Wednesday, December 31, 2014

December 31, 2104--Crimean War

We have a friend who has a precocious four-year-old. He spends some time in preschool but, since both parents work, his grandparents also spend a lot of time with him.

This past year, during parent-teacher night at the school, our friends heard from their child's teacher that he is, of course, bright and delightful; but, the teacher also confided she doesn't understand why little Edward spends so much time thinking about war. Especially the wars in Afghanistan and the Crimea.

The parents too were puzzled, but on the way home realized that their son's grandfather, a retired history professor, must spend time talking with his grandchild about his interest in that complicated region of the world.

I said to Rona, half facetious, "He may be only four-years-old but already he has an interesting thing to write about when it comes time to apply to college--How my grandfather, when I was very young, taught me about the Crimean War."

"What a leg up that is. I mean, with all the pressure on young children to think about college even before they're toilet trained, Eddie is off to a running start."

"He's in his own version of Head Start," I said. "But think about all the other children who, even at four, barely know their alphabet or numbers."

"Or, have people in their lives who pay deep attention to them much less expose them to anything beyond play things."

"And these advantages and disadvantage as time goes by. Just a few days ago there was a story in the New York Times about college guidance counselors."

"I saw that," Rona said, "How even at places like Midwood High School in Brooklyn, still one of the best public high schools in the City, where almost all the kids plan to go to college, with nearly 800 seniors applying to college there are only two college counselors."

"And how they have a hard time keeping up with the paperwork much less getting to know any of the seniors well enough to be able to write individualized letters of recommendation for them. Letters that all the selective colleges colleges require."

"And it's even worse at most other high schools where the ratio of students to counselors is more 500-to-one."

"I read that at Midwood where parents are mainly middle class there are volunteers who help with clerical chores like stuffing and mailing thousands of applications."

"In the 21st century where we're trying to be globally competitive and know that to be viable most young people need as much education as possible this is going on."

"Sad," I said.

"Think about how fortunate little Edward is."

"Even though he's too young to know that."

"The advantages nonetheless pile up."

"Let's not think too much about this today. It's New Years Eve."

"I hope we'll be able to stay up late enough to see the ball drop."

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Tuesday, December 30, 2014

December 30, 2014--Out Late, Up Early

So I did not have time or energy to write something for today. I will be back tomorrow.

Monday, December 29, 2014

December 29, 2014--Public Relations Jujitsu

When was the last time TV news showed the video of Eric Garner being strangled on Staten Island by police officers? A tape we saw time after harrowing time 24/7 just a week or two ago. It has disappeared from the airwaves.

What has taken its place? Live shots and video of the makeshift memorial in Brooklyn at the site where two policemen, Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu, were brutally assassinated nine days ago. And this weekend there was the wake and funeral of Officer Ramos that was broadcast live and then repeated on tape over and over again. Next weekend  there be another funeral for Wenjian Liu the second officer slain. It will be shown live and then during the next 24 hours replayed frequently.

And then in both officers' cases there is breaking-news and continuing reports about how Bowdoin College will cover all costs for Officer Ramos' sophomore son's tuition and how, with "America's Mayor," Rudy Giuliani in the lead, the Tunnel Foundation is raising $800,000 to pay off the mortgages of the two slain officers' homes.

In and of itself, there is nothing wrong with any of this. The two officers deserve the attention, support, and honors.

But again, what has faded from view? No longer mentioned is what happened in Ferguson, Staten Island, or Cleveland. And what has taken the place of coverage of these outrages? Stories about the shooting that occurred in Brooklyn.

Coincidence, this shift in focus? Yes and no.

No, because of the very real murders in Brooklyn. Yes, because shifting attention from the citizen victims in Ferguson, Staten Island, and Cleveland to the victims on the streets of Brooklyn, allows those disposed to side with the police in regard to the underlying reasons for what happened to Ramos and Liu, to switch their concerns to the "real" problem--from misplaced sympathy for the out-of-control criminals (who happen to be African American) who were killed by police (who happen to be white) to the vulnerability and courage of those officers in the face of these lawlessness perpetrators.

That is the transposition of what has happened.

This represents a brilliant example of public-relations jujitsu. Substituting one reality for another. In regard to this fraught situation, we are seeing a shift of attention from a systemic problem (the uneven application of justice in America) to something horrific but specific--the assassination of the two police officers, which in the process is becoming universalized: the two murdered officers now represent all police.

Demonstrations in the streets in support of equal treatment under the law have been replaced by images of the solemnity of tens of thousands of police officers gathering in a demonstration of their own at the funerals of the two slain officers.

This is a complicated situation with heat and demagoguery on all sides, but let us remember how and where it began--in Ferguson, Mo, Staten Island, NY, and Cleveland, Ohio. It did not begin in Brooklyn.

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Friday, December 26, 2014

December 26, 2014--Best of Behind: TMI

Something literally light spirited from December 20, 2006--
I'm not all that big a fan of Census data.

I do not need to know about what and how much "average" Americans eat and drink in a year (no surprise—too much); how many square feet their apartments have (twice as many as mine); or, for that matter, how much they weigh (also too much). 
I always thought that the Census was carried out every ten years, as required by the Constitution, to see how many of us there are so that congressional districts could be apportioned among the states based on the size of their populations. To accomplish this, Census Bureau folks used to send out forms to every household and, to follow that up, they would hire canvasers who would visit every household to see if you were hiding anyone up in the attic.
So how did they get from that into counting how many gallons of bottled water we drink each year (23) or how tall we are (24 percent of Americans over 70 years of age are shorter than 5-foot-6)?

It's enough to make a small-government, strict constructionist out of me--someone who, like Supreme Court Justice Anton Scalia, wants the Constitution to be taken literally: just count the noses but stay out of my medicine cabinet, or bedroom. For example, do we have to know that 11.2 percent of women admit to having had same-sex "contacts” but only 6 percent of men were willing to fess up?

