Tuesday, September 30, 2014

September 30, 2014--Homographs

I'm the world's worst spella but love word games and langauge oddities.

A longtime favorite is idioms. Not so much what they metaphorically mean but their literal meanings and orijins. From time to time I've written about them here.

But among my favorite language quirks are homographs, words that are spelled the same but have more than one meaning--words such as bear/bear; left/left; and, one of my favrites, skate/skate/skate.

Unlike these, a homograph that is pronounced diferently is a heteronym--words such as wound (meaning wound up) and wound (a cut) that are spelled the same way, but pronounced differently and have different meanings.

I haven't a clue as to why English and a few other langages include homographs. It would be easy to have wound (wound up) and wooned (a cut), but instead we have wound and wound. Maybe it's for the sake of efficiency. Who knows.

Thus learning a language with lots of idioms and homographs is extra hard. What would a native French speaker make of match (to light a cigarette) and match (to make a pair)? Or rock (as in a stone) and rock (as in a cradle) or even rock (as in music)? All are not just homographs but homonyms because they are pronownced the same way. Get it?

And when it comes to learning or understanding idioms what is that same French speeker to make of "Bring home the bacon" or "Hide one's light under a bushel"?

Or, for that matter, what would an English speaker struggling to learn French think about Appeler un chat un chat? Literally, to call a cat a cat, which colloquially means something similar to the English idiom "to call a spade a spade." Or Au pif? Literally, "at the nose," meaning a general estimate.

There are also French homographs. Mainly as a result of words that are graphically the same but have accents in different locations. For example--

arriéré--overdue or backward
arrière--rear or aft



Then, of course, there are the Chinese homographs--

便宜  (pián yi)--which as an adjective means cheap or inexpensive; while as a noun it means something undeserved that you're not supposed to get; and then as a verb it means to benefit.

This is about as far as I can take you. For other Chinese homographs you're on your own.

Though I can tell you about the meanings of my newest favorite homograph--minute and minute with the first a measure of time and minute, with the "i" pronounced differently and accent on ute, meaning tiny. I especialy like the relation between the too--in the largher scheme of things, a minute realy is minute.

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Monday, September 29, 2014

September 29, 2014--World's Fastest Insect

We were having breakfast in Cafe Rona, which is our kitchen dining room overlooking the gardens and  bay.

It was another perfect morning and the migrating birds and butterflies were feasting on the last of the flowers in Rona's perennial bed. Carbohydrate packing for their impending journeys.

"It'a also Dragonfly time," Rona said. Look how many there are darting about scooping gnats right out of the air. I've been reading about them. How they begin as naiads in ponds and other fresh water wetlands before emerging, throwing off their skins or exoskeletons, and coming into their own as amazing four-winged insects."


"That's what the water-breathing immature form of the Dragonfly is called."

"They do swoop about with great agility," I said.

"More than that. I heard that the Pentagon is studying them, how they can fly forward and backwards, up and down, and side to side. They're implanting the tiniest computer chips in their brains to see what they can learn that might be incorporated in military drones."

"Why am I not surprised," I said. "And they seem to fly very fast. I guess they have to to be able to feed off other insects while in flight."

"I looked that up to. To see how fast they can fly. And that too is amazing. About 35 miles per hour. Though Horse Flies, the fastest of insects, can hit 90."

"Really? No wonder it's so hard to swat them."

"But Dragonflies are fast and the most maneuverable. And there they are right outside our windows."

"I'd hate to be an ISIS terrorist in Iraq and be attacked by a Dragonfly drone. That would make me think twice."

"And, while I was doing my research," Rona said, not wanting to let me spoil our morning talking about jihadists, "I looked up other fastest creatures."

"Like the Cheetah," I jumped in. "They're the fastest land animals, no?"

"Correct. They can run up to 75 miles and hour."

"And what about birds? Did you look that up too?"

"Yes. The fastest bird clocked flying horizontally, in so-called flapping flight--as opposed to the Peregrine Falcon which hits an amazing 242 when diving toward its prey, is the White-Throated Needletail which clocks in at 105 miles per hour.  Pretty good, wouldn't you say?"

"Indeed. What about fish?"

"Black Marlins can swim up to 80 mph. Which to me is remarkable ."

"All of this is," I said, "And, finally, how about humans. Your know, 'The World's Fastest Human,' the Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt. How fast can he run?"

"Only about 28 miles an hour. Not that fast when you think about it."

"Pathetic," I said, playing along.

"But faster than chipmunks and squirrels, 7 and 12 mph respectively. And," Rona added, feeling good about all her newly-acquired knowledge, "thankfully we're much faster than cockroaches which can race across the kitchen floor at only 3 and a half mph. Though when you see one you think it's going 100 miles an hour."

"But with most animals able to move along much faster than us I suppose that's why we need all our weapons." Rona looked at me skeptically. "To protect ourselves from Cheetahs, Tigers, and the like."

"There you go again," Rona said, "Can't we just enjoy the Dragon Flies?"

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Friday, September 26, 2014

September 26, 2014--Best of Behind: Et Tu, U2?

This piece of hypocrisy hassling is from October 17, 2006--

For years I’ve stifled my aversion to Bono’s sunglass fetish, thinking that, though I hate all those pretentious shades, if they contribute to his image and fame and he in turn uses that fame to promote good causes such as AIDS research and treatment, so be it. If he can live with them, then so can I. Anyone who could get George Bush’s Treasury Secretary, whichever one it was, to spend two weeks in Africa experiencing poverty first hand can’t be all that bad.

Well, maybe.

Did you catch the report in today’s International Herald Tribune about U2 moving its music publishing business from Ireland to the Netherlands?  Sounds benign enough since both countries are a part of the borderless European Union.

But when we learn they did this to avoid Irish taxes, which for royalty income is twice that of Holland’s, their decision deserves a closer look. Especially since Bono and other members of the band have been excoriating the Prime Minister of Ireland for spending only 0.5 percent of the country’s budget on foreign aid.

Where does Bono think the money to do that would come from? From taxes don’t you think? And with U2, which earns about $110 million a year, avoiding Irish taxes that of course means less is available for the beleaguered Irish government to contribute to African aid.

Bono refused to comment about their tax moves and so there was only U2’s guitarist The Edge available to speak for them. He said, “Of course we’re trying to be tax-efficient. Who doesn’t want to be tax-efficient?” Maybe those folks who would like to see more of their taxes directed to the alleviation of poverty.

Hypocrisy is not one of the Seven Deadly Sins. Perhaps it’s too modern a concept to have been included when the list was originally composed. In those days Lust and Greed and Envy better suited the times. I, though, vote to modernize it by adding Hypocrisy. If you are a purist and want to keep the sins to seven. I’m sure Ingmar Bergman, for example, doesn’t want to change the title of his remarkable film to The Eight Deadly Sins. I suggest dropping Gluttony—leave it to McDonald’s and others to deal with that one. 

But we need to elevate Hypocrisy. It’s too important not to be considered deadly.

