Friday, August 30, 2013

August 30, 2013--Cruzcare

I'm slow so it took me some time to understand why Republicans can't stand the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamcare.

During the past two years John Boehner has had the House of Representatives vote to overturn it 40 times. Literally, 40 times. It was passed each time in lockstep partisan fashion but has never been taken up in the Democrat-controlled Senate.

But every Republican who can't say no to an invitation to be on TV and, more significant, every Republican who sees himself (thus far there are no women) as the GOP nominee to run against Hillary in 2016, is basing his campaign primarily on the promise to get rid of Obamacare.

Never mind that it is based on Republican ideas and practices, from Romneycare in Massachusetts, when he was governor, to the healthcare recommendations of the conservative Heritage Foundation.

But when Obama endorsed these policies in his own version of expanding healthcare for the uninsured, everyone on the right who was for it suddenly was against it.

And now during their August recess town meetings back in their home districts, in the embrace of their apoplectic Republican base, the talk by congressmen and presidential aspirants is almost exclusively about this abomination--Obamacare. They can barely get the word out without becoming physically nauseous.

The opposition is so viscerally agitated that one has to wonder about the source of this aversion.

Thus my belated insight--it's because the Affordable Care Act is popularly named Obamacare. After him!

Forget for the moment that it is the very same Republicans who can't look him in the eye and are made physically uncomfortable when in the same room with him who labelled it such, thinking that in itself would doom it--who would want to see a doctor and have that intimate experience tainted by an overt association with him? This in itself, it was thought by conservative political strategists, would be enough for the masses to rise up and demand it be overturned.

But now that even Tea Party folks are seeing their parents' and grandparents' medications paid for by Obamacare (the donut-hole is closing), their adult children covered by their existing insurance policies, and more and more states agreeing to participate, their strategy is backfiring.

Like Medicare, which at first was passionately opposed by the same right-wing elements but quickly became one of our most popular safety-net programs, how awful would it be if the ACA followed the same trajectory and forever was named for Obama?

There's nothing equivalent for Franklin Roosevelt. The Civilian Conservation Corps could have been called the Roosevelt Conservation Corps, we could have had the Kennedy Peace Corps, and the Johnson Voting Rights Act, or the Reagan Tax Cuts--well, we did have them and look where that got us: trillions in debt.

Yes, there is the Monroe Doctrine and the Bush Doctrine. And there is the Hoover Dam, the JFK and Reagan Airports, and the Eisenhower Interstate Highway System.

But to have a substantial portion of our basic healthcare coverage named for the Kenyan-American president is too, too much.

Canadian-born Texas Senator Ted Cruz, the reincarnated Joe McCarthy lookalike, who has been in the Senate for just a few months and is already running for president, is basing his entire campaign on opposition to Obamacare. Just as Michele Bachmann did the last time around.

Maybe if we can solve the name thing the issue would go away. If Cruz manages to get nominated (unlikely) and elected (get your passports updated)--calling it Cruzcare would detach it from Obama and the millions covered could feel confident that they would not be thrown off the books and left to fend for themselves.

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Thursday, August 29, 2013

August 29, 2013--Dermatologist

I had a little work done yesterday and am OK but a little uncomfortable. I will return pain-free on Friday.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

August 28, 2013--Ladies of Forest Trace: Maureen Shroud

“I’m fed up with her, all the time calling him ‘The One.’”

“I think I know who you mean.”

As usual on Sunday, at the stroke of noon, my more-than-105-year-old mother was calling from Florida. She takes special pride in doing so each week at precisely that time, seeing it as evidence that she, as she puts it, still has her “marbles.” Or, as she has recently come to modify it, in acknowledgement of her very-advanced age, and reality, “at least some marbles.”

“Doesn’t she know what he’s facing? She should know better, that Maureen Shroud.”

“Maureen Dowd,” I corrected her.

Dowd, Shroud, what difference does it make as long as you know what I am saying.”

“I know who you’re talking about but not what you’re saying.”

“If you would stop interrupting and let me catch my breath you’ll know soon enough.”

I could hear the hiss of her oxygen accumulator, which she has taken to using more than usual, and also in the background the voice of Candy Crowley.

“You shouldn’t be reading the paper and watching CNN at the same time. It’s too much for you.”

“There’s so much happening.”

“I know that but you remember what your doctors say.”

“How many of them are 100? When they get there, I’ll pay attention to what they tell me.” She enjoyed that and I could sense her chuckling to herself.

“But as I was trying to tell you about Obama--half of them hate him for we know why.”

“The public? Republicans in Congress?”


“Again, who?”


“Do you think it’s about him or would they hate him even if it was someone else?”

“Him. But now you sound confused.” She was right about that.

“And don’t you think,” I pressed, “the Democrats would do the same thing if there was a Republican president?”

“Some.” I could hear her breathing thickly.

“Do you think,” she continued, “the Democrats would be talking already about infringement?”

“If you’re referring to Maureen Dowd’s column, you mean impeachment.”

“That too.”

“I think Maureen got it right. There are these new Republican members of the House and . . .”

“The Senate too. That one from Oklahoma who is supposed to be his friend. The one with the beard. I forget his name. Heartburn?”

“Close, but no—Tom Coburn. And he is as you said from Oklahoma.”

“Is Maureen right that one of the leaders is Santa Claus?”

“Not actually Santa Claus, but he’s in some sort of Christmas business—Kerry Bentivolio, a freshman congressman from someplace in Michigan. He has a sled with his own reindeer. He apparently spends so much time dressed up as Santa Claus that he talks about himself as ‘we’—him and Santa.”