I’m most fascinated by the statistic that reveals how much more bottled water we have been drinking in recent years. Ten times more than in 1980. Has the quality of municipal water declined so precipitously? Or is it that we are going to the gym more and are taking bottled water along with us to keep us hydrated or looking cool? Or is it because of all the Wall Street bonuses, splurging on a $7.00 a bottle of Evian or Pellegrino makes a better impression than drinking plain-old New York City Tap?

Which brings me to another point—I’m getting a little worried, from a national security perspective, about our growing dependence on foreign bottled water. With the price of these, gallon-to-gallon, actually higher than the cost of imported gasoline, aren’t we putting ourselves in danger of being held hostage by our enemies, including and especially the French?

What would happen, for example, if France and Italy and Poland (Poland Springs, no?) were to form OWPEC—the Organization of Water Exporting Countries—and imposed a bottled-water embargo?

Now I’m beginning to understand why President Bush just announced that he’s going to increase the size of the army—not for deployment in Iraq but to mobilize when we have to preemptively invade Perrier.

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Thursday, December 25, 2014

December 25, 2014--Christmas, Jews, Chinese Food

Now our little secret is exposed--Atlantic magazine just published a piece titled, "Why American Jews Eat Chinese Food on Christmas."

I could have told you that. From personal experience I have known about this for more than 60 years. Every Christmas everyone in my family and Brooklyn neighborhood went out for Chinese food (or, if you'll forgive me--chinks) stuffed themselves with chicken chow mein, shrimp with lobster sauce, and pork fried rice.

When I asked why we did this so ritualistically on Christmas day I was told that with Catholics (how Jews referred to all christians) eating at home with their families, it would be easy to get a table--the same point made in the Atlantic article.

Further, I learned, since the only other restaurants in the neighborhood were Italian and Italians were Catholics and thus at home their restaurants were closed. And so Chinese food was our only option.

"Only option"? Most of us ate at home 360 days a year.

And I added, "There's never a problem getting a table. Catholics don't like Chinese food. Only Jews. Since there are so few Catholics in our neighborhood what difference does it make anyway?" I was a bit of a smartass.

I never got a satisfactory answer, just a little slap on the back of my head and the admonition to finish my egg drop soup.

And the Atlantic piece also doesn't supply a satisfactory answer. They claim that eating Chinese was the easiest way for Jews to eat out and fool themselves into believing they were still being kosher--like with authentic kosher food, the Chinese do not mix dairy products with meat.

But that's where the self-deception ends--shrimp with lobster sauce is kosher? Shrimp? Lobster? And pork fried rice? Really?

The author needs to revisit Deuteronomy where the foods that are forbidden are explicitly listed.

At the very top of that traif list are shellfish such as shrimp and lobster (though I suspect there was never any lobster in the lobster sauce--just a lot of shellfish stock flavored cornstarch) and of course the most forbidden of traif, finger-licking pork in all its forms.

Thus, one has to dig a bit deeper to figure out why I and my people will be found later today gorging on spareribs and shrimp wantons.

From me, then, here are a few actual reasons--

Perhaps foremost, Jews (as is true for most others) don't like to be exposed as hypocrites. In a small neighborhood, being observed eating traif in public qualifies as being thus exposed. So, we could indulge ourselves in as much forbidden food as we liked on Christmas day, knowing we would be doing so in private, among our "own kind," without being concerned that there would be any Catholics around to observe and expose us for what we were--well, food hypocrites.

Then, there is the reality that traif is scrumptious (does anyone not like shrimp or bacon?) and to have any excuse to get one's hands on it can quickly turn into an annual ritual. Like always going out for Chinese on Christmas day.

Plus, for those of us who were over-coddled by proverbial Jewish Mothers, participating in anything forbidden (even eating egg rolls) added additional spice to the experience. Being bad within safe limits was something pretty much everyone I knew who was leading an over-monitored life found to be alluring. Even something seemingly as benign as loving clams with black bean sauce.

So, you'll know where to look for me later today. At Noodletown in Chinatown or Phoenix Gardens up by the UN where they make the best salt-baked shrimp in New York. Or, back in the old neighborhood, at the Happy Garden on Pitkin Avenue for their classic pork egg foo young.

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Wednesday, December 24, 2014

December 24, 2014--Fem-Phobia

It's not as if we don't have enough on our plates in New York City.

You know the list--the racial divide seems to be widening (or at the minimum is more starkly visible); the mayor and the police are barely talking to each other and when they do talk it's angry; the middle class is being squeezed out of the real estate market where every day there's a story about one billionaire or another buying, sight unseen, yet another $50 million condo; there are demonstrations in the streets nearly every night organized by the Occupy Wall Street folks or various coalitions of city dwellers who feel justice is not being dispensed equally.

I could go on.

But in the midst of this, there is another campaign underway that is also generating a lot of heat--the movement to get men seated on subways to be more discreet. Discreet and subways may be an oxymoron but nonetheless there does appear to be a growing awareness and disdain for guys who sit spread-eagled in a V-shaped slouch, in effect letting it all hang out, especially when there is an attractive women seated nearby or, better, across the aisle.

Things have gotten so out of hand, some claim, that there are organized groups mobilizing various forms of persuasion and humiliation in an attempt to raise men's consciousness (another oxymoron) so that they will sit more discreetly, even making room for weary straphangers.

As the newspaper of record, covering all the news that's fit to print, the New York Times on Sunday reported about this on the front page in an article with a wordplay tittle, "Dude, Close your Legs: M.T.A. Fights a Spreading Scourge."

The Times quotes one V-shaped sloucher who insists on sitting this way as saying, "I'm not going to cross my legs like ladies do. I'm going to sit the way I want to sit."

So there you have it--it's not so much sexual aggression but fem-phobia. Real guys don't want to be mistaken for women.

Making this a personal crusade, Brooklyn-based actress Kelley Rae O'Donnell confronts men sitting this way, also taking their pictures and Tweeting them in an effort to embarrass offenders. This far to not much effect, though she did get the Metropolitan Transit Authority and the New York Times to join her in paying attention to this growing phenomenon, including persuading the M.T.A. to plaster subway cars with posters calling on spreaders to man up. (See below.)

