Tuesday, December 31, 2013

December 31, 2013--Schadenfreude

There is a new book, The Joys of Pain, about the seemingly all-too-dark side of human nature that takes pleasure in the misfortunes of others. About schadenfreude, literally from the German, "harm-joy."

The author, Richard Smith, a psychologist at the University of Kentucky, whose previous book was an anthology about the corrosive Deadly Sin of envy, a close relative of harm-joy, has been studying social emotions for years.

Smith contends that in order to locate ourselves in the social pecking order, to determine our status, we, first, have to create things that denote status. Among others qualities these include possessions, fame, political and social power, appearance, health, talent, physical strength, and intelligence.

He sees this ranking phenomenon characteristic of all peoples from all eras--from the one-percenters with their gilded lives to indigenous people living in traditional ways. He sees this hierarchical tendency also among other species--monkeys and dogs, for example, who compare themselves to their peers. We are all familiar with Alpha Male behavior.

In such a ranked system, since we are unequally endowed and not comparably successful, in order to see oneself rising in relative status, it is, Smith argues, biologically essential and adaptive to see others declining; failing; falling into disfavor; and, often perversely more satisfying, facing tragic circumstances.

He writes that when envy causes pain, schadenfreude serves as a palliative.

What is less clear from Smith is why we are endowed with the capacity to take so much enjoyment from the misfortunes of others. Perhaps in the struggle for species survival this guilty-joy is particularly motivating and thus helps one adapt to threatening circumstances.

Also missing from Smith's work is a thorough look at the reciprocal side of the schadenfreudian story--the seemingly equal human propensity to elevate others, including those with whom one is in potential status competition and who at some future time we may have the opportunity to take pleasure in seeing decline or overthrown.

We in the West place the wealthy, the already powerful, the gifted, the skillful on pedestals of our own inventing. Our cult of celebrity offers opportunities on both sides of the status equation--we elevate entertainment and sports figures way beyond their gifts, accomplishments, and importance and then take particular pleasure when a Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan, Alex Rodriquez, and Tiger Woods transgress and experience their delicious comeuppance.

By raising some beyond what they are intrinsically worth we take vicarious pleasure in being fellow members with them of the human race--we see something of ourselves reflected in them--and then when watching them fall take even more pleasure as we find our own status affirmed and secured by their plunging from grace.

But not all those we elevate inevitably come crashing down. As, sorry, herd animals we require leaders to help assure our survival; and thus this propensity in itself has its adaptive side. So, for us to thrive, we need some we raise up to fall and others to remain in place to help lead us through life's existential perils.

Further, something Smith also ignores, is the evidence that we like and perhaps require redemption stories.

Tiger Woods and Bill Clinton, after falling and then displaying public humiliation, suffering, and contrition, have made remarkable comebacks. We took pleasure watching them struggle when they were down but now, perhaps even more, enjoy--empathetically and vicariously--seeing them resurrected.

This too means there is hope for all of us.

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Monday, December 30, 2013

December 30, 2013--Idling

I am feeling lazy and thus taking the day off. I will return tomorrow with some end-of-year schadenfreudian thoughts.

Friday, December 27, 2013

December 27, 2013--GOP Quandary

Republican don't know what to do. Up to now they have been all-in in opposing Obamacare. It is, they have been obsessively claiming, an evil intrusion of big government in people's lives fostered on us by an evil, illegitimate president; and they have passed nearly 50 bills in the House of Representatives in efforts to repeal it.

Of course that has been a futile effort--with the Senate in Democratic hands and the evil one still ensconced in the White House, that strategy was going nowhere. But they pursued it to make a political point--if you want to get rid of it and him, vote GOP in 2014 and 2016.

Now matters are even worse--it exists and people are signing up. Perhaps not in the numbers Obama and the Democrats had hoped for, but as of last count at least 2.0 million have; and as of January 1st they will have health coverage for the first times thanks to, sorry, Obamacare.

The GOP doesn't know what to do next. Especially if millions more sign up and, like those on Medicare, they come to like it. Flaws and all.

Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson got it right. He said, "It's no longer just a piece of paper that you can repeal and it goes away. There's something there. We have to recognize that reality. We have to deal with the people that are currently covered under Obamacare."

Translation of "we have to deal with the people that are currently covered under Obamacare"--

"We have to figure out some way, some scam, to get them to vote for us. Or say hello to President Hillary. How does that sound to you?"

Equally flummoxed, the ever-effervescent Lindsay Graham moaned, "The hardest problem for us is what to do next. Should we just get out of the way and point out horror stories? Should we come up with a mini Contract With America on health care, or just say generally if you give us Congress, the House, and the Senate in 2014, here's what we'll do with you on multiple issues including health care?"


"Listen up, I'm fighting for my political life here. I'm up for reelection next year and they're running a Tea Party flunky against me in the primary, saying I'm too liberal. So what if I have a man-crush on John McCain and spend all my time traveling around the world with him? If trashing Obamacare isn't enough to get me reelected, we'd better come up with something good. Maybe like Obama is fooling around with Jill Biden."

The Republicans didn't ask for my advice, but I have a suggestion for them anyway that would show them to be ideologically consistent (not just typical hypocritical Washington politicians) and would fit right in there with their hatred of big-governement Obamacare--

Go after something that really is socialistic--Medicare.

Besides their favorite federal program--the military--Medicare is the biggest government program of all time. Like Obamacare it too has the Feds requiring tens of millions to get their health care though the government. But unlike Obamacare it doesn't require people to buy insurance through for-profit insurance companies. It's socialized medicine pure and simple.

So Republicans should forthwith pull up their socks, forget about Obamacare, and go after the most evil program. Paul Ryan in his budget (which, recall, all House Republicans voted for as did all but one or two GOP senators) pretty much calls for Medicare's elimination. It would turn it into a voucher program and save trillions since the vouchers wouldn't provide enough money for millions of middle class people currently covered to go into the market place to replace it.

This would work, no?

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Thursday, December 26, 2013

December 26, 2013--Cafe Rona

The morning of Christmas eve we got off to a lazy start.

I was up to my usual thing--reading My Promised Land in bed when at about 8:45 Rona began to stir.

After she was fully awake, rather than go right downstairs for waffles in what I have come to call Cafe Rona, we remained in bed looking west out over the city in sunlight, toward the Hudson River, and beyond to New Jersey.

Without wind or even a breeze, it was a motionless morning. The only things moving were a bank of languid clouds and planes in Newark Airport flight patterns.

"So many planes today," Rona said.

"Right before Christmas must be about the busiest travel day of the year," I suggested.

"It's fun to think about where everyone is headed."

"Packed in like sardines," I said, referring again to the recent piece in the New York Times about how airlines are cramming more seats into their planes in pursuit of more profit.

Ignoring my cynicism, Rona said, "This early they're probably heading south or west. It's too early for any overseas flights. But wouldn't it be nice to be heading for Spain later today." She snuggled closer.

"I'm happy right here with you," I said, enjoying the snuggling, "Though Spain--"

"You know what's interesting?" Rona asked, looking out the bedroom windows, "All the helicopters. Maybe I haven't noticed them before, but look at how many are flying back and forth."

And sure enough there was a steady stream, mainly heading south parallel with the river. "They look to be spaced about a minute apart."

"Here come two more. And right behind them another one. Do you think something unusual's going on?"

"I don't know. Maybe since the airports and roads are busy they're ferrying people there. You know, above the traffic."

"Or they're charters taking people out to the Hamptons for the holidays."

"Or they are privately owned taking rich people to Martha's Vineyard."

"When we're downstairs," Rona said, beginning to rise, "let's see if we can look up what's going on. Maybe it's just normal traffic or maybe something special is happening."

While Rona was making the coffee, waffles, and Black Forest bacon, I puttered around the Internet to see what I could dig up.

