Friday, June 28, 2013

June 28, 2013--Mon @ 105; Me @ . . .

It is difficult to continue to pretend that one is anything but old when one's mother is 105.

Today that becomes my reality.

Until she turned 100, my mother didn't tell the truth about her age. Not unlike many of her generation and gender, claiming that she was younger than in fact she was or insisting on buying shoes at least a half a size too small was expected. But then, when she became 100, Mom reversed gears and every six months proudly told everyone, "I am 101-and-a-half today."

And they would say, "But you don't look a day over 90."

Then and today my mother is amazing for much more than longevity reasons.

Though she is not as light on her feet as she was just a year ago, there is very little, very little medically to be worried about. Blessed in this way, that means she can continue to be her remarkable, at times perfect self.

More the one to do the taking-care-of than needing care; on most days more concerned about the state of our country and the world than concerned about herself; more interested in the welfare of her large extended family than interested in focusing on herself; and more attuned to the tremors of uncertainty that shape the lives of friends about whom she cares than to those that occasionally rattle her equanimity.

Though it may be expected that I today would focus entirely on her, including sharing examples of her grit and wisdom, I want also to say a word about how I am experiencing this remarkable passage of time.

OK, after one example:

While visiting with her today (to celebrate quietly the passing of the last day of her 105th year) she told us about how she is living in two worlds--has a foot in each, is the way she put it. One foot is in the world of the very old, of those waiting illness and death; the other world in which she also lives is that of the young--how she often feels, that in spite of her age, she is in young. Very young.

"At those times I believe I am thinking like a young person and have my whole life ahead of me." She chuckled, "And I suppose I do. Whatever is left for me is that 'whole life ahead of me.' And when I think that way, which is more often than you might imagine, I make plans, I think about what I can do to make things better in the world. Just the way you young people do."

That latter comment--about "you young people," generously including me among them--is a good segue to how I am experiencing her gathering of years.

As former children, as we all are, in some ways it is impossible to think about oneself as old. We are our parents' children even if they both are gone. I will always be my father's son though he passed away more than 15 years ago and this will be true after my mother is called. For as old as I in fact get, for as long as I live, I will be her son.

But having a living parent is different. It contributes to the sweet fiction that one is literally young. No matter the actual number of years--and mine is becoming significant--it is much easier to think about oneself as a child and to be comforted by the assumption, excluding tragic circumstances, by the feeling that as long as you remain a child of any age you will have a parent to take care of and protect you.

So, unlike my mother, I haven't yet switched gears to fess up about my actual age, I avoid bright lights when near mirrors, and am OK with the fact that I wear size 13 shoes.

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Thursday, June 27, 2013

June 27, 2013--Day Off

I will return tomorrow, my mother's 105th birthday.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

June 26, 2013--Aisle 3

To stock up, Hannaford supermarket is our go-to place in Maine.

When we open the house for the season, we need to buy everything from Pellegrino water to Hellmann's mayo to Dijon, Guldens, French's, Chinese, and Bavarian mustards to olives to beer to yogurt to orange juice to butter to . . . You get the picture.

What we typically do is start at the produce section and begin to load up the first of two shopping carts with onions, garlic, potatoes, lemons and other staples. We then proceed to work our way up and down every aisle until both carts are overflowing with pasta, tomato sauce, napkins, paper towels, toilet paper, and pretzels.

We need to do this because over the winter we leave nothing in the house for varmints who love pretzels and especially to gnaw on paper towels.

Pretzels, are found in aisle 3, one side of which is devoted to them and chips and such while the other is completely stocked with sodas and other sugary non-carbonated beverages.

This is Maine where land is plentiful and so your typical Hannafords is huge by New York City standards and each aisle is at least 50 yards long. So, the other day, finding ourselves in one of these endless aisles, surrounded on both sides by snack foods and soda was overwhelming. Fifty feet of snack foods? Another 50 of soft drinks?

"Was this aisle always so full of this stuff?" I asked no one in particular. "I seem to remember last year that pretzels and potato chips took up much less space."

"I think you're right," Rona said, "this tremendous expansion of munchies probably reflects the fact the the population here is getting younger and snack foods and soda are staples for many young people."

"And people are probably getting poorer; and as anyone who notices knows, low-income people, when they can, treat themselves to these kind of eating pleasures."

Pleasures such as--

Pringles Snack Stack Originals
Act II Butter Lovers Popcorn
Act II Movie Theater Butter Popcorn
Akmak Armenian Cracker Bread
Andy Capp's Cheddar Fries
Andy Capp's Hot Fries
Annie's Cheddar Bunny Crackers
Annie's Original Bunny Snack Mix
Austin's Toasted Peanut Butter Crackers
Bachman's Baked Jax
Baked Crunchy Cheetos
Baked Tostitos Scoop Tortilla Chips

And on the other side of the aisle, opposite the chips--

Diet Right Tangerine Soda
Sunkist Orange Soda
Crush orange Soda
Dr. Pepper
Polar Diet Pomegranate Soda
Schweppes Club Soda
A&W Root Beer
A&W Diet Cream Soda
My Essentials Peach Soda

And then the Cokes--

Coke Classic
Diet Coke
Cherry Coke
Caffeine Free Coke
Diet Caffeine Free Coke
Coca-Cola Zero
Coca Coal Cherry Zero
Coca Cola Vanilla Zero
Diet Coke Zero
Diet Coke With Splenda
Diet Coke Lime

While I was making the list and moaning about what has became of America, Rona said, "Look at this." She was pointing at one of our bulging shopping carts.

"What are you looking at?"

"The mustards."

"What about the mustard?"

"How many do we have?"

"Dijon and Guldens. We use them all the time."

"Five mustards. We have five mustards and you're making a big deal about Coca Cola?"