Bono's net worth, if you're interested, is estimated to be $600 million.

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Thursday, September 25, 2014

September 25, 2014--Willy, Ben, and Me: Ruger SR-762

"Ben told me you're in the market for a 22."

"Not exactly. But I am thinking about it."

"Glad to hear," Willy said with a  broad grin, "To be a real Mainer a man needs to be armed."

"Not armed," I said, "But, you know, for target practice and Rona has a few groundhogs tearing up her perennial bed that I'd like to scare off."

"Scare or shoot?" Ben asked.

"Maybe give 'em a jolt," I said, "I'm not sure I'm into killing them."

"There's no other way," Willy insisted. "They don't scare."

"I suppose we could try to trap them," I thought.

"What's your problem? Jolt 'em, scare 'em, trap 'em, kill 'em. It's all about the same thing."

"I'm not so sure I agree. Though since I'll never get to be a good shot if I try to just wing 'em I'll probably miss or if I do hit 'em I'm as likely to kill 'em as anything."

We went back and forth about this one morning over coffee and then a few days later Willy gave me one of his magazines, "Just to look through" he said. "Don't show this to your New York friends," he whispered, "But this may help you think about what weapon to buy."

He slid an issue of American Rifleman surreptitiously to me across the banquette we shared. As if to hide the transfer from the other diners.

"Not a weapon," I cringed, "A rifle. A 22. You know, not much more than a BB gun. But thanks for this. Though from the cover it looks like it does feature weapons."

There was a closeup picture of something menacing-looking called Heavy Metal--Ruger's Sr-762 replete with a dozen or so bullets scattered about that looked as if they could pierce armor. "Not exactly what the Fourth Amendment is about," I said under my breath while flipping through the pages.

"There he goes again," Ben said with an gesture of exasperation. "If the Founders were writing the Constitution today they'd include semi-automatic and automatic weapons."

There was that "weapons" word again. "I'm not so sure," I said. Wasn't that constitutional provision so the new United States could have a 'well-regulated militia'? Since at the time there wasn't a standing army and so--"

"And so," Willy said, as if to complete my thought, "if necessary men would be called up and they'd have a weapon of their own to bring along with them. To fight the English and Indians and who knows who else."

"But now?" I asked, "We have a standing army, God knows, and a navy and air force and marines. When you join up, they supply the weapons. Guns, tanks, ammunition, everything. You don't show up with your own Rugger SR-762, whatever that is."

"The Ruger's not for that," Willy said, again with his voice lowered.

"What's it for, then?"

We usually avoid discussions of this kind, but I wasn't that morning in the mood for that. I was upset with what was written about and, more, advertised for sale in the American Rifleman, especially after I noticed it's a publication of the NRA, the National Rifle Association.

"Let me read what your magazine has to say about this weapon." I was unusually worked up. For the most part I try to remain calm and rational when having discussions about controversial subjects with Willy and Ben, looking for areas of common ground. For, among other reasons, because I like them. But the Ruger SR-762 was testing my restraint.

I read to them--
Breathe in, breathe out. Squeeze, squeeze, squee (sic)--bang! I rode the recoil back onto the target just in time to catch the contrail from my bullet making a steep right curve toward it and then vanishing, leaving only a gray splatter on the red steel gong. The target was hidden halfway up the face of the opposing hill, across a ravine and 10 to 15 degrees below my position. After what seemed like minutes, the distinct "thud" sound reached my ears, confirming what I had already witnessed: a first round hit at 800 yds.
"So?" Willy wondered.

"So, tell me what this is about--shooting across ravines at targets 800 yards away. That doesn't sound like hunting to me."

"What does it sound like?" Ben asked, sounding genuinely curious about what I had to say.

"It sounds like combat. Maybe even sniping."

Willy and Ben exchanged a glance then lowered their eyes to avoid mine. They remained unusually quiet.

"Look," I said, feeling awkward, "It's good writing. Really good. I'll give you that. But this is not about target practice or hunting or sportsmanship. As I said, it sounds like what the military trains its recruits to do. And take a look at the picture of the Ruger." I held the magazine up to them. "I'm for sure no expert but it looks more like an AK 47 to me than a hunting or target rifle."

"You're not right about that," Willy said. "An AK 47 has--" I cut him off.

"Well, in your magazine," I underscored the your again, "there are ads for AK 47s. Here. Take a look at both weapons. There is a strong resemblance between the two."

Ben had taken the magazine from me. He was thumbing through it, leaving Willy on his own to deal with cantankerous me.

"If you want to fit in here, or for that matter in most of America, you have to get comfortable with sportsmen and hunters and--"

"I'm quite comfortable with all that," I said to Willy, "My problem is not with them but with these high-powered weapons in the hands of dangerous people. That has nothing to do with hunting and clomping around in the woods."

"Look at this," Ben said, reentering the fray, but smiling.

"What's that?" I was happy to change the subject. I had said my piece.

"An ad for a 22. The sort of rifle you're looking to buy."

"I'm not looking to buy one; I'm thinking about it."

"It's made by Ruger too," Ben said. He passed the magazine back to me.

"Does it have a wooden stock?" I asked. "If I get one--and remember I'm only thinking about it--it has to have a wood stock. I don't want a weapon, I mean a rifle with a cheesy plastic one."

"That one does," Willy joined in. Now he had the magazine and folded it back to the page with the 22 ad. Tussling was over. He was again being helpful.

He read to me--
50 YEARS LATER and the Ruger 10/22 is still "the ultimate in logical design." 
"It's a commemorative issue," Willy added, again turning the magazine to me. "A limited addition. I know you're only thinking, but if you decide to get one, I recommend this one to you." He winked at me. "And it's perfect for getting after Rona's groundhogs."

Ruger SR-762

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Wednesday, September 24, 2014

September 24, 2014--New Friends

I've envied friends who are so much better than I at remaining close to people they know from college and even childhood.

I have felt there is something missing within me because I have maintained so few friendships from those times. How could I, I chastise myself, have seemingly intense, meaningful  relationships that span years and even decades and then distance myself to the point that they becoming attenuated and then ultimately end.

I rationalize--

At first we had so much in common but then life intervened: they moved, I moved--distance did not make our hearts fonder; they married people with whom I was not compatible, I did a version of the same thing; they had children, I never did; they developed extravagant tastes, I didn't; they drifted to the political right, I became more progressive; they found God, I was unable to.

So it was understandable, I justified to myself, that I would move on from generation to generation of friends. Different kinds of friends for different stages of life, I would say to myself. But it always sounded hollow.

And, I confess, I pulled back from some friends who I prefer to keep frozen in time.

Yeas ago I worked closely with a colleague, Flash was his street name, who at about 40 began to change in ways that upset and distanced me, including becoming attracted to orthodox Judaism and conservative Republican politics.

I wanted to remember him as the audacious and activist "Flash" and did not want to follow along his evolving journey to places I didn't understand or respect and, after that, into old age. Another issue.

