Thursday, March 05, 2015

Definitions of Success

I recently received an e-mail from my friend Bob that offered some thoughts on how we define success at various ages. It's good enough to share ...

Success at age 4 is not peeing in your pants.

Success at age 12 is having friends.

Success at age 16 is having a driver's license.

Success at age 20 is having sex.

Success at age 35 is having money.

Success at age 50 is having money.

Success at age 60 is having sex.

Success at age 70 is having a driver's license.

Success at age 75 is having friends.

Success at age 80 is not peeing in your pants.

The bottom line: it all comes full circle.

I'm 63, and I think I can speak with some authority on the subject.

Have an age-appropriate good day. More thoughts coming.


Wednesday, March 04, 2015

Magical Plans

As we discussed in this space a week or so ago, the Supreme Court today is hearing the case of King v Burwell which, depending upon how the court decides, could fatally undercut the Affordable Care Act (aka “Obamacare”) by disallowing the subsidies upon which millions of low and middle income Americans depend to afford their health care insurance. Given that health care in this country is ridiculously expensive for the reasons we’ve already discussed, it seems fairly Grinchy to pull the rug out from under people who are now enjoying health insurance, many for the first time ...

But help is at hand, apparently, should the Supreme Court decide the subsidies are illegal*!

In an OpEd article that appeared in The Washington Post on March 1st, three Republican Congressmen - Orrin Hatch of Utah (Chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee), Lamar Alexander of Tennessee (Chair of the Senate Finance Committee), and John Barrasso of Wyoming (Chair of the Senate Republican Policy Committee) – announced that

“Republicans have a plan to protect Americans harmed by the administration’s actions**.”

This is wonderful news! Of course, it might have been even more wonderful had it been announced a few years ago, in place of endless, useless votes to defund all or part of the ACA, but hey! – they have a plan now!

But as you might suspect, Bilbo the Cynical Curmudgeon has a few questions and observations about this GOP plan as outlined in the OpEd article …

First, an observation: an OpEd article does not constitute a “plan.” It constitutes a pair of promises designed to give the impression that a plan exists. As we shall see, I’m not sure that’s true.

The GOP recognizes that if the Supreme Court decides against the subsidies, millions of people who now are getting health insurance for the first time will no longer be able to afford it, and will lose it. This would be undesirable from a PR perspective. Therefore, the first part of the “plan” is this:

“We would provide financial assistance to help Americans keep the coverage they picked for a transitional period.”

Riddle me this, Batman … what will be the source of funding for this financial assistance? The GOP advertises itself, after all, as the party of fiscal restraint, insisting that new spending be offset by cuts to other programs. One might reasonably ask, therefore, what other programs will be cut to provide this assistance, or what other source of funding has been identified. This is not spelled out in the article, and I suspect it has been glossed over in the hopes that no one asks about it ... especially not the extreme fiscal conservatives of the GOP who will adamantly oppose new spending***.

The second part of the “plan” is this:

“We will give states the freedom and flexibility to create better, more competitive health insurance markets offering more options and different choices ... We have had many discussions with our Senate and House Republican colleagues on this issue, and there is a great deal of consensus on how to proceed. Many of our colleagues have good ideas, and we look forward to working together.”

You will, I hope, forgive me if I question the existence of “consensus” or an ability to “work together” within the Republican party. The recent fiasco over funding the Department of Homeland Security is a direct result of the refusal of the most hardline conservative Republicans to work with their more moderate colleagues (although there is great effort being made to put the blame on the Democrats). But be that as it may, how will the GOP “plan” to increase options and choices work? What are the other options that are being considered? How will they differ from the options and choices now available? Inquiring minds want to know.

So I ask again ... what's the plan? And what makes Senators Hatch, Alexander, and Barrasso think that anyone other than the most die-hard conservatives will believe that their platitudes constitute a plan?

Sadly there's quite a bit of stupidity and gullibility in the American voting population ... perhaps just enough to carry the day. And then they can turn to the GOP and ask what the plan is.

Good luck getting a straight answer.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


* For a very good analysis of the legal issue, read this New York Times OpEd by Nicholas Bagley: Hello, Justices? It's Reality Calling.