“I was trying to make a joke about him being Santa Claus. Mainly I wanted to tell you about those crazy people in Congress who hate Obama so much they can’t wait to infringe him.”

Not correcting her again, I said, “I thought Maureen Dowd did a good job of . . .”

“That’s why I called--to tell you that because of this morning’s column I forgive her for what she said about the Clintons. (Though Bill was very bad with that woman). And about Obama and ‘he’s The One’ business. She should know what he has to deal with every day. Worse than Clinton. Who at least deserved much of what she said about him.”

“I agree that often she goes too far, looking to be so clever that she comes off as smug. Though as you said, Clinton deserved to be held accountable.”

“But today, she redeemed herself.”

“You mean with how she concluded her column?”

Over the sound of the oxygen machine I could hear her wrestling with the newspaper. “Let me read to you. The last sentence—‘For some of the rodeo clowns,’” she paused, I thought to catch her breath, “That is going too far, isn’t it? I don’t like name-calling even when it’s deserved, but that’s how they talk these days. Even the best of them.” She sighed.

“’For some of the rodeo clowns,’’” she resumed, “’clamoring for infringement,’ I mean, ‘impeachment around the country’—they’re on vacation again and back in their districts. ‘For some of the rodeo clowns clamoring for impeachment around the country, Barack Obama’s real crime is presiding while black.’”

“I couldn’t agree more.”

“And so do the girls who I have dinner with. They may not be such big fans of his, but they can spot prejudice from a mile away. I’ve told you about some of the things they had to experience in their lives.”

“You surely did.”

“So they know. They know it when they smell it.” 

“For certain.”

Her breathing had become more labored and I suggested she lie down and increase the flow from her oxygen accumulator.

“I’m fine,” she said, gasping, trying to reassure me, “but have to . . . lie down . . . This is what it’s like . . . when you’re my age. Hooked up. Sleeping all the time . . . Like being a baby . . . again.”

“Everyone should be like you.”

With that she hung up. And I hoped turned off CNN.

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Tuesday, August 27, 2013

August 27, 2013--Trump You

Is it any surprise that The Donald is likely involved in a fraudulent "education" enterprise--Trump University, if you can believe it.

But then he is most famous for putting his name on everything from a line of tacky men's clothing to numerous gilded hotels and gambling casinos, golf courses, TV reality shows, and of course cheesy housing and office towers. So why not on a "university"? Especially one that is as much a scam as most of his other ventures.

The New York Attorney General is charging that Trump U is a version of an educational ponzi scheme and is seeking $40 million in restitution for thousands who it is claimed were defrauded by Trump's false claims. In response, eloquent as ever, Trump yesterday called AG Eric Schneiderman a "light weight." Clearly not something anyone would think about calling the ever-inflating Donald.

It is alleged that potential students were drawn into the scheme by first offering access to a free seminar in real estate investing and then from that into a $1,495 (not $1,500) three-day "seminar" which was in fact an "upsell" to increasingly expensive "Trump Elite" packages that could cost up to $35,000 per course and which promised at least some access to Trump himself. 

But of course, as in other classic bait-and-switch scams, things did not turn out as promised. In this case, if students wanted to see Trump rather than finding him in the seminar room, they had to watch "The Apprentice" or check him out on Fox News when he was ranting about Barack Obama's college transcript and birth certificate.

In the spirit of fair-and-balanced, I should note that education scams are sadly not that unusual. There are too many examples of even legitimate institutions of higher learning engaging in shoddy and corrupt practices--like Trump, in order to make money.

My personal favorite occurred in the 1970s when Touro College in New York City bought four nursing homes from Dr. Eugene Hollander, Touro board chair, for $29 million and then leased them back to him to enable him to raise his Medicaid rates so that he could cover the cost of his lease and pay Touro at least an additional $100,000 a year while making a fortune for himself. (Hollander pleaeded guilty to Medicaid fraud, was put on probation for five years, and fined $1.0 million.)

Perhaps flush from its profitable nursing home experience, also in the 1970s, also seeking to make as much money as possible to support its expansion plans, Touro enrolled as adult students hundreds of low-income elderly people, some of whom could not read or write English, in its adult-education programs. Investigators asserted that the programs had been established primarily to help students obtain federal Pell as well as NY State Tuition Assistance Grants so they could pay Touro's tuition. Needless to say, the college, scamming, did not provide anything resembling classes in the nursing homes in which its "students" resided.

My actual favorite higher education scam was an only-slightly facetious program under consideration at a unnamed university well known for its adult degree offerings. 

Under pressure from the host institution to collect as much tuition and fees as possible and spend as little as possible on underpaid part-time faculty, the adult division came up with a number of innovative courses that met at numerous off-campus locations at day and evening hours seven days a week. 

Though it was a thriving enterprise, the adult division came under pressure to provide more-and-more income to feed the overhead of the rest of the university. So much so and so relentlessly that staff proposed a program that would bring in considerable  income but require no expenditures--that it would be an all-profit venture--The Special Degree Program for the Previously Living.

The staff enjoyed the macabre process of developing the curriculum (there were, for example, no political correctness problems with literature courses devoted exclusively to DWMs--dead white males) and writing promotional copy ("learning that lasts an eternity"); but the central administration who at first misread the euphemistic name of the proposed program gave it careful consideration before getting the joke. 

On the other hand, they redoubled their efforts to pressure the dean of the adult division to consider devising programs for the elderly who, because of their low-income status, would be eligible for Pell Grants and  . . .

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Monday, August 26, 2013

August 26, 2013--Warp Speed

When I got my first PC, I connected to the Internet via a dial-up telephone line. To me the Net felt like the most amazing innovation since Gutenberg invented movable type. This was in the early days of Google and even then the amount of information readily available by surfing the Net was astonishing.