Some men have counter-argued that they need to sit that way for procreative reasons--if they cross their legs, they insist, this will so warm up their sperm as to render them infertile. I am not making this up.

But since this has become a public issue, let me assure these metro-sexual men who long to be fathers that there is no corroborating scientistic evidence that this is true. Dr. Marc Goldstien, director of reproductive medicine at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital, says that though testicular temperate may in fact be raised a degree or two if legs are kept crossed during a half-hour train ride, it would not be high enough to render sperm less frisky.

So there you have it--what we're fighting about these days in the Big Apple.

Be merry.

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Tuesday, December 23, 2014

December 23, 2014--Back Tomorrow

The  coughing and sneezing is abating and so I will return tomorrow with a story from NYC's underground.

Monday, December 22, 2014

December 22, 2014--Coughing, Sneezing

At least it's not the flu but bad enough so both my nose and brain are clogged. So I'll take a pass for today and try to get something done for Tuesday. Wednesday, though, feels more realistic.

Friday, December 19, 2014

December 19, 2014--Best of Behind: A Different Perspective

This is from November 24, 2009, after Barack Obama had been in office for just 10 months. My friend Dick, who contributed this different perspective, got it more right than I. I was already growing restive and he was counseling me to be patient and to look at the unfolding Obama agenda and leadership style in a different way, not as things are traditionally viewed in Washington and New York.

Considering the stunning announcement on Wednesday that Obama is moving to fully normalize relations with Cuba, I thought this was worth a second look--

If you’ve been paying even casual attention to these posts, you could not help but notice that I have been raising questions about President Obama.  

Is he being forceful enough in advancing the agenda he laid out so clearly and hopefully during the campaign? When it comes to health care legislation what does he really want? Is he committed to a single-payer option or is he willing to sign anything Congress sends him so he can claim he was the first president since Lyndon Johnson to reform the system?

What was he up to during his recent trip to Asia? It was good to see he was paying attention to the region after eight years of neglect by the Bush administration, but what did he actually achieve? After so much bowing to the Japanese, what happened in China? He seemed unwilling to make any demands on the leadership there in return for various U.S. concessions. Yes, they are our bankers and we will need them to lend us more money during the coming decade, but how about a word about human rights? How about receiving unfettered access to the Chinese media? He met with a handpicked group of university students who asked him pat questions—an event that was not televised throughout the country—and he wasn’t allowed to hold a press conference. Not impressive it felt to me.

And speaking of Asia, what is going on with regard to Afghanistan? Dick Cheney called it “dithering”; and I, help me, have been thinking that the former vice president may just have gotten this one thing sort of right.  

None of this has been seeming very presidential. Not the change I enthusiastically voted for.

Even my 101-year-old mother—an early and fervent supporter of Obama's—has been getting into the act, raising questions about the effectiveness of his leadership and how out of touch he appears to be with average Americans who are still very much hurting more than a year after his election.

But then there is the perspective of a friend who goes back about as far as I and has had through the years an excellent record of sensing shifts in the country's political culture. Before anyone I knew, for example, he not only recognized Obama’s talents but also foresaw the likelihood that he would be elected. He does not allow himself to be distracted by day-to-day instant analyses of who’s up and who’s down but rather sees things in broader, generational terms.  

So last night over dinner I was eager to get his views of Obama’s first ten months in office.

He felt that things were going rather well. He calmly reminded me about all the extraordinarily difficult problems that Obama inherited. “I know,” he said, “that most people by now are getting tired of hearing him talk about the legacy of ‘the previous eight years.’ But though that understandably might be the emotional and political case—that by now we would like to see more problems solved at home—they are so complex and deeply rooted that it will take much more time to chip away at things much less change them than even one term in office will allow.”

“I agree with that,” I said, “but shouldn’t he be more forceful about what he wants from Congress, our allies, and trading partners?”

“He is a different kind of person, a different kind of leader. He sees what that kind of blustery leadership has achieved—economic precariousness and a disenchantment with America among even our friends. He realizes how difficult and complicated it is to get Congress as it is currently constituted to pass transformative legislation. Or any legislation. Things are so partisan, special interests are so powerful, that to reach any sort of consensus, even among Democrats, is daunting.  

“So, for example, to leave health care legislation to the Congressional leaders, though it is messy and it looks as if he is indifferent, may very well be the one strategy that has a chance to succeed. And getting even a flawed bill passed may not only be as much as can be expected but may actually do some significant good. Just as though Medicare and Medicaid were and are flawed look how much benefit they have provided to the elderly and indigent.” 

“You may be right about this. But what about Afghanistan and the way he appears to be ineffective with, say, China and Japan?”

“I see the same things operating. His is a new and refreshing way. Perhaps just what is needed. We are no longer either the hegemonic military or economic power. At the end of the Cold War many felt that there would be a Pax Americana that would be the result of our unquestioned power and inclusive values, but that view turned out to be very short lived. Faced with terrorism and insurgencies, our vaunted might has turned out to be ineffective and of course our near economic collapse has shown that our form of capitalism is not a viable model for most of the rest of the world. In fact, even our cultural and ideological power has been shown to be compromised and inappropriate for most people and nations.”

“So you are agreeing with me.”

“Perhaps with your diagnosis but not your pessimistic views about Obama. If you hold on for a moment, let me complete my thought—about how the ways in which he has been acting domestically, in this new collaborative mode, is consistent with his view of diplomacy.”

“Go on.”

“I both cases he is displaying patience in the face of seemingly intractable problems. He knows none of these can be quickly or easily solved. Much repair work needs to be done before anything significant can occur. Trust needs to be reestablished. In regard to our role in the larger world, perhaps trust has to be established for the first time in nearly a century as we move into our own version of a post-colonial role.”


