Wednesday, April 30, 2014

April 30, 2014--Rain

Morning off to enjoy the rain. Back tomorrow.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

April 29, 2014--Career Politicians

Congressman Aaron Schook, Republican from Illinois, was a guest on Monday’s Morning Joe.
His current claims to fame? He just returned from a trip to six European countries accompanying Eric Cantor and Paul Ryan. And, more interesting, he had recently posted an Instagram photo of himself surfing in what looked more like Waikiki than Kiev.
When pressed about the photo, the former Cosmo model said that since nothing is private any more, wanting to control how he is perceived by the public, he is now posting things about himself to get control of his own "narrative."
As if there is pent-up desire for anyone to want to know more about him, much less how he looks in a bathing suit. Actually, quite hot, which, I was imagining, was why he was booked for Joe in the first place since when asked about anything involving public policy or foreign affairs, he sputtered innocuously, with a vacant but handsome look from standard Republican talking points.
When asked about immigration reform he said, correctly, that nothing will happen this congressional session unless Republicans and Democrats work together.
“Why is that so difficult?” he was asked.
He shrugged his shoulders and with a sigh said that when you think about running for Congress and then during the early days if elected, your desire to do “the right thing” evaporates when you realize this is “a hard thing to do.”
To this glimpse of insight there was no follow up.
Neither Mika nor any of the others (Joe was not present) asked why it’s hard.
Perhaps because they already knew the answer—new congressmen quickly learn that in the House to get along you have to go along with your party’s leadership (Democrats as well GOPers). And, in order to give yourself the best chance to be reelected every two years you have to tow the party line and not alienate the money people who will provide the cash to fund your campaigns.
Debriefing with Rona over coffee we talked about why neither of us has ever heard a reporter or cable news host probe why seemingly every member of Congress sees getting reelected time after time as his or her highest priority.
Rather than seeing this form of public service to be just that—service—all seemingly are primarily interested in building congressional careers.
Our Founders envisioned participation in the government to be a responsibility, not résumé building. They didn’t call for members of Congress to be paid (for years they weren’t) much less have retirement and health insurance benefits. Or, congressional barbershops, restaurants, and gyms.
They would be horrified to see people lingering in Congress for decades.
Wouldn’t it have been interesting for someone on Morning Joe to have asked Congressman Schook, who is a conservative and reveres the Constitution, how he reconciles his own congressional careerist ambitions with the vision of those who fought our Revolution, wrote our Constitution, and called for citizens to play limited and temporary roles in our government.
I’m not sure there are talking points for that. Either for congressmen or, for that matter, talk show hosts.

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Monday, April 28, 2014

April 28, 2014--NY, NY: Calorie Count

Saturday was beautiful and Rona said, "Let's go into Brooklyn, to Coney Island, and get a couple of dogs at Nathan's."

"And fries," I added. "I love their fries."

"For sure. We haven't been there in what feels like ten years. I'm interested to see if things have changed. Especially after Hurricane Sandy."

So we extracted our car from the garage and headed for the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel.

When we got to the toll booth on the Brooklyn side, "Rona observed, "I can tell you one thing that's changed."

"What's that?"

"The toll."

"How much is it? I think the last time we came this way is was $2.50, or something. When it first opened back in 1950, the toll, I think, was 35 cents, which was a lot of money then."

"And you had a full head of hair."

"And you weren't even born!"

"Now it's even more expensive than the Holland Tunnel," which we took recently returning from Florida, "It was $13.00 to enter the city but they don't charge for leaving."

"Is there some message in that? To get one used to Manhattan prices?"

"But for the BBT, it's $7.50 each way. Fifteen round trip. Highway robbery, literally."

"That's probably what Nathan's now charges for dogs."

"Fifteen dollars?"

"No, $7.50."

I wasn't that far off. Nathan's Famous hotdogs are now $3.95 each plus tax. But once every ten years--who cares?

Sensing correctly that I did care, Rona said, "When they opened nearly a hundred years ago dogs were a nickel."

"This is supposed to make me feel better? Does this mean if I live to a hundred they'll cost $25 each?"

"Probably. But by then . . ."  I was happy that she didn't complete the thought.

"Why don't we stop obsessing about prices and enjoy ourselves. How many do you want?"

"Two, well done, with mustard--lots of it--and sauerkraut. And you?"

"Probably one."

"And don't forget the fries. They're really my favorite here."

"If they make them the same way. Hand cut."

"Don't hold your breath. We'll be lucky if . . ."

"Stop with the grumpiness. We're here to have a good time. And forget about eating healthy. If you want to eat healthy, we can go home and get some shredded cabbage and carrots for lunch." She winked to make sure I knew she was fooling.

"I'd rather get my gas from a couple of hotdogs."

"And from a soda. What do you want to drink? A diet Coke?"

"Let's go wild. A regular Coke and how about sharing one? You know, a large one. Twelve, sixteen ounces?"

"Sounds like a plan."

On such a beautiful day the lines to place orders stretched back to the sidewalk.

When finally we were third from the counter Rona, reading the posted menu, noted, "Look at all the new things they have. Chicken fingers, chili dogs, burgers. Not just your old regular dogs and fries."

"I guess they have to keep up with the times. Progress. They even have," I noticed, "a chef's salad! So you can eat healthy even here."

"Who would come all this way, pay $15 to park, and order a chef's salad? Crazy."

"Speaking of eating healthy," I pointed to the menu, "look, since we were here last they are posting calories."


"Next to the ridiculous prices they list calories." I pointed. "Hotdogs are 310 calories. And regular fries, 550. Ugh. But I so love those fries." I made a sad face.

"Don't worry about calories. We come here once every ten years. Live a little."

"Or die a little," I said under my breath.

"We'll have three well done dogs," Rona said to the girl at the cash register. "Both with mustard and sauerkraut. Extra mustard." She turned to me, "Relax, mustard has very few calories. And fries and . . ."

"Will that be regular or large fires?"

I glanced again at the calorie chart. "Regular are 550, large 780, and . . ."

"Large," Rona almost shouted, in the spirit of we-only-do-this-once-a-decade.

"And, a medium Coke."

"That's another 240," I muttered.

Rona glared at me. "You want to go home and munch on carrots?"

"We spent a fortune on parking so . . ."

"So, indeed. We came all this way for dogs. And fries. Try to enjoy yourself."

While waiting for our order--which totaled about $20 (or about a penny for each of our 1,950 calories) we looked around at the other customers.

"Look at the woman," I whispered. "She's huge and ordered four chili dogs at 460 calories each. Do you think all of them are for her?''

"At times you can be so ridiculous. Why don't you forget about everyone else and pay attention to your own waistline. I've noticed it's expanding recently. You could cut down on your chocolate ice cream after dinner."

"I . . ."

Thankfully, our order arrived and I was saved from embarrassing myself further.

"Let's get some Ketchup, Rona said, "For the fries."

"Lots. I love lots of Ketchup with my fries."

We half filled a small coffee cup with Ketchup. "Glad to see they still serve Heinz," I smiled. "No extra charge for that." I added, "How many calories are in the Ketchup?"