Over time, "readily available" evolved in meaning.

My connection to the Internet back then took a minute or so to activate. To wait such a short time and then to have access to a seemingly infinite amount of knowledge felt more than worth the wait.

But quickly, Internet connectivity via cable systems and then through various forms of broad-band wirelessness made waiting for a dial-up connection seem endless. Even five seconds felt like eternity.

Now, I am so spoiled that if anything takes more than a second I feel frustrated and deprived. I want everything to be instantaneous.

Speed has its advantages as well as its downside.

When an idea pops into one's head (which often occurs in what feels like a nanosecond--insight, inspiration, creative thought) it is good to be able to record this in the moment so as not to see it evanesce as quickly as it manifested itself; and, if instant further information or elaboration might be helpful, being able to do this quickly often secures and enriches the initial perception. At those moments I want my brain firing at warp speed and my access to Internet-derived information instantaneous.

The downside can be the too-quick codification of a spark of innovative thought that would benefit from rumination and careful elaboration. This very much includes allowing half-baked ideas with little potential to melt away, to clear the space needed for devotion to those ideas with more promising potential.

And then in the economic realm, as we have seen in recent years with the largely-automated stock market, speed itself can add uncertainty and even chaos rather than precision to an already uncertain and chaotic system.

After a number of crashes that paralyzed markets and caused hundreds of billions in loses, retrospectively, it was determined that pushing for more and more speed in executing trades was itself a major cause of the problem.

According to a recent Web posting by the New York Times, it is claimed that the need for speed comes from a market in which high-frequency traders expect to be able to get in and out of positions within a second. "Better," and literally, in less than a second. Any market that cannot offer such speed will be at a competitive disadvantage.

On the surface, assuming speed is actually a benefit, there may also be a self-perpetuating process at work--because competitors' ways of trading may be quicker, this means that to be in play, regardless of other desirable qualities, everyone has to be equally obsessed with speed in and of itself.

Speed for its own sake? Speed for more efficient or effective markets? Speed to allow for more transparency? Speed to be able to provide safeguards?

Actually, little of the above.

Again, according the the NYT, "speed is not compatible with safety features that could cause suspicious orders to be delayed while someone--a slow person, perhaps--checked to see whether something was amiss."

It may be valid to claim that speed in these kinds of transactions is especially and perversely desirable if one wants to obscure what is in fact happening. Speed can be useful to some who are attempting to pull a fast one, to get something accomplished so fast that it cannot be reviewed or regulated. Or before others, who are moving slower, can fairly compete.

There are credible reports which show that some, who want to gain an advantage in certain trading situations, where, for fees in the millions, they purchase privileged information for less than a half-second before it is shared with the wider public. That half-second advantage allows arbitrage-like trades to occur without monitoring or even competition; and as a result can net someone off the mark a split-second faster risk-free billions.

But when these same capacities of otherwise little intrinsic value are created and then spin out of control, as we are frequently seieng, everyone but those on the sheltered inside are left to live with the debris and absorb the costs of the fallout.

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Friday, August 23, 2013

August 23, 2013--Wonderful Feeling, Wonderful Day!

Rona was reading about the overprescription of antidepressants. How in general one in ten use them, but for women in their 40s and 50s the percentage soars to one in four. And then for patients 65 or older, the number increases to almost half the population, with women again having them prescribed at much higher rates than men.

Perhaps worse, there is clear evidence that doctors are too quick to take out their prescription pads to set patients on the path to drug dependence. Six out of seven of older women who began taking Zoloft or Paxil did not fit the criteria for their use by the psychiatrists' bible, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

It is claimed that this overuse is in part because of all the ads on TV and in women's magazines pushing these drugs so that when people see their doctors they ask for them. Busy doctors are then too quick and willing to write script so they can race along to the next patient.

Reading this report to me from the New York Times, Rona confessed, "Though I'm not prone to depression I do sometimes wake up on the wrong side of the bed."

"I love that idiom--wrong side of the bed." I wonder where it comes from."

"You and your idioms," she said, "I'm being serious."

"Sorry. I thought I was as well."

"What I wanted to share is how I am, non-medically, trying to deal with my tendency toward morning grumpiness."


"By putting a smile on my face." I looked at her skeptically. "Really, I'm finding that by doing this I am orienting myself in a more positive direction. This may sound simplistic, but it seems to be working."

"Putting a smile on your face--which makes sense to me since, as you know, I'm a bit of a behaviorist--comes from that song, doesn't it, It's Almost Like Being in Love?"

"Actually, that's not a bad idea."

"What's that?"

"Maybe singing an uplifting song mornings, not just trying to smile."

"Sort of the Power of Positive Singing?"

"Exactly! I'm not wanting to compare myself to people who have bigger problems than waking up not feeling good. There are many who are deeply troubled and can be helped with the proper use of meds. But for those of us fortunately less afflicted, maybe singing a simple song of a certain kind during the day could be helpful."

"Perhaps Zip-a Dee-Doo-Dah," I said, "from Disney's Song of the South would qualify?"

With that, we both began to sing--
Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah by Song Of The South
Zip-a-dee-doo-dah, zip-a-dee-ay
My, oh my what a wonderful day!
Plenty of sunshine heading my way
Zip-a-dee-doo-dah, zip-a-dee-ay

Mister Bluebird on my shoulder
It's the truth, it's actch'll
Ev'rything is satisfactch'll
Zip-a-dee-doo-dah, zip-a-dee-ay
Wonderful feeling, wonderful day!
This did put smiles on our faces and made us feel lighter-spirited.