"Touché," I said, "And while we're in aisle 3," I added sheepishly, "we do need some Caffeine Free Diet Coke."

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Tuesday, June 25, 2013

June 25, 2013--En Route to Florida

We have an 11:00 AM flight from Boston (4 hours from here) to Florida for my mother's 105th birthday, and so there will be no early-morning posting.

In Delray I expect to be up and typing first thing Wednesday.

Monday, June 24, 2013

June 24, 2013--Ed Iacobucci

Some people know how to live, others how to die, and then there are those very few who know how to do both.

Ed Iacobucci was in that rare, latter category.

Anyone who knows anything about the history of computing and big data knows about Ed's life's work--first, as the leader of the IBM team that developed the OS/2 operating system that ultimately made personal computing possible; and then as founder and CEO of Citrex, which provides server and desktop virtualization, software-as-a-service, and cloud computing technologies, including Xen open source products.

Many of the original founding members of Citrex had participated in the OS/2 project. Ed's vision was to build OS/2 with multi-user support. IBM was not interested so he left and was offered a job at Microsoft as chief technical officer of its networking group; but he turned it down to start Citrex.

Rona and I got to know Ed as a breakfast companion at the Green Owl in Delray Beach. We know lots of regulars there, and enjoy and love many of them; but when we would spot Ed at the counter working on the crossword puzzle we knew the morning would for certain get off to a good start.

He was fun, he was informed, he was interesting, he was provocative, he was playful, creative, and optimistic. Just what one would expect of someone who had been so professionally inventive and successful. But unlike many who were, Ed was as comfortable talking with Ernst the chef as he was with Harvey, the owner of a local insurance agency. When Ed was ready to leave for work, unique among all of us, he would always head for the kitchen to let the staff know how much he enjoyed the food and to ask how things were with them.

Just last week we learned that he was terribly ill and in hospice care. His wife Nancy told us that he had been battling pancreatic cancer for the past 16 months.

I was shocked and almost before expressing my concern, blurted out, "How could that possibly be? We saw him as recently as a few months ago and he was the same old Ed."

"He didn't want to burden anyone with his struggle," she said. "He didn't want to be treated as a sick person. He wanted to keep living as normally as possible until that was no longer possible."

"For what it's worth," Rona said to Nancy, "he achieved his goal. All we noticed was his hair loss. Other than that he was fully himself. He told us he shaved his head to inspire his employees. He told them, he said to us--clearly not sharing the truth of his condition--that he would keep doing that until his new company, VirtualWorks, achieved a certain level of profitability."

"That was Ed," Nancy said when she called to tell us he had died, "He was as inspiring at the end as he was during the 20 years we were married. And I wouldn't trade those years for anything, with all the ups (and some were very big) and downs (these also could be very substantial)."

"We know," I said, "He, and you, rode that roller coaster with great spirit and style. I can only imagine what all those years were like with him. I too wanted my 20 years of Ed."

"One story and then I have to go," Nancy said, sounding as good as one could be in these dreadful circumstances, "You know he was a big Miami Heat fan and wanted to live long enough to know how they did in the finals. The seventh and deciding game was Thursday night. I had the TV on in the bedroom and though he was losing consciousness every few minutes he would ask the score. It was a close game and not decided until the end of the fourth quarter. When time ran out, he awoke again and I was able to tell him the Heat won. He smiled and patted the bed next to him, indicating he wanted me to join him. Which I did. I held him in my arms and after a few sweet moments he stopped breathing."

"Same old Ed," Rona said through her tears.

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Friday, June 21, 2013

June 21, 2013--Privacy v. Secrecy

Ironically, as Americans feel their constitutional right to privacy increasingly impeached by government surveillance programs, the government is losing its ability to maintain secrecy.

And for the same reasons.

Because of the availability of "big data" and the ability to access it--massive computer networks' ability to sweep in trillions of gigabytes of information; information available from telephone and medical records; Internet searches; on-line purchases; and what individuals in giddy ways reveal about their own interests, "likes,"and networks of friends, with all of this information available, it makes it both relatively easy and irresistible for our government to snoop along the digital trail we are all, knowingly or not, blazing.

With the fear and threat of terrorism as the justification, the federal government, as we now know, using unimaginable computer capacities and the ocean of information surrounding and emanating from virtually all of us, has been using the power Congress granted it to do virtually whatever it deems necessary to keep us safe, very much including, with a secret court's permission, listening in on cell phone calls, reading e- and physical mail, assuming anyone any longer drops important letters in mailboxes.

To do this clandestine work effectively, it needs to be done secretly. But the big data and computer systems the government mines and uses to keep track of potential threats and conspiracies can be turned against that very effort and, as we now also know, is equally as impeachable as the right to privacy.

A relatively inconsequential clerk working for government contractor, Booze Allen, with a few keystrokes on his computer in Hawaii, in seconds downloaded thousands of documents that exposed the range of government surveillance programs and the ways in which they operate.

And then he released much of this classified information to the public, thus ending the secrecy necessary for these anti-terrorist programs to thrive.

So along with our privacy, equally jettisoned is the government's ability to keep things secret.

It doesn't get much more ironic than this. And scary.

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Thursday, June 20, 2013

June 20, 2013--Bromances

I don't know about this Chris Christie.

First, in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, he trailed around after Barack Obama with romance in his eyes. Some in the GOP will never forgive Christie for commending the president and walking hand-in-hand with him a few weeks before last November's election and then again this Memorial Day weekend when they frolicked together on the Jersey Shore.

Republicans claim Romney would have won if it wasn't for Chris. I say Mitt was cooked after that 47 percent tape surfaced. But those dead-enders will cling to anything it takes not to have to face reality--that Obama somehow managed to be the only Democrat since FDR to win back-to-back elections by absolute majorities.