Thankfully, Rona ignored me. "There's a spot over there," she noticed. "Where in the old days we stood to eat our dogs. I'm glad Sandy didn't destroy it."

"Right. Where there used to be the clam bar. We enjoyed them too, clams, and chowder when it was cold. I wonder if they still have them on the half shell. I must admit I can't help but ask how much they cost."

"They still do have clams. Look." Rona nodded at the seafood menu. "And they also have crabmeat salad. Changes, changes," she sounded wistful.

"Now you're getting into the curmudgeony spirit. I like that."

"And while I'm at it, a dozen clams is $15 and the crab salad $18. Wow."

"But look. The clams are only 250 calories and the crab salad just 125."

"Forget that," Rona said, "We're here for the dogs. Let's dig in. I'm starving."

I devoured my first one in four bites. "The best 310 calories I ever ate," I said, with mustard running down my chin.

"Look at this so-called medium Coke," Rona was holding it with two hands. "It must be half a gallon. And it weighs like five pounds. Do you think it's legal?"


"You know, isn't it illegal in New York City to serve soft drinks in cups larger than 16 ounces?"

"Mayor Bloomberg tried to do that but couldn't get it approved. Anyway, there's a new mayor now so forget about it and, to quote you, live a little."

"How many fries do you think there are?"


"You know, in the order. For our 780 calories. I wonder how many per fry that would be. Let me see and then divide 780 by . . ."

"First you gave me grief for worrying about calories and how much everything costs and now before even finishing your first dog that we drove all the way to get, you're counting fries."

Ignoring me, intent on counting the fries, Rona said, "There must be 20, 25 of them. Which means . . . let me get out my calculator . .  . that's a little more than 31 calories per fry and  . . ."

"I can't believe you."

"And I'm lovin' every one of them! Um, um. Do you think we have to wait another ten years to . . . ?"

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Friday, April 25, 2014

April 25, 2014--Two Weak Men

Does anyone think the situation in Ukraine is headed in a good direction when two weak men's manhood is challenged?

One parades around topless, flexing in leather outfits while the other puts on a veneer of cool in search of his inner macho.

This may be one of the best recent examples of how the personal trumps the rational. It's all about mine-is-bigger-than-yours.

In an Enlightenment, post-Cold-War world reasonable self-interest is supposed to prevail. As the Godfather taught, "It's not personal. It's business."

Well . . .

A little history might be helpful--

In the 17th century, war between the Tsardom of Russia and the Polish-Lituanian Commonwealth resulted in Russian imperial control of most of what is now--at least for the moment--eastern Ukraine. And it wasn't until after the First World War that what we now think of as Ukraine was assigned its current borders and became semi-independent.

This is a mere sketch of Ukraine's shifting geography. If inclined, one can look back as far as the 7th century or as recently as the 1950s to see more ebb and flow.

So, in a rational or objective world, for the United States to be lecturing Russia, actually Putin, about Ukraine's immutable borders makes about as much historical sense as Putin chiding the United States, actually Obama, about our Southwestern borders, much of which belonged to Mexico until the mid-19th century. If we applied the same principles to ourselves that we are pressing on Russia, it would mean relinquishing Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, and California.

So, what we are seeing is neither about history nor the aspirations of peoples from polyglot backgrounds (look at a current ethnic map of Ukraine if you want a glimpse of these deeper, nationalist problems) assigned to a fiction of a country, but rather the flexing of the out-of-control egos and vulnerabilities of two men who are locked in a dance likely spinning toward disaster.

It doesn't take a seer to predict that before too long Putin will make direct moves to re-annex at least the eastern half of Ukraine and who knows what else after that. And, in response, when Obama's layer of seemingly admirable cool cracks, who knows what fires within might be smoldering and what he might feel propelled to do.

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Thursday, April 24, 2014

April 24, 2014--The Clinton Grandchild

Last week, at a public event attended by her mother, Chelsea Clinton announced that she is with child. As it played out in the press, she might well have said she is with grandchild.

A member of the media in the room where Chelsea shared the good news asked if it's expected birth date was politically timed.

Chelsea pretending she did not understand, smiled and shrugged. But then added that she looks forward to her daughter or son growing up "in a world with so many strong female leaders."

It was obvious what her smile and wink suggested. At her side, mom glowed.

The fact that that question was raised was telling, as is my snarky tone.

What should have been about a blessed event (there I go again) at the moment of the announcement and subsequently was treated as a political calculation. From the relatively-gossip-free New York Times to Rush Limbaugh to just about everyone on Fox News it was smirkingly assumed that it was yet another example of the Clinton's doing everything they could to advance their personal agenda. In this case, Chelsea arranging the timing of her pregnancy to help Hillary secure the nomination and then, with a grandchild on her hip, be elected president.

Shades of Sarah Palin moving about the country with special-needs grandchild Trig (for trigger--get it) schlepped along to help shape her aw-shucks, soccer-mom image.

And with Hillary still lacking the likeability factor (remember Obama during the 2008 campaign with  shrug of his own saying she was "likable enough") what better way to humanize her?

With politics becoming fully political theater and a form of mass entertainment--who doesn't wish Herman (Ducky-Ducky) Cain will run again next year--it is not beyond reason that timing the birth of a child-grandchild could be as stage managed as adhering to talking points and TV ads produced by friendly PAC groups. With appearances on the Tonight Show, the Daily Show, Colbert Report, and SNL essential.

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Wednesday, April 23, 2014

April 23, 2014--Obama's Drones

Five days after Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula released an audacious video of a daytime militant rally in southern Yemen, President Obama authorized a drone strike that killed at least 55 Al-Qaeda-linked terrorists.

Putting aside for the moment the legal and ethical issues, in many ways this was a good thing. These men are among the world's most dangerous people and drone strikes are a good way to get at them with little risk to U.S. or Yemeni forces.

The openly-flaunting way in which Nasser-al-Wuhayshi, head of AQAP, organized the rally and brazenly made videos of it public, not only emphasized the level of the threat he and his fighters represent but also was a way to humiliate his enemies, especially the United States. He brashly seemed to say, "Catch me if you can."

So Obama was quick to rise to the taunt. At least three drone strikes were carried out over the weekend and as a result dozens were killed.

One thing even fierce critics of Obama's concede is that he not hesitant about authorizing drone strikes against bad guys, including an occasional American citizen.

Putting tactics aside--drones' ability to respond quickly to threats--it is striking to see Obama acting so decisively about . . . anything.

The very same Republican critics who poke him about "leading from behind" give him begrudging credit for being so aggressive about the use of drones. But I suspect Obama is uncharacteristically decisive and forceful when it comes to the deployment of drones for other than just military or political reasons.

Political-Psychology 101 would suggest the unfettered use of drones is the one arena in which Obama has undisputed power and can act out his frustrations.

For a president who knows that at least half the reason conservatives oppose everything and anything he initiates or even supports is because he is African American, for a president who is reluctant to play the race card much less even openly confront this political bigotry, fearing being characterized as an "angry black man," having a means to act out his frustrations and, I am sure, rage about this must be irresistible.