“And in order to do so, to begin to achieve this, Obama appears to have decided to spend down some of his national and global political capital. Even at the risk of appearing to be weak and indecisive. Though many here are eager for certainty—for a leader who will tell them what to think and do (take note of Sarah Palin’s current popularity)—Obama is neither inclined to offer this nor does he believe it to be the best way to lead. His is an entirely different approach. He seems to be willing to build trust in others by actually trusting them. Not necessarily naively but with an understanding that they as well as he and we are always motivated largely out of self-interest.

“By doing this he is showing respect, rather than arrogance, because I feel he both respects others—or at least doesn’t underestimate them—and recognizes the roles that everyone needs to play to reach reconciliation and mutually-beneficial consensus.

“Remember, he is not only our first African-American president but is also our first Asian or Pacific president. He was born in Hawaii and spent formative years in Indonesia. So he combines within himself some of the cultural qualities he assimilated from those early years. It is of course dangerous to oversimplify what it means to be at least in part ‘Asian,’ but one thing that characterizes what that might mean is an understanding of the power or being yielding and indirect. And, make no mistake, these are powerful qualities. At least potentially so. And may turn out be in Obama’s case.”

As I suspected, he had given me some new things to think about, including what to order for dessert!

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Thursday, December 18, 2014

December 18, 2014--Shame On SONY

If a North Korean filmmaker (an oxymoron) were to make a satirical film about a plot to assassinate Barack Obama, it wouldn't make us feel very good, would it. But would we be making threats to blow up movie theaters where it was being shown? And would we put pressure on the film company that made the movie to pull it from distribution? Though we would hate the film's premise and would not rush to see it if it were available here, we so revere human rights that we would resist the temptation to ban it from public display. In fact, if there was the temptation to do so, there are many organizations in America that would defend the filmmaker's right to free speech, no matter how offensive.

A version of that just happened in the United States.

SONY pictures for some oblivious reason agreed to make The Interview, a silly film about how a celebrity journalist and his producer land an interview with North Korea's supreme leader Kim Jong-un and subsequently are recruited by the CIA to kill him.

Presumably someone in North Korea, an individual or more likely a state-supported operative, outraged about the film, hacked into SONY's computer network and has been selectively releasing to the press gossipy e-mails between top executives that reveal them to be mean-spirited (attacking one of their own most successful stars--Angelina Jolie) and full of racist feelings about President Obama (wondering which movie about African Americans would most appeal to him).

Further, the hacker or his handlers are also making threats against movie distributers, saying that if they show the The Interview they will bring down upon them wrath equal to that of 9/11.

In turn, owners of movie chains (Regal and others) asked SONY not to release the film. SONY, feeling they had no good options, agreed to do so, and as I write this are saying that though they regret "having" to pull the film do not want to put moviegoers at risk.

No one yet is talking about how this will encourage hackers to act more audaciously. Including, I assume, threatening mayhem about any movie or TV show they find to be objectionable or upsetting. Or, any book or TV show or public event that deals with controversial or, to them, disturbing issues.

Homeland, the Showtime series that depicts many Muslims to be violent terrorists could easily be a hacker's next target.  American Sniper, a film by Clint Eastwood about to be released will undoubtedly upset some in Iraq because the main character, Chris Kyle, an actual person, was a Navy SEAL who as a sniper killed more Iraqis than anyone else--between 160 confirmed "kills" and nearly another 100 "likelies."

Or other disgruntled groups could threaten to blow up the New York Times building because it published a series of articles critical of the C.I.A. and the corruption of top Chinese leaders.

On Christmas Day, when The Interview was to open, though its plot sounded totally sophomoric, I was planning to hold my nose and go as a way of symbolically saying that I do not believe in preemptive-capitulation and that our Constitution is stronger than unattributed or unverified threats and more important than what SONY executives said about Angelina Jolie.

We can't submit to threats and live in a world of fear, especially when our basic rights and freedoms are attacked.

Instead, via Showtime On Demand, on Christmas Day I will tune into the last two episodes of Homeland, unless by then they too are withdrawn. If they are, I'll just get drunk.

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Wednesday, December 17, 2014

December 17, 2014--This Is Nuts

The daughter of the chairman of Korean Air Lines recently forced a plane she was on to go back to the gate so she could have the head steward kicked off because she had been served macadamia nuts in their bag instead of on a plate. This according to the reliable New York Times.

I say "reliable" since if this story had appeared in, say, the New York Post I would have thought it preposterous, made up. Who in their right mind would do such a thing? But there you have it--Cho Hyun-ah is unlikely to have much of a mind.

This, though, is not the whole story.

While waiting for the plane to get back to the gate, Ms. Cho forced the steward to kneel before her and apologize for the way one of the cabin  crew in first class had served the nuts. There was no word about how the peanuts were served in coach.

After the incident, the steward went public which is unusual in class-bound South Korea. Not only did he tell about the kneeling but also alleged that while he was on his knees, Ms. Cho hit him repeatedly with a folder of papers before tossing them at the junior steward.

As the story spread it added to the roiling resentment in Korea toward the families who own the county's sprawling conglomerates. It appears they have their own Occupy-Wall-Street going on.

The patriarch of the Cho family, Hyun-ah's father, so concerned about the implications for his widespread business interests not only kicked his daughter off the Korean Airlines board but also stripped her of her other nepotistic no-show jobs and forced her to apologize. Not on her knees of course.

In the meantime, as fallout from the nuts incident, sales of macadamia nuts in Korean are surging to the point that merchants can't keep them on the shelves. Everyone, it seems, wants a taste of first class. Even if in bags.

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Tuesday, December 16, 2014

December 16, 2014--Ready for Elizabeth Warren?

Elizabeth Warren has the perfect job for her. Senior senator from Massachusetts.

But like another senator, this one from Illinois, though she has served in the Senate for just two years, already there is a groundswell of interest in her running for President in 2016.

We know how the former junior senator from Illinois who in 2008 did manage to be elected President worked out.

So this is just what we don't need--another Harvard Law School professor as a potential President.

But support for her is growing exponentially since she took the lead in opposing the recent appropriation bill to fund the federal government. As an academic specialist in bankruptcy law and a progressive she was the ideal person to take the lead. Her objection to the bill was because buried in it was a provision to gut that part of Dodd-Frank that is designed to rein in big banks' ability to invest in risky derivatives, the loses from which would be covered again by the taxpayers, just as they were six years ago when these very sort of practices nearly bankrupted the country and cost us many billions to bail them out.