** I assume they are referring to the incalculable harm done to millions of Americans who are now able to obtain affordable health care insurance.

***  The obvious solution is that they will just print the money and blame the Democrats for making it necessary for them to do so.

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

When Life Gives You Lemons ...

The old motivational adage says that "when life gives you lemons, make lemonade." The meaning, of course, is that you should always look for ways to turn misfortune to your advantage. It doesn't always work, but it sounds good.

Perhaps one of the ultimate lemonade moments came recently for the city of Portland, Oregon, where hydoelectric turbines have been installed in one of the main water pipelines to use the pressure of running water produce electricity. The advantage is clear: each time you hit that handle on your toilet, the pressure generated by the flush helps to power your television so that you can watch more C-SPAN coverage of Congress doing nothing.

But satire aside, it behooves us to look for new sources of both renewable (such as solar, wind, and hydroelectric) and nontraditional (such as flush-generated) energy. There's a scene in the great* comedy film Kentucky Fried Movie in which scientists search for new sources of oil, extracting it from teenagers' faces and recycling used combs.  That's all well and good, but we need far more energy nowadays than can be generated by such measures. Here are a few of my ideas ...

1. Install thousands of wind turbines in concentric circles around Capitol Hill. The wind energy generated while Congress is in session will pay for the installation within days.

2. In addition to the wind turbines, install thermal collectors to take advantage of the superheated air generated during congressional debates**.

3. Replace all 435 desks in the Senate and House chambers with human-sized hamster wheels to capture the energy of our elected reprehensives running in circles ...

4. Install generators connected to banks of revolving doors to capture the as-yet untapped energy of members of Congress and their aides shuttling back and forth to lobbyists' offices.

5. Take advantage of the latent energy represented by the mountains of cash masquerading as constitutionally-protected free speech. Because worn-out banknotes are usually destroyed by burning, require that members of Congress and their staffs periodically exchange their accumulated bales of older campaign contributions for fresh currency, so that the older banknotes can be burned and the resulting energy used to provide a new source of power for Senate and House office buildings.

Do you have any other ideas for nontraditional sources of energy we might tap? Leave a comment. The nation is counting on you.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


* This opinion is not shared by Agnes, who has often threatened to destroy my copy of Kentucky Fried Movie if she ever finds where I've hidden it.

** By "debates," I mean "political posturing, finger-pointing, and coup-counting masquerading as principled discussion of serious issues."

Monday, March 02, 2015

Concealed Carry of the Brain

Each year sees a terrible number of deaths, both intentional and accidental, involving firearms. One of the most tragic, and yet most eye-rollingly stupid of them was reported in the city of Kalamazoo, Michigan, where, on January 1st, a woman accidentally shot herself in the eye while trying to adjust the gun she was carrying in a ... bra holster.

Yes, Dear Readers, you heard that right - a bra holster. There are apparently several types of such holsters for women who wish to conceal more than one type of 38, so to speak. Here is one, marketed as the "Flashbang," available from for $26.79 to $49.99, depending on the weapon to be holstered and the natural embellishments of the armed lady...

It seems to me that this is not a terribly practical design, requiring the lady to pull up her shirt, grab the gun by the handle, and pull it down, probably while under duress ... which probably explains how an insufficiently experienced quickdraw artist* could accidentally fire the gun, with predictable results. One might also think that it would give a somewhat unusual, angular appearance to the normally rounded appearance of that portion of the lady's anatomy. However, given the current craze for the concealed carry** of weapons, I suppose this development was only a matter of time.

Of course, this is not the first deadly bra accessory on which I have reported in this space. You may recall this post from May of 2013, in which I brought to your attention "rape prevention underwear" being developed by some engineering students in India. A key part of the "Society Harnessing Equipment"*** was a set of sensors located in the bra**** which would, when triggered, deliver a 3800 volt shock to an attacker, while simultaneously sending a GPS-enabled SOS message to the local police ...

Not all of Victoria's secrets are pleasant ones.

Have a good day. Consider carrying your deadly weapons in your purse. More thoughts tomorrow.


* Or an energetic date.