And then last week, when Jack Abramoff's former best friend, Ralph Reed, convened a meeting of his new organization, the Faith and Freedom Coalition, and invited to its annual meeting the high-flying contenders for the 2016 nomination--Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachmann, Rand Paul, Rick Santorum, and Jeb Bush (what was he doing there?), Christie opted out so he could participate in a very public sit-down conversation with Bill Clinton at the Chicago convocation of the Clinton Global Initiative, broadened now and renamed the Bill, Hillary, and Chelsea Clinton Global Initiative.

Bad timing, Christie claimed with a straight face--too little time, too many fun things to do.

Chris and Bill literally cooed at each other, recognizing in their doppelgänger one of the two best natural politicians of their generations. This after Hillary, the all-but-annointed 2016 Democratic nominee, gave a wonky speech that was so boring that Bill was seen catching a few winks.

Round one of Clinton-versus-Christie goes to Chris with Bill serving perversely as his trainer and biggest booster.

I can only imagine what Hillary must be thinking.

First, in 2008, Bill torpedoed her candidacy by getting down and dirty (and racist) with Barack. Then, after Obama was nominated, he ran around with him as if he was his newest best friend, even saving his 2012 renomination convention from terminal boredom. The former Commander in Chief emerged as the Explainer in Chief; and, though he undoubtedly envied Clinton's ability to connect, Obama romped back to the White House. In exchange, to demonstrate to Obama there is no free lunch, Bill got together with John McCain last week to trash Obama's Syria policy.

And you of course heard that Christie, realizing he would never get elected weighing 500 pounds (his vice president would on day-one be advised to begin to order new drapes for the Oval Office), because of this he had lap band surgery and is already down to being just grossly obese.

If he loses much more and starts looking like just another Weight Watchers alum, joining Terry Bradshaw, Don Shula, and Kirstie Alley, he will lose his superhero look and maybe half his followers. Being massive and yet light on his feet is a large part of his charisma and power. If he winds up weighing 180, it will be Hillary in a walk since during fearful times we can sure use a superhero or two to take care of us, and by then Hillary will be fitted out as Wonder Woman.

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Wednesday, June 19, 2013

June 19, 2013--Italian Roast

One thing that grates while in New York City is being surrounded by the many trust-funded young people and others being so over-genrously supported by their parents that they develop a sense of entitlement.

I know that life is unfair, but parents' willingness to buy their son or daughter a million-dollar apartment doesn't mean they shouldn't be thinking about being self-supporting or at least looking for ways to give something back.

I am admittedly over generalizing--and I too confess to a sense of entitlement in regard to some aspects of my lifestyle--but there is more than a grain of truth in this perception and it is concerning. Everyone should be striving for something that they can do or contribute. And those fortunate enough not to have to, should make a special effort to do so and at least acknowledge their good fortune.

Then there is Luis at Italian Roast, one of our go-to places for morning coffee while in the city.

We needed to get an early start and Italian Roast is one of the few cafes in our neighborhood that is open all night and is thus serving very early on Sundays. When we arrived at about 7:00, only one other table was occupied and so it would not have been surprising to find the staff half-asleep while waiting for things to pick up. But our server, who turned out to be Luis, was almost too awake, too perky for those of us who need to be caffeinated gradually.

I ordered my usual double espresso and Rona asked for a pot of English Breakfast tea. Luis was back in a flash with Rona's tea and not too long after that with my coffee. "Is there something you'd like to eat?" he bubbled.

"Just a croisant for me," Rona mumbled.

"And a toasted baguette for me," I muttered, not making eye contact, "With butter on the side."

Luis bounded for the kitchen to place the order and before I could down four sips of my espresso was back with our food.

"I brought you some jam," he chirped, "Most of our customers like a little jam with their baguettes."

Eyes still averted, I grumbled, "Thank you," and returned to concentrating on my coffee.

Not to be deterred, Luis hovered by our table and in a few minutes asked, "Is that hot enough for you, ma'am?" Rona ignored him, "I can bring you some more hot water if you'd like."

"Were OK," I said. "If we need anything else we'll let you know. You've been very helpful. Thank you. Everything's fine."

Rona smiled at me, appreciating my taking charge of the situation.

"I wonder how much coffee he's had," I said when he was out of earshot.

"Plenty," Rona siad, "And who knows what else."

"That too," I said, "I wonder what time he got in this morning."

Probably no later than 5:00."

"Or, that he's been here all night. Like the nightshift waiters in the old days at Balthazar who stayed overnight to wait for breakfast to be served."

I saw Luis hovering, eager to be of more service and so, by then more alert, not wanting him to feel ignored or under-appreciated, I signaled to him. "You know, I could use a little more steamed milk for my espresso."

"No problem," he said over his shoulder as he bounded toward the bar where the coffee was prepared.

"That was nice of you," Rona whispered, "He's so eager to be helpful."

When Luis returned with a huge pitcher of steamed milk, I couldn't help but ask him, "You seem so awake. What time did you arrive this morning?"

"And what kind of coffee are you drinking?" Rona added. "I could use some of it myself. I have so little energy in the morning."

"I didn't get here this morning," Luis said with a smile breaking out on his face. "I began at 11:00 last night. I came right over from my other job."

He saw us looking at him quizzically. "I work at a wine bar in Rockefeller Center. Usually from 2:00 to 10:00 and so I can get here to the West Village in plenty of time."

"On weekends?" I asked.

"No, pretty much all the time. I do this six days a week. I usually have a day off. Mainly Wednesdays. So it's not that bad."

"Really?" I blurted out, thinking about so many of the young people we had been encountering, lingering over their own coffee late into the morning. "That sounds like a lot to me. I mean a lot of working."

"Well, last week was a tough one, that I'll admit."