"I can't find any news about this morning's helicopter traffic. Let me see what I can learn about charters."

"How many strips of bacon do you want?"

"I think three." While placing my order, from the New York Helicopters Website, I gathered a picture of what was most likely the situation.

"Listen to this, from 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m., they offer charters from downtown Manhattan to the local airports. And it looks as if for today at least all their choppers are booked."

"No surprise," Rona said. Intoxicating smells were already emanating from the kitchen.

"They say it take 8 to 12 minutes to get to any of the three airports--JFK, LaGuardia, and Newark. And listen to this."


"Guess how much it costs."

"I'd say, let me think, maybe $150 each way?"

"Think again," I said.

"OK. I'm assuming more. These flights are obviously not for ordinary people, so I'll say, $250 a person."

"Not even close," I said, "How does $875 per sound?"

"How much did you say?" Rona sounded incredulous. As was I.

"You heard me--$875. And there's a two-person minimum."

"Ridiculous. So before tax and probably a tip it will set a couple back $1,750 just to get to the friggin airport! Things are really getting out of hand."

"But wait, there's good news."

"What's that?"

"You can take up to 25 pounds of luggage."

"You call that good news?"

"Well, it's something. At least they don't charge for luggage as many airlines now do."

"When we travel," Rona said, laughing about the absurdity of this. "My shoe bag alone weighs 25 pounds."

"I'm glad you and not I said that."

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Wednesday, December 25, 2013

December 25, 2013--Christmas

I'm taking the day off to be merry.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

December 24, 2013--Pre-Reclined

I have very long legs and even under the best of circumstances am not comfortable on a long trip when flying coach. I even once developed the beginning of a case of Deep Vein Thrombosis as the result of being packed in like a sardine on a flight from New York to Raleigh-Durham.

Now, with nearly every flight sold out, to extract more money from the flying public, airlines are finding ways to cram in more seats at the expense of even normal-height customers.

The New York Times has the details.

First, airlines have been reducing the amount of space between rows of seats. From about 34 inches twenty years ago to between 30 and 32 now. When it comes to airline seats, every inch literally counts. Two fewer inches means that one's knees are crammed against the seat ahead even if it is in the full-upright position. And this in turn makes it virtually impossible to recline since, if you care, it means crippling the person in the seat behind.

To create  a sliver more seat space--and I mean a "sliver"--airlines are making seats out of cheesier, thinner materials. Less padding in the seat back means maybe an extra quarter-inch of space. And, of course, for any flight of more than an hour this means you arrive at your destination with an aching back, hardly ready for an arduous day of business meetings.

Air carriers are also reducing the angle of the pitch of seats, which makes it nearly impossible when flying from Houston to Newark to recline enough to be able to take a nap.

In fact, since passengers are so angry about cabin discomfort there are increasing numbers of fights breaking out among travelers. We have all had the experience of the person being crushed in the seat behind us repeatedly jabbing his knees into our backs in an effort to get us to keep our seats upright.

Spirit Airlines, one of the newer low-cost airlines, to avoid fisticuffs among flyers, is installing seats that do not recline at all. Ever clever in the way they spin the benefits of making passengers miserable, they call this "pre-reclined" seating. As if one is getting special treatment such as "pre-boarding."

In those cabin configurations where seats still recline, albeit if less than in the past, frustrated customers have taken to using seat-jamming devices known commercially as "knee guards." Passengers jam them in the mechanisms of seats in front to prevent being maimed by reclined seats. The airlines are not happy about this but have little choice since incipient mass rebellion is close at hand.

Then I have another concern that is not about comfort--safety.

This is not yet part of the discussion; but if in an emergency it is impossible to pull oneself out of a claustrophobic seat to make one's way to an exit, isn't that something the FAA should be concerned about?

If fire departments set limits on the number of seats that can be installed in a movie theater or even a restaurant, is there no limit to what the airlines can get away with in their quest for profits? In addition, with passengers on average 20 pounds heavier than a few decades ago, obesity too compounds the hazard.

In the meantime, I am using my frequent flyer miles to get upgraded to business class. I do feel a little guilty when I see coach passengers glaring at me resentfully as they proceed down the aisle, knowing they will be tortured for hours while I will at least be able to recline.

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Monday, December 23, 2013

December 23, 2013--Social Theory

For some time I have been attempting to find ways to feel good about social networking. Up to recently, struggle as I have, everything I come up with is negative.

I'm face-to-face oriented and all this staring at smart phones, thumbs in constant motion as texts are exchanged, continues to turn me off and has me wondering what kind of people, especially young people we are becoming.

I am somewhat consoled by the fact that tweeting, texting, posting, and old-fashioned e-mailing are forms of writing. At a time when little writing is required in school and that that is is little commented upon by overburdened teachers, I'll take any shred of any kind of writing as good news.

But then I remind myself that fuddy-duddies such as I have always complained about paradigm-shifitng new technologies, ruing that they represent the end-of-civilization-as-we-know-it.

Plato, recall, wanted to ban poets and musicians from his Republic, claiming that their emotive power interferes with reasoned, philosophical discourse--it "feeds and waters the passions." And of course he is right. Though this hardly justifies banning them since in fact we need both.

And the literate priestly and royal elites of the time did not welcome Gutenberg's invention of movable type and the resulting proliferation of print material to the otherwise disenchanted. They feared that through the ideas contained in books the powerless would come to feel empowered and at some point would demand that Church and State be reformed and overthrown. Both of which, in turn, occurred.

Then there were those who opposed industrialization and the machine age--Luddites, among others--who rightly saw their widespread use presaging the end of self-sufficiency, craft, and rural yeoman life. And they were right.

So what of me now as I watch the self-hypnotized wandering up and down Broadway, eyes glued too their blue screens, thumbs tapping away?

Am I the cranky heir to Plato, the Renaissance princes, and hopeless machine-smashing Luddites? In many ways I feel I am but, knowing the history of how Plato's Republic turned out--no matter how noble it never came into existence--how after Gutenberg nothing could stem the avalanche of books and ultimately newspapers, and how the machine-driven Industrial Revolution changed everything forever worldwide, aware of these tectonic waves of culture-altering change, I am determined to try to remain relevant (at least in my own mind) and keep searching for the good that will come from the latest Internet-inspired brave new world.

Perhaps I had a glimpse on Saturday of a way to begin to feel better about the shape-shifting power of social networking.

It was a beautiful day and Rona said, "Let's finally go to Williamsburg. We're both originally from Brooklyn and haven't been to Williamsburg since all the young people moved in, displacing the Polish people and the Hassidim."

I readily agreed, feeling a little behind the times in not getting myself there to where so much is happening. "The Girls TV show is set there," I said, "and that's about as close as we've gotten to taking a look at the New Brooklyn."

"Half the best New York restaurants of the last few years are in Brooklyn and we keep going to our familiar nearby places."

If I needed additional reasons to venture across the East River, making me feel I am out of the latest hot restaurant loop was all the incentive I needed to get me headed toward the L train.

Incredibly, less than 10 minutes from Union Square, the fourth stop, Bedford Avenue plopped us down right in the middle of this remarkable urban transformation.

"Can you believe this," I said, with I am sure my jaw hanging open in wonder, "All these shops and terrific-looking young people."

The average age of those filling the streets could not have been more than twenty-five. "Can you believe it, my father's parents used to live on Bedford Avenue, not to mention all the Yeshivas that were here. Now every store is a cafe, restaurant, or clothing boutique."

"Let's wander up and down," Rona suggested. "To get a feel for what's going on."

So we did, for two hours wandering south on Bedford, across Grand Street, and then north on Union. "While we're at it, let's look for a place to have a cup of coffee."

"That's not going to be difficult to find. We've already passed at least 20," Rona said, an exaggeration but more true than not.