The giveaway that this is not a preposterous notion is that authorizing the use of drones without seemingly endless cogitation--a quality for which Obama is known and not-entirely-unfairly criticized--is the one area of leadership in which he clearly leads from the front and is expeditiously decisive.

In Freudian terms--this is an example of displacement theory.

As a close reader of the Constitution, he knows that much of this is extra-legal or, minimally, questionable; and yet, time after time, instead of being cautious or timid, he acts boldly. And, it would appear, successfully.

It may be unfeeling to suggest that ordering the killing of people--even terrorists--is in some ways therapeutic, but considering the circumstances in Washington and in Red-State America, on some level it is understandable.

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Tuesday, April 22, 2014

April 22, 2014--Down Day

I will return tomorrow. Have a happy Earth Day.

Monday, April 21, 2014

April 21, 2014--Fore!

Not only is Tiger Woods sitting out much of the golfing season but so are at least 5.0 million more. Those, the New York Times reports, who have stopped playing during the last decade.

And this has the golfing industry worried--golf courses and country clubs are suffering and so are the TV networks that broadcast golf: fewer players translates into smaller audiences which in turn translates into fewer advertising dollars. And that constitutes a big problem.

The networks are left to hope that Tiger miraculously returns to form (when he is doing well and is part of the final twosome during a tournament ratings double); but since golf courses have no equivalent silver bullet, many are turning to gimmicks to attract a younger population of duffers.

A favorite gimmick is to enlarge the physical hole form the current 4.25 inches to 15 inches, the size of a large pizza. Top-10 golfer Sergio Garcia likes the hole this size. Considering he has never come close to winning a Major, this could be considered special pleading or his endorsement the result of a handsome honorarium.

Sand traps are a special agony for the average golfer. Though the likes of Phil Michelson blast out of them without trouble, folks who hack their way around country clubs have been knows to take four or five strokes to extract themselves from a bunker and to break their sand wedges in frustration. So, a new rule would allow golfers to reach down, pick up their ball, and toss it onto the green. At least twice a round.

It's also OK on these souped-up courses to use juiced golf balls and clubs to make shots go further with less effort or skill.

If you remember when Bill Clinton was the First Duffer you recall he wasn't much good as a player and so, as Commander-in-Chief, he gave himself numerous mulligans--do over shots. If he hit his drive in the pond (he was especially adept at that), he'd allow himself a second or third attempt. All strictly against the PGA rules. But under the new rules being proposed to reattract golfers, especially younger ones, mulligans would be permitted and routine as would allowing golfers to place every shot on a tee, not just when driving.

TaylorMade-Adidas Golf in the process of redesigning 100 courses to make them more kid friendly because, as reported in the New York Times, youngsters are quitting the game after a few rounds because it's "too hard" to play courses as they are currently designed and with existing rules.

Parents are apparently upset that their little-ones are being frustrated. God forbid that any child should experience any frustration about anything. Including things that are hard to do. Which is half the point of golf--to try to excel at something difficult and learn to live with inevitable frustration and occasional bursts of excellence.

By the way, Sergio played in a tournament on a nine-hole nouveau course with anchovy-pizza-sized holes and shot a six under par. In truth, not that impressive.

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Friday, April 18, 2014

April 18, 2014--Forced Arbitration

Now there is another reason not to "tell" Facebook that you "like" something.

I visit Facebook less and less frequently as more and more advertisements show up on my Facebook page. For example--I have a cousin, who shall remain nameless, who has serious reservations about capitalism. And I am speaking euphemistically. He is way beyond Progressive. But his Facebook postings (don't ask me why he is a member of Facebook--no one is without contradictions) is filling up with ads.

Next to his posting warning about the military-industrial complex and another relishing the fact that Comcast was voted the 2014 "worst company in America," popping up are ads for the iPhone 6 and Tim's Cascade Style Hot Jalapeño Seasoned Potato Chips.

So much for Facebook serving as a forum for progressive discourse or for my cousin's eating habits.

But there is more.

As reported in yesterday's New York Times, companies such as General Mills and Kellogg's are attempting to use consumers' "likes" as a way of disallowing potential plaintiffs from suing the company for damages. So, if a box of, say, Raisin Bran, contains broken glass, the person eating a bowl with as much glass as raisins by this sleight-of hand logic would be forced to participate in arbitration rather than being able to take their claim for damages to the courts.

This would pertain to anyone telling Facebook that they "like" Raisin Bran but also to anyone who downloaded a discount coupon or entered a company-organized sweepstakes or contest.

The claim is that if you participate in any of these things you are deriving a "benefit" and as such are holding Kellogg's, in this instance, legally harmless.

If this sounds outrageous--that by doing something as innocuous as using a discount coupon you are in effect assigning away your right to sue--it is derived from a number of under-the-radar Supreme Court decisions that are a part of a spate of SCOTUS rulings that hold corporations less accountable to the public.

According to Julia Duncan, director of federal programs at the American Association for Justice, a trade groups representing plaintiff trial lawyers, "It's essentially trying to protect the company from all accountability, even when it lies, or say, an employee deliberately adds broken glass to a product."

My advice--read the fine print, cancel your Facebook membership, and eat granola.

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Thursday, April 17, 2014

April 17, 2014--Today's Luddites

A young friend who is making his way quite nicely in the IT field (he is a software builder with investable ideas for a company of his own) was talking the other night about the Luddites.

In addition to being impressed that he knew anything at all about them, he had interesting things to say about today's version.

We began by comparing the power of the Gutenberg Revolution with the advent of the Internet--"I think," he unsurprisingly said, "that the Internet will prove to be an even more powerful cultural and work-shifting technology. Everything is and will change, from knowledge acquisition to the way work is structured."

Though two generations removed from his, though feeling threatened by so much change that I do not and never will fully understand, I agreed. But, I wondered, as we moved on to compare the structure of work brought about by the Industrial Revolution with the Cyber Revolution, that the changes we are seeing globally are likely to be much more disruptive than those brought about when we shifted, less globally, from an agriculture-based economy to one dominated by machines and mass production.

"You're making my point for me," he said, wanting to retain control of the direction of the conversation. "But though I am in my small way contributing to these paradigm-shifting developments, I am worried about some of the trends that I see, unintended consequences--there are always some--that may not turn out to be either benign or progressive."

"Say more," I said, pleased to cede the direction of the conversation to him.

"In the past, the actual, historic Luddites got it wrong. They thought that brining waterpower and machines to the manufacture of textiles would both alienate labor further and ultimately lead to fewer jobs--machines would replace workers."

"What you're saying is correct. They did go about literally and metaphorically smashing the very machines that they felt would replace them."

"And they turned out to be wrong. Right?"

"Say more."

"Rather than replacing workers, though many were dislocated and/or needed to learn machine-based skills, over time the capital invested in mechanization, which temporarily shifted the economic balance more toward capital (things like machines and factories) than workers and wages, over time--and this is important--the balance shifted: more workers were ultimately needed and the demand for them, plus unionization, led to higher wages."