"What was tough about it?" Rona asked. "If you ask me working your schedule six days a week in itself sounds pretty tough."

"The guy who usually fills in on Wednesdays had to go somewhere because his mother was sick and so I had to work seven days, pretty much around the clock. That was tough." We both nodded. "You know, when I leave here at about eight o'clock, when I get home, I'm so charged up it takes me a few hours before I can manage to fall asleep. Sometimes I don't really get to sleep before I have to turn around and head for my day job. I live in the Bronx and it takes me about 45 minutes, door-to-door."

We looked at him sympathetically. "But there's no reason to be concerned about me." I tried to shake that thought off, feeling he already has enough to handle and didn't need to bear the burden of my attempts at empathy.

"I'm doing fine. These days you're lucky if you have only one job." He smiled again. "And think about me--I have two good ones."

He looked around the restaurant which by then was slowly filling up. "Early  mornings I'm waiting all the tables on my own and don't have to share tips with anyone else. So I make pretty good money."

We nodded again, this time emphatically.

"Hey man, nothing to worry about. This is my America!"

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Tuesday, June 18, 2013

June 18, 2013--Big Data

In Big Data: A Revolution that Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think, Viktor Mayer-Schonberger and Kenneth Cukier write--

Internet companies have been particularly swamped [by data]. 
Google processes more than 24 petabytes of data per day, a volume that is thousands of times the quantity of all printed materials in the U.S. Library of Congress. Facebook, a company that didn't exist a decade ago, gets more than 10 million new photos uploaded every hour. Facebook members click a "like" button or leave a comment nearly three billion times per day, creating a digital trail that the company can mine to learn about users' preferences. Meanwhile, the 800 million monthly users of Google's You Tube service upload over an hour of video every second. The number of messages on Twitter grows around 200 percent a year and by 2012 had exceeded 400 million tweets a day.

Think about it.

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Monday, June 17, 2013

June 17, 2013--Factoid

We are justifiably concerned about domestic terrorism and have spent hundreds of billions to prevent it.

Since 9/11, a total of "only" 18 Americans have been killed in the U.S. by terrorists. The last three at the Boston Marathon.

This may be evidence of money well spent.

On the other hand, since 9/11, more than 366,000 have died in the United States as the result of gun-related shootings, many more than that because of obesity, still more from smoking, and at least that many from driving cars.

To prevent these, proportionately, we have spent peanuts.

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Friday, June 14, 2013

June 14, 2013--Miley and Ashton

I was reading a piece in the New York Times about how various celebrities are getting paid by companies to sneak advertisements into their TV shows, movies, and Twitter pages.

The 20-year-old pop star, Miley Cyrus, for example, tweeted the following after flying to northern California to promote her new album--

Thanks @blackjet for the flight to Silicone Valley

This seems innocuous enough except that Black Jet is a company that arranges for private jets for rich folks; and, though Miley refused to comment when asked if she was paid for this mention to her 12 million Twitter followers, the company's CEO said, "She was given some consideration for her tweet."

"Some consideration," I assume, means money or free private jet travel.

When Demi's ex, actor and star of Two and a Half Men, Ashton Kutcher, served as guest editor for the on-line version of Details magazine and wrote favorably about a dozen companies in which he is a major investor, Details' executives didn't seem to have a problem.

Nor did the producers of Two and a Half when he pasted a bunch of labels for other companies he invests in on the back of his character's laptop. Kutcher presumably benefitted by doing this but the producers of the show got nothing.

And like Miley Cyrus, he has not been shy about plugging companies in which he has a financial interest on his Twitter page as a subliminal way of advertising them to his 14 million followers.

When I told Rona about this she just shrugged, as if to say, "What else is new," but she did ask how someone like Miley Cyrus could attract 12 million Twitter followers and Ashton Kutcher 14 million.

"You got me," I said, "I occasionally look at our niece's open-source Twitter postings and admire her enigmatic, often poetic tweets; but about everyone else, the whole tweeting thing seems to me to be superficial and usually downright silly."

"Before you're too condemning," Rona pressed me, "You should do a little more research."

She was right, and so I looked at some of Ashton's and Miley's recent posts.

Here are a few of Kutcher's--

I don't like to b*tch on here but does anyone else feel like all they do all day is charge sh*t?

Wonder what wooly mammoth meat would taste like? RT @pritheworld: Russian scientists discover a wooly mammoth

But, to be as fair as Rona would want me to be, he also has a serious side--

In recent news there's new news about the news

Miley, on the other hand, sent out the following to her 12 million faithful--

When I was a little girl I used to run around saying "I ain't scurred of nuffin"

Booty Tweet. Oopsie Doopsie

I did NOT get a tattoo of wings on my as hahaha

When I reported this to Rona, she sighed and said, "I can't imagine who these 12 or 14 million are who read this stuff. It just feels sad."

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Thursday, June 13, 2013

June 13, 2013--Itty Bitty Boo

In spite of my best attempts to distract myself, I can't stop feeling my every electronic move is being monitored by someone or another.

Who knows what the N.S.A. and C.I.A. are up to. Maybe they're checking to see if I'm googling about homemade bombs or trying to reach an Al-Qaeda e-mail address in Waziristan. In fact, I hope they are.

But I do know for sure what Facebook is up to.

My friends Hedy and Tony just celebrated their 23rd anniversary and Hedy made mention of it on her Facebook page. I sent them a note, saying something like--"Congratulations. I hope you have many more."

Less than a second after I clicked send the message, I received a note from Facebook, saying, "Surprise Hedy with a gift." And with it, up popped an icon to help me buy them a gift certificate for Fandango movie theaters.

To tell the truth, though I should know better, for a number of reasons this shocked me--

How did they know I sent them an anniversary wish without "reading" the text of Hedy's posting and/or "reading" my note of congratulations? This is a lot more of an intrusion on privacy than the N.S.A. "just" keeping an eye on e-mail traffic in western Pakistan.