"It worked for me," I gushed. "And before going to bed?" which would be in an hour or so, "What might we sing then to insure happy dreams?"

"How about this from the Beatles?" 

Sweetly Rona sang--
Now it's time to say good night
Good night, sleep tight
Now the sun turns out his light
Good night, sleep tight
Dream sweet dreams for me
Dream sweet dreams for you 
Close your eyes and I'll close mine
Good night, sleep tight
Now the moon begins to shine
Good night, sleep tight
Dream sweet dreams for me
Dream sweet dreams for you
Close your eyes and I'll close mine
Good night, sleep tight
Now the sun turns out his light
Good night, sleep tight
Dream sweet dreams for me
Dream sweet dreams for you
Good night
Good night everybody
Everybody everywhere good night
"By the way," I said, yawning, "The wrong side of the bed is the left side because in Roman times, the left, or sinister side was considered to be dangerous and even evil."

"This is not an example of the power of positive anything." 

Rona was right--it was getting late. 

With a shy look I asked, "Can we go to bed now?"

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Thursday, August 22, 2013

August 22, 2013--Pooped

Too much running around. I will return on Friday.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

August 21, 2013--A-Rod

There was a kid in the supermarket wearing an A-Rod shirt. It takes guts to wear an Alex Rodriquez shirt these days, especially up in Maine where pretty much everyone is a rabid Red Sox fan and hates the Yankees.

As a closet Yankee rooter myself--at least while here--I asked him if he thought Rodriquez would win his appeal.

The kid just shrugged.

That's the right answer.

Because of allegedly having used banned human growth substances and lying about it, Major League Baseball has suspended Rodriquez for 211 games. That's considerably longer than a 162-game season and, considering A-Rod's age (he'll be pushing 40 when he would be allowed to play again), it is a version of a professional death sentence.

It may be that, but he is owed about $90 million by the Yankees over the last four years of his contract and he would be entitled to it even if his appeal is denied and he never plays another big-league game. He has that good a contract.

On the other hand, the Yankee owners, who have come to despise him and are attempting to cut the total team payroll to $189 million a year, have an interest in seeing him declared medically disabled and incapable of playing, which would mean that their insurance policy would have to pick up the cost of Rodriquez's remaining contract.

Ah, there may be the rub.

During the past two years A-Rod has had a number of significant medical issues that required at least two hip operations. But he is now healed and rejoined the team about 10 days ago. Since then he has hit a couple of home runs and the Yankees have again begun to win ballgames.

From a Yankee perspective this should be a welcome thing. What team really cares if its players cheat by juicing themselves up with steroids as long as they hit the ball out of the park and fans show up and spend big bucks on tickets and over-priced hot dogs and beer.

To make the game more exciting by making it easier to hit home runs, teams have been moving fences closer to home plate and making the baseball itself livelier. Who cares? We're not talking neurosurgery or rocket science but guys running around in knickers and getting paid millions to play a kid's game.

But, if A-Rod is past his peak (with or without drugs, he is) and is costing his team owners tens of millions, would one be surprised if the Yankee's greedy owners engaged in a little hanky-panky to get rid of him?

Like maybe conspiring with team doctors to claim Rodriquez is ready to play when in fact he is not? To put him out on the field before he is fully healed in the hope that he might become permanently injured and thus could be taken off the payroll and be paid through the team's insurance policy?

Rather than taking his suspension passively like the other suspended players are, A-Rod has hired a new team of kick-ass lawyers to represent him. And he has them claiming that this medical conspiracy in fact occurred.

Before dismissing this assertion too quickly (as I at first did--I don't much like him either), take note of the fact that the doctor who most recently treated Rodriquez and deemed him fit to play has thus far refused to comment about this accusation.

If true, this could qualify as one of the biggest scandal in baseball history. And that includes gamblers fixing the Black Sox 1919 World Series.

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Tuesday, August 20, 2013

August 20, 2013--Midcoast: Mud Splattered

We don't need a new car but it's fun to look around.

Rona the other day was saying that we don't really need our VW Passat station wagon. That it's too big and hard to maneuver in and out of our narrow driveway. What's more, she says, "It's a little boring. Shouldn't we, for the summer at least, have something a little smaller and more fun? Maybe even a convertible?"

Up here in the midcoast of Maine, vehicles of choice are pick-ups, Volvos, and lots of Subaru Outbacks. All well-splattered with mud.

Driving back from our once-a-month car wash, we spotted a rare, sleek BMW ragtop. "Something like that," Rona suggested, pointing and  craning her neck to get a better look at it as it raced up the Bristol Road.

"Really?" I said, "No real Mainer would drive something that fancy. Even the very rich people here drive broken-down pickups. It's not like East Hampton where everyone has a Range Rover or Boca Raton where Bentleys outnumber Chevys."

"And none of those come coated with mud. Every other place in Florida is a car detailer." I knew from this that Rona was only playing with the idea of getting something spiffy to drive that would make us stand out and alienate us from all our friends.

"I don't think we've seen one Range Rover," Rona said, feeling good about that. "That's one of the reasons we like being here so much--you don't have to drive a Mercedes to show off or fit in."

"And I can get away with having only five pairs of pants to wear."

"Actually, four," she corrected me.

Not disputing that, I said, "There's another reason to keep our current car, though after washing it it looks a little inappropriate. I sort of liked the mud."

"What's that?"

"The other day in the New York Times I saw an article about a study, an actual study that compared how rich and lower-income people drive."

"Which concluded?"