On Wythe Avenue we found Bakeri, an "artisanal bakery," which in fact it turned out to be. The display chest was full of wonderful-looking confections, from basic scones to fanciful tarts. It was packed with customers and it took us some time to be helped, which offered the opportunity to take in who was there.

As expected, everyone was very young and fresh from biking or jogging; and if I would have been pressed to guess, looked like they worked for IT start-ups, were living on family money, or both.

We both ordered coffee, Rona with two coconut macaroons, me an "apple cider flower," which looked like a version of Danish I used to get in my old East Flatbush bakery.

"You can sit in the garden, if you like," suggested a friendly young woman, dressed, as all the staff were, in faded-blue Bakeri coveralls. "It's such a beautiful day." She smiled to welcome us. "Find a table and I'll bring your coffee and pastries."

We squeezed by the crowd and made our way through a small passageway in which, tucked in nooks, were two tables and then down a fews steps into the garden.

"This will be beautiful in the spring," Rona said, looking up at the now bare trees, making plans to return even before tasting the coffee and macaroons. "Let's sit there," she said, pointing to a small marble-topped table nestled under the largest of the trees right by an unexpected stone pond full of golden koi.

Before we could look around and see who else was there, our coffee arrived. It was hot and delicious as were our baked goods, which we eagerly shared.

All the tables but the one next to us were occupied with yet more young people, chattering away about the weather and the trips from which they had recently returned.

"I loved Sri Lanka," said an Allison Williams lookalike. "And I can't wait to get back to the Seychelles," said a Zosia Mamet clone. "But best of all, have you been to Madagascar? The natural life there is amazing," said Lena Dunham's double.

Rona and I smiled at each other. This was even more fun than we had expected.

As I drained my final sips of coffee, scanning the garden, I asked, "Was it Thomas Wolfe who said about Brooklyn that, 'You can't go home again'"?

"I think he was referring to another place. Somewhere in the Midwest. But," Rona winked at me, "he did write that terrific short story, 'Only the Dead Know Brooklyn.'"

As by far the oldest person in the garden, I tried to get comfortable with her reference.

While we were finishing our drinks, eavesdropping on the nearby table talk, and trying to remember our Thomas Wolfe, a twenty-something woman slipped into the last unoccupied table right next to us. She was dressed in what we after a few hours in the area began to discern as Williamsburg chic--well-tailored grunge.

As has come to be usual, she did not look around but pulled her smart phone from her peacoat pocket and placed it on the table. Her tea arrived in what seemed like an instant. She didn't look up to acknowledge or thank the waitress; and before taking her first sip, was already tapping away at the screen.

Rona and I, curmudgeons together, smiled at each other.

Here she was, I thought, in this happy place, clearly among peers, in a lovely setting on an even more lovely day, and she can't even wait for a second to pick up her texts to look around, take it all in, feel good about life on such an afternoon.

As she bent closer to the screen, as if to cuddle with it, she began to chuckle. Her thumbs were now in even more rapid motion. Chuckles turned to laughter and head nodding. She took a quick sip of her tea, not taking her eyes off the glowing screen.

We had been making moves to pay the bill and leave, but without exchanging a word or glance of agreement stayed on to witness this as she eventually finished her tea, all the while smiling and talking under her breath as if to herself.

With her tea cup now drained, she took some money from her wallet. Still with her eyes on the flashing screen.

"It was Libya Hills," she said as if to no one in particular. She then half-turned toward us. "Libya Hills that Wolfe was referring to." Puzzled, we looked in her direction. "That you were wondering about. Not Brooklyn." With her free hand she gestured at the garden. And with that she was gone.

Back on the L train, Rona said, "Maybe that's where we're heading."

"I think we're heading toward Union Square. Two more stops."

"I mean culturally, silly. That girl in the garden." Getting her reference, I nodded.

"She was not there alone. Having tea by herself."

"Maybe this is our new sense of community."

"While bowling alone," Rona said, referring to a conversation we had a couple of weeks ago with a young friend from the IT world.

"But what about solitude?" I asked.


"Since we're sort of having a literary day, remember Alexander Pope's poem about solitude?"


"It goes something like--

Blest the man, who can unconcernedly find
   Hours, days, and years slide soft away,
In health of body, peace of mind,
             Quiet by day.'"

Rona slid closer to me on the subway. "You old Luddite, you."

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Friday, December 20, 2013

December 20, 2013--At the Risk of Being Snide . . .

There's a new New York Times/CBS News poll about Obamacare.

No surprise, there is widespread skepticism about the whole thing--from the law itself (though most polled confessed they didn't yet understand what's in it) to the enrollment process.

What jumps out for me is that 53 percent who are currently uninsured disapprove of the law and, while about half of those said that they are thinking about getting health insurance, at least a third say they do not plan to do so.

Here's what's confusing to me--

These folks for the most part have no idea what's in the law; and, although they do not have insurance, many will not make the effort to learn what the Affordable Care Act can do for them and thus still say they will continue to remain uninsured?

For them I have a couple of questions--

Do they have a better idea as to what would work for them? If not Obamacare, what?

Then, if they do not have a credible alternative and intend to remain uninsured, who do they expect to take care of them and pay for them if they become seriously ill or are critically injured in an accident?

I'm not inclined to want to.

In the past when coverage was unaffordable for low-income Americans, when people couldn't get coverage if they had preexisting conditions, when there were lifetime caps on coverage, I was all right with the rest of us picking up the cost of emergency room care for the uninsured.

If we as a people couldn't figure out a better way to take care of our most vulnerable citizens, then we had to do something--even something as crude and expensive as making ER care universally accessible. But now, I'm not so sure.

I am tempted to say that you either get insurance on your own (with generous subsidies for the working poor) or you're on your own.

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Thursday, December 19, 2013

October 19, 2013--Ladies of Forest Trace: Immaculate Generation

Approaching 106, there are days when my mother has less vitality. At those times, our conversations are brief as she struggles to take in the oxygen she needs. We talk only about the weather in Florida and New York and what we plan to have for dinner. If she hears we are cooking and eating at home she is happy that we are taking care of ourselves and not "wasting money eating out."

So I was pleased to find her in good form the other day when I made my daily call.

One of the ladies of Forest Trace, she told me, was having trouble with her eyes. "Gussie, poor thing, not only has to walk with a walker but now when she goes down for dinner she can't see where she is going and bumps into everything."

"Maybe she needs an aide," I suggested, "Like yours who would help her find her way and do whatever else she needs help with."

"I tell her that, but she is very proud and doesn't want to admit she needs any help."

"I understand that."

"There's nothing to understand. She's a danger to herself not to mention people in worse shape who she keeps crashing into. If she was driving a car, God forbid, they'd take away her license."

"You're probably right."

"But that's not the worst of it."

"What is?"

"I told you about her condition."

"To tell you the truth I don't remember. There are so many conditions to keep track of."

"Immaculate Generation."

"Immaculate what?"

"Generation. Generation. That's what she has."

"You mean, Macular Degeneration. Her eye problem."


"What about it? How far advanced is it?"

"Plenty advanced. That's why she's running people over."

"I suppose she's too old to do much about it."

"That to. But her doctor is terrible."

"In what way?"

"He doesn't have time for her."

"He won't make an appointment to see her?"

"Not that. He makes the appointment, but when she goes she's in and out in five minutes."

"If there isn't anything they can do--"

"Still is this a way to treat people who are going blind?"

"I suppose not. What would you have the doctor do."

"You know Gussie's not shy."

"That I know from direct experience," I chuckled, recalling having dinner with her a few times. She has opinions about everything--generally sound ones--and isn't reluctant to share them. At full volume. My mother says she talks so loud because she can't hear and refuses to get hearing aids.