And then how did Facebook know about Hedy and Tony's movie-going habits? Perhaps from their having gone to a Fandango theater and paying for their tickets with a credit card?

I confess I'm OK with the N.S.A. monitoring e-mail traffic back and forth to known Al-Qaeda e-mail addresses, including if American citizens are doing the e-mailing; but it really spooks me when I think about what Facebook and Google and my credit card companies know about me and then sell that information to various hucksters.

Thinking maybe I wouldn't go for the Fandango gift certificate, Facebook offered me 20 other anniversary gift suggestions, including--

An iTunes gift certificate; one for Starbucks; an Itty Bitty Boo stuffed bear; and, better fitting my mood, a Grumpy Cat Mug.

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Wednesday, June 12, 2013

June 12, 2013--Homographs and Heteronyms

Needing a break from the Patriot Act and the FISA court, I happily became obsessed with homographs--words that are spelled the same, pronounced the same, but have different meanings.

Words such as--


I have no idea how this popped into my head, but it did and I was grateful for it. I needed distractions.

Then, when thinking about homographs and why they even exist, I was at the same time drawn to heteronyms, hundreds of words that are spelled the same, have different meanings, but are pronounced differently.

For example--


It would be easy for the English language to be "cleaned up" so there would be no more non-phonetic words such as though, trough, said, friend, guest, and again to madden poor spellers such as I. And, if we wanted, there would be no homographs or heteronyms. But our wonderful language is far from logical. Thus, no wonder so many native English speakers have trouble with spelling and grammar and why so many for whom English is not their first language have such difficulty learning it.

And this complexity does not even include the trove of idioms that enrich our language. Idioms whosee literal meanings have nothing apparent to do with their connotative meanings--

To have a chip on one's shoulder.
To rub someone the wrong way.
To get down to brass tacks.
To jump the gun.

I love these! Idioms are the most creative, most vivid, most hermetic manifestations of English and virtually every other language.

Who cares that to jump the gun is derived from the gunshot that is used to signal the start of foot races and to "jump" it means to get off to too quick a start, to an illegal start? The idiomatic meaning, not its track-and-field source, enriches our language and slips a bit of poetic mystery into even the most mundane prose.

I was an awful speller, always among the first to be publicly humiliated in elementary school spelling bees where I was unable to spell separate (I could never get all the e's and a's where they belonged) or cemetery (I always inserted an a somewhere) or surgeon (where I never got the sur quite right).

I still can't spell but thanks to SpellCheck I can get by and do not need the help of the Simplified Spelling Society's efforts.

The playwright George Bernard Shaw was devoted to this movement--he too was a notoriously poor speller. In fact, after he died, he bequeathed the bulk of his estate to it. The society's idea, and that of any number of other similar efforts, was to simplify written English using various phonetic alphabets, including some that add a dozen or so new letters to our existing 26 letter alphabet; or, to use the same kinds of symbols used in pronunciation dictionaries: for example, substitute kf for cough.

More radically, there is a Shavian phonetic alphabet that looks like this--

Perhaps these approaches would have served me well in 5th grade (though do not ask me to translate this illustration of how Shaw would have had us represent the English language); but looking back, leaning as early as the 5th grade to take a licking (idiom) in public was good training for adult work situations and now with SpellCheck . . .

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Tuesday, June 11, 2013

June 11, 2013--Barack W. Obama?

Imagine the following scenario--

You are a progressive U.S. senator and also a legal scholar, having taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago. As a very junior senator, at the 2004 Democratic national convention, as the keynote speaker, you expressed grave reservations about the extent and potential overreach of the Bush administration's surveillance of U.S. citizens who, Bush claimed, might be potential terrorists.

Four years later you are elected president of the United Staes and thus, as Commander-in-Chief, become the person most responsible for keeping America and Americans safe.

The first thing you ask for is a series of briefings about national security. You want to know about the major threats overseas and what are the dangers you will need to worry about domestically.

You are briefed primarily about the many crises in the Middle East and Africa--nationalistic movements; the rising power of Islamic fundamentalism; the on-going conflict between Israel, the Palestinians, and their neighbors; and, of course, you hear about Iran's nuclear ambitions and what might or might not be going on in North Korea, which, even four years ago, had atomic weapons and rockets capable of threatening South Korea and Japan.

On the domestic front, as the recently-inaugurated president, your attention turns to threats closer to home--locally-grown terrorists and other plotters who, though not U.S. citizens or legal residents, may have plans to slip across our relatively open borders with intent and the means to do us grievous harm.

"What are we doing about them?" you ask your national security team.

They tell you that, among other things, via the Patriot Act and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the FISA Court, you, as president have been granted by Congress and the courts extensive powers to collect data about potential domestic and international terrorist threats.

As a constitutional-minded chief executive with progressive civil liberties credentials, though you are not surprised to learn this, the extent of the federal government's and your powers as president trouble you.

And so you ask, "Give me some examples of how sweeping in so much private information about citizens paid off--how this thwarted significant terrorist plots. I particularly want to be convinced that this process of domestic surveillance was the only way to stop these plots because if there is a more constitutional, more effective alternative, I will not agree to continue these post-9/11, Bush-era tactics."

A memeber of you team, perhaps the head of the N.S.A. says, "Let me remind you about the so-called subway bomber. You know about him. Just a few months after you took office in 2009, he tried to bring explosives into New York City in order to use them to blow himself up in the subway, potentially killing hundreds and maiming many more."

"Of course I remember that. I feel fortunate we were able to intercept him."

"And do you remember how we were able to do that?"

"I do, but refresh my memory."