So to me, though he is no longer an active friend, I will remember and cherish him as always youthful, unshaven, with shoulder-length hair, over-size lumberjack shirt, and battered construction boots, tirelessly working all day every day to help bring about social justice.

"Yes," a current friend says, "as you suspect about yourself, there is something missing within you; but since that may be true for me as well, I suppose this making and letting go of friends across a lifetime helps make us compatible. It's just who you are. Who I am as well."

But still I give myself grief about this since this also sounds like more rationalizing.

"Look," my friend presses on, "we met only, what, three, four years ago and don't you consider me a friend? A close friend? As close as I consider you?"

"Indeed," I say. "A friend, yes, and a very close one. What do you make of that? How could that possibly be? At this age?" I am genuinely perplexed.

"We enjoy each other. We need each other," he added almost in a whisper as if he didn't want me to hear. "And since we have experienced many similar things, including some sad and some tragic, and have gravitated to a range of common understandings, we have found many ways to enjoy each other's company and have come to care deeply about each other. Even this quickly. Limitations and imperfections aside, we are two reasonably fully-formed people. And that helps."

While taking this in, while I ruminated, he added, "Part of it is at this time of life many things are behind us which, if present, could, do get in the way of true and deep friendships."

"Like what?"

"Ambition, for one. And how we are now less about gathering and accumulating, engage in less pretending, have less fire in the belly, are less competitive, share aches and pains and worse, experience diminished hormone flow, less--"

"I get your point, and it's a good one" I said, cutting him off with a laugh. I was not wanting to get that intimate. But what he said made sense. And, if true, helped me understand why later in life it is possible to make new friends and gather them close. Perhaps as important--friendships that may last for the rest of our attenuated lifetimes.

I have been thinking about the nature of my experiences with friends, especially reflecting on some that are recent but powerful, since one of them, Steve Gerson (Dr. Stephen Gerson), died, to me, unexpectedly on Sunday. Yesterday was his funeral.

How could it be that since Sunday morning he has not been out of my thoughts?

He was anything but a lifelong friend--perhaps we saw each other during two, three years twenty times--and yet I despair that we will not have more time together. It is not just because, in spite of being chronically ill, he was so inspirationally full of life and interests and joy and work and memories and stories and insights and fun and optimism that I will miss him, but because there was an instantaneous intimacy that sparked between us and connected us deeper than understanding, seemingly for life. An anticipated much longer life, thwarted now, which also revealed that the magic potential of friendship does not end with age and it can come in stages.

Sad, I'll take what I got. It was a gift.

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Tuesday, September 23, 2014

September 23, 2014--Garlic, Chives, Lavender, and Mace

Sometimes we get into silly conversations. Almost always initiated by me. All right, always.

"Why is it," I asked while we were driving to town, "that 'parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme' sounds so perfect? I mean, why does 'garlic, chives, lavender, and mace' sound so awful? They're herbs too. Is it just because of what we're used to?"

"How about keeping your eyes on the road," Rona said, already annoyed.

"I mean, my list of herbs has the same number of syllables. Both 'rosemary' and 'lavender' have three. So--"

"You're making the case that they're equal because they both have three syllables?"

"Why not?"

"Among other things 'rosemary' is nicely ambiguous because it's also the name of a women. All lavender is famous for is its scent. Nice, but not the same, poetically, or in meaning as 'rosemary.' And don't forget that the song is about one's 'true love.' A woman."

"OK, here's a better one--what's wrong with substituting 'chives' for 'sage'"?

"Again, you're missing the poetic point. 'Sage,' too is more than the name of an herb but also means a wise person. A sage. Yet more ambiguity which is often a test of a well-chosen lyric." Rona smiled toward me triumphantly.

"Also, I suppose, since chives are a form of onion it's not that romantic. Onion-breath and all."

"Now you're talking," Rona said, folding her arms definitively across her chest.

"All right. You've written some good songs. See if you can come up with alternative herbs that work as well as the ones in the ballad. Again, I know half the problem is hearing Simon and Garfunkel in your head and so the lyrics as they are sound inevitable and perfect."

"That's not the whole story," Rona said, "Yes, we hear them in our heads even when trying to just recite the lyrics. As you're doing. But your argument that it's all about syllables, that all words with the same number are musically equivalent, is just so literal minded. I mean . . ."

"Come on. Be fair. That's not what I'm saying. I also know from poetry and something about musical lyrics. I know there can be beauty inherent in the sound of a single word--like 'rosemary.' As a stand-alone word it's mellifluous, which means it has musicality, etymologically, it's 'flowing honey.'"

I heard Rona grunt but I continued, "All those long vowel sounds. So for whoever wrote Scarborough Fair it was a great choice for any number of reasons. And I will grant you, while I'm at it, that 'mace' is not a good substitute for 'thyme,' whose smooth sound is so much nicer than the hard 'mace.' With 'mace,' of course, having a second meaning--as in 'mace' the weapon."

"This is getting a little heavy-duty for me," Rona said weakly, "It's such a beautiful morning. Maybe we should look at the trees which are just beginning to change color. At that maple, for example."

It was a beautiful morning and the maples were just in the early stages of turning red so we rode in silence.

"You know," Rona said, breaking the mood, as if to herself, "'Marjoram' could work. Like 'rosemary,' it's three syllables and includes a version of a woman's name. And," she paused, "I like fennel--two syllables--which could be almost as good as 'parsley.' Actually, maybe better. So--"

Picking up on this, I joined in, "Maybe, then, 'fennel, mint, marjoram, and thyme.' How's that? Keep the 'thyme.' Though I'm not sure about the 'mint-marjoramalliteration. It's a bit of a mouthful."

Rona snorted, "Keep driving."

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Monday, September 22, 2014

September 22, 2014--Willy, Ben, Me: Ray Price

Willy said, "If they didn't have the pictures there would be no issue."

"Of what?" Ben asked. "What are you talking about?"

"About that football player who punched his girlfriend."

"She was his fiancée and is now his wife," I said.

"What difference does that make?" Willy said.

"What's your point?" Ben asked, sounding annoyed, but smiling, "My coffee's getting cold."

"It's a simple one. How do they put it about pictures being worth a thousand words? Well, in this case, they're worth lots more than that. If it weren't for the film he might not even have been suspended. Or maybe at most for just those two games. As he originally was."

"It is a terrible thing he did, Ray Price."

"You'll get no argument from me. But what really has me upset are all those cameras."

"All those cameras?" Ben was puzzled.

"You like the idea that you go into the supermarket--Hannifords--and they have cameras all over the store?"

"That's to cut down on thefts," I said.

"And at the gas station too," he pressed on, ignoring me. "And where you live probably on every street corner." He was referring to the fact that we live part of the year in New York City.

"To tell you the truth," I said, "I've given up on having any privacy whatsoever. Store cameras, street cameras, and, as with Ray Price, elevator cameras. They even put them in ours in New York. And, of course, it's even worse with the ability to read your emails and listen in on your phone conversations. And I'm not only talking about the government. All those hackers too."