"Correct. Classic economic theory," I said, wanting to sound relevant, "says this is what happens historically as the result of capital outlays and aggregation."

"But back to my but," he pressed, "I do not see this happening now. And maybe it will not happen even during the upcoming decades."

"What won't be happening?" I admitted to myself that he was leaving me behind.

"IT, information technology . . ."

"I know what IT is."

He smiled at me. "It may turn out that IT will permanently not only dislocate workers but also make much of human, hands-on work work itself redundant."


"OK, obsolete. No longer needed. And, here's the worry, this may wind up permanently replacing the old, classic economic model. We may see a longterm shift in the balance between capital and wages. A shift in the direction favoring capital. The data in many countries, very much including ours, are trending in this direction."

"OK. But what about the Luddites?"

"Well, it may be a generational thing--with people from, forgive me, your generation serving as the contemporary Luddites. You, I mean they," he smiled again, "may be decrying these cyber innovations because you, I mean they, are feeling left behind by more than age. But, they may be right."

"Slow down. You're losing me. Right about what?"

"That the new machines, actual and virtual, will in fact replace hands-on workers (except maybe in health care and restaurant work). Replace them for the foreseeable future. Maybe permanently. Maybe if displaced, redundant workers acquire new skills there may not be enough jobs for them. Look at what goes on in auto assembly plants these days. Cars are now made more and more by robots. Yes, at the moment humans have to make the robots but after they are deployed (capital investment) very few actual workers are needed. Just maybe to grease the machines and manipulate them via computers."

"Wow," I couldn't help but say. "That's quiet a future you're presenting."

"To be truthful, these are not only my ideas. There are people who know tons more than me about this who are studying what's going on and alerting us to the changes."

"I know that," I said. "I've been reading some of their stuff too."

"And I'm seeing it where I work. What in the past would have required dozens of workers requires very few. Considering the economic size and reach of a Google and a Facebook, to mention a couple, they have relatively few workers. That's one reason they're so profitable. And my own guess is that if you look at them five years from now they'll be even bigger and will have even fewer employees. This is a very big deal." I

"Could you pour me a little more wine? I need some." I slid my glass toward him.

While doing so, he concluded, "In other words, you Luddites are right!"

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Wednesday, April 16, 2014

April 16, 2014--Stupider

"Here's my new favorite example of things getting stupider."


"Yes. You remember our conversation in the car about how I nurture my inner curmudgeoness to inure me from things getting stupider?"

"'Inure'? Vaguely."

"Here's a perfect example of what I mean." Rona rolled her eyes.

"Did you hear about the teenage girl, Sarah, who tweeted American Airline last week pretending to be a member of Al Qaeda?"

"I did hear about that."

"Let me read you her tweet. 'Hello. My name is Ibrahim and I'm from Afghanistan. I'm part of Al Qaida and on June 1st I'm going to do something really big. Bye.'"

"I'm impressed she knows where Afghanistan is and knows how to spell it."

"But when she heard back from American that they take these threats seriously and that they were going to pass her tweet to the FBI, she pleaded with them, saying it was just a joke and that she 'just a girl' and only a teenage 'white girl.'"

"Stupid, indeed."

"I gather the Dutch authorities have arrested her--she Dutch--and though she's miserable about that she is also excited that as a result of her tweet she now has thousands of new followers."

"Why am I not surprised."

"Here's the worst part."

"There's something worse?"

"Yes. As a result American Airlines reports they are now receiving thousands of threats from teenagers worldwide."

"At least there's one thing to feel good about."

"I'm listening."

"American teenagers are not the only stupid ones."


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Tuesday, April 15, 2014

April 15, 2104--NY,NY: Stick-Figure Children

During our second day heading north on I-95, bored by the unchanging landscape and relentless traffic,  after running out of interest in making a list of out-of-state license plates (amazingly, we saw Alaska and Hawaii within 20 miles south of Richmond), we turned to anxieties about all the things that likely changed in Manhattan while we were snowbirding.

"I know you're worried that your Danon yogurt will cost $2.00."

"You bet I am," I confessed. "For me it's a litmus test for the cost of things more generally. Like how much maintenance we have to pay for our apartment and how much it will cost to park in our old garage. Probably $700 a month," I intentionally exaggerated.

"Forget how much they be charging for a double espresso at Balthazar."

"Remember," Rona reminded me, "we doing more eating at home and when we do go out for coffee we've been going to The Smile and . . ."

"Where my cortados will probably be $7.50."

"Can we change the subject?"

"Good idea," I said, cursing the car from Ontario that cut me off. "Those Canadian drivers," I sputtered. "They shouldn't let them in the country."

"It helps our balance of trade," Rona said, showing off that she has an MBA.

Reading my mind, she smiled. "While we're being driven off the road check out that bumper sticker."

I squinted into the glare. "What does it say? I can't read it."

"Our Children Are Not Stick-Figures."


"That's what it says. Though I have no idea what it means."

"I think I know. I think . . ." I cut myself off. I'm trying to stop repeating everything.

"I'm totally puzzled."

"You remember those Baby On Board signs?"

"I do. Every car in suburbia seemed to have one."

"And remember how that morphed into things like Poodle On Board?"

"Or Mother-In-Law On Board."

"I remember you hated them. You can be such a curmudgeon."

"I cultivate my inner curmudgeon. It's one of the things that helps keep me centered when so much seems like it's spinning out of control or getting stupider."

"So what's with the stick-figure business?"

"Haven't you noticed that affixed to the rear windows of half the SUVs on the road . . .  I hate those too."


"For the life of me I can't understand the fetish about them. With gas creeping again toward $4.00 a gallon people are still buying them even though they get 15 miles to the gallon."

"I guess they make people feel safe."

"Maybe they're getting ready for the infrastructure to collapse and the oceans to rise."

"My, you make it so pleasant to drive 1,200 miles together."

"Sorry. I can be such a grump. But people put stick-figure decals on their SUV rear windows, one for each member of their families."


"You heard me. Look, check it out, look at that SUV from Quebec that nearly drove us off the road. It has them." I pulled closer, tailgating, so we could take a closer look.

"I see," Rona said, "But be careful. I don't want us to get killed while looking at stick-figures. But, you're right, there appears to be a mommy stick-figure decal and a daddy and . . ."

"And it looks to me like a little girl, an adolescent boy, and . . ."

"And could that be a dog stick-figure?"

"They're members of the family too, aren't they? Dogs, I mean."

"I suppose so."

"To keep us from falling asleep in this traffic let's see if we can spot a two-daddy family."

"Or a family with a stick-figure anaconda. They're becoming more and more popular as pets." Rona was finally getting into it.

I made a face.

Finally, back in Manhattan, after unpacking and making a round of obligatory phone calls, we went through a week's worth of newspapers we had shlepped with us from Florida.

"Look at this," Rona said, all excited. She passed last Thursday's New York Times Style section to me. "More of the same."

"More of the same what?" I was still racing through Wednesday's paper.

"Like the stick-figure business."