"Under the authority of the PRISM Program, N.S.A. was using its powerful computer search engines to monitor an e-mail address in Peshawar, Pakistan that in the past had been used by Al-Qaeda operatives. It had been dormant for months but then someone in the United States was found to be using it. Investigators tracked that user to an e-mail address near Denver, Colorado, to a 24-year-old, Najibullah Zazi, who had been born in Afghanistan but had been brought to the U.S. by his parents as a child.

"In his e-mail, he asked a Qaeda operative for information about how to make a bomb using a flour-based mix. When our people read a subsequent e-mail in which he wrote, 'The marriage is ready,' they interpreted that to mean a major attack was about to be launched.

"Over the next days our people tracked him as he headed east. They stopped Zazi at the George Washington Bridge as he was about to cross the Hudson River and enter New York City. For some reason they fouled up and let him go. Spooked by being interrogated, he flew back to Colorado, but after several false starts was arrested. He confessed to officials that he and other Al-Qaeda cell members planned backpack bombings in the city's subway system."

"So you're saying," the new president said, "that without the ability to read these e-mails, to invade Zazi's privacy, so to speak--he was, I think, a legal resident--we would not have been able to to discover the plot and he likely would have been able to bomb the subway system?"

"That's what we think. His was a real threat that otherwise we would have known about only after the tragic fact.

"Here's how we view this," the president's briefers continued, "like you we worry about the right to privacy but for people working alone or in small groups,for those plotting in the shadows, we need to be able to cast a wide information-gathering net. As someone said, 'To find a needle in the haystack, first you have to have a haystack.'"

As we have known for years, that new president, Barack Obama, did in fact extend most of the Bush-era domestic and international surveillance programs. With constitutional concerns, he nonetheless signed off on the reauthorization of the Patriot Act and, it is now claimed, not only was Zazi intercepted  and convicted but so were dozens of others.

But on the civil-libertarian left, Obama is now being criticized and even attacked. In an editorial last week, for example, the New York Times said, he has "lost all credibility on this issue."

The Huffington Post called him Barack W. Bush and published a mash-up picture of him that combines some of his facial features with others of his predecessor.

Take a look. It's a brilliant example of Photoshopping, but I'm not sure if this picture is worth a thousand words.

'George W. Obama' (via The Huffington Post)

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Monday, June 10, 2013

June 10, 2013--Snooping

There is a fierce debate underway about what data the government collects, especially should collect, in order to thwart terrorists.

Should the CIA or the National Security Agency (N.S.A.) have the authority to know who you call and for what duration? Should the Feds be able to access individual's Google searches and e-mail traffic?

President Obama, employing the authority of the Patriot Act which was passed shortly after 9/11 and reauthorized and signed during his presidency, says there are ample safeguards so that our constitutional right to privacy is being carefully protected while the CIA and N.S.A. root around looking for terrorist activity.

But Obama said on Friday, in today's world of threats, "You can't have 100 percent security and then also have 100 percent privacy."

Like it or not, this is probably true.

But there is criticism from the left--for example, from the American Civil Liberties Union--that this policy and these practices threaten our civil liberties; and there is equally fervent criticism from some on the right such as Rand Paul that the expansion of the powers permitted by the Patriot Act is yet another example of the growth of government's intrusive powers.

Polls show that Americans support what others see to be intrusive polices. To keep us safe from terrorist bombers and mass murderers, most appear to be reasonably comfortable with all the street surveillance cameras (look, they say, without them the Boston Marathon bombers would not so easily have been identified and captured) and are basically all right with police and intelligence agencies being able to read what we say on our Facebook pages or to be able to know if we are using Google to learn how to make pressure-cooker bombs.

Do we prefer to keep all of this information secret and private until after the fact--after the hijacking, after the bombing, after the plane is blown out of the sky--do we want to maintain all of our civil liberties, our full right to privacy, habeas corpus and all that (information that might be useful to prevent terrorism), do we want authorities not to have access to any conspiratorial information until after heinous deed are done?

This is very complicated; but, again, most Americans are willing to allow federal agents to do a good deal of preventative snooping.

In addition, consider this significant irony--

How many in the ACLU, how often does Rand Paul, how frequently do Jon Stewart and Rachel Maddow, how prevalent is it for the media and bloggers to talk with urgent concern and outrage about other, more substantial breeches in our privacy perpetrated by Google, Facebook, Amazon, and even the Home Shopping Network?

Though they are not governmental, still these companies make billions by gathering all sorts of very detailed information about each of us and then either run targeted ads aimed at us or sell the intimate information they have collected to data-miners and anyone who wants to sell us books, vacations, pots and pans, dating services, or Viagra.

Google knows more about you and me than N.S.A. or the CIA combined. Including the detailed sexual preferences of those tens of millions of us who search for erotica on the Internet.

This is not as fiercely criticized; but if we had been able to know in advance the intentions of the marathon or underwear or shoe or 9/11 bombers, if we had seen what they had been googling or e-mailing or posting on Facebook, would the ACLU and New York Times be as agitated as they currently are by what the government has been up to in gathering information about citizens and legal residents?

A final word--

If it were impermissible to gather this kind of information or, shifting the subject slightly, if our security forces were not allowed to use laser-guided weapons and drones, what would the Civil Liberties Union have us do to intercept incipient terrorist activities?

In print and on all the talk shows during which critics of the Patriot Act are given free reign, this question never gets asked--the what-should-we do question. The criticism is at times thoughtful and trenchant as it needs to be--these kinds of policies and PRISM programs need careful scrutiny and must be kept within constitutional bounds--but, once more, in this era of asymmetrical threats, where even U.S. citizens are plotting against us, what should we do?

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Friday, June 07, 2013

June 7, 2013--Pooped

I'm pooped but will return on Monday with a report about our two mockingbirds.