I winked at both Willy and Ben who are quite conservative and frequently rail about getting the government off our backs and out of our lives. Many times I half agree with them.

"Those street cameras down in Boston helped the police track down the marathon bombers before they could go to New York and do more harm. How do you feel about that?" Willy asked.

"I guess I feel OK about that," I said. "But it surprises me to hear you saying this, considering you're both pretty conservative and I would think wouldn't want to have your privacy invaded like that."

"But it's only pictures," Ben said."I wouldn't be OK with this if the pictures also had sound so they could listen in on my conversations."

"That also surprises me," I said. "You're all right with the pictures but only if there's no sound? I don't get the distinction."

"Freedom of speech. First Amendment," he said, thinking that was enough to say to make his point and convince me that the videos without sound are not a problem.

"What about the right to privacy? Though," I quickly added since they know the Constitution, "that's not specifically stated in the Bill of Rights."

"Maybe, but about the pictures," Willy said, "and about that football player, my point, beyond the privacy business--which I also have concerns about--is how having pictures of something can make us do things very different than if something happens out of sight and is not on film."

"Say more," I said.

"Well, take those two Americans who recently were beheaded. The fact that the ISIS people videotaped it and put it on the Internet caused us--Obama really--to change his policy. Whatever one thinks about him or those ISIS people," he spat, "we know Obama didn't want to get directly involved there. And I agree with him about that. But because of the pictures he had no choice."

"You're comparing what happened to those two reporters being beheaded to Ray Price?" I said, "Come on Willy, get serious."

"I'm not comparing what they did but the fact is that there wouldn't be the same reaction, the big brouhaha, if what they did wasn't captured on film. With no pictures Price would have gotten his slap on the wrist and the terrorists' story would have been in the news for just a few days, of course after speeches condemning them and so forth. But there wouldn't be this crisis with Congress and the public clamoring for us to go after them. Including into Syria and, who knows, with American boys on the ground before too long."

"We've seen that before," Ben said, taking a deep breath. "And we know where that got us."

With that depressing thought we lapsed into silence and turned back to paying attention to our coffee.

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Friday, September 19, 2014

September 19, 2014--Best of Behind: Off With Their Heads!

This one is from March 27, 2006. Unfortunately, it could have written today--

As a secular liberal I am trying very hard to get comfortable with the idea that there is great diversity within Islam—that not every Muslim is an Islamist radical. That though the Mullahs have control of the government of Iran and run most of the Madrasses in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, over the long course of Islam there have been moderate and tolerant voices, traditions, and practices. I spend a lot of time in Spain, and although I know the period during which much of Spain was under Islamic domination was not exactly a Jeffersonian democracy, Christians and even Jews were tolerated and played open and significant roles in the government, places of study, and the economy.

But the situation in Afghanistan right now, where there is the likelihood that the courts will sentence to beheading Abdul Rahman because he 15 years ago converted from Islam to Christianity, is nudging me toward my own shrinking limits of tolerance.

Like you I know that this is now a hot political issue in the U.S., with President Bush being pushed by the hard Christian Right to intervene. After all didn’t we invade and occupy Afghanistan in retaliation for their harboring and supporting bin Laden as well as to bring democracy to that part of the world? Didn’t we help them write a constitution that attempts to straddle our notion of democracy and their version of conservative Islam? And perhaps, just maybe, didn’t some of us see this as an opportunity to do a little proselytizing on the side?

I know that the Sharia laws about apostasy were shaped as early as the eighth century and when that occurred it was viewed as equivalent to treason—after all Islam at the time was fighting for its very existence and for someone to abandon the religion was literally going over to the enemy.

But that was then and this is now. Some contemporary Muslim jurists who read Islamic history this way also point out that the Prophet never called for the execution of apostates and taught that there should be no compulsion in religion.

Islam is in no way today so equally imperiled, in spite of how many in the Islamic world view our preemptive wars, and so shouldn’t it be possible for Afghanistan to have a constitution that might serve as a model for the moderate diversity within Islam? We’ll see.

I have a further question—putting aside this history, why should conversion from Islam (or any other religion) be such a burning issue? If yours is The True Religion and your coreligionists are the only ones who will go to your version of heaven, isn’t the very fact of leaving your religion and thereby losing the eternal rewards it offers punishment enough? Why not just let apostates live on and suffer throughout the remaining years of their natural lives and after that be condemned for all of eternity to the punishment they so deserve?

Yet once again, I don’t get it.

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Thursday, September 18, 2014

September 18, 2014--Ladies of Forest Trace: Briefly Noted

These days I call my mother at least once a day.

For decades, we used to speak on Sundays. At precisely 12:00. She loved to demonstrate that she was in command of all her faculties by dialing at the stroke of noon, feeling especially proud of herself on those two time-change Sundays a year when we leapt forward or fell back. Those calls always began with a proud, self-satisfied chuckle.

But now that she is nearly three months past 106 and losing stamina and concentration, since I want as much of her as I had in the past when our conversations would last an hour or so, now my seven to ten calls a week add up to about that amount of time. I also know that we're nearing . . .

I want the time together, just being with her, but also to hear her very-late-in-life thoughts.

*   *   *

"Very bad today."

"I can hear. Your breathing sounds labored."

"Labored . . . that's a good word . . . for me."

When I could sense her almost panting I would chatter away to fill the space, to relieve her of the need to hold up her end of the conversation.  "I spoke with Estelle as she sounded good. She is liking where she's living. Making lots of new fiends and--"

"She visited. . . . That was good. . . . She didn't stay long. Which is also good. I can't entertain like--"

"You know you don't have to do that," I interrupted, "Your visitors just want to be with you. Estelle tells me that her favorite thing is just to sit with you, not talk, and hold your hand."

"She's a sweetheart."

*   *   *

"Today I'm feeling unhappy."
She says this rarely, never wanting to upset me, members of the family, or any of her many friends, so I was concerned.
"Any reason?"
"Many. . . . Too many."
"Tell me one." Her breathing was strong and she sounded to be in good form so I decided to ask rather than attempt to change the subject, to try to save her from unnecessary aggravation.
"I think I know--"
"Maybe you do. Maybe you don't."
"So tell me."
"I'm trying to." Her feistiness pleased me. A glimmer of how she had been in the past, over the years.
"Tell me."
"They need to build those houses?"
"In the West Bank?"
"There. After what they did to the children, in their schools in Geezer." I didn't correct her. "I know Gaza. Gaza. I still have some marbles."
"Indeed you do."
"It's a shonda."
No correction needed.
*   *   *
She surprised me by calling a little past noon on Sunday. As in the past, she chuckled at her ability to still do that. I thought to be only 10 minutes "late" was wonderful. Actually, amazing.
"I just wanted to hear your voice," she said, sounding weak. "Call me later. . . . Tonight. You'll be up?" 
Night for her is 6:30 when she gets ready for bed.
"I think I will be. I'll call you then."
"My love to you."
That's all I ever need to hear.
*   *   *
When I called, she asked, "Can you tell me what to think about IRIS?"
"I think you mean ISIS."
"IRIS, ISIS, or whatever Barack Obama calls them."
"For some reason he insists on calling them ISIL."
"I thought I heard that in his speech. My hearing aid batteries were getting weak so I couldn't listen to everything."
"Please, Mom, change them whenever this happens. It's so important to hear--"
"Do you know how much they cost? The batteries?"
"Thankfully you can afford to change them whenever you need to. That's one thing you shouldn't scrimp--"
"Let's change the subject. Batteries are not what I wanted to talk about. Before I have to lie down, tell me about them. Call them whatever you like."
"I'm no authority but they are a very violent jihadist group that wants to take control of much of Syria, Iraq, and who knows what else."

