. Ink Master: Angles is being recorded (indicated by the red bar under
the top left image) and being streamed on the telephone.

TV and Phone Screens Showing Same Program
TV and phone screens. Ink Master: Angles on TV screen and being streamed on the telephone.
(TV and streamed content are never perfectly synchronized.)

Clearly, Comcast technical support is clueless and needs to be improved. The people I spoke to last night seemed to be consulting documentation of some sort in an attempt to respond to my problem; they didn’t appear to understand what was happening or what was possible. The next time I call Comcast, I hope I get one of the technical people who knows what he or she is talking about.

October 3, 2017

Post-season MLB Games Begin

Tonight, the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox play a single game to see which team will be given a chance eventually to play in Major League Baseball’s World Season.  MLB’s regular 162-game season—i.e., a season of 162 games for each MLB team—is complete, and the most successful teams now advance to what is being called the Postseason.

MLB logo for the “Postseason”
As I wrote on my Web site seven years ago, “Postseason,” as a noun, is a horrible neologism. (See “Postseason.”) There is no season having to do with posts. The playoffs that begin tonight would better be designated the MLB “Playoffs” or “Championships” Perhaps “World Series Tournament” would be a good name.

Read the essay on Lionel Deimel’s Farrago and see what you think.