"So she complained to the doctor, telling him he shouldn't be running his office like a factory. Though Gussie knows there is nothing to do for her condition, she wants to feel the doctor knows who she is and cares about her. That he has time to at least talk with her. After the life she lived, she should be entitled to that. A little talking to. A little being paid attention to."

"That is not unreasonable to expect."

"But her doctor tells her he has no choice."

"No choice?"

"That with Medicare cuts he can't afford to stay in practice if he spends more time with patients. 'I couldn't pay my rent or my office staff,' Gussie quotes him, 'if I practiced the way I want. The way I used to.'"

"I've heard that from others," I said. "From doctor friends who are frustrated with the state of health care these days."

"Do you think Obamacares will make things any better?"

"I'm not sure it will for Gussie, but for millions of others, absolutely."

"They're making such a big deal on TV about the computer."

"You mean the Obamacare website?"

"I think so, though I don't know from computer webs."

"No need to worry about that."

"It's the least of my worries. I have plenty of other things to worry about. About why I take so many naps, why I--"

"I take naps too," I cut in before she went down her whole list. "It is not unusual for older people to take naps. And you are nearly 106."

"I never took a nap until I turned 100. I'm wasting my time sleeping the day away. You know what your father used to say about sleeping?"

"Yes, 'There's plenty of time to sleep when you're . . ." I couldn't utter the word to my ancient mother.

"Dead. Dead is what he said. I know what that is. You don't need to sugar coat me. I want to live. I'm fine. But I'm ready for whatever awaits me. That too."

"Anything else about Obamacare?" I was looking to change the subject, "By the way, I love that you call it Obamacares.

"Because he does. Care. And it will turn out to be wonderful. The same kind of people said the same kind of things about Medicare when that came out. How it wouldn't work. How doctors wouldn't take Medicare patients. How people would not be able to keep their doctors. How we wouldn't be able to afford it."

"True. Though I do worry about the cost going forward."

"There's plenty of money for other things like bombs so we shouldn't be so worried."

"Also true," I said.

"But now, ask anyone here what they think about Medicare and they will tell you, 'Don't touch my Medicare.' Even people from that Tea Party who want to get rid of the government. I tell them, 'What do you think the Medicare you love so much is? I'll tell you what--a government program. Socialized medicine.' That one they like. Food stamps, no. Welfare, no. But Medicare because it's for them, and they think it's free, they don't want you to touch."

"I hear the same thing. Don't expect people to be consistent when it comes to their self interest."

"They have what they want and now they want to deny the same thing to others. Like Obamacares."

"I agree with that. Among other things their attacking it feels so selfish."

I could hear her breathing becoming labored. "But you'll see--I won't be here to see it but please God you will be--two years from now everybody will be happy. All of this will be forgotten. Millions more will be healthier. Especially children. And like with Medicare no one will want to change anything. Including the Tea Party. If they are still around. Which I doubt. I see the beginning of the end for them. Which is another good thing."

"Don't overtax yourself," I said, concerned about her breathing.

"I'm not like this every day any more so when I am I want to get things off my mind."

"I'm for that. But I don't want you to overdo it."

"Poor Gussie," she said and hung up.

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Wednesday, December 18, 2013

December 18, 2013--Professing

Having been one at a number of institutions, from up-close observation, professors are not among my favorite professionals. For the most part, I prefer dentists.

Professors--tenured professors--have about the best job in the history of the world.

With what other kind of work can one make a very comfortable living with generous benefits, work two to three days a week, eight or at most nine months a year, and have frequent vacations? Almost as many as members of Congress. And then every few years have sabbaticals, which for a half to a full year offer full or half salary with no classroom or other university responsibilities. And, perhaps best of all, with tenure a professor can work until he or she drops and in no way be let go. Even for demonstrable incompetence or lack of research and publications.

And with all of this, professors are often among the world's most prolific whiners. About their university responsibilities (many would like to be paid, and paid more, for doing even less); about university politics (usually much to do about nothing or at most very little); about their colleagues and administrators; and about much that goes on in the world.

Criticizing and complaining they are very good at, but doing something about it is another matter.

So I was not surprised when a day or two ago, the American Studies Association, with about 5,000 professors as members, voted by a two-to-one margin to boycott Israeli academic institutions to protest Israel's treatment of Palestinians.

This means they will oppose academic exchange programs and Israeli professors will no longer be welcome as ASA members; invited to ASA-sponsored events; or, if the ASA has anything to do about it, be allowed to have sabbaticals in the U.S.

Next month, the much larger and more influential Modern Language Association will vote to ask the State Department to criticize Israel for allegedly barring American professors from going to Gaza or the West Bank when invited by Palestinian institutions.

The boycott is the first the ASA has ever instituted and what the MLA is calling for is equally unprecedented. They have not seen fit to take similar action in regard to Russian or Chinese academic institutions even though those governments curtail basic freedoms for almost all of their citizens. They did not call for the boycott of South African institutions during the Apartheid years. They are apparently OK with Iranian, Egyptian, Cuban, Venezuelan, Saudi Arabian, and Pakistani academic institutions though basic freedoms are severely restricted in these and, sadly, many other countries.

The fundamental case in favor of lifetime employment--tenure--is to protect academic freedom. To make professors impervious to arbitrary or ideological retribution when they express their contrarian views. So it is more than a little ironic that the ASA, for which one of its principals is the protection of freedom of thought and scholarly activity, would so blatantly, for ideological reasons, take such a censorious position.

The good news is that the major higher education organization in the United States, the American Association of University Professors opposes the boycott, saying that it makes little sense to focus on Israeli universities where criticism of government policy often originates.

Even Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas opposes the boycott. He said that it is inappropriate, as the ASA did, to compare Israel to Apartheid in South Africa. Further--
We are neighbors of Israel, we have agreements with israel, we are not asking anyone to boycott products of Israel.
But members of the ASA do not perceive any contradictions in their position. One member said that--
People who truly believe in academic freedom would realize protesting the blatant and systemic denial of academic freedom to Palestinians, which coupled with material deprivation of a staggering scale, far out ways concerns we in the West might have about our own rather privileged academic freedoms.
I am having trouble figuring out why we in the West who have the privilege of academic freedom should be immunized from the consequences of denying it to others.

I may have once been a professor, but I need help from other professors to help me understand and parse this tortured tangle of rationalization.

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Tuesday, December 17, 2013

December 17, 2013--Quad Learning

More than half of all high school graduates who go to college go to community colleges. Most on entrance say they want to complete two years there and then transfer to four-year colleges to complete bachelors degrees.

But for the majority their aspirations are thwarted--more than half of community college students ever complete those first two years, of those who do only a portion transfer, and fewer still ultimately gain baccalaureate degrees.

Since low-income students disproportionately begin and sadly end college life at junior colleges, this is a significant social problem for America. Equity suffers and there is the great loss of human potential.

For many decades--at least since the 1960s--community college advocates, critics, faculty, and staff have known about this problem and many have attempted to do various things to help more students reach their potential and realize their dreams.

One little-know fact involves the transfer of community-college credits to senior colleges. For too many students who manage to complete two-years and earn associate degrees only a portion of their community college credits are accepted by the colleges to which they transfer. Thus, transferring students have to amass many more than the 120 credits traditionally required to graduate with a BA or BS degree. Efforts to fix this higher education shell game through "articulation agreements" between two- and four-year colleges have only marginally improved, not solved this problem.

Also, since so relatively few community college students progress far enough to be available for advanced courses, including honors courses, their colleges simply do not offer them.

For many community college students thinking about medical school it is impossible, for example, to take any chemistry courses beyond Chem 101 and 102. For history-major aspirants nothing much is available beyond the introductory courses. Again, though this problem has been known for many years, little has been done to ameliorate the situation.

Far back in 1976 I wrote Second Best, which was about the history of community colleges, their social roles, and the structural problems low-income students had to confront when they began their college careers at two-year colleges.

Little has changed since then.