"And kill everyone who stands in their way?"

"I'm afraid so." I was concerned about the direction of this upsetting conversation so close to her bedtime. She has trouble enough sleeping through the night. But she persisted.

"Obama wants to bomb them?"

"I'm not sure he wants to. I think it's as much the political pressure he is feeling to do something."

"Something I can understand but bombing, which will lead to sending boys there, no? First bombing, then boots."

"So what should he do? What should we do? America?"

"What, we did so wonderful in Iraq? In Afghan? Before that in Vietnam? It's always the same story."

"I think you need your rest."

"As your father used to say, 'Rest is for later.'"

I of course knew what he meant.

"You know what he meant?"

I whispered, "I do."
*   *   *
"Morty asked me--he knows how old I am."

She is both proud of the number and vain. So to men, especially, she is reluctant to acknowledge she is more than 106. "He asked, 'Over your very long life, what is the most important thing that happened?'"
"That's a good question. What did you say?"
"I said it's not the things that were discovered and invented. Not cars or airplanes or radio or TV. Or even the medicines that are keeping him and me alive."
"So what did you say?" I wanted to move her along. These days if she unwinds stories slowly, as she enjoys doing, she runs out of gas before she gets to the conclusion.  
"Not the rockets or going to the moon. Not all the civil rights. Not the end of the Russians."
"You mean the end of communism?"
"Thank you, that's what I meant. Important yes. Also defeating the Nazis. Hitler. But that is not most important and Morty, who has a fine education and was principal of a big high school in the Bronx, wanted the most important."
"And?" I could hear she was beginning to flag.
"Yes. All the things that happened to them. To us. Voting, unions--my older sisters worked for both of those. How many doctors did you know when you were a boy?"
"You mean women doctors?"
"Yes. And lawyers and scientists and on TV--on the news--and senators and governors. I never believed I would see this in my lifetime. I had to live this long for that."
"It is wonderful."
"How long have there been men and women?"
"Homo sapiens? About 200,000 years. But I know you mean more recently. How long have men and women lived in societies, in cities, in civilizations?
"All of that. That's thousands of years too?"
"Yes. Maybe 10,000."

"And during all that time, almost everywhere, women were 'second-class citizens,' as your father used to say." She laughed remembering that.

"That's true."

"So nothing changed more than that. As I said to Morty, nothing more important."

"I agree."

"I saw most of this happen. In my lifetime. Which is a very long one, but I'm not thousands of years old." She paused. "Though some days I feel like I am. . . . But not today."

"Why not today?"

"I saw Hillary's speech in Iowa. I mean on the TV. Did you?"

"Yes. I thought she did well."

"So all I have to do is live until I'm 108 to see her become president. Then I'll be happy. . . . And ready."

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Wednesday, September 17, 2014

September 17, 2014--A Bit Tired

I'm fine but a bit tired. I will return tomorrow with another Ladies of Forest Trace.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

September 16, 2014--Flying Saucers Have Landed!

Only two books remain from my adolescent 12-book "library"--Guadalcanal Diary, that 1943 best-seller which was given to me by my Uncle Ben, which is noted for its portrayal of gritty Marine-corps camaraderie; and George Adamski's, Flying Saucers Have Landed, which appeared 10 years later at the then height of the flying-saucer craze.

Adamski is one of the original contactees, claiming to have closely encountered space aliens who whisked him to the moon and other planets in their UFOs. His book is about that and, spectacularly, also includes an insert of glossy photos of spaceships that look like, well, saucers with tea cups placed on top or fluorescent cigar-shaped extra-terrestrial craft.

I understand my interest in the Marine-Corps manly camaraderie part--I was a too-skinny kid who had few friends, none of them very manly. But I am not sure why flying saucers were such an obsession. As they were for much of the nation living in Cold War fear of an impending nuclear cataclysm.

Maybe that's the point--the impending doomsday scenario. If we couldn't scare off the Russians with our own ICBMs, and they decided to nuke us, maybe some friendly space aliens would scoop us up and carry us off to the safety of the far side of Venus.

Today, belief in UFOs also works well with conspiratorial thinking.

If things are a seemingly out-of-control mess, there must be reasons for this that absolve us of responsibility. We can't have anything to do with causing Islamic jihadists to rampage across the Middle East. It couldn't possibly be even partly our fault that we are rapidly seeing the decline of two-parent families and same-sex marriage. If we weren't under alien control our schools would work better, people of color would calm down, women would stop wanting abortions, no one would be messing with our guns, or, above all, enable someone like a Barack Obama to become president.

This must all be part of an intergalactic conspiracy. Since real Americans left to our own devices and under our own control would never allow any of this to happen, there must be forces that have taken over our bodies, minds, and souls. Alien invaders and others who are disguised to look like humans are living among us in sleeper cells ready to strike and take control and dominate us when signaled by their masters to do so.

And to many who believe in this scenario, this explanation, that moment of total subjugation is near.

If you doubt this, for insomniacs, seven nights a week between 1:00am-5:00am Eastern Time, on AM radio, tune in to Coast to Coast hosted by George Norry. You will hear all about UFOs, parapsychology, strange occurrences, life after death, and other unexplained phenomena. Begun in 1984 by Art Bell, Coast to Coast is heard on nearly 600 station in the U.S. and has more than 3.0 million listeners, many of whom call in to report their own UFO sightings and abductions. Others tell about their ESP experiences or what they experienced when surviving clinical death (a hint--seeing angels and ghosts of long-departed relatives is part of the answer).

Last week Coast to Coast dealt with subjects ranging from how the Sandy Hook school massacre was a hoax, suspicious suicides throughout history (Cleopatra, Adolf Hitler, Kurt Cobain, and of course Marilyn Monroe), shamanism, biblical cycles, and how 9/11 was not caused by airplanes or explosions but by "directed energy technology."

And that was just last week!

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Monday, September 15, 2014

September 15, 2014--You Gotta Be a Football Hero . . .

There is so much hypocrisy when it comes to big time sports.

College kids in Division 1 schools play football and basketball in sold out stadiums which in many ways are TV studios since the big bucks come from the broadcast networks and cable outlets such as ESPN. But these athletes who are responsible for making millions for their schools are not allowed to have agents, accept free sneakers from Nike, much less get paid for their efforts.