Thursday, June 06, 2013

June 6, 2013--Barack Obama and the Khmer Rouge

I’m not much of a sleeper, so to distract myself from middle-of-the-night fretting, I listen to talk radio, thinking it’s so boring it will drive me back to sleep.
I usually listen to sports talk—which is as enervating as it gets--but last night I tuned in to Savage Nation, an eponymous right-wing program hosted by Michael Savage.
Born in the Bronx as Michael Weiner, he is a little unusual because unlike his ilk he has a really good education—a Ph.D. from UC Berkeley--and he has had considerable success in fields other than milking money from Tea Party crazies. Back in the day he even ran with Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Timothy Leary.
Knowing him as I do from other late night encounters, I anticipated lots of railing about the IRS, Benghazi, and Eric Holder. I wasn’t prepared for his tirade about the seven female senators on the Armed Services Committee and how they are attempting—with Obama’s open encouragement—to undermine our military by pressing to take the investigation and prosecution of soldiers who engage in sex crimes away from the normal, failed chain of command process.
He ranted about how these “harpies”—with Obama again—were like members of the Cambodian Khmer Rouge whose leader, the communist Pol Pot, to consolidate his power, during the 1970s and 80s, called for and oversaw the barbaric torture and extermination of at least two million of his fellow countrymen.
This was so over the top even for the likes of a Savage, Glenn Beck, or Rush Limbaugh that when I awoke I thought I must have been having a nightmare. So I did a little checking.
It appears that Weiner/Savage has been making these Khmer Rouge slanders for a number of years. It is one of his mantas when savaging Obama. (Pun intended.) As an example, here is a long except from WND, a raggy right-wing Website:
Any doubt Americans may have had that Barack Obama is a Marxist should be alleviated now after hearing his rhetoric in a speech in Virginia over the weekend, top talk-radio host Michael Savage told his listeners in July 2012. 
Asserting that it is governments and not individuals who create jobs, Obama told entrepreneurs Friday: “If you’ve got a business – you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.” 
 “You didn’t get there on your own,” the president said. “I’m always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart.” 
After playing the audio of Obama’s remarks, Savage offered a blunt assessment.“So there’s communism,” he said. “That’s Karl Marx Obama. That’s Hugo Chavez Obama. That’s Joseph Stalin Obama. This is a very dangerous man.” 
Savage, noting he has studied dictatorships, recalled that tyrannical regimes “begin with innocent remarks like this.”“This man is the most dangerous, most divisive, most evil – I’ll use the word evil – president in the history of America.” 
Savage acknowledged he was “stepping up” his own rhetoric, because the situation requires it, and no one else will. 
“Things don’t start the way they end,” he warned, drawing lessons from history. “They start with the most innocent remarks like this.” 
The elected Nazi dictator, Adolf Hitler, whose rhetoric originated with 19th century French anti-Semites, did not start with death camps but with relatively benign racial purity laws, and no one stopped him, Savage pointed out. 
“The rhetoric Obama is expressing is not his own rhetoric,” Savage said. ‘This is what is deeply embedded in the man’s brain stem. He has been inculcated with hatred for the American way from the cradle.” 
The Cambodian dictator Pol Pot, Savage recalled, “was a mild mannered professor like Obama” who went to Paris, studied Marxism “and came back a flaming communist.” 
“It ended with a mountain of skulls,” Savage said, with some 2 million people slaughtered in Cambodia’s infamous “killing fields.” 
Pol Pot, instituting what he was taught at Paris universities, unleashed his Khmer Rouge on anyone with an education – the productive people of society. 
“What does this have to do with that nice man in the White House with such a nice wife and nice children?” Savage asked his “Savage Nation” audience. 
“It starts with rhetoric like this,” he said. “It unleashes the genie in the bottle. It justifies any acts of betrayal, any acts of hatred, any acts of sabotage against the successful.” 
He called Obama “the most hateful man who has ever plagued the White House.”
Thinking about Obama, the seven female senators, and the Khmer Rouge, I thought to see just who those seven senators are and what they had to say during the hearings with the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Two of the seven are Republicans—Kelly Ayotte (NH) and Deb Fischer (NE)—and they were just as openly critical, even outraged as their Democratic colleagues.
What’s more, three of the male GOP senators—Roy Blunt (MO), Saxby Chambliss (GA), and John McCain (AZ)—were just as upset about the resistance of the Joint Chiefs to take the problem seriously that they spoke about about it just as forcefully as their female counterparts.
Here is what Khmer Rouge member McCain had to say—
He told an anecdote about a woman he encountered whose daughter was thinking about volunteering for the Army. She asked McCain, in the light of all the reports about sex crimes in the armed forces, if he could offer his “unqualified support for her daughter’s choice.
With a heavy heart, this former air force hero and prisoner of war said, “I could not.”
A final word--Michael Savage never served in the military. Like Dick Cheney, he secured a series of student deferments. 

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Wednesday, June 05, 2013

June 5, 2013--Riddle from the News

Here's one for you--

What do the following people have in common:

Susan Rice
Eric Holder
Barack Obama

A few hints--

Susan Rice is our ambassador to the UN. She was appointed to that post as a consolation prize when President Obama selected Hillary Clinton to be his Secretary of State. Rice had served in Bill Clinton's administration on the National Security Council and then as Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs. When Obama ran for president, she did not support Hillary but rather became a major foreign policy advisor to him. Hillary Clinton never forgot this transgression and lobbied for Rice not to be appointed as ambassador.

Then, after Hillary stepped down as Secretary of State, Susan Rice became the odds-on favorite to replace her. So when it came time for the administration to send someone around to all the Sunday talk shows to explain what happened in Benghazi, Ambassador Rice stepped forward to enhance her political standing and, as it turned out, to take a bullet for the Obama administration. Particularly for the CIA and Clinton's State Department, both having screwed up by not protecting our consulate there and our ambassador to Libya, who was killed by terrorists.