But, trumpeted recently by the New York Times, there are new kinds of efforts to, among other things, offer honors courses at community colleges to enrich their academic programs and meet the needs of students with high potential and appropriately high aspirations.

Offered by a for-profit company, Quad Learning, through what they call American Honors, advanced courses are offered at participating community colleges. Thus far only five community colleges are involved and just 230 students are enrolled. With many tens of thousands of students able and eager to benefit by taking honors courses at two-year colleges why such a small-scale program gets so much coverage in the Times is another story.

Perhaps one reason so few colleges and students are participating is cost.

Since Quad Learning is doing this to make money (no crime) and the colleges where American Honors is available share in the profits (not a crime, but highly questionable) it costs students about $2,000 a year more in tuition to be eligible to take the courses. Real money at this time in our economy and for students from low-income backgrounds.

American Honors is yet another example of privatizing higher education--shifting more and more of the costs associated with college onto individuals and their families and away from public, tax-supported providers. This is why tuition has risen much faster than inflation, college loans have proliferated, and increasing numbers of students have been diverted to lower-cost community colleges. And now, for those diverted students, if they enroll in Quad-Learning colleges, it will cost them more to get what they by the fact of their hard work and achievement deserve.

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Monday, December 16, 2013

December 16, 2013--All the XXX That's Fit to Print

I know things are difficult these days for newspapers. The kind delivered to your front door. Even for the "paper of record," the New York Times that proclaims each morning that it offers all the news "That's Fit to Print."

Put simply, they are losing readers and in turn advertisers are abandoning them.

Fit to print suggests editors make strategic decisions about what's important to report and, connotatively, fit also means what's appropriate to write about. To the gray-lady, fit has traditionally meant what to cover as well as what not to.

When, for example, supermarket tabloids and gossipy blogs such as the Drudge Report were the first to report about President Bill Clinton not-so-allegedly fooling around with an intern in the Oval Office, the Times did not see that as fit to cover. Instead, after a few weeks, realizing they were losing readers who were panting to learn all the lurid details, they began to cover the coverage, letting readers know what Drudge and the Sun and Enquirer were up to, assuming there were any Times readers who didn't notice the blaring headlines or sneak peeks as they dawdled in the checkout line.

So you can imagine my non-surprise when two Sundays ago the Times in its Magazine and special Style sections published stories that I would have expected to find in Cosmo or the Enquirer.

The first about "Sexercise," a detailed look at the fitness value of canoodling; the second, "What Lies Beneath," about various approaches to managing and grooming one's mons pubis.

WARNING--You must be over 18 to continue.

Times reporter Gretchen Reynolds asks, "Do intimate acts count as working out?"

And concludes . . . sort of.

Some sexercise advocates claim that sex burns up to 100 calories per session (about the number of calories in two medium-size chocolate chip cookies), but until recently that has never been scientifically verified.

To measure the potential aerobic benefit of having sex, researchers at the University of Quebec undertook a careful study. They signed up 21 young heterosexual couples and began by having them jog on treadmill for 30 minutes to create a baseline. They noted their energy expenditure and other metrics. Next, over a full month, they had their subjects fool around and then engage in sexual intercourse, all the while keeping track of various metabolic reactions.

They found that sex qualified as "moderate exercise," a little more so for men than women. About the equivalent of playing tennis doubles or walking uphill. For brief periods, they found, men exert more energy during sex than when jogging. They also found that for men sex burned four calories per minute while it only consumed three for women; and thus for "sessions"that lasted an average of 25 minutes (no comment) men burned two chocolate chip cookies' worth.

Not so surprising, 98 percent of the subjects reported that "sex felt more fun than jogging." I'm more interested in the responses of the remaining two percent. And why they left gay people out of the sturdy.

Meanwhile, over in the Times Style section, Amanda Hess reports that, "After years of razors, wax, and lasers reducing pubic hair to the bare minimum--or nothing at all--there's a return to a more natural state."

She continues--
Marilyn Monroe's maid claimed she once walked in on the actress naked and splay-legged, bottle and toothbrush in hand, meticulously bleaching the hair between her legs a perfectly matching platinum . . .
Enough? Or too much information?

If you would like more, here are a couple of other things from Ms. Hess and the New York Times--
For women of Monroe's generation, pubic hair was a game of peekaboo--on full display in the privacy of the bungalow, but carefully hidden from popular view. In recent years the bombshell bush has essentially disappeared. Wax-wielding estheticians and permanent lasers have whittled it down or erased it entirely . . .
I'm done. If you're not, read the piece in full on-line to see what porn stars are up to as well Gwyneth Paltrow.

As for me, I'll get back to reading about the protests in Ukraine.

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Friday, December 13, 2013

December 13, 2013--Lazy Friday

Actually, I'm a bit exhausted from watching reruns of the second season of Homeland. Clearly, this has become something of an obsession which has to end soon since we have only 5 or 6 episodes to go before getting back to our normal routines. But lots of snow is predicted for tomorrow and so . . .

Thursday, December 12, 2013

December 12, 2013--On Demand

We're trying to cut back on our TV watching; but with all the newfangled ways to watch, this is proving to be difficult.

Our cable systems both in New York and Maine for some years have offered On Demand as part of their basic package. It in theory allows one to watch favorite shows after their initial broadcast date, and so if you were out late on Monday night you could catch Dancing With Stars later in the week. I say theoretically because we have used On Demand only sparingly since I've not always been able to figure out how to make it work and at those times I was able to, On Demand service often was experiencing technical difficulties.

But recently, either I've gotten better at this or they have improved their service and so we've been glued to the screen more than we would like.

Homeland has contributed to our undoing.

We'd been reading and hearing about it for quite some time and, desperate to find something decent to watch, and not interested enough to even check out the Duck people or the Kardashians, we reluctantly subscribed to Showtime so we could watch the first two seasons via On Demand.

There are 13 episodes a year and we knew that if we got hooked we'd have to watch two year's worth,  26, before being up-to-date sufficiently to enjoy the current, third season.

And hooked we became even before watching half of the first episode. We fell quickly in love with Carrie, Sergeant Brody, and the Mandy Patinkin characters and stayed up until 1:00 AM, intoxicated after watching the first four episodes.

Rona said to bleary-eyed me, "How about one more? Just one more?"

"You said that at 11 o'clock, two episodes ago, and here we are and it's well past midnight. We can always . . . There are more than twenty . . ." I think those were my last words before I nodded off.

When I got up at later in the morning, about 6:30, unusually--since Rona likes to sleep to at least 8:30--she was literally lying in wait for me.

"Are you OK?" I mumbled, half-asleep.

"I'm fine. Just waiting for you to get up so we can watch a couple of episodes before breakfast."

"You've got to be kidding. Can't we wait until after we've had coffee?"

"I thought we could then finish the first season. We'd only have seven or eight to go and . . ."

"Seven or eight translates into seven or eight hours! Are you sure that . . ."

Rona was already heading downstairs to get the coffee going.

We gulped our coffee and by 7:30 I was fiddling with On Demand--which fortunately was working--and we plowed through the rest of the initial season.

"And then this evening we can get started on season two," Rona chirped.

This was two weeks ago. By now we have watched both the second season of Homeland and are up to date with this year's episodes--three to go. We are on tenterhooks to see what will happen to Brody in Iran. Will they kill him off? Will he rehabilitate his reputation by helping to overthrow the Iranian government? Will . . . ?"

And while we've been at it, to be able to tune into other TV shows we missed, we subscribed to Netflix and got our hands on all 13 episodes of House of Cards, which, as with Homeland, we joyfully watched marathon-style. Kevin Spacey is so deliciously evil.