But President Warren?

She is adamantly denying that she is running or has any interest in running. And as long as Hillary Clinton is healthy enough to run, Warren undoubtedly will be true to her word. But if Hillary is seen to falter or falls down again and hits her head on the bathtub, Elizabeth Warren will be first in line to announce her candidacy.

In my work I have known hundreds of professors and the one thing they love more than anything is professing. Professing before as large an audience as possible.

Considering that whoever runs and ultimately gets elected will face so much resistance from Congress to any legislative agenda that nothing but the minimum will have any change of becoming law. There is that much rancorous partisanship on both sides plus a powerful antigovernment movement within the Republican congressional caucus. Thus, what we should be looking for in a potential president is someone who knows how to lead and, especially, run things.

Run things such as the Pentagon, the veterans administration, the IRS, the C.I.A., the federal health care system, federal involvement in education policy, whatever environmental protection programs that will manage to survive, border security and immigration policy, and of course our various global diplomatic and military involvements.

Is Elizabeth Warren ready for all this and more? Has she demonstrated any capacity to take on any of this? I think not.

But among progressives who want an ideologue in the race there is a growing ReadyForWarren movement that parallels ReadyForHillary. And money is flowing in, mainly from the West and East Coasts. Again, just what we don't need.

Above all, if we want an effective president, not just one who makes us feel warm and fuzzy and affirms our pieties, we should be looking for someone who has a demonstrated track record of actually having run something big, run it effectively, and one  who, like Warren to her considerable credit, knows that this time around, "It's the middle class, stupid."

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Monday, December 15, 2014

December 15, 2014--Backbone

For all the years of his presidency, Barack Obama has been criticized for his reluctance, almost visceral reluctance to confront Republican members of Congress who are devoted to undermining his presidency and thwarting his legislative agenda.

Critics claim that Obama has no appetite for confronting or even working with members of Congress. He is no Lyndon Johnson, they say, nor even a Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton who seemed to have been adept at collaborating with the opposition in order to get at least some of their agenda accomplished. But things are so bad now, it is alleged, that Obama doesn't even like involving himself with Democrat members of Congress.

In fact, he is so reluctant to deal with Congress that he is prone to negotiate with himself, preemptively giving up on programs in which he believes without a struggle or fight to avoid a confrontation and compromise down the road where, if he were inclined to do so, he would get some or all of what he sought.

The best example of this came during the battle over health care reform, over what eventually came to be known as the Affordable Care Act or, more popularly, Obamacare. He was an advocate for a time of the single-payer approach. A version of Medicare for all, but traded away that progressive and more cost-effective option without much of a fight and got nothing in return, no quid pro quo from Republicans. Just grief, which continues.

So, last week, when there was controversy about what to include in the $1.1 trillion bill to appropriate money to run the government, to avoid yet another shut-down, President Obama finally showed some political backbone and worked the phones to urge wavering members of Congress to support the bill before the House of Representatives and Senate. A bill that was passionately opposed by an unlikely coalition of liberals and Tea Party stalwarts, led principally by Nancy Pelosi in the House and Elizabeth Warren and Ted Cruz in the Senate.

But ironically the arms Obama twisted were those of reluctant Democrats who were upset by a rider stuffed into the 1,600-page bill by financial institution lobbyists that was designed to gut a major provision of Dodd-Frank, legislation passed four years ago to rein in some of the same kinds of risky practices of banks, using taxpayer-insured money, that led to the crash that became the Great Recession and which cost taxpayers hundreds of billions in bailout money.

So, with his new-found gumption, Obama wound up challenging Nancy Pelosi, who carried the congressional water for him for Obamacare and the economic stimulus, and not Mitch McConnell, who said on day-one of the Obama administration that his goal as minority leader was to assure that Obama would be a one-term president.

If he was going to fight for something, why didn't the president stand with fellow Democrats and fight to have that pro-big-bank rider purged from the bill? Even if it meant seeing the government shut down. That would have made Obama look like a leader, shown him supporting Main Street over Wall Street (good politics), and again having the Republicans to blame for pulling the plug on most of the operations of the federal government (even better politics).

Or am I missing something?

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Friday, December 12, 2014

December 12, 2013--Meow Lion, Meow

What's happening up at Columbia University, my old college? The Lions, instead of roaring, as our fight song says, are meowing. At the Law School.

It is rare that I agree with anything in Rupert Murdoch's tabloid rag, the New York Post. Actually, I never agree with him or the editorial positions of his newspapers or Fox news outlets. But this one time I do wholeheartedly concur with Tuesday's front page that bellowed--"Poor Babies! Cop Rulings 'Traumatize' Columbia Kids."

The story that followed claimed that the acting dean of the Law School announced that any students so upset by the grand jury rulings in Ferguson, MO and on Staten Island could arrange to delay taking their end-of-semester exams.

Of course skeptical that this could possibly be true (the Post relishes having or creating opportunities to bash liberal elites), I turned to the New York Times where, to my dismay, I found, buried on page A-26, virtually the same report with the more temperate headline--"Columbia Law Lets Students Delay Exams After Garner and Brown Decisions."

Between you and me, I prefer the Post's "Poor Babies!" That does a better job of getting to the essence of the matter.

The acting dean, Robert E. Scott, in an email to students actually did use the T-word: he wrote that following existing policies for "trauma during exam period" students who felt their performance on final exams would suffer because of the grand jury decisions not to indict white police officers who killed alleged African-American perpetrators, could defer taking the exams.

Refusing to say how many sought delays, a Law School spokesperson said a "small number" had.

To me, even one student seeking such a deferment is one too many.

Yes, the decisions not to indicate are upsetting, deeply upsetting, but unless the "small number" of students who are delaying their finals are members of Eric Garner's or Michael Brown's immediate families (I doubt it), it is hard to imagine being so traumatized that they can't study or concentrate.