Hypocrisy is rampant as well in professional sports, which unabashedly are all about money. The teams themselves are worth a fortune. The LA Clippers recently sold for $2.0 billion and the hapless Buffalo Bills are on the market and could yield a cool billion. Elite players can command up to $20 million a year for throwing passes, slam dunking, or hitting home runs. TV contracts to show NCAA football or basketball games earns teams tens of millions a year.

But in all sports, though making money is the bottom line, not unrelated to the drive for profits, athletes are expected to be role models, especially to children, and lead exemplary lives. Even though we turn them into literally larger-than-life superheroes, in their private lives we require these demigods to live normally. Even acts that to ordinary people might be considered misdemeanors can get them in serious trouble--suspended for a game or two or banned from playing and collecting their salaries for a year or even a lifetime.

While managing the Cincinnati Reds, the legendary Pete Rose was banned for life by the baseball commissioner for betting on games, though never against his own team. Again hypocritically, everyone knows that half the reason sports are as popular as they are is because of gambling, most of it illegal. Last year, for example, on the Super Bowl, on that one game, an estimated $119 million was wagered.

We are currently seeing more hypocrisy in action.

This time regarding the Baltimore Ravens' (former) running back Ray Price. "Former" is in parentheses because the Ravens terminated his contract when a video was broadcast of Price assaulting his then fiancée. The league itself became involved when the commissioner, Roger Goodell, (who earns $44 million a year) at first suspended him for two games but subsequently, under pressure from women's groups among others, made that suspension "indefinite."

What Rice did--and this isn't alleged--is reprehensible; but, to take a contrarian position, did what he did, as unacceptable as it is, justify ending his ability to earn a living as a football player? Especially since his now wife has forgiven him, asserting that what he did was, not to her, a relationship deal-breaker, and that he has apologized and wants to enter an anger management treatment program.

Yes, what the Ravens did, what the League did, was within their rights. The NFL Personal Conduct Policy statement, which is a part of every player's contract, stipulates that disciplinary action may be taken if a player commits "criminal offenses including, but not limited to, those involving: the use or threat of violence; domestic violence and other forms of partner abuse; theft and other property crimes; sex offenses . . ."

Disciplinary action is permitted, the statement continues, for "conduct that undermines or puts at risk the integrity and reputation of the NFL, NFL clubs, or NFL players."

It's all about "reputation," which owners and league officials feel is linked directly to their bottom line--more than $10 billion in 2013--and since women now make an estimated 45 percent of the NFL fan base . . .

Rice's case feels as if it might be a rush to judgement or at least punishment that doesn't fit the crime. Is this one horrible act enough for the Ravens to have the power to terminate his contract? Shouldn't the NFL's disciplinary process require a conviction in a court of law before taking away one's livelihood? Are there other workplace equivalents? If an IBMer committed spousal abuse would that in itself justify barring him from the high-tech industry as the suspension will surely lead to Rice being banned for life from future NFL employment?

It is also ironic that football itself is substantially about violence, presumably controlled violence (though ask the dozens of former players who are now suffering from traumatic brain injuries how controlled it was). Football is largely about 300-pound men in versions of body armor slamming into each other with enough force to knock opponents flat. Even unconscious. It is our form of gladiatorial combat.

Just a few years ago, in 2009, the New Orleans Saints were found to have instituted a practice where players earned cash bonuses for inflicting injuries on the opposition, with the most money awarded for injuring quarterbacks enough so that they would have to be carried off the field on stretchers.

Not incidentally, though some of these hits were flagrant, not once during the 2009-10 season did game officials penalize any of them. And when the NFL learned of Bountygate, the discipline meted out to the Saints were mere slaps on the wrist compared to those imposed on Ray Price.

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Friday, September 12, 2014

September 12, 2014--Best of Behind: I'm Gonna Wash that Man . . .

This silly one is from way back on September 28, 2005--

I don’t quite know how to bring this up in mixed company, but in the spirit of science and truth, I will do my best. 

The New York Times Science section yesterday reported that though 91 percent of Americans say they always wash their hands after using public toilets, only 83 percent actually do so. This according to an observational study.

First the facts: 

In a nationwide poll conducted by Harris Interactive, of 1,013 adults interviewed, 91 percent said they always wash. Suspecting this might not capture the whole truth, a second study was commissioned by the American Society for Microbiology and the Soap and Detergent Association (more about them in a moment). For this study, 6,336 adults’ toilet behavior was observed in the field. That’s how they came up with the 83 percent.

Any serious student of science wants to know about methodology, and since I had a few questions I made a few inquiries—

(1) How did they come up with 6,336 to be observed when they interviewed just 1,013?

(2) Where did they do the observing?

(3) Who did the observing?

(4) Were there statistically significant differences in washing behavior between those with just a high school education and college graduates and/or between higher and lower income urinators?

(5) Were there any differences in the post-potty-hand-washing activities of men and women? In other words, is this a gendered situation?

(6) Were there observed divergences between those doing Number One and Number Two?

(7) And, perhaps most important, did any of those who did the observing misbehave or get arrested?

I’m not that much of a researcher and thus I cannot comment on the “N” or the Delta in the number interviewed and observed. I can report, though, that the observing took place in six locations, including Turner Field in Atlanta; the Museum of Science and Industry and the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago; Grand Central and Penn Stations in New York City; and at the Ferry Terminal Farmers Market in San Francisco. (I won’t even begin to tell you what else they observed there.)

I cannot say who did the observing (that was not noted), but from my own research, reading the full report, I can pass along that: 

Observers discreetly watched and recorded whether or not adults using public restrooms washed their hands. Observers were instructed to groom themselves while observing and to rotate bathrooms every hour or so to avoid counting repeat users. Observers were also instructed to wash their own hands no more than 10% of the time." ("Women Better at Hand Washing Hygiene Habits, Hands Down," American Society for Microbiology, September 21, 2005.)
This suggests the observers must have been out of work actors.

And yes, as one would expect, the findings are in fact gendered and SES-correlated: woman “were more diligent than men”—90 percent washed their hands as compared with only 75 percent of men; and poorer, less educated men and women were also less hygienic  If you are curious about different rates of diligence between, say, the Turner baseball stadium and San Franciscans, you will probably not be surprised to learn that just 74 percent of fans washed up while 88 percent did in the City By the Bay.

So what besides prurience might be the bottom line? As noted, this study was largely financed by the Soap Association. Could there be a little self interest at work here? (Recall all the “scientific studies” commissioned by Phillip Morris.) 

Up to now I had been led to believe that because more colds are spread through handshakes than anything else, it is important to wash ones hands frequently, especially during the flu season. But what’s the issue about washing after peeing? OK, food handlers I can understand. But what’s the science-based, public health urgency about washing up after handling that other equipment? 