Eager to be set for season two, I did a little googling and found that Homeland was not released in the normal way--assuming anything of this sort is normal these days. Produced by Netflix itself, not a traditional source of programs, all 13 episodes were released the same day--February 1, 2013--which meant that someone thus inclined could watch all 13 that day or in any way they wished to space them out: two at a time, one-by-one each week at the same time like a normal TV series, or whatever.

"Welcome to the brave new world of TV," Rona said when I reported this to her.

"Actually, it's welcome to the brave new world of the Internet since I'll bet most of House of Cards' younger viewers watched it on their computers."

"Or smart phones or tablets," Rona added. "Whatever those are."

I have a friend who works for a technology start up. I asked him, "Is it true that you can work whatever hours are best for you? From home as well as the office? Do they give you free snacks and take care of your dry cleaning and pets?"

"I don't have a pet; but, yes, I can bring my dry cleaning to the office and do my thing from anywhere. That's the way I work," he said, sensing I wasn't getting it.

"And the people you report to are OK with that?"

"As long as I get the job done and they like my work product. But, you know, there's a new manager who wants us to work more collaboratively, including taking breaks at the same time so we can have coffee together and chat."

Since I had been thinking about TV, I asked how much he watched.

"Quite a lot, though I don't actually have a TV. I pretty much stream everything."

"I was wondering about that," I said and told him about our experience with On Demand and Netflix.

He smiled, amused that someone as technologically skeptically and illiterate as I would be venturing into this new territory. He didn't have to add--someone from my generation!

"Here's what I worry about," he is informed and well-read for someone from his generation, "I'm concerned that these ways of working and entertaining ourselves are contributing to a generation of people who have no ability to suspend gratification--that we're becoming an on-demand world."

"That concerns me too."

"A nation of people bowling alone."

With his thoughts preoccupying me, I still can't wait to see what happens to Brody in Iran and if Kevin Spacey gets his comeuppance February 14th when all 13 second-season episodes of House of Cards will be streamed by Netflix.

"Get your rest," Rona suggested.

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Wednesday, December 11, 2013

December 11, 2013--Late Night

Late morning as well. I will be back here tomorrow, Thursday.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

December 10, 2013--Cold War Redux?

Is the toppling of the statue of Lenin in Kiev a sign that the Cold War is finally fully ending or will there be a Russian response that will suggest it is being revived?

Is Beijing's move to begin the process of expelling Western journalists a sign that the Cold War with "Red" China is reheating?

Is North Korea's expansion of its no-fly zones and the beefing up of its military forces close to the border with South Korea another example of going back to the future?

Some are claiming that the presidency of Barack Obama is foundering, America's influence is waning, and this represents an opportunity for leaders who wish to extend their reach and power to take advantage of the situation.

Vladimir Putin has clearly made moves recently to expand Russia's influence, especially in the Middle East where he rescued Obama from his carelessly drawn red line about Syria's use of chemical weapons against his own people.

And in Ukraine, where there is an incipient revolt underway among those who want to see their country tilt toward Western Europe and not affiliate with the Russian led Customs Union, the government there, with clear Russian support, is as I write moving to suppress the uprising. Will we soon see Russian tanks on the streets of Kiev as we did in 1956 on the streets of Budapest to put down the Hungarian Revolution?

I would not be surprised.

China, in addition to playing with the idea to expel journalists who have been writing probing stories about corruption at the highest levels, has recently reengaged with Japan about control of a couple of rocky, uninhabited islands they both claim is in their historic and national interest. To underline the point, China established a "air defense identification zone," airspace that overlaps a region that Japan and South Korea claim is theirs to manage or is over international waters. To emphasize the point, the United States, without informing China, sent two B-52s into the disputed airspace as a way to demonstrate that we do not recognize China's claim of sovereignty and will stand by our two East Asian allies.

Will an unintentional incident ignite this now heating up situation? I would not be surprised.

And in North Korea, Kim Jong-un has purged his uncle and others in a move to consolidate his one-man rule--to secure his position as what they call the "unitary center." To underscore this he simultaneously made a series of moves to threaten South Korea and its principal ally--the United States. Like the Chinese, perhaps inspired by them, he is attempting to expand the area that he claims is essential to North Korea defending itself and has apparently resumed processing nuclear material to replenish North Korea's stockpile of atomic weapons.

This is sounding spookily familiar to me.

Though it is unlikely that China, Russia, and North Korea are seeking to precipitate an actual clash, there are so many moving pieces, so much bad history and national ego involved--including among the new Japanese and South Korean leadership (with the U.S. right in the middle)--that events could easily spin out of control. All at a time when our president has been seriously weakened and might be tempted to restore his credibility by allowing the tail to wag the dog.

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Monday, December 09, 2013

December 9, 2013--The Rollout

I've been having a back and forth with a friend about the rollout of Obamacare.

She is being extra-critical, feeling that the botched launch of the Website is emblematic of Obama's botched presidency. "He's great at articulating big ideas but when it comes to actually getting the work done, he either has no interest, is inept, or a combination of both."

I haven't been disagreeing with her--I too am quite disappointed with the president about whom I initially had great hopes. But I've been saying that Obamacare is not about the website but about Obamacare itself.

If in a year or two 30 to 40 million people who do not now have health insurance are by then covered and are satisfied, healthier, and the cost of care overall continues to decline, who will even remember the website fiasco?

"But, I fear," she says, "that conservatives will continue to claim that the federal government is incapable of carrying out big projects. They will say it's only private industry that is capable of doing large-scale things."

"If they say that," I've been asserting, "they will be ignoring much of the history of the last 150 years when the federal government took the lead in the construction of the transcontinental railroad, electrified all of America (especially remote, rural America), built the interstate highway system, constructed huge dams, mobilized to win the Second World War, and launched Social Security and Medicare. All of these massive undertakings were criticized in their day by some of the same kind of small-government  conservatives we're seeing today--saying they were unconstitutional, socialistic, would never work, and were going to bankrupt us to boot. Sound familiar?"

"Yes," my friend has been acknowledging, "Though all of this got done, that was then and what we are seeing is now. I feel we have lost our way since the Manhattan Project and the TVA. Maybe even more recently after successes with Medicare and Medicaid. There may very well be truth to the claim that now it is only private enterprise that can get the job done."

"You mean like the folks who brought us the Edsel, New Coke, and the collapse of the Big Three auto companies? These failures were all the result of private industry hubris."

At best, in spite of my efforts to marshall history to provide some context for what we see today, my friend remains skeptical, even pessimistic. "We're things at these earlier times as bitterly partisan, with both side only interested in winning?"

"That to. The things they said about Lincoln, Wilson, Teddy Roosevelt and FDR were pretty ugly. The attacks weren't magnified as much as they are today since they didn't have 24/7 so-called news networks, but still things back then could be vicious. And yet they found ways to accomplish some big things."

"You could be right. Some times having a historical perspective helps."

"We could talk about Jefferson and Jackson and . . ."

"For the moment," my friend at last laughed, "let's stick with the Roosevelts. There's only so much history I can deal with in the morning."

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Friday, December 06, 2013

December 6, 2013--Breakfast

For 30 years Rona and I, almost every morning, have gone out for breakfast. Let me correct that--not almost every morning but every morning.

It was less about the coffee and food than the people. At Balthazar, in Manhattan's SoHo, for nearly 15 of those 30 years, until last year, every day, at table 85 in the bar area, we would join friends who, like us, were seeking community and companionship.

Some days those friends could number more than a dozen and we would push tables together to accommodate all of us. Since the group included people from a variety of backgrounds, interests, and professional life--filmmakers, interior designers, book publishers, performance artists, Wall Street lawyers, anthropologists, novelists, chefs, actors, carpenters, opera directors--with breakfasters from such a wide range of callings, discussions ranged from the serious (what to do in the Middle East and the results of friends' colonoscopies) to the sly (gossip about who else was in the room--"Is that Yoko?").