"Essentially," I said, "that BMW drivers as compared to people with Fords are much more aggressive and discourteous."

"Why am I not surprised. Show it to me when we get home."

Later, while reading it, Rona quoted from the piece, "'The [study] team watched a four-way-stop intersection [in Los Angeles] over a week, noting how likely drivers were to cut in front of others when it was not their turn to go. In their observation of 274 cars, the researchers found that the more expensive ones were more likely to jump their turns in the four-way rotation.'"

"Didn't they also find," I recalled, "that about 80 percent of the drivers did the right thing?"

"Yes, that's the good news. 'But,'" she read from the article again, quoting the lead researcher, who did a study of cars and pedestrians in crosswalks--in California the law requires cars to yield, "'But you see a huge boost in driver's likelihood to commit infractions in more expensive cars. In our crosswalk study, none of the cars in the beat-up car category drove through the crosswalk.'"

"That settles it," I said, "No BMW for us. I like my VW. Especially when it's all splattered."

"That should be by later this afternoon," Rona said to assure me that we would soon lapse back into inconspicuousness.

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Monday, August 19, 2013

August 19, 2013--With Charity to Some

A friend from an old southern family lived off income from her grandfather's trust. He was wise to place his assets there since his only daughter, my fiend's mother, wasn't all that well physically or, more germane, mentally. She had a troubled life that included much drinking and ended sadly, in the custody of an institution. There was a great deal of family money and the place she lived out her final years was at least kindly and situated in a luxurious park-like setting.

Grandfather S____  set up the trust so that when his only daughter and grandchild, my friend, who also had issues that included too much drinking, died, all remaining assets would pass to the ASPCA. He was that devoted a lover of animals.

When my friend and I spoke about him and how he made and planned to dispose of his money, though we too cared about animals, we wondered why someone like her grandfather wanted to help cats and dogs but not people.

And then later, when I went to work at the Ford Foundation, I wondered further that with all the suffering in the world the foundation didn't devote all of its assets to alleviating poverty, inequality, intolerance, and violence.

Why make tens of millions of dollars a year in grants to cultural institutions when children are ill, starving, and in too many places brutalized? Yes, preserving indigenous cultures and the arts of disenfranchised people is a worthy effort; but in comparison to the more basic needs of people, why would one want to make that choice?

This was not for me to say. It wasn't my money that was at issue, but the foundation's; and, on balance, I felt I could live with Ford's agenda, most of which was devoted to alleviating various forms of human inequality and suffering.

But, as a liberally-educated person, who enjoyed the arts, even finding them essential to a rich and diverse life, I did not press these issues, feeling fortunate to be able to direct most of the resources for which I was responsible to institutions and individuals who were struggling to improve schools, end discrimination, and foster equality of opportunity.

But now, as more money becomes available for institutional and individual philanthropy, people in the field of charitable giving are also asking versions of my ASPCA question.

For example, why give $100,000 to a museum building fund when that same $100,000 could reduce the incidence of trachoma (which leads inevitably to blindness in affected young people), at $100 a treatment, for 1,000 people?

For arts lovers with money to donate, this is a complicated conundrum.

In an ideal world, we should do both and many more important and worthwhile things--protect natural resources, reform schools, expand health care, build cultural institutions, save indigenous languages, provide potable drinking water, reduce violence against women, support efforts to reduce intolerance, fund struggling artists, endow universities and schools of music . . .

But to those who advocate "effective altruism," the choices--even though it's "your money"--are clear in a less than perfect world. As much as we want dogs and cats to be treated well, shouldn't eliminating trachoma (which is doable) come first?

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Friday, August 16, 2013

August 16, 2013--Arab Winter

Fridays in August should be times for languor and light spiritedness. Pass by this then if you want to protect your tranquility, but I cannot resist saying a few words about the escalating crises in the Middle East.

With a state of emergency declared in Egypt--after hundreds there were slaughtered by the military in an attempt to take the country back from the democratically-elected leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood--with continued unrest in Bahrain; democracy under threat in Tunisia, Iraq, Libya, and possibly even Turkey; and an all-out civil war raging in Syria, what ever became of the hope engendered by the Arab Spring that commenced in Tunisia more than two years ago?  The hope that authoritarian leaders from Muammar al-Gaddafi in Libya to Hosni Mubarak in Egypt would topple one-by-one and liberal democracies would take their places?

Isn't this what Barack Obama early in his presidency in a speech in Cairo saw to be the strategic opportunity in the region? And wasn't it for this that he was awarded a preemptive Nobel Peace Prize?

But now we have this--a tectonic nightmare of old authoritarian regimes overthrown and supplanted by radical leaders, many of whom either have ties to al Qaeda or tolerate their presence. Who foresaw that this would be the last gasp of 19th century colonialism and the dawn of a complicated new day in the Muslim world? 

Actually, many did who knew anything about the history of the Arab lands and the contesting forces active in every country throughout the region.

Does anyone doubt that events in Egypt will lead to a civil war there at least as ugly as the one underway in Syria? With the military government so casual about murdering hundreds of protesters isn't it inevitable that this will not suppress the opponents of military rule but motivate and inspire them to become more aggressive, ultimately take up arms, and prevail?

Is there any doubt that at some point in the not distant future we will see similar situations in Jordan and even Saudi Arabia where corrupt monarchies currently rule?

Then what we will have? A region in full turmoil with access to oil severely restricted. What will then be the consequences for the global economy? 

The ideals espoused by Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama in historical perspective look naive. 

Not everyone wants a government similar to ours (in fact, a majority of Americans themselves aren't too happy with the state of our own current government), not every country (especially those with arbitrary borders drawn up by the West after the First World War) is culturally set up to embrace democracy. And when they do fight for and achieve the right to vote--with our endorsement--they elect leaders from Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Muslim Brotherhood. 