Maybe for once, just this once, men have it right.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

September 11, 2014--The Poor Door

I am beginning to feel badly for New York City real estate developers. You know, the ones who build condo towers that they squeeze into the cityscape that rise 50, 75, 100 stories. Where third-floor apartments start at $10 million and top prices soar even higher than the triplex penthouses. It is not unheard of for some Russian oligarch or Persian Gulf gazillionaire to plop down $75, $90 million for a pad of their dreams that they inhabit at the most a few weeks a year.

The new mayor of New York City (who replaced Mike Bloomberg who is worth $33 billion), Bill de Blasio, a self-proclaimed man of the people, in now insisting that to get city approval to add a few more stories beyond the allowable limits, as part of the deal, builders have to agree to add some "affordable housing" units to the otherwise gilded towers.

As you might imagine, these real estate moguls are not happy about this. They fear that someone willing to shell out tens of millions for an apartment will not be eager to share an elevator with the unwashed. Much less the in-house gym, pool, game rooms, spa, or concierge services.

So what to do?

One project that hit the news a few weeks ago is at 62nd Street on Riverside Boulevard, a tony address facing the Hudson River where there will be 33 floors of condos with bargain basement  prices beginning at about $5 million and ranging up to only $25 million

They figured out how to handle the problem--build separate entrances, elevators, and facilities for those lucky enough to win the affordable-housing lottery. (That's indeed how buyers earning less than $50,000 a year will be selected--their names will be drawn from a hat).

Liberals in the city--most of whom are themselves affluent and living in their own upper-middle-class enclaves--are outraged, calling this plan separate but unequal and have labeled the alternate entrance a "poor door."

Under pressure, the developer agreed to spiff up the entrance with marble veneer, tasteful furnishing and appointments, and chandeliers.

Others have figured out even cleverer ways to protect their high-end clients from, well, the rest of us.

Reported in the New York Times a few days ago are plans for a new loft building in one of the city's highest-rent downtown districts--Soho.

The ten lofts there will go for $8.7 to 25 million, averaging about $3,200 a square foot.  But that's not the news. These days that's chump change.

The real news is about the ten underground parking spaces.

On a first-come-first-serve basis each will sell for a cool million. To be fair, they will be generously proportioned, about 200 square feet, so there is little danger of getting too many of those annoying dings in your doors.

But here's the real news--at a million each, depending on the actual size of the parking spaces, the square foot cost is much more than for the apartments--ranging from $5,000 to $6,666.

More news--you don't actually own the parking space. Rather, for your million, you'll get only a 99-year lease.

That shouldn't be a problem for most of us except, perhaps, for my 106 year-old mother. What would she do with her old Buick?

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Wednesday, September 10, 2014

September 10, 2014--Gibbous Moon

Yesterday the moon was full. Through our bedroom window, about 4:00 AM, I watched it set over South Bristol. A path of moonlight across Johns Bay led to where I was trying to resume my interrupted sleep. Of course, I thought, one can't expect to have a restful night when the moon is full.

Tonight, happily, it begins to wane. Maybe I'll get some sleep.

Out of curiosity, I looked on line to learn a bit more about phases of the moon. I knew enough to know it goes through phases from New to Full but not much more about the less dramatic ones. Though the Crescent moon is dramatic, made more so because it is an important element in the flags of many Islamic countries from the former Ottoman Empire to today's Libya, Turkey, Tunisia, and Pakistan among others.

But what is the Gibbous moon, a phase I stumbled upon that was unfamiliar to me? First a little etymology, I thought.

From the Latin gibbus it is derived, meaning "hunchbacked."

But when does the moon seem hunchbacked? Well, soon, in a day or two, I read, when slices are daily taken from the illuminated face as the phases slip back toward the time when the moon will have lost all its reflected light--when it reaches its New phase and then, as has been true forever, begins to grow once more toward Full.

It is gibbous when the perfect Full-phase sphere begins to wane and looks ellipsoid or when it waxes, swelling from Crescent. "Swollen," another of gibbous' etymological meanings.
How wonderful, it occurred to me, that we have added to our language rarely-uttered words such as gibbous, originally meaning hunched and applied it first to those thus afflicted, and then, through an act of metaphoric alchemy, in turn used it to help us see beyond the moon mythology or the science, the astrology or the astronomy, as a way to make the otherwise unfathomable, the immense, and impersonal understood in more tactile human terms.

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Tuesday, September 09, 2014

September 9, 2014--Midcoast: Post-Season

The Tuesday evening after Labor Day with friends we went for dinner to our favorite waterside restaurant--Coveside.

As we pulled up the parking lot was unusually empty. Always, one is fortunate to find a spot near the place, often having to settle to park precariously half-on, half-off the narrow road.

"Not really surprising," Rona said, "The day after holidays it's often quiet at restaurants."
"But this looks more than quiet," one of our friends said. "It looks to me as if there's no one here. Let's check to see what the sign on the door says."

We were close enough so I could read it--

New Hours 

Open Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. Dinner Only.

Thank you for helping us have such a good season!

"Didn't they switch to limited hours last year the first of October?"

"That's what I recall," I said. "I wonder what's going on."

"Let's try the Contented Sole," Rona said. "I can go for one of their duck-fat pizzas." Immediately, in anticipation, my mouth began to water as I turned around to get us there as quickly as possible.

 But we found that it too was closed, also with a new post-season schedule on the door.

"It looks as if all our places are in a race to close," our friend said, "What's the rush? It's only September 2nd. Still technically summer."

So Rona called the Anchor Inn, our third choice--though a fine place--to see if they too were closed. They were happily open and Rona asked if we could get a table for four in about 20, 25 minutes. "No problem," they said.

So we took off for Round Pond. "We can still catch the sunset," I said, thinking about their London broil with caramelized onions.

But when we got there there were at least 30 people waiting for tables. "What happened to 'no problem?'" Rona asked the hostess.

"Well," she said with unusual attitude, "I didn't speak with you and since you don't have a reservation it will be about 45 minutes before we can accommodate you. Wait in the bar and I'll come for you when there's a table available."

"What's going on?" our friend asked, attempting to calm Rona down. She was upset to have gotten a double message.

"I think," the hostess said, "everybody else is closed and so we have everyone--including you--who couldn't get into Coveside or Contented Sole." She rushed away to help clear a table.

Dinner eventually was fine. I did have my London broil and was not disappointed; helped, I suspected, by the two gin and tonics I had at the bar while waiting.

The next morning, as usual, we headed out for breakfast at the Bristol Diner. As we approached, we again noticed there were no cars parked out front and the Open flag wasn't flying.

"What's going on?" Rona asked, sounding immediately almost as frustrated as the night before. "There's a sign on the door, but without reading it I think I know what it says."

And indeed it too said they would now be closed two days a week. "I guess the summer's officially over," I sighed as we turned back home where we had a sweet breakfast on our back deck at Cafe Rona.

In the days following we asked our restaurant friends if it was true that this year they were scaling back their hours earlier than usual.

"Yes," we heard. "We had such a good season that we pretty much already made our money for the year."

But to one restaurant owner who we know very well, I asked, "But if you follow your usual schedule, since you've done so well so far, why not stay open more--at least through leaf-peeping season--and really have a good financial year?"