"'Three-Seat Strollers'? That's the story you want me to read?"

"Yes, about how there's an increasing number of affluent families with three children."


"So according to the article, on the Upper East Side in the year 2000, 49 percent of the richest families had two or more children but now the percentage is up to 59 percent, with a decided edge to three children."

"And, what's the big deal?"

"Some are claiming, if you'd read this, that the third child is a 'status child.'"

"I'm not following this."

"With two kids you might be able to get away with a two-bedroom apartment; but with three you need at least three. This shows you have the money to buy a place that size. You know what a fortune it is. Especially Downtown and on the East Side."

"You mean it's no longer enough to have a second home in the Hamptons?"

"Everyone has a house out there."

"Or a Range Rover?"

"Ditto. Two or three from New York nearly ran over you an hour ago when you were dawdling in the passing lane."

"I was going 80."

"What can I tell you, they wanted to go 90."

"So now when we go to the Met or Modern uptown we'll get run off the sidewalk by a three-seat stroller?"

"Now you're getting the picture."

"Do you think my yogurt will really be $2.00?"

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Monday, April 14, 2014

April 14, 2014--Conspicuous Consuming

Back in NYC, a little exhausted from the long drive, I did not finish my post for this morning. But, I feel, it is shaping up to a good one and will be ready Tuesday morning. It is a report on some of the ways New Yorkers have been showing off since we were here in December.

Think children.

Friday, April 11, 2014

April 11, 2014--Heading North

We're leaving Delray early this morning and heading for New York City from where I will be writing and posting for the next two months. And then to Maine.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

April 10, 2014--Snowbirding: Half-and-Half

Parking at Walmart in Delray is more likely to get Rona and me spatting than even my tentative approach to left turns.

For example, yesterday--

"You park like you're an old man."

"I'm just trying to be cautious. With people backing in and out and others pushing shopping carts all over the place in the roadway, I think it's smart to be extra careful."

"I think the way you park is the way old men drive."

That would be enough to get us not talking to each other and leave me on my own--as I then was--to creep up and down the aisles looking for a space that I could squeeze into that wasn't filled with abandoned shopping carts.

And yesterday, making matters worse, there was a truly old man in the road in which I was waiting to pounce on an empty space, attempting wobbly to navigate a motorized wheelchair in the basket of which was stashed a folded walker.

"I wonder what he's doing," I said, knowing Rona was ignoring me and I was in effect talking to myself. "I can't believe he's looking for a car. From the looks of him they shouldn't even let him drive one of these electric scooters." I was aggravated and not feeling compassionate.

"He's probably . . . can't . . . This makes me . . . I don't know." That was Rona sputtering to herself.

"What did you say?" I was hoping to break the ice by having us talk about someone with even more driving issues than I.

"He's probably a Silver Alert person." Puzzled, I looked toward Rona. "You know, someone who has Alzheimer's, or something, who wandered off and the police and his family are looking for him. This makes me crazy. I think of myself as understanding and empathetic but this is . . ."

"You are. You are." I thought if I said it emphatically Rona would believe me and we could resume being civil to each other.

"Look. He found his car. Can you believe it? He's trying to get into it. He can't drive a scooter, but a car?"

I sighed in agreement.

"You know I love being here and I love you, but I'm glad we're heading north at the end of the week. I need a dose of New York. And I know--you don't have to say it--after three weeks I'll want to leave Manhattan and hide out in Maine."

"Let's make a quick hit here." I had finally eased into a parking space. "All we need is some bottled water and laundry detergent. We could have avoided Walmart and gone to Publix, but we were in the neighborhood and so I thought . . ."

"That's OK, love," Rona was at last smiling, "I can handle one more trip to Walmarts. Ordinarily I really like them. But it's just so hot, I didn't sleep well last night, and I guess in spite of myself I'm having some separation anxiety. It won't be easy to leave your mother. She's not doing as well as she was back in January and at nearly 106 you never . . ."

"I know. I know," I sighed.

"Let's get this over with quickly and head home. I think we both could use a nap."

"Deal." We exchanged high-fives.

Once inside we quickly rounded up the water and detergent. "Can you believe it, this laundry soap is less than $4.00. At Publix it would be twice that. I suppose that's why we're here like millions of others."

"Billions," I corrected her.

"It is a little funny," Rona said, "to be here on Equal Pay Day. Walmart's a case in point about why we need that--more equal pay regulations."

"Indeed, indeed." I noticed I was repeating everything. Another sign of aging that annoyed Rona. This time thankfully she let it pass.

"I almost forgot."

"What's that?"

"We need a small container of half-and-half. We have three more breakfasts before we leave and I ran out this morning. I don't remember where they keep it. We never buy it here."

"I think over there where they have the orange juice. Sometimes we get our Tropicana here. The prices again are . . ."

"Yes. I see the refrigerator chest over there by the wall." Rona cut me off, clearly having had enough talk about comparison-shopping. We were soon to be back in about the most expensive place in the world, New York, where my yogurts are by now probably $2.00 rather than the 72 cents we paid for them last week at Publix. Rona understandably, before the fact, didn't want to make the sticker-shock worse that it inevitably will be.

I pushed the shopping cart toward the juice and cream chest and stopped a few paces away. "Where do they hide the half-and-half," I muttered, scanning the shelves. "It must be near here somewhere. Ah, I think it's over there right by the whipping cream."

"I see," Rona said, "But what's going on over there?"

"I don't know."

"There," she pointed, "There's an old man holding onto the door handle of the other refrigerator. It looks like he's having a seizure or heart attack or something."

Concerned but not knowing what to do, I asked, "What do you mean? He looks like . . ."

"Like he's holding himself up by clinging to the handle."

"Maybe I should tell someone who works here that . . ."

"Before you do, let's see if we can help him."

By then we were within five or six feet of where he was obviously struggling with something. Maybe Rona is right, I thought, that he's experiencing some kind medical incident.

"Do you hear that?" Rona whispered. She had stopped and held onto the cart so I wouldn't push it any closer.

"Shouldn't we . . . ?"

"Quiet. I want to listen."

"Listen to what? He looks like he's in trouble."

"I forget you can barely hear anything. But I think he's OK. He's talking. He must be using a cell phone. Like in New York, you remember, all the people walking in the streets who appear to be talking to themselves but are on their iPhones."

I did remember that. In fact I hate it. But how unusual, I thought, that someone who looks as if he's at least 90 should be doing the same thing that twenty-somethings do so routinely.

But I did hear him talking. Actually, it sounded as if he was having an argument.

"If I told you once, I told you a thousand times," he yelled, hunched for privacy close to the refrigerator door, "leave her be." He was gesturing with his free hand. "You don't need this. No more. Enough."

"I think . . ." I said.

"Quiet. I don't want us to disturb him. And also, I want . . ."

"I know, to listen."

"Like I told you," he continued, still agitated, "she's no good. No good. What did she ever do for you except make your life miserable? Miserable. You did this; you did that. Always thinking about her. Her good-for-nothing husband. Her children who never raised a finger to help. You, always you. Always you." His shoulders were heaving and it looked as if he was about to cry.