This is particularly pathetic behavior for law students who presumably are being prepared to deal with just these kinds of circumstances. Actually, even worse circumstances. Say, like what happened exactly two years ago at Sandy Hook Elementary School where 20 five- and six-year-olds were slaughtered.

I could sputter on about this--how we are over-pampering our young people, even those in top-ten law schools; how no one these days wants to take responsibility for anything; how we have lost moral fiber and what my father used to call "intestinal fortitude"; how for too many it's all about getting and spending; how the world has become Oprah-ized; how . . .

But I will resist and allow the Post front page to have the final word.

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Thursday, December 11, 2014

December 11, 2014--Torture

Regarding the Senate Intelligence Committee's report about the C.I.A. and its use of "enhanced interrogation techniques," this from Peter Baker of the New York Times--
The C.I.A. maintains that the brutal interrogation techniques it used on terrorism subjects a decade ago worked. The Senate Intelligence Committee concluded that they did not. And on that, at least, President Obama is not taking sides. 
Even as Mr. Obama repeated his belief that the techniques constituted torture and betrayed American values, he declined to address the fundamental question raised by the report: . . . Did they produce meaningful intelligence to stop terrorist attacks, or did the C.I.A. mislead the [Bush] White House and the public about their effectiveness.
My view, controversial among liberals, is that this is in fact the fundamental question--does torture work?  

Not who said what to whom or informed or misinformed the White House and the public because if torture does lead to actionable intelligence that could save American lives--like knowing in advance about the 9/11 attacks--we should be having a very different discussion.

That discussion should be about, must be about, what techniques work and how to use them going forward in a way that, though ugly and brutal, is both justified and applied as humanely as possible. 

But even if there is no "humanely as possible" that should not thwart the use of these techniques. Confronting the brutal and ugly methods of the other side, the enemy, an enemy not playing by any recognizable set of rules, may mean that to defend ourselves against terrorist acts we too may need to employ the ugly. As indeed we are and have been doing from our origins as a country until this very day, often, frequently unacknowledged or publicly monitored. Like authorizing bombing raids and drone attacks that we know will kill children--"collateral damage."

And that discussion needs to be lead by an engaged President, not one, like Obama, who, as Baker reports, continues not to want to become deeply involved in daunting issues of contradictory complexity. In his White House the buck doesn't appear to stop with him. At times I even wonder if there is a buck.

If torture works, and though I doubt it does, we still need to boldly ask and answer that question because what would one prefer--not to torture someone who could tell us in advance of an about-to-occur attack on American or on our bases, troops, or citizens overseas; or should we authorize the use of effective techniques, no matter how loathsome, to forestall that.

To answer this authoritatively is way above my pay grade, likely yours as well; but how should we respond to this impossible question?

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Wednesday, December 10, 2014

December 10, 2014--One Jong-un

Isn't it frustrating that we know so little about what's going on in North Korea.

With all our human and technological intelligence assets we don't really know who's in charge, who is slated for execution, what's happening with supreme leader Kim Jong-un's health (minimally he seems to be limping), how his sister has seemingly somehow wheedled her way into his inner circle--assuming he even has one--and what's with those Kim family bouffant hairdos?

OK, so his father and grandfather, as well as Jong-un himself were barely five-feet tall. Not that impressive when it comes to leaders-for-life. The hair adds another inch or two of stature. On the other hand, Napoleon and Hitler weren't much taller and they both sported comb-overs. No wonder Jong-un likes 6' 7" Dennis Rodman so much.

More important, we're not sure if North Korea has two or ten atomic bombs or how close they are to being able to miniaturize them enough to stick one on top of missile capable of reaching our West Coast.

But one thing I do know is that I'm happy not to be Kim's uncle. We do know what that gets you--the firing squad.

Now there's another thing publicly known--there will be no more Jong-uns.

According to the New York Times, back in January 2011, soon after Mr Kim took office (if that's the proper way to describe his ascendency) there was a government document that declared that there can be no more Jong-uns in North Korea. Since it's a common name, anyone with it was required to change it to something else and now no new babies can be named Jong-un.

This should have come as no surprise because the North Koreans did the same thing when his father and grandfather took over.

How charming. But also disturbing. Disturbing because it took nearly four years for the South Koreans, who should have some idea about what's going on in the north, to find out. If we can't keep track of what names are or are not allowed in North Korea how will we ever get a line on their military capacity and intentions.

I suppose one reason that there is no electricity anywhere in the country except the capital, Pyongyang, is to keep both the North Koreans and the rest of us in the dark.

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Tuesday, December 09, 2014

December 9, 2014--5-Hour Breakfast

A five-hour breakfast back at Balthazar yesterday morning (as in the "old days") took up most of my writing time for Tuesday's posting. So I have nothing to report but a quick comment from the news early this morning--

As the price of agreeing to a spending bill to fund the federal government and avoid again shutting it down, Republicans in Congress are insisting on cuts in the school-lunch nutrition program (a Michelle Obama favorite) and the elimination of some key parts of the clean water act.

That's the news today, oh boy.

I will return tomorrow with comments about North Korea.

Monday, December 08, 2014

December 8, 2014--A Conversation About Race

Every time there is an outrageous example of how the justice system in America works differently for white people and people of color, political leaders, the press and clergy say that we have to have a serious, dispassionate national conversation about race so that we can at long last overcome our still fraught racial history.

This call was raised after the OJ Simpson trial when it was obvious that whites and blacks experience the justice system almost as polar opposites--the vast majority of caucasians saw him to be guilty of homicide while blacks in overwhelming numbers cheered the jury verdict.

For a week or two after the verdict a version of that national conversation occurred; but here we are again, nearly 20 years later, with two grand juries--one in Ferguson MO, another on Staten Island--failing to indicate two white police officers who killed unarmed black men. Again there are street demonstrations, 24/7 media coverage, and renewed calls for that discourse about race.