"We made enough already," we heard. "You have to know when enough's enough. "It's all about living, isn't it?"

"Ture enough," Rona said. "That's one reason we like being here. People like you have the right values. You know what's important. Having more and more isn't necessarily the meaning of life."

"I suspect you'll hear different," our friend tweaked us, "once you get back to New York."

"Indeed we will," Rona said, sounding a bit blue about that time approaching.

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Monday, September 08, 2014

September 8, 2014--Two Cheers for Obamacare

I've been wondering why we've been hearing relatively little recently from Republicans about Obamacare. It had been thought that in the run up to the November midterm elections the GOP would be all over it, savaging it as an assault on both our freedom and the federal budget. It was to be their political trump card. The route to majority control of both houses.

Could it be that there is now relative silence because Obamacare is actually . . . working.

Many millions have signed up, and with the exception of some anecdotal horror stories the vast majority with health care coverage for the first time are happy with it; and, perhaps most surprising, in spite of all the scary stories about how the Affordable Care Act would bust the budget, it has in fact not only been cost effective but has already been contributing to deep cuts in the federal deficit.

Just as Obama said it would.

So then two cheers for Obamacare. It is too soon to offer three because, though the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office's projections show significant downward trends in overall Medicare costs (the result in part of aspects of the ACA law) and thus dramatic deficit reductions over the decade, we still do not know how many more will sign up, how much subsidy they will require, and the nature of the care these new enrollees will require.

The CBO, adjusting for inflation, recently reported that the average amount spent annually per Medicare recipient declined from $12,000 each in 2011 to $11,200 this year and will be reduced further to $11,000 per Medicare enrollee by 2017. Technically, this is called "negative excess cost growth."

All told, the CBO is projecting that, as a result, over the next ten years the federal deficit will be reduced by $715 billion. Nearly three-quarters of a trillion dollars.

To be fair, this good news is not fully the result of the ACA. This downward trend is also a consequence of "young" Baby Boomers becoming eligible for Medicare for the first time and the apparent, not entirely understood, reduction in costly tests, treatments, and drug use. All good things as our health care system has grown bloated with over-testing and the over-selling of unneeded treatments and medications.

This $714 billion in savings dwarfs all deficit reduction plans being discussed, including Paul Ryan's draconian budget.

Wouldn't it be good if we could stop playing demagogic games with the budget and health care and get on to the real problems we face--how to create more jobs, improve the treatment of veterans, fix our crumbling infrastructure, improve public education, and tackle the inequality crisis.

Why am I not optimistic?

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Friday, September 05, 2014

September 5, 2014--Best of Behind: Inspiration From the Gutter

This first appeared September 17, 2007--

About a year ago we found ourselves in Springfield, Illinois. We were driving east en route to New York from Wyoming and put in there less out of an interest in things Lincoln than because there were tornado warnings posted in the area.

We were lucky to find a hotel room; and while hunkered down with little to do we read about the local attractions. Of course to be visited there were Lincoln’s law office, the old state capital building where he served in the legislature, and the home from which he left to assume the presidency and to which his body was returned.

Also in Springfield, we read, was one of the earliest of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie Style structures, the Dana-Thomas House, commissioned by the silver-mine heiress and socialite, the widow Susan Lawrence Dana who had total control of her inherited fortune and spent much of it to satisfy her taste for the avant garde. Thus she turned to Wright who, at the time, represented the cutting edge of American architecture. Completed in 1904, the guide book claimed, the house is a fully realized example of his organic architecture and reflects the flat landscape of Illinois and the influence on his work of Japanese prints. She wanted something primarily for entertaining and therefore the public rooms got the most attention.

Since we were serendipitously in the land of Lincoln and Wright we planned to visit both homes the next morning if we survived the twisters.

Lincoln’s place was a little less modest than I had imagined, having been raised on stories of his growing up in a log cabin. But he had become a successful lawyer after all and in his middle years could afford to stretch out a bit, especially considering his height and wing span. And as further evidence of his relative prosperity, he did manage to get himself elected president.

The Dana-Thomas House was a very different sort of place—immense and lavish in its entirety. In fact, the docent-guide spent more time pointing out every lamp, vase, and sconce than talking about Wright’s expansive and paradigm-shifting architectural vision. The focus was on the totality of his design, how he not only planned every fresco and piece of fretwork but also all the furniture and even Mrs. Dana’s clothing.

Just how total was Wright’s aesthetic control was revealed once we got to the barrel-vaulted dining room—clearly entertaining central. He not only took complete command of the design of the chairs and table and dishes, glasses and flatware; but by basing his furniture designs on what appeared to me to be monastic models, he also was insisting on determining exactly how guests would be forced to physically sit for hours around that stoic table.

To get a sense of just what such an evening would feel like on my body, when the guide wasn’t looking I slipped into one of the rectory-style chairs and realized that if I had been forced to sit there for more than ten minutes I would need to be taken to the hospital and placed in traction.
I began to wonder what might be the intrapsychic source of what could only be thought of as Wright’s architectural sadism. Was this an expression of some inner urge to frappe the rich that bubbled up from memories of his deprived childhood? All I knew, and this was confirmed when I asked to see examples of the severely boned clothing and shoes he designed for his patroness, was that though everything that met the eye on both the interior and exterior cried out for featured inclusion in any serious history of 20th century American architecture, this was not a place in which to actually live or to be comfortable. It was a place to be admired in hushed, worshipful, and painful tones.

I was reminded of the Dana-Thomas House just last week when I read a review by the NY Times architecture critic, Nicolai Duroussoff, of a new condo being built on the city’s rapidly gentrifying Lower East Side. Though reluctant to seem a shill for Bernard Tschumi’s 17-storey, very commercial, so-called Blue Building that is nearing completion, Durousseff nevertheless couldn’t control himself. He wrote:
The building avoids the ostentatious self-importance that infects the design of so many of the new luxury towers. Encased in a matrix of blue panels, its contorted form has a hypnotic appeal that is firmly rooted in the gritty disorder of its surroundings. It reminds us that beauty and good taste are not always the same thing.
The building twists and bends, growing and bulging from the compressed “footprint” out of which it soars. Every square foot downtown after all is precious. There is so much squeezing and compressing that, to quote Duroussoff again, “The entire composition appears wonderfully off balance.”

And where did our architect find inspiration for this piece of real estate art?
Much of the inspiration comes as much from the gutter as from museum walls. The building’s milky blue colors bring to mind the cheap illuminated plastic signs still found on some old East Village storefronts.
And what might it actually be like to live in the off-balance, gutter-inspired Blue Building since it is after all still supposed to be a home? Read on:
As you reach the upper floors, the apartments get increasingly idiosyncratic. Exterior walls tilt backward or forward; rooms are tucked into what seem like leftover spaces. Big canted columns are set just inside the facade, as if bracing the rooms against some invisible force.
Sounds to me as if it would be a great place to hide in a tornado.

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