It was sweet and stimulating, which, like other evanescent realities, succumbed to time and changing circumstances. For one, Balthazar became a go-to place for breakfast and brunch and it was no longer possible to hold so many tables because Jonathan Miller or Nigella Lawson had just arrived from London and might pop in to join us.

Then also, as with Rona and me, work realities shifted, schedules needed to be adjusted, and some of us were no longer so much in town. In our case, we essentially moved to Maine and Florida and retained just a loving, periodic connection to Manhattan and Balth.

In Maine there is the Bristol Diner, a perfect place for a simple breakfast and a gathering place, like Balthazar in its own way, for an even more diverse group of local and seasonable residents--from lobstermen to orthopedic surgeons to federal judges to telephone linemen. So, when there, we can be found almost every morning in one of  the Bristol's five booths, sometimes ensconced for two or three hours as friends drift in and out.

And in Delray Beach, we have a similar reality at the Green Owl. Breakfast in both places for us is an ideal way to emerge to full morning consciousness among people we care about and with whom each day we eagerly look forward to spending time and exchanging stories--some real, much made up.

But then, in New York, all of this has suddenly changed--we are having breakfast at home.

And loving it.

The other morning Rona said, "After nearly 30 years of going out for breakfast, which is very luxurious, having breakfast in my pajamas with the newspaper delivered to our door, feels really luxurious."

"And," I agreed, "we're saving a lot of money."

"That's true, but not really what's important to me. We're doing what we want to do. No pressure to get up and out. That's what's important."

"True. But still I like the idea that we're saving at least $15 a day. That really adds up."

Rona turned her attention to the Style section.

"Really," I said, "Add it up. What did we have this morning? You had an egg (which since it was organic cost about 30 cents and was cooked in maybe a nickel's worth of butter) and pumpkin bread toast (about 50 cents worth) and English breakfast tea (say, 25 cents for the teabag). And I had a--"

"Do we really have to do this? I was having such a sweet time and all you can think about is how much butter I used."

"We don't have to do this, but I'm only trying to make a point."

"Go on then. But please, make it brief."

"I had a croissant with jam (I think we paid $2.75 for that at Dean and Deluca) and a mug of Medaglia D'Oro instant espresso (which cost maybe 20 cents, plus about a dime's worth of warmed half-and-half)." Smiling at Rona, I said, "I'm done."

"How much was the jam and what about the gas and electricity we used to defrost the croissant and cook the egg? Did you figure that in?"

Not realizing she was making fun of me, I thought, "Maybe 15 cents for the jam--it's from France--and we'll see about the gas and electric when we get the next Con Ed bill. But don't forget we don't have to pay tax at home--what is it, about 9 percent?--or leave a tip. I think you leave at least $5.00 every morning." Rona nodded.

"So let me do a quick calculation." I went to get paper and a pen. "At Balth my double espresso is, what, seven dollars and the croissant $4.50. And your egg and toast would be at least $5.00, plus your tea would be $2.00 more."

"Two-fifty. And half a grapefruit, if you're crazy enough to order it, is $10. Ten freaking dollars!" Rona said under her breath.

"So at Balth the same breakfasts plus tax and tip would go for about $25; whereas here it cost us only about $4.00, not including utilities." Self-satsified, I smiled toward Rona who by then was buried in the crossword puzzle.

"I mean, in addition to being delicious and nice and so schmoozy to have breakfast in pajamas, we saved at least $20, which means, if we did this only five days a week (and at the moment we're pretty much eating in every day) we'd save more than $100 a week. Which adds up to real money."

"Agreed," Rona admitted without looking up.

"So what about tomorrow? What are you in the mood for?

"Must we? I'm just trying to enjoy this morning."

"Let's see, we have eggs of course and can make wonderful French toast from Agata & Valentina's pumpkin bread. Or have some of those terrific Bay's English muffins; or waffles--we have Eggos for old-times sake but also the ones we bought the other day at Fairway in Red Hook that are made in France; and we also have various kinds of bagels--you like bagels sometimes; and your McCann's steel cut oatmeal, which you've been serving with brown sugar and sliced up dried figs; and granola; even oat scones from the Balthazar bakery and--"

"Enough! I just ate and already you're talking about eating."

"I only . . ."

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Thursday, December 05, 2013

December 5, 2013--Otherwise Occupied

And so I will return tomorrow with breakfast thoughts.

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

December 4, 2013--Requiring Math

There was a report in yesterday's New York Times about how American school children in mathematics continue to slip behind students in other countries.

At one time our kids scored at the highest levels on international tests. Last year they slipped behind students in Ireland and Poland and in previous years saw themselves coming in well behind those in China, Japan, South Korea, and Finland.

The United States came in 36th while Latvia was 28th, Slovenia 21st, and Liechtenstein 8th.

While worrying about this, I recalled a board meeting I went to some years ago of one of America's leading education reform organizations. It was a bluechip board and included, among others, two former Secretaries of Education.

The discussion turned to ways to improve math instruction, especially for low-income students. There was a promising approach being developed in Houston called Move It Math. An educator from there made a presentation about what made this approach promising and how there was gathering evidence that students befitted from its methods.

I didn't have much to say, not knowing all that much about math instruction. But after a time, I requested the floor and asked why we require all children to take math in elementary, middle, and high schools and often in college. "Why must everyone take algebra?" I wondered, acknowledging this was a heretical thought since years and years of math had been a universal requirement for decades.

"Why geometry and trigonometry? What's the case for that?" I asked. "Particularly when this seems to be so difficult for so many students and that struggle--frequently unsuccessful--turns them off to other parts of the curriculum."

There was more than a moment of silence. I thought because the others in the room were wondering how to metaphorically pat me on the head without offending me so they could get back to a serious discussion about ways in which to improve math instruction.

Finally, surprising me since I had not until that moment had such a thought, the dean of a noted school of education said, perhaps surprising herself as well, "This is worth considering." All heads around the table swung in her direction.

"How much of this makes education sense as opposed to giving in to the math industry."

"Math industry?" a nationally-known professor of educational history asked with considerable sarcasm.

"You should know all about that," the dean replied. "How years ago organized groups of math instructors and advocates from organizations such as the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, founded, I think, in about 1920, how they fought hard to get as much math as possible included in the core curriculum. And how, among other things, by having such a central place in what was required of students more power and jobs accrued to those in what I just called the math industry. And I'll stand my that."

Around the table a few heads began to nod.

"And let's not forget that this focus on math--and science--swelled, in reality became  a nation obsession after 1957 when Russia launched Sputnik. As part of our effort to win the Cold War."

"If we didn't require so much math, how much should be required?" a midwestern university president asked. "I'm assuming that no one here is saying that no arithmetic or mathematics should be required. If we want to talk about this seriously we need to address that. Also, we need to discuss national needs. How important is math to the viability of the American economy because, let's be frank, to justify public support for education (and not just for mathematics) we need to be able to make the case that what we are now seditiously considering," he smiled at that, "among other things, must be in the best economic interest of America in a globalizing world."

"I can see," I jumped back in, "requiring basic arithmetic and computational skills--those proven to be necessary to functioning as a citizen: how to keep track of one's finances, be an informed citizen and voter, things of that sort. And I can see introducing everyone to mathematical reasoning and elementary algebra so, among other things, those with math talent will be challenged and interested and also to let educators know the math capacities and gifts of their students so that those with mathematical inclinations can be discovered and encouraged to pursue more math more seriously."

I continued, "This are very preliminary thoughts. Admittedly I do not really know what I am talking about when it comes to the details of mathematics education and methodologies," there was considerable playful nodding when I acknowledged that, "but rather step-back questions to see if what we are requiring makes sense and is not just being driven by tradition and, in some cases," I looked toward the dean, "organizational self-interest."

"We need to come back to that," the board chair was eager to move on, and we did.