Rona moved us half a step closer and held a finger up to her lips to shush me.

"Remember when she came home from the hospital. After her hipso-memory operation. Who took her in? Who took care of her? Nursed her? Bathed her? Took her back and forth to the doctor?" His whole upper body throbbed. "You. You. You. No one else. You. Who gave up your bed for her and slept on the sofa? And for how long? Days? Weeks? No, months. Months."

I noticed, like me, he too was repeating himself.

"For days and days after she was strong enough to go home. If I didn't put my foot down she would still be living with us. Even though she's dead, she'd still be living with us. Wanting you to take care of her. To do her every bidding." I heard the beginning of a sob.

"And now? What now?"

By then there was someone else standing next to us who apparently needed some orange juice, But she too didn't advance further and stood patiently next to me.

"Gone. Everything is gone. Everyone gone. Over. Nothing is left. Fartik. Turned to scheisse. Scheisse. Shit!"

With that he let go of the handle, turned, and, trembling with tears, shuffled unsteadily toward the front of the store.

Rona stroked his back as he passed close to her. I looked the other way at the woman who was loading a quart of juice into her cart.

There was no cell phone.

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Wednesday, April 09, 2014

April 9, 2014--Republicans Are "For Nothing"

When Frank Rich is booked to appear on the Rachel Maddow Show I try to tune in. I like the way he sees through the hypocrisy that passes for political discourse and though he is an unashamed progressive is not above giving Democrats corrective grief when he sees them pandering or posturing. Which is often.

The other night he joined Rachel to mark what they claimed was the end of the Obamacare debate. With up to 10 million newly signed up to be covered through health insurance exchanges or enrolled in Medicare, plus millions more young people covered by their parents' policies, they proclaimed there will be less political advantage to Republicans to keep bringing it up.

It's a done deal, they said, and as the benefits really begin to phase in and even people who were reluctant to be forced to buy insurance or be subsidized to do so see how good a heath care delivery system it is, they will become as fervent in their support of it as people were who hated the idea of Medicare ("socialized medicine") but now will defend it to the death. Or minimally, to the ballot box.

As evidence of this, Rich and Maddow cited the latest version of the Ryan budget which calls for the full repeal of the Affordable Care Act. They mocked him for being both politically tone deaf (again, it's a done deal) and for not having an alternative to propose. They showed clips of him making the rounds of the Sunday talk shows fumbling when asked what he was proposing as a substitute to the tens of millions who would be denied coverage or would see their coverage severely restricted since he and his colleagues also want to turn Medicare into a version of a voucher system.

Ryan said, "We're working on alternative proposals." He didn't mention that his budget is the third or fourth in an annual series of Ryan budgets, each not much different than the others, and that coming up with a viable alternative proposal should not have be taking this long to develop.

This shows, Frank Rich said, that Ryan and his fellow Republicans are against everything, that they are, as he put it, "for nothing."

For a moment this did not feel to me like much of an exaggeration. Republicans are clearly not for Obamacare; they are clearly not for Medicare or Medicaid as it currently exists; they are not for food stamps; they are not for environmental protection; they are not for financial systems regulation; they are not for taxes; they are not for . . .

Listening to Rich and Maddow make this list, it sounded as if the GOP is indeed for nothing. (Though they are for increasing defense spending.)

But on further thought this seemed simplistic. Even unfair. Disagree with them as you will, most Republicans are in fact for something. Actually, many things.

Being against Obamacare and Medicare and especially Medicaid is being for less government participation in healthcare.

Being against raising the minimum wage is being for letting the market determine workers' wages.

Being against extending long-term unemployment insurance is being for a Darwinian economy.

Being against regulations is being for allowing markets to self-correct.

Being against taxes is being for trickle-down economics.

You get the point. They achieve their goals but doing as little as possible. Being for something by seemingly being for nothing.

In sum, Republicans are not for nothing. Quite the opposite.

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Tuesday, April 08, 2014

April 8, 2014--Preppers

Spending most of the year in Florida and Maine, it is not surprising to run into Preppers. People who believe that in one way or another, for one reason or another, the world will soon come to the end.

I mean END.

Some, following what they claim to be the vision of Isaiah see this to be part of the process that will lead to the Second Coming of Christ and then, after another millennium, the Apocalypse and Last Judgement. Others say the END will be the result of some cataclysmic environmental disaster or economic collapse--2008 times ten.

Even staid NASA last month financed a study that concluded the industrial world, because of financial inequality and environmental problems, within just decades will suffer "a precipitous collapse."

Up in Maine, for example, we hear from some about how climate change will make the Pine State about the only place that a super-heated environment will make habitable.

"So," Survivalist friends say, "Make sure you know your beans."

"What? Beans?" I asked the first time I heard this.

"Your beans. How to grow 'em and how to prepare 'em. They're the best form of protein, you know." And they added, "Be sure you have a gun and lots of ammo. A whole slew of your New York friends will be seeking you out and banging on your door once they know you got a cellar full of beans."

All Preppers say that no matter what happens, or why, one will need to be READY.

What they mean by READY varies and comes with different price tags. Inevitably not far behind there are those seeking ways to make a buck from people's concerns and fears. And thus there are even trade shows that appeal to the Prepper market. The New York Times the other day reported on one--the National Prepper & Survivalist Expo. It was held in Tulsa, a place that knows from natural disasters in a state that knows about religious fanaticism and mass terrorism.

Ray McCreary, the organizer said, "We tried to gear our event to the ordinary person who wants to be ready for any situation." Another words, you and I and not just the crazies. Prepping going mainstream.

One of the attendees at the expo, Alvin Jasckson, said, "People think that Preppers  . . . are guys in beards who live in bunkers and bury ammunition in their yards. But I went through Katrina, and I'm not crazy."

But in case you do want a bunker to hide or live in, at the expo they had some on display, along with filtered drinking straws that allow you to sort of safely drink wanter from muddy puddles and solar-powered generators ($4,299) and even "mass casualty bags" ($250). Fifteen bucks gets you vacuum packs of alligator jerky.

You can grow beans in all weather in the $50,000 self-heating greenhouse and for those seeking a prefab safe room, Staying Home Corporation offers a variety of tornado- and bulletproof Hide-Away shelters.

According to the Hide-Away specs--

Hide-Away shelters/safe rooms provide two levels of protection from armed intruders. The standard units (folding and stationary) are made of 1/4” thick steel to provide NIJ Level IIIA protection against hand guns and shotguns, which make up 90% of violent crimes, according to a Bureau of Justice Statistics Special Report. If you want protection from high caliber and armor piercing rounds, you can order the Ballistic Option, which uses military grade steel that is used in combat vehicles to provide NIJ Level III protection up to 7.62 NATO rounds (.308 caliber).
That should get the job done.

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Monday, April 07, 2014

April 7, 2014--C-Section

I thought I was hallucinating.

I'm a poor sleeper and when I wake up at 2:00 a.m. or 3:00 a.m., the Devil's Hour, to lull me back to sleep, I look for something boring to listen to on the radio, thinking it will act as a soporific.  It generally does.