But before we can even get started talking across the racial divide, people are criticizing New York City mayor Bill de Blasio (who has a biracial son and daughter) and Barack Obama (who is obviously African American) either, as in the case of the former, for "throwing the police under the bus" (as ludicrously claimed by the president of the NYC patrolman's union) or, as in Obama's case, for not speaking out passionately or personally enough.

The Washington Post over the weekend wrote explicitly about this--"N.Y. Mayor Bill de Blasio Spoke Bluntly On Race, Policing in Ways Harder for Obama."

Yes, the mayor spoke bluntly--actually he was more compassionate than blunt--praising the vast majority of police officers who protect citizens black and white while calling for the need to retrain them in the appropriate use of force and then "spoke from the heart" as a father of a dark-skinned son who sports a huge Afro while Obama spoke more professorially, less as a black man and father of two daughters.

Obama may have tempered his remarks out of concern that they might interfere with his Department of Justice's investigations of both cases, exploring whether or not the victims' civil rights were violated though they will be difficult to press since the DJ would have to prove intent. He may have wanted to avoid the legal storm that arose after Trayvon Martin was killed when he, with emotion and truth, said Trayvon "could have been me."

Yes, any President needs to tread carefully when talking about on-going criminal investigations, but surely there must be ways, there must be appropriate words for our first African-Ameircan president to speak publicly about race in less than his usual dispassionate way. For him, if you will, to testify about what it is like, what it feels like to be a black man in America and the father of teenage children who must worry when his children are out and about, even with Secret Service protection. And how he must have residual fears about his own safety when in public. Fears exacerbated by the fact of his skin color.

I understand that during his first term, for political reasons alone, he did not want to come off sounding like a "black president." He was and is the president of all the people, even those who disagree with and even despise him. Further, considering the underlying racism so pervasive in America, he did not want to give bigoted whites the excuse to have their views confirmed that he is the proverbial boogie man (epithet intended)--a militant Angry Black Man.

But now, with the last midterm elections over (and lost) what continues to hold him back from truly speaking his mind and leading the long-overdo conversation? He has nothing significant to lose. Now more than ever we need his perspective and passion.

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Friday, December 05, 2014

December 5, 2014--Best of Behind: The Fall of Roman Numerals

Hedy, featured here, is one of the friends with whom we had dinner at the Yale Club the other evening. Back in August 2005, after another evening with her and her husband Tony, I wrote and posted this. It was during my first week of blogging--

As promised Hedy, I will reveal here the answer to the centuries-old question: Why did the Roman Empire fall? 

This is not simply an academic issue; many today are seeking answers because they perceive the U.S. to be an empire and thus are looking for similar evidence of our potential decline and fall. Either in an attempt to prevent it or, as in the case of our enemies, hasten it.

Historians have cited many reasons: there was political corruption, unemployment, inflation, urban decay, excessive military spending. See the parallels? Some even claim Rome fell because of Christianity--among other things Christianity turned Romans into pacifists. 

Parallels cease.

I have learned when facing complexity and contradiction, turn to the New York Times.

Bear with me. Look carefully at the very top lefthand corner of the front page. Note the "All the News That's Fit to Print" box. See just below it: "Vol. CLIV . . . No. 52324." I ask you to turn your attention to "Vol. CLIV"--Roman Numerals! CLIV=154 in Arabic Numerals. This notation indicates that 2005 is the 154th year in which the Times is being published.

Though many of us learned our Roman Numerals in elementary school their only current uses seem to be for publication volume numbers (check your magazine subscriptions), crossword puzzles, and Super Bowls--the next being Super Bowl XXXIX (39 for those of you who did not go to elementary school.)

So you may be wondering, how did Roman Numerals lead to the fall of the Roman Empire? Learning that I=1 and V=5 and X=10 is easy. Try doing addition using Roman Numerals. Allow me to illustrate:

Let's add 23 + 58. In Roman Numerals that's XXIII + LVIII. How to proceed? 

We need to begin by writing the two numbers next to each other: XXIII-LVIII. Next we arrange the letters so that the numerals are in descending order: LXVIIIIII. Now we have six Is, so we rewrite LXVIIIIII as LXVVI. The two Vs are the same as one X, so we simplify again and get LXXXI, or 81 as our final answer.

Don't ask me to do long division.

Suffice it to say, when the Arabs came along with their Arabic Numerals (and swords) the Roman Empire didn't stand much of a chance.

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Thursday, December 04, 2014

December 4, 2014--Chokehold On Staten Island

I need to learn more, but Staten Island, where I worked for 10 years, is more like Ferguson, MO than Manhattan. Though a brief ferry ride away it is as mired as Ferguson in anger and racism.

And now with a Staten Island grand jury concluding not to indite the police officer who in July killed unarmed, African-American Eric Garner with a chokehold, I expect this forsaken borough of New York City to erupt in protest. Hopefully, not violently, but there is a limit to what people of color can tolerate in 2014.

This was all caught on vivid videotape and should have been an easy one. Indict officer Daniel Pantaleo and then let a public jury decide to convict or not.

But, more white police officers live on SI than in any other part of New York City and so this was not unexpected.

Again, as in Ferguson, rather than a traditional grand jury review, which usually lasts for a few hours or perhaps a day or two, this one went on for months and one knows all to well what that means--a version of a trial occurred out of sight. And of course there was no indictment.

*   *   *

After I wrote this, we met friends for dinner at the Yale Club, across from Grand Central Station. We had not seen them for awhile and had a wonderful time. They are always up on the news but there was so much to catch up about that we didn't talk much about Staten Island or Ferguson.

But at about 10:30, after dinner, when we were saying goodbye at the station, we were swept into a flash-demonstartion--a few hundred young black, brown, and white people who were darting about, herded by an equal number of police, all already organized by Twitter and Facebook postings to protest the lack of an indictment on Staten Island.

We joined them as they dashed into Grand Central. For me it was evocative of others times and other causes. 

"Hands up. Don't shot. Hands up don't shoot," they, we, chanted in reference to what allegedly happened to Michael Brown in Ferguson. "No justice, no peace. No justice, no peace" from earlier days.