Some years later, contemplating the full meaning of the Program for International Student Assessment scores, I wonder if it might be time to get back to that discussion.

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Tuesday, December 03, 2013

December 3, 2013--HealthCare.gov

I'm here to tell you that the Obamacare Website isn't working all that well.

How do I know? Because I tried it out Monday afternoon, a day after the new-and-improved version came on line.

A few things--

I already have all the health insurance I need: Medicare Parts A&B, but not Part D, for prescription drugs, because I left the Ford Foundation with a sheath of extra coverage that bridges gaps, reimburses for deductibles,  and pays for all sorts of things that fortunately I have thus far not needed and therefore know nothing about.

So my trying out the site, HealthCare.gov, was in the spirit of reporting. Not just complaining from the sidelines about how Obama and his people screwed it up or ranting about how Republicans, who want to see the whole program crash, should have been happy to see the Website crash rather than blaming Obama for making it hard for people shopping for Obamacare coverage, coverage the GOP doesn't believe in in the first place. Such is our current state of partisan hypocrisy.

With trepidation I entered HealthCare.gov and the homepage popped up in about a second. So far so good I happily thought.

I clicked on an orange circle within which it said--

                                     APPLY NOW
                               For Health Coverage

I was next asked to indicate the state in which I lived. I fibbed, saying Maine since I knew that if I mentioned New York I would be referred to the NY State Website because New York is one of 14 states that created its own health care exchange. Maine, with a Tea Party governor, is not cooperating.

Again in about a second I was prompted to click on "Apply Online," which I proceeded to do. Next, cheerily I was told "Let's Get Started" so I clicked "Get Started" and was promptly asked to "Create a Marketplace Account." This required me to share a few items of personal information--my name, e-mail address, things of that kind.

Fine. I did that. All one-two-three. I smiled, thinking, leave it to those Obama people to finally get things working.

Then the trouble began.

I needed to create a username and a password. Without reading the fine print (there was quite a lot of it) I did my usual thing--in general, not wanting dozens of different usernames and passwords I use the same ones for my bank accounts, charge cards, the cable and electric companies, my newspaper delivery service, my insurance policies, etc.

So I typed in STEVZWRG as my username and STSTST as my password (these are both fictitious in an attempt to protect whatever is left of my privacy). But in an instant (the quickness more evidence of the Website fix), I was informed that both were "Invalid." That I must--
Create a username that's at least 6 characters. It may include uppercase and lowercase letters. Usernames are case-sensitive. It also must include either at least one number or one of these symbols: _ @- /
And for the password, I was told to--
Create a password between 8-20 characters. It must include at least one uppercase letter and one lowercase letter. Passwords are case-sensitive. It also may include symbols, but not these: =? ^ ( )'"/ \ &;. Your password can't contain your user name.
For the username I seemed to get it right--I typed in STEV1zwrg@. But not for the password. I had thought since they seemed to want a lot of characters (between 8 and 20, to make things extra secure, I'll go for the limit--20.

So I entered (or thought I did)--STstStst=?st&;\\ZWRG^ and attempted to repeat it, which was required--STstStst=?st&;\\ZWRG^, thinking again, since I attempted to be careful and extra secure, since I had followed all the rules, I would be fast-tracked to the heart and soul of the Website where I would learn about all my options, the costs, the differences between the platinum, gold, and silver level policies and, ultimately, as the full test of HealthCare.gov, when they looked me up via their interfaced and all-powerful computers and software, they would discover I didn't need any more coverage at all since I had Medicare and the Ford Foundation taking such good care care of me.

But again, before I could complete these naive thoughts, the system flashed in blaring red, "Invalid Password. Invalid Password."

A bit frustrated, since I thought I had taken great pains in inputting and confirming a password, I deleted what I had entered and set about to try again. But because I had forgotten to write down the password I entered, I needed to come up with a new one.

On a notecard, I wrote STZstz&;&;ZWRG^"/Zwrg3 and with considerable care repeated it in the window provided.

Halfway through the confirmation, the Webpage again flashed "Invalid Password. Invalid Password."

Now, quite frustrated, I thought to give it one more try. Since this was just an exercise to see how well the Obamacare Website was working--not my ability to come up with passwords, putting notions of security aside, I opted for the minimum, an 8 character password--STZ"ZERG.

That should work, I confidently thought, but again it, it felt as if I myself, was being declared to be Invalid.

I was instructed to log off and come back latter, better prepared to make the Website work for me.

As you might imagine, I am not looking forward to that. If I do, I'll be sure to get a 10 year-old to help me come up with valid usernames and passwords.

If I do (unlikely), I'll let you know how I do.

In the meantime, I need a drink.

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Monday, December 02, 2013

December 2, 2013--Cyber Monday

It was 5:30 yesterday evening when we pulled up to the house to unload groceries.

"Today's Sunday, isn't it?" Rona asked, actually knowing the answer. "So what's that mail truck doing delivering packages on Sunday?"

"It's because Amazon made a deal with them to deliver orders on Sundays."

"You mean the American people, the president, and Congress couldn't get them to do it but Amazon could?"

"What can I tell you."

"Let's get upstairs as soon as we can," Rona said, "I think 60 Minutes is doing a story today about Amazon. About Jeff Bezos. Your favorite."

"You know I can't stand 60 Minutes any more. They have descended basically to doing puff pieces. I stopped watching after Mike Wallace retired."

And, as predicted, the story about Bezos was mainly fluff. The interviewer was Charlie Rose who is a personal friend of the Besoses, Jeff and MacKenzie, his novelist wife. The whole thing was like an unpaid advertisement for Amazon.

But there were a few things of interest. Great interest.

One of Amazon's senior executives, I think the person responsible for Amazon's fulfillment operations--the people who round up, pack, and ship orders--when asked said that Amazon's long-range plan is to sell "everything to everyone."

He added, "I think." But I believed him since they seem well on their way to achieving their goal. Currently they have nearly 225 million customers worldwide.

A lot of the piece was shot in one of Amazon's one-million-square-foot fulfillment warehouses--one of, I think, 19 in the United States--with more under construction so that packages can get to customers quicker than the typical two days at present. Thus the Sunday delivery deal they struck with the USPS.

And Bezos, told Rose, they are working to get orders to customers even faster than that--they hope to be able to deliver 80 percent of orders the same day. Which is an enormous challenge since they get 300 per second.

When Charlie put on his faux-incredulent face, Jeff winked at him and indicated he was willing to let his friend in on a top secret project--he agreed to show him the drones--yes drones--Amazon is developing to deliver packages right to people's doorsteps within hours of their placing orders.

And sure enough 60 Minutes had video footage of these little drones with yellow plastic buckets attached to their underbellies hovering over a suburban home, using GPS coordinates--just like in Pakistan--before descending to the lawn, uncoupling itself from the yellow tub before lifting off to swoop back to the fulfillment center.

The still incredulous Rose, with his mouth still hanging open, could barely deliver a follow-up question, so Bezos, unasked, said that 85 percent of their orders could fit into one of those plastic boxes and so . . . He didn't need to finish his sentence.

Charlie, now recovered, asked how soon packages would be delivered that way.

Bezos laughed--he's worth about $25 billion and that makes it easy to chuckle at such things--that it wouldn't be for a few more years. They had to make sure the drones won't cause collateral damage, landing on people's heads on streets such as ours in Manhattan.

"So," Rona said, as we watched with our mouths also agape but for other reasons (everything to everybody?), "I guess that means the post office will be doing Sunday deliveries for quite some time."

"Good for them," I said, "I mean I suppose. Good for them."

"And it all started in his garage in Bellevue, Washington less than 20 years ago. Good for him . . . I suppose."

I said, "Too bad we don't have a garage."

"Maybe we don't, but tomorrow, I'm buying some Amazon stock." She wrote a note to herself.

Shrugging, I said, "Get me some too."

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