This is just another sad example of unintended consequences, of the danger of getting what one wishes for.

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Thursday, August 15, 2013

August 15, 2013--Eyeglass Update

A number of friends reading here about my eyeglass plight kindly wrote to share stories about their own struggles with aging eyes and offered helpful suggestions about what I might do to manage my proliferating need for various kinds of glasses--from reading to those for intermediate and long-distance viewing.

Bifocals was the answer for some while others shared the ease and convenience (after a considerable transition period) trifocals provide.

I thought you might like to know about the adjustments I've made and how I am managing.

For my readers, rather than worrying about which book I should leave them perched on (since I usually have two or three books going at once) or buy one or two back-up pairs--one for each book--I am placing them only on the book by my bedside. Not the one on the daybed nor the other next to my favorite reading chair.

This seems to be working as long as I remember it's the book in the bedroom that I'm intending to use as my eyeglass repository and do not confuse things by leaving them on top of the last book I was reading before nodding off for my afternoon nap. (Currently, the fine Fools by novelist Joan Silber.)

Rona's suggestion about this--admittedly she has a lot to put up with in regard to me, now multiple eyeglasses in addition to other matters I'd prefer at the moment not to discuss--her recommendation is that I read only one book at a time and thereby solve my reading glasses issues and, as a happy consequence, have more time to be involved with her.

But there I go stumbling into those other matters.

For intermediate viewing I believe I reported last week that my old, out-of-date readers were serving well for TV watching, cooking, and eating. But Rona so hated the "old-man frames"--her description--that made me look, she claimed, "just like" my father, that she confiscated them and then donated them for recycling to the local hospital.

"Let someone else look like your father," she said.

"But you loved him and he loved you so I'm  . . ."

"I did, but you're not him, and my love for him was different from mine for you."

I was happy to hear that. The part about loving me.

But still frustrated, I rooted around in my draw-full of old glasses and found a pair that appear to work perfectly for midrange seeing. And since they have "cool" frames (Rona's description again), I do not as a result look anything like my father. At least when it comes to eyeglasses.

I watched Sunday's episode of Newsroom with them and could see perfectly. On the other hand, I couldn't hear or understand any of the dialogue and had to ask Rona repeatedly what was going on.

But my hearing is another issue I prefer not to talk about.

For long-distance seeing, my old 1.0 magnifiers continue to serve well. I have my two pairs in the car--tinted ones for daytime driving and clear ones for after-dark. Again there is the problem of twilight. At this time of year it commences at about dinner time and driving to restaurants in half-light is becoming problematic. But when going out we're staying close and eating in more than usual.

I'm fine with that. Rona, however, isn't. When driving, she has been giving me attitude about all the switching from tinted to clear glasses and then, at twilight, to wearing no glasses at all.

"Perhaps I should drive," she offers as the sun begins to set.

"I'm fine," I respond half-truthfully. "This way you can drink as much wine as you like and I'll be the designated driver." I try winking to show I have a sense of humor about this subject (I don't). But suspect even my version of charm is not working.

Maybe I should look onto getting glasses for long-distance needs of the kind they advertise on TV that get darker or lighter depending on the ambient light.

I know what Rona would say to that--"Trifocals."

But that's yet another matter.

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Wednesday, August 14, 2013

August 14, 2013--Dog Days

During the dog days of summer, one friend's dog is doing very well indeed.

While his owners were away for a long weekend, Fido (not his real name) was being taken care of poshly by City Pooch (not its real name).

But the following from "Marco" of City Pooch is unredacted--
Dear Diane & Dave [not their real names]:  
It was really great meeting you both (and Fido!) yesterday. I can tell that he is very well looked after. Especially as he was chilling on the couch next to me, dozing off. It's a hard life for Fido, huh? :-) 
To recap this weekend's services:  
Thurs Aug 1 - PM: you will bring Fido and his accoutrements to my place, 1223 Bedford Avenue. If you have time, I can show you around the apartment and the yard. On Thursday night, I'll give him dinner and his PM walk. He will, of course, sleep with me. :-) 
Fri Aug 2 - Tuesday Aug 6: I'll be giving Fido his morning walk, breakfast, a vigorous period of mid--day fun (running with me, playing fetch in the yard, taking long walks with me) - my goal is to wear him out. He'll get dinner and a PM walk, then bed around 10-11 PM.  (He will of course sleep with me.)
Tues Aug 6 - AM: you'll be coming by at some point in the earlier part of the day to pick Fido up. We can text coordinate the time for that. 
For pics and videos:  
1. You can follow my Instagram account "dogs&cats" where all the photos of Fido will be streaming. I will also be texting you the best pics.  
2. Videos, I will email to you both on a regular basis (about 1-2 vids per day) 
As for future daytime walk needs, just let me know. I can walk Fido myself sporadically until you need a full time walker, at which point I will set you up with an accredited, bonded, insured person who I trust, and who has received solid client feedback.  
I have agreed to discount you for the Fido service this time to a flat $400.  
Please confirm we're a go, and I look forward to spoiling Fido at my place beginning Thursday! 
Who do you think had the better weekend? 
Diane and Dave stuck in stop-and-go Hamptons' traffic? Or Fido, sleeping with Marco in ultra-hip Williamsburg?

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Tuesday, August 13, 2013

August 13, 2103--A Handful of Idioms

Idioms enrich every language. That in itself is remarkable and says something profound about collective human inventiveness--the creation and constant reshaping of the world's nearly 7,000 remaining languages. 