I usually opt for sports talk because after 10 or 15 minutes of listening to arguments about this or that point guard or the contrasting coaching style of the March Madness final-four, I drift back to sleep and am then left with only upsetting dreams to interfere with my rest.

But early, very early this past Saturday morning was different.

At about 3:30, I got swept into listening to a conversation on CBS Sports Radio between the host, Marc Malusis, and his callers. It was about the New York Mets second baseman, Daniel Murphy, taking two days off to be with his wife as she gave birth to their first child. He missed two games of the new season and had been mercilessly attacked on-air for that by two hosts of New York's most-listened-to sports shows on WFAN--Boomer Esiason and Mike Francessa.

Forget that the players' contract with Major League Baseball allows missing up to three games of paternity leave each season and Murphy had sought and received permission from the team to be with his wife in Florida and had spoken about it with his teammates, all of whom seemed comfortable with his decision to be away Tuesday and Wednesday.

Unrepentant Francessa said he and the ballplayers were privileged to have unique jobs, make a lot of money, and therefore should not take any days off for personal reasons, even if they had the right to do so. Earlier, the bloviating Francessa had called Murphy's request to take a brief paternity leave a "gimmick" and a "scam." He proudly pointed out that he didn't miss his own show on the days when his wife gave birth, one time to twins, another time to their son. She conveniently and luckily for him did so an hour away from his studio and at times when his show was not on the air--one only can imagine what he would have done if she had gone into labor during Monday-to--Friday drive time.

Before apologizing, out of fear he would lose half his sponsors, Esiason had proclaimed that since Mrs. Murphy had a caesarian, she should have scheduled it before the season began so her husband wouldn't have had to miss a game. He said, "Murphy's wife should have had a C-section before the season started." He failed to note that hers was not scheduled but deemed necessary by her doctors after she began labor and the baby appeared unlikely to be born vaginally.

Knowing the macho ethic that permeates all of professional sports, I thought I was hallucinating early  Saturday morning when Malusis (himself a sometime host on WFAN) and every one of his exclusively male callers came to Murphy's defense and excoriated Esiason and Francessa. Every one.

A number of the callers spoke movingly about their own experiences being with their wives when they gave birth. They recounted how this was "the most meaningful day," how being able to be the first to hold their newborn sons and daughters gave meaning to their lives, how bonds were forged at those moments that have persisted for a lifetime.

I thought--How the times, wonderfully, have changed. Just a few years ago, I suspect, many of the callers would have supported Esiason and Francessa and how Murphy would have been condemned for "abandoning" his teammates. And that this was especially egregious considering he earns $5.7 million a year to play a children's game.

This doesn't get us all the way to the Promised Land, but represents one small step in a considerable amount of cultural shifting that has occurred quietly and under the radar for at least the past decade.

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Friday, April 04, 2014

April 4, 2014--Day Off

I will return on Monday.

Thursday, April 03, 2014

April 3, 2014--Very Foreign Policy

Barack Obama came into office offering the hope that he would work effectively to reset America's tattered international relations

After nearly a decade of failed preemptive wars and empty preened for having "won" the Cold War, it was time, he intoned, for a fundamental change of direction.

It seemed as if Obama understood the issues both from study and having spent formative years in the less-developed world. His very being offered the promise of new approaches--less Western, less chauvinistic, more nuanced.

During the 2008 campaign he made a powerful speech in Berlin that outlined his global vision and called for dramatic new approaches in our relations with allies, adversaries, and the uncommitted. Then, early in his presidency, in Cairo he outlined a new agenda for America as he saw us interfacing with Islamic nations and aspiring peoples. His very words, it was thought, would spark change.

There was so much hope unleashed that the Nobel Prize Committee awarded the Peace Prize to Obama preemptively. In anticipation of all that he would for certain accomplish.

But by now almost all of this early promise has been unfulfilled.

Where in the world, after nearly six years, have we seen any of this promise realized?

In the Middle East? Just yesterday Mahmoud Abbas effectively scuttled any possibility for improvement in relations between Israel and the Palestinians. In a funk, John Kerry cancelled a meeting with him and flew home. Mission not accomplished.

Russia moved into Crimea and threatens the rest of Ukraine. The famous reset button is long forgotten. Mentioned now only for the purpose of mockery. Relations are so frayed between Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin that they can barely be in the same room together.

What to make of Syria? A country, an ancient civilization destroyed while we couldn't can't figure out how to be influential much less directly helpful. Obama drew red lines and than ignored them.

And what about Egypt? We were complicit in the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak and now, after a reasonably democratic election that saw the Muslim Brotherhood brought to power, after they were deposed by the generals, we see in place an even more oppressive regime than Mubarak's. It is also impervious to U.S. influence.

Then there is Saudi Arabia. Whatever one thinks about their leadership (very little), for 70 years we have had a mutually beneficial relationship. We buy their oil and sell them arms to defend themselves from and buy-off Islamists living and plotting in their midst. Because of our feckless policy with Syria and the Saudis' perception that by showing uncertainty and weakness Iran will soon have nuclear weapons, they have not just distanced themselves from us but are actively thinking about developing nuclear weapons of their own. It may be a hold-one's-nose relationship, but it has been useful to us and our European and Asian allies and, out of self-interest, needs to be retained and strengthened. Does anyone anymore think Obama is capable of this?

Where else?

Thanks to Obama's anti-terrorist polices, including the overuse of drones and grossly intrusive N.S.A. surveillance, even formerly friendly foreign leaders such as Angela Merkel are estranged. Also, Delima Rouseff, the president of Brazil, will not longer talk civilly with Obama thanks to our listening in on her private communications. Was any of this spying necessary? Are we safer for it? It is difficult to imagine anyone believes we are.

The Japanese have less and less use for us; and the Chinese, resenting Obama's "tilt" to Asia, if they didn't hold so much of our debt, would distance themselves further from us than at present. They have not been helpful in containing the North Korean nuclear threat and equally uninterested in weighing in about nuclear proliferation in Iran. The want the oil. And, frankly, our T-Bills.

Turkey, once held up as the ideal moderate Islamic nation, is unraveling and we have totally lost influence there. And forget Sudan, Pakistan, Yemen, Afghanistan, or the Central African Republic.

I could go on.

Making this list late last night got me good and depressed. What, happened, I wondered, to all that initial promise now so dissipated?

One could say that sometimes out of nationalistic chaos a new, preferable order will emerge. What we are seeing are the final gasps of a failed colonial paradigm. The remnants of 18th century empires; the redrawing of the redrawn borders at the end the First World War; and yes, America's economic empire. All are in their death throes. And death throes are always painful and difficult.

On the other hand, I thought, might there be some important cases where the Obama foreign policy is actually working?

What about India, I asked myself. I haven't heard much from there recently except occasional nuclear saber rattling over border disputes with Pakistan. Weren't we substantially estranged from them during the Cold War? Wasn't India tilted toward the Soviets? Yes, but haven't we in recent years been able to establish a "special relationship" with them? Facilitated by that fact that both of us are leery of China? Actually, hasn't Barack Obama been adept at maintaining and filling in the details of what that special relationship could mean? Didn't he call our relationship with India the "defining partnership of the 21st century"?