And, "Fuck the police. Fuck the police" from today.

One struggling middle-aged commuter, who remembered similar epithets shouted decades ago in anger at the police, the "Pigs," during the Vietnam War said, "That didn't work then and it's is not fair now. At worst, it was only one policeman in Missouri and a few here. So . . ."

Someone who heard that responded civilly, "Don't you understand the frustration, the anger? You expect everyone to be courteous?"

"Maybe you're right," the commuter said as he ran for his train to Stanford. Maybe you're right. Back then I thought we were." 

He disappeared in the crowd.

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Wednesday, December 03, 2014

December 3, 2014--Car, Cat, Tree

Aunt Madeline liked attention. Including occasionally checking herself into hospitals to make sure her nieces and nephews would visit. Otherwise, they made their way to Brooklyn maybe once or twice a year.

One time, she was having real issues. From the panicky phone call to us, seemingly psychiatric ones. She called to see if we could meet her at Beth Israel's admitting office. Out of consideration for us, she picked the hospital nearest where we lived so we wouldn't again have to schlep to a Brooklyn hospital.

It took 15 minutes for us to get there and we waited nervously nearly an hour until the ambulette arrived. Madeline was frazzled and disheveled. Not her usual state and so we were concerned.

From her appearance alone it was clear we needed to get her to psychiatric admitting.

When we did, Madeline asked the nurse who took her history if we could sit with her. "Of course," she said with compassionate understanding.

Among other things, the nurse administered a brief cognitive test--"Can you repeat," she asked Madeline, "car, cat, tree?"

"Car-cat-tree," Madeline shot back full voiced.

"Very good. Can you also repeat car, cat, tree in reverse?" Madeline looked puzzled. "Backwards."

"Oh, that, yes, tree-cat-car," Madeline, proud of herself, smiled as if to say, "I'm not that crazy."

"If I may," I asked the nurse, "what are you trying to determine?"

"If your aunt has dementia, Alzheimer's."


"From how she did, I think not."

"You see, I told you," all smiles Madeline said, "I'm not crazy. I'm just having a nerve attack." And from that I felt her hospitalization would be brief. Which indeed it turned out to be.

We visited every day, which gave our wonderful aunt great pleasure; and from then on, for more than 20 years, whenever either Rona or I have been confused about something, not able to recall a name or date, I say car, cat, tree and Rona responds with the more challenging tree, cat, car. This assures us we're still all right. No need yet to get checked into Beth Israel.

Though at 4:00 a.m. yesterday, fitfully sleeping and lying wide awake staring at the ceiling, I could have used a little help and assurance that I hadn't overnight caught a case of Alzheimer's.

For some inexplicable reason--but that's the middle of the night for you: inexplicableness--I couldn't for almost an hour remember who wrote "It's De-Lovely."

I know, crazy. But not being able to remember Cole Porter made me really crazy.

Sweating and tossing, I went down the list of songwriters from that era I could remember--Rodgers and Hart, Rogers and Hammerstein, George and Ira Gershwin, Johnny Mercer, Irving Berlin. None of them I knew wrote "It's De-Lovely."

At least that was something. My memory of songs and composers was still partially intact. Those PET-scan images of brains of old folks with Alzheimer's that show shadowy hollows and vacancies must have just begun to eat away at that part of mine where the names of songs and songwriters are retained. So maybe, I thought, tomorrow night at 4:00 a.m. I no longer will remember who wrote "Thou Swell." At my age, who cares about songwriters.

But try me--Rodgers and Hart.

And of course cat, car, tree.

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Tuesday, December 02, 2014

December 2, 2014--Dumb Phone

I can finally come in from the cold thanks to Anna Wintour and Rihanna.

We sometimes go to places frequented by young people in part to get away from all the serious and tragic things that accrue to people our age. OK, my age. To soak up an alternate view of the world and my place in it. The existentials are working against me and I crave to know what the young people at The Smile are thinking and how they see the trajectory of their lives.

We are viable there, I think, in part because we're eager to listen and learn and because we represent an alternative view for them. They too are searching. So we have something to share.

Like so many of my generation I am fascinated and a little horrified by all the iPhoning. Feeling left out and even excluded, this is one of the things I've been eager to learn about. Why all the young people we know and see on the streets and in cafes are so relentlessly and ubiquitously tethered to their smart phone. What are they up to, sending back and forth, texting even as they step onto the elevator in our building early mornings, while walking up and down Broadway, while having coffee or meals with friends?

I admit to leaning in close on the elevator, looking over shoulders in an attempt to read what's going on on those luminescent screens. Glimpses suggest mindlessness, not anything personally or professional important or urgent.

Part of my alienation is self-imposed. I know my place, my generation.

And I know about the cell phone phone in my pocket.

It's a flip, dumb-phone with no Internet capacity and doesn't even allow me to send simple texts--assuming I ever wanted to. And so I keep it hidden in my pocket as out-of-sight as my young friends seem eager to have their smart-phones on display.

But then I learned from Michael Musto, self-described "night-life chronicler" for the New York Times that very with-it, very cool people such as Anna Wintour, Rihanna, and Scarlett Johansson have been spotted with old clamshell style phones like mine.

So the other day, after assurances by chronicler Musto, at The Smile, having breakfast with a couple of Millennium friends, without feeling dated and old, I put my flip-phone out on the table, side-by-side with their iPhones and, since they are more than with-it, they smiled in recognition of my new-found coolness. Or, more likely, maybe to humor me. They are that nice and compassionate.

I've been wondering about Scarlett and Anna and Rhianna. What's the story with them?

Maybe they don't want to be thought of as smart-phone zombies, the sort I see in my elevator or those in a hypnotic state as they navigate the cyber-Monday crowds on Broadway. Maybe they want to signal that they are too important to be all that accessible--or feel the need to be such--even to each other. To be tethered to a mobile device. Or, for that matter, to anything.

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Monday, December 01, 2014

December 1, 2014--Begging Off

Sorry. I'm a bit tired and so will return tomorrow with some thoughts about smart phones.