But understood literally, idioms make no sense whatsoever. 

Let's get down to brass tacks. Brass tacks? What does this refer to? Though we know its non-literal, idiomatic meaning is that it's time to conclude things, "Enough back and forth. Enough indecision. It's time to get down to brass tacks."

How did that transmogrification from the literal to the idiomatic occur? We can look up the source and the first usage but we can't distill the figurative alchemy involved in that linguistic redirection. Or figure out why, somehow, the idiom is so much more powerful than, in this case, "OK, enough. Let's conclude matters." 


Shoot the breeze. What does this literally mean? Not easy to figure that out. We need Google's help with this Second Amendment puzzle. But we do know from usage that it means hanging out, talking about this and that. Nothing all that serious. 

Again, the gap between literalness and the metaphoric force of the idiomatic meaning is vast, but the essential truth comes crashing through as only a well-chosen idiom assures. And again, unless we study these things, we have no idea whatsoever how this remarkable idiom entered the language and came into such widespread usage. 

Get on one's nerves. This one is easier to figure out. Somehow the literal and non-literal meanings seem close to coalescence. But the idea of being annoyed by someone because he gets on your nerves--on your nerves--which is anatomically incorrect, doesn't matter at all. Again, the non-literal trumps and winds up making visceral, if not literal sense.

To bust one's chops, or, if you will, balls. The figurative meaning of these needs little explanation; but to get to the literal, one would likely think takes us back to the anatomical (the source of a good many of the world's idioms). One would be only half right. 

The chops that are busted are not ribs but rather sideburns--mutton chops--massive ones that were common a few centuries ago; and if one, sporting these then fashionable sideburns got into a tavern brawl and got punched in the side of the head--in the (mutton) chops--things probably wouldn't turn out very well. So thus, having one's chops busted . . .

Busting balls, however, is decidedly anatomical. Painfully so. Though it may, as an idiom, feel fairly benign--having one's balls busted often simply means being annoyingly, perhaps unfairly criticized--but if one were a macho bull about to be changed into a docile castrated steer--the literal source--well, that is something very much else.

Through usage, idioms take on figurative meaning. And in the distinction between their literal and non-literal sides, there is vitality, mystery, at times poetic contraction. And when they are at their best, there is no better way to express oneself. 

One does not have to make a translation from the literal meaning of get a kick out of something to its idiomatic meaning to realize that there is no better way to say that I'm just having a ball. Whatever that literally means.

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Monday, August 12, 2013

August 12, 2013--New York, New York

The line from the song New York, New York, "If I can make it there, I'll make it anywhere," has never been more untrue.

Just take a look who's running for mayor and, even better, for comptroller.

In a city that unashamedly calls itself America's foremost city, the self-proclaimed most important metropolis in the world, where most of the nation's major financial institutions are headquartered, where there is to be found the Great White Way--Broadway--where the advertising and communications industries are centered, where penthouse apartments can go for upwards of $100 million, there are more mediocre candidates running for citywide office than in Detroit.

The leading candidate for mayor, Christine Quinn, speaker of the rubber-stamp City Council, is a go-along-get-along politician who is better known for her out-of-control temper than for her record of public accomplishment. If elected she would be the first woman to hold the job and the first who is openly gay.

Then there is former comptroller, William Thompson, the Harold Stassen of New York who emerges to run for mayor every four years. His best credential--president of the Board of Education that oversees the more than 1,000 public schools in the city. His only problem--test scores and high school graduation rates plummeted while he was in office. His boldest idea is to hire 2,000 more police. Good luck with that in an era of cutbacks and layoffs.

Also in the race is the current comptroller, John Liu. He is best know for being Asian and under investigation by the FBI since it is hard to know exactly the source of most of his campaign funds much less discover how they were spent. It is suspected that somehow much of that money found its way more to the comptroller and his cronies than to his campaign. If elected, he would "fight" to increase the minimum wage in the city to $11.50 and hour. About the price of a hamburger with fries at the typical New York luncheonette.

Lurking in second place in the polls is Anthony Weiner, internationally famous for his Internetting but not for much of anything else. His boldest idea is to institute a single-payer health care system for the city. As they say in my old Brooklyn neighborhood, "Fat chance." The very idea that this creep could become mayor is unfathomable to old-line New Yorkers. But then again there he is, perhaps the favorite of the Jewish and African-American communities, both of which believe deeply in redemption, and thus he is potentially electable.

This is the city of larger-than-life mayors such as Peter Stuyvesant, John Lindsay, Robert Wagner, Ed Koch, Rudy Giuliani, and currently mega-billionare Michael Bloomberg, not pip-squeaks such as Sal Albanese or Erick Salgado, other no-name candidates who would be more appropriate mayors for, say, Jersey City.

The good news--it is rumored that lurking in the wings, considering running, is Kelsey Grammar of Cheers fame. I'll drink to that.

Now let's get to the really good stuff--the race for comptroller. There are two candidates to whom I wish to draw attention--

First, former New York attorney general and governor, Eliot Spitzer. Yes that Eliot Spitzer, forever to be known as "Client 9." Also incredibly in the race is Kristin Davis, a former madam whose foremost credential is her claim to have supplied prostitutes to Mr. Spitzer. He denies that but nonetheless, they are locking horns as two of the best known candidates for city comptroller. And "best-know" counts for much when it comes to elections among mediocraties and reprobates.

In the middle of this hotly contested race, Davis last week was arrested for illegally buying and selling hundreds of drugs containing controlled substances. It is not disputed that Ms. Davis sent the following text message to her dealer--

"I got you 30 Xanax. If u run low let me kno!! Ur the best! . . ."