Indeed he did, when he visited in 2010. So what have I been reading recently in the New York Times?

Sadly, more of the same.

As reported there, "Almost four years later, the United States and India have found themselves on opposite sides of the world's most important diplomatic issues," from Ukraine where India is siding with the Russians to disagreeing about U.S. military policy in Afghanistan.

A senior Indian diplomat summed matters up this way--"There is a feeling that no one in this administration is a champion of the India-U.S. relationship." That should not be. India is the second most populace nation and has a burgeoning economy. Having a sound relationship with them should be a national priority.

When looking for an explanation about how, in this instance, high hopes have been dashed, Jonah Blank, an analyst of the now nonpartisan RAND cooperation said--
In this administration there is a small group of people in the White House making all the decisions, so issues that are important but not urgent rarely get the attention they deserve.
This sounds sadly familiar. Many who have written about the inner workings of the Obama White House say the same thing--Obama has chosen to cut himself off from almost all outside influence and depends upon a very few ultra-trusted advisors who go back to his Chicago days.

He famously said after being elected, "Make no new friends in Washington." At that he has been remarkably successful

This may be a good approach to negotiating one's way though the political thicket in the Windy City but no way to run the world.

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Wednesday, April 02, 2014

April 2, 2014--Kill the Umpire!

After a funky start last week that saw the L.A. Dodgers play two games with the Arizona Diamondbacks in Australia, yesterday was the full launch of the official baseball season. For me, a lifelong Yankee fan, this means the Bronx Bombers got off to a bad start against, losing to the Houston Astros 6 to 2.

In addition to a year-long celebration of Derek Jeter's last season (he got one hit and scored a run in the season opener), Major League Baseball is expanding its instant-replay rules. In recent years, because of a number of controversies about whether or not home runs were fair or foul, they instituted replays so umpires could get it right.

Not everyone was happy with any rule changes in America's most traditional sport, but since home runs are so consequential, umpires were allowed to use technology.

For this season, there are new, much more dramatic options available to umpires and, most debated, managers.

As in football and tennis, they are being given a number of challenges.

Up to the 6th inning, managers will have one challenge and then after that two more.

Umpires will still use replay for home runs but managers can challenge if a ball hit down the left-field line is fair or foul, if a runner is or isn't tagged out when running the base paths or attempting to steal, if a fielder catches a ball cleanly or traps it; on a bang-bang play at first base if a runner beats the throw or not; or if a hit qualifies as a ground-rule double.

Though this will reduce umpiring errors, it will slow down even more a game that routinely moves along at a languorous pace. It can take five minutes to check every camera angle to adjudicate an especially close call. Baseball is often referred to as a "game of inches." With replay it will become a game of centimeters. And if all six challenges are used they will eat up another half hour of game time.

Much more concerning than slowing the game down, this new-fangled approach (from this phrase alone you can see I belong in the traditionalist camp) will result in eliminating from the game any lingering controversies.

One of the best things about baseball has been that it permits controversies to fester, especially during the long off season when blown plays and bad calls are topics for endless discussion over coffee in the Hot Stove League.

Did Reggie Jackson intentionally move his hip in order to be hit by a throw in the 4th game of the1978 World Series, thereby breaking up a potential double play? If he did, he would have been automatically out. The umpired ruled otherwise. Probably incorrectly. And the Yanks went on to win. But who knows.

Did Ed Armbrister interfere with Carlton Fisk's throw to second base in the 2005 American League Championship Series? Who knows.

Was Jackie Robinson safe or out when attempting to steal home in the 1955 World Series? The umpire called him safe but to this day, nearly 60 years later, Yankee catcher Yogi Berra still claims Jackie was out. I saw the play on TV and though I was half-blinded by the snowy black-and-white picture think Yogi's right. But then again, who knows.

Isn't that the point? Who knows indeed.

For certain things getting it exactly right is important, even essential. In triple-bypass surgery, for example, you want things to be exactly right. But for close plays at first or home, not being certain reflects the reality of life itself, where so little is certain.

It is for this reason, before they automate everything, including the calling of balls and strikes (and there is the technology to do so), that baseball endures as sports' most metaphoric game.

Where, as in life, there's a role for stealing; in baseball's judicial system, a place for "judgement calls" and "appeal plays"; and a place for getting something for nothing--bases on balls come to mind. Also, for "errors" as well as bottom-of-the-ninth heroics.

And in a world ruled more and more by time where in nanoseconds one can earn or lose millions, isn't it still nice to have something important going on that doesn't depend on the rule of time?

Best of all, there are 161 games to go before the playoffs.

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Tuesday, April 01, 2014

April 1, 2104--Progressives' Dirty-Little-Secret

Here's the dirty-little-secret--

Liberals and progressives like me are actually clandestinely happy with most of George W. Bush's policies.

That's why there are no large-scale protests. Occupy Wall Street came and went in a month. The rest is silence except for the occasional New York Times editorial and the shouting and smugness that passes for political discourse on MSNBC.

With the tax season culminating in two weeks, we liberals are especially happy with what the Bush-era tax cuts have meant for us.

Demographically, progressives are more highly educated, have better jobs, and earn more money than "ordinary" conservatives. Thus, all things being equal (which they are not thanks to the previous president) we affluent lefties have disproportionately benefitted from the 2001 tax reductions that Bush promulgated (to be fair and balanced, 12 Democratic senators voted for them) and Obama reupped in 2009, with Democrats in numbers again endorsed.

On Saturday from our accountant we received our filled-out tax forms for 2013. We had a good earnings years and needed to pay a little more than in 2012. But, but, as the result of the Bush-Obama tax cuts we owed about $5,000 less than we would have had to pay under Clinton's more progressive tax polices.

Furthermore, how many liberals are out in the streets protesting cuts in food stamps and aid to education; slashes in spending for medical and science research; less available for environmental protection; cutbacks in support for women's health programs; Supreme Court decisions to allow unlimited corporate spending on political campaigns and the effective rollback of the Voting Rights Act of 1965?

We're even OK with Bush's Patriot Act and Obama's use and expansion of it since we care more about protecting our comforts than our privacy.

And, since we have an all-volunteer military and our children and grandchildren are not in danger of being drafted, much less inclined to sign up and be shipped off to Iraq or Afghanistan (or Ukraine), beyond spouting rhetoric about how awful all this is, how perfidious and hypocritical Republicans are (they are), we secretly smile when we sign our tax forms, sit back on the deck at our vacation homes, and sip Chablis while streaming House of Cards.

Hey, if these policies don't affect me directly why get all out of joint much less use Twitter as they do or did in Egypt and Venezuela and Russia to mobilize? It's cold out there, it might rain, and I might even get my head busted by an overzealous policeman.

Even if half the states so restrict abortions as to make them unavailable, we live on one or the other of the coasts--so no problem.

Actually, for the fortunate us there are few problems with anything.

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