When her talking points (prepared by the CIA and State) proved to be less than accurate, she became the sacrificial lamb and had to withdraw her name from consideration for Secretary of State.

Eric Holder was nominated to be Attorney General after Obama was elected president. Prior to that he too had served in the Clinton administration, as Deputy Attorney General under Janet Reno and before that was appointed to serve as a judge in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia by none other than Ronald Reagan.

As Obama's AG he got into immediate hot water by allegedly being involved in the so-called Fast and Furious incident, a botched federal firearms sting operation that inadvertently allowed weapons to reach Mexican drug gangs. And for supposedly ratcheting back the investigation of voter fraud activities carried out by the New Black Panther Party. He is now knee-deep in a controversy about suppressing the press's ability to do investigative reporting about secret government counter-terroism activities.

About Barack Obama you already know everything there is to know--

He was born in Kenya, is a Muslim socialist, perhaps even the Antichrist. He may also be a member of that New Black Panther Party that his Attorney General refuses to prosecute. Also, he personally wrote or minimally edited Susan Rice's Benghazi talking points and wants to tell parents what their kids are allowed to eat for lunch in school. And, I almost forgot, he has unleashed the federal government to confiscate our guns and then send black helicopters to attack us in order to take away our few remaining freedoms.

So, what do Rice, Holder, and Obama gave in common?

One thing stands out--all are African American or, in Obama's case, African.

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Tuesday, June 04, 2013

June 4, 2013--Oil War

How smart are the Chinese?

According to the New York Times, since the American-led invasion in 2003, Iraq has become one of the world's leading oil producers. And China has moved in on the situation--they already buy almost half of the oil that Iraq produces, nearly 1.5 million barrels a day, and they are angling for an even bigger share from Iraqi oil fields owned by . . . Exxon-Mobil. 
Talk about ironies. We spent almost $1.0 trillion of money we borrowed from the Chinese and lost 4,000 U.S. soldiers while China waited on the sidelines, collecting interest on our debt to them, and then moved in to to claim the real prize--not the overthrow of Saddam Hussein or the elimination of non-existant weapons of mass destruction, but what this was ultimately really all about: oil from an American company that pays no American corporate income tax. If fact, Exxon-Mobil receives tax credits transferred to them from the rest of us.

"The Chinese are the biggest beneficiary of the post-Saddam oil boom," said Denise Natali, a Middle East expert at the National Defense University in Washington.

So how smart are the Chinese?

That's an easy one--as smart as we are stupid.

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Monday, June 03, 2013

June 3, 2013--Affairs In Order

We've been busy putting our affairs in order.

One usually does this when told, "You have three months to live and so I suggest you put your affairs in order."

I'm not sure what else this imperative involves, but to me it has always primarily been to think about what to do with my money after I, well, "pass."

I know these plans should also include saying goodbye to those you love and mending fences where long-standing disputes and hurts, when faced with imminent mortality, seem as trivial as they, in truth, always were.

For us this is far from the first time we have thought about what to do after our end. But, even though as far as we or anyone can know, we do not have just months to live, putting our affairs in order has meant figuring out, agonizing about what to do with our assets.

Neither of us have children or grandchildren--those to whom one traditionally passes along money and other assets and valuables--and so we are left to think about more complicated forms of distribution.

Easiest is to think in categories--siblings, nieces and nephews, cousins, and friends. And to think in percentages--each cousin, for example--all, in DNA terms equal, should get equal shares. But then there are cousins with whom we have lost touch and others who are as close as siblings.

This seems to make sense, but not all are the same age (should we in general  "privilege" youth over age or the reverse?) and not all are in similar economic circumstances. We are, after all, talking ultimately about money, and so shouldn't we take need into consideration?

But then what will they think--those who receive less, even though they are as familiarly close to us as the other first cousins who we think are less well off--what will be their memories of us when they learn about our dispositions? Won't some, not understanding our thinking and perhaps, then focused on themselves, feel we literally shortchanged them?

Of course there are others, closer in the family tree than cousin, who present similar complications. And friends as well.

In the face of this struggle, Rona says, "We did the best we could and we were as honest about our feelings as we were able to be; and since we'll be gone, again how to put this, who cares?"

Well, we do care.

This process may be about assets and cash but it also about our legacy--how we will be regarded when we have departed. We have tried to live well and at the same time be "good people," attempting to act in ways that  avoid making these contradictions in terms; but we also care what people think about us now and when we are in the great hereafter.

Again Rona says, "Look how many people we know who years after a sister or uncle or parent died still nurture hurts and resentments about the departed's bequests. Don't we know someone, a cousin, who 30 years after the fact is still grumbling about a little table that an aunt 'promised' her but somehow wound up in either someone else's hands or at the Salvation Army? And don't we also know someone who thought a bank account had been set aside for her but never materialized?"

So we have been struggling with this; and though we have completed the latest iteration or our wills, neither of us is sleeping well. We wake up in sweats, fretting about how much is enough, what might be too much (if there is such a thing), and what will Cousin X feel about what we plan to do in regard to Cousin Z.

As complicated and difficult as all of this is is the upsetting bottom-line feeling--that what we are doing is about what will become of our assets after we both are dead. Be it tomorrow, later today, or decades from now.

Still, there is no denying that this process, the thoughts that are consuming us, are much more than about what will happen or about what people will think of us after we have left life behind--

This putting-our-affairs-in-order is chipping away at the emotional protection provided by our (and everyone's) ability to deny death. As psychologist and philosopher Ernest Becker some years ago wrote, the ability to deny death is what makes living, even civilization possible.

And this wills-and-estates business is making it harder to cling to the ability to do the denying that is essential to the living.

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