Spitzer is likely to win but wouldn't it be more fun if Kristin did.

And New York, in addition to being known as the Big Apple and the City that Never Sleeps, has also been known as Fun City.

She the best.

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Friday, August 09, 2013

August 9, 2013--Long Weekend

I will return on Monday.

Thursday, August 08, 2013

August 8, 2013--Boys . . .

Barack Obama's decision to cancel his summit meeting scheduled for September with Vladimir Putin is a sad example of how even silly emotions can get in the way of acting wisely.

Obama is upset that the Russians refused to extradite Edward Snowdon, the Booz Allen contract worker who downloaded and distributed thousands of documents that reveal how the NSA and CIA extra-legally gather data about virtually all of us and many citizens of other countries as part of the war on terrorism.

Yes, Putin should have found a way to fudge things, including swallowing some of his own pride and sense of manhood and turned him over to American authorities. But he is so angry that the Soviet Union lost the Cold War (he was a KGB spy during those years) and is no longer a true superpower, that he is emotionally primed to behave like a child with a temper tantrum whenever an American president wants to talk about making mutually-advantageos deals. And in Obama, in that regard, he has found his macho-challeneged match.

Just look at the mopey pictures of the two of them at the recent G-8 summit. This is no way for grown men to act. Particularly seemingly grown men who in many ways hold the fate of the world in their hands.

These leaders do not have to like each other, but they need to talk and talk and talk with each other to see if through persistence, if nothing else, they can agree about a few things.

Things such as nuclear arms limitation. Though this is not a sexy subject at the moment, we should remind ourselves that the U.S. and Russia still have thousands of warheads that are relics of the Cold War that are hardly needed in today's world unless Putin and Obama, in their mutual petulance, stumble into restarting it.

Then, there is Syria. Russia is Bashar al-Aasad's main backer, supplying sophisticated arms to prop up his genocidal regime as a way of Russia maintaining its influence in the region.

And Russia, an ally of Iran's, is well-positioned to help broker a deal to get them to back away from their self-destructive nuclear weapons program. Again, currently refusing to do so, Putin does not want to appear to be an instrument or lap dog of the West (particularly of the U.S.) to friends and foes in that neighborhood.

Big-power diplomacy shouldn't be personal. In this case, it should be about what is in the best interest of each of our countries. Presidents Obama and Putin should take a step back, turn off the frowns and negative body language, and get to work as if they were adults.

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Wednesday, August 07, 2013

August 7, 2013--Knight's Moves

Chess is a game; a passion; can be a way of life, an obsession; and, for those of us like me, who do not play seriously or well, it is about metaphors. 
The most obvious are the military ones--about conflict, attack, retreat, capture, defeat, unconditional surrender--while for me the most interesting are those about the rest of life.
I know all the moves. Though by this I am not speaking braggadociosly or metaphorically--that I smugly claim I know all the moves--rather I mean I know how each piece moves and some rules such as those about passed pawns and castling (the only play in which two pieces are moved simultaneously--if one is extra patient and does not move the king or one of the rooks and the spaces between them have been vacated, one is rewarded for that patience by being allowed to castle, to make a strategic and advantageous move--a life lesson in metaphor about the opportunities that accrue from restraint). 

But I do not have the mind nor the patience to do enough studying or playing to rise above the level at which I used to play as a young boy with my father, who took pleasure in regularly "mating" me (speak about metaphors!) in Guinness-Book-of-Records' time.

I was inspired to think again about chess after moving on to the second volume of James MacGregor Burns' excellent biography of Franklin Roosevelt, The Solider of Freedom

Writing about FDR's strategic style, Burns compared Roosevelt's moves to those of chess's knights and not to the king's, which is surprising since so many of FDR's opponents and haters claimed that he aspired to be an American monarch. 

Middling knight's moves are dramatically different from those permitted the all-important king's--one measly space at a time in any direction, though not into check, into peril. Burns compared Roosevelt not to a ruler but to the unpredictably eccentric knight, the sole piece that moves in two directions at the same time and with the sanction--again the only piece permitted to do so--in its asymmetrical, staggered way, to leap over other pieces, in all directions, over friend and foe alike, and over white as well as black pieces. 

Here from Burns, comparing FDR with Hitler--
Grounded in the security of doting parents, fixed home, social class, family traditions, Roosevelt could not easily gauge this product [Hitler] of social void and revolutionary turmoil. Hitler had lacked a home, but had found a new home in the Nazi party, in its ideas, and comradeship. Though Hitler knew how to use the carrot as well as the stick, he had become a terrible simplifier. While Roosevelt proceeded with a series of knights' moves, bypassing, overleaping, encircling, Hitler went right for his prey--opposition parties, Nazi dissidents, Jews, small nations.
But as quirkily strategic as knights may be, researching a bit, I learned that they are especially vulnerable to lowly pawns. Here, from something I turned up--
Since knights can easily be chased away by pawn moves, it is often advantageous for knights to be placed in holes [a square that a player cannot hold with his or her own pawn] in the enemy position as outposts--squares where they cannot be attacked by pawns. Such a knight on the fifth rank [there are eight ranks in total] is a strong asset, and one on the sixth may exercise as much power [as the usually much more powerful] rook. A knight at the edge or corner of the board controls fewer squares than one on the board's interior, thus the saying, "A knight on the rim is dim!"
Thinking and acting as a knight served FDR well as he confronted enemies domestic and foreign. For the rest of us just attempting to make it through life while pursuing happiness, thinking and acting more like knights--with their capacity to bypass, leap, and circle--sounds about right.

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