** Unintentional alliteration.

*** Yes, it's a stupid name, but I didn't make it up.

**** The bra in the picture is a prototype ... one imagines that the final version would be a bit more decorative.

Sunday, March 01, 2015

Poetry Sunday

The telephone, as some of us may remember, was an instrument once used to establish verbal communication with another human being. Today, of course, it's morphed into something with which we take pictures, find restaurants, measure our pulse rate, find the weather forecast, send text messages, check our e-mail, play games, deposit checks into our accounts, and ... occasionally ... establish verbal communication with another human being. The telephone used to be a weighty device carved out of bakelite that sat regally in a position of honor within the home, before it evolved into a tiny device with a fragile screen made in Chinese sweatshops. We celebrate the telephone today in this poem by Louis Jenkins ...

The Telephone
by Louis Jenkins

In the old days telephones were made of
rhinoceros tusk and were big and heavy enough
to be used to fight off an intruder. The telephone
had a special place in the front hallway, a shrine
built into the wall, a niche previously occupied
by the blessed virgin, and when the phone
rang it was serious business. "Hello." "One if
by land and two if by sea." "What?" "Unto you
a child is born." "What?" "What did he say?"
"Something about the Chalmers' barn." The
voice was carried by a single strand of bare wire
running from coast to coast, wrapped around a
Coke bottle stuck on a tree branch, dipping low
over the swamp, it was the party line, all your
neighbors in a row, out one ear and in another.
"We have a bad connection, I'm having trouble
understanding you."

Nowadays telephones are made of recycled
plastic bags and have multiplied to the point
where they have become a major nuisance.
The point might ring at you from anywhere, the
car, the bathroom, under the couch cushions...
Everyone hates the telephone. No one uses the
telephone anymore so telephones, out of habit
or boredom or loneliness perhaps, call one
another. "Please leave a message at the tone."
"I'm sorry, this is a courtesy call. We'll call back at
a more convenient time. There is no message."

Here's to the good, old telephone. Pardon me while I send this text.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Saturday, February 28, 2015

Cartoon Saturday

We've finally made it to the end of February, and not a day too soon. If you work at the Department of Homeland Security, you get to wait another week to see if Republicans can actually govern like adults without petulantly forcing you to work without pay so they can stick a political finger in the President's eye.

A prominent Bangladeshi-American blogger who spoke out against religious extremism was murdered in Dhaka by persons who hacked him to death with knives and machetes and seriously injured his wife for "his crimes against Islam;" the man dubbed "Jihadi John" who murdered several people on camera on behalf of the so-called Islamic State has been identified as a British citizen of Lebanese origin named Mohammed Emwazi; a court in South Korea has ruled that adultery is no longer a crime under the country's constitution; nine people were murdered in a series of shootings at various locations in southern Missouri; and global warming increased by several degrees as the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) met at a conference center near Washington, DC.

In honor of this week's CPAC meeting, and of Congressional Republicans inability to deliver responsible government, our theme cartoon selection features ... what else? ... clowns.

Some clowns are getting ready for the upcoming* presidential campaign ...

If your favorite clown is in jail, you need to be careful when smuggling gifts to him. Or her.

A person suffering from coulrophobia has a morbid fear of clowns. This is why I keep my distance from Capitol Hill ...

Sauce for the gander ...

Well, it is juggling, of a sort ...

Now, this is a buy-a-brick campaign I could really get into ...

I thought this one was a pretty clever twist on a theme ...

Do you remember the good old days, when you used your phone to ... gasp! ... make telephone calls? ...

I haven't mentioned Congressional ass-clownery for a few paragraphs, so ...

Every day I tend to think this is a much better way of investing ...

And so we wrap up the last Cartoon Saturday for February, 2015. Later this morning, we'll be driving up to Baltimore with our daughter and the local grandchildren to visit the Port Discovery Children's Museum ... we were supposed to go two weeks ago, but the weather intervened. Today will be very cold, but at least it won't be snowing and icy. Whatever you do today, be safe and enjoy, and come back tomorrow for Poetry Sunday. More thoughts then.


* Upcoming, hell ... it's already started.

Friday, February 27, 2015

The Left Cheek Ass Clown Award for February, 2015

Yes, Dear Readers, the time has come! It’s the last Friday of February, last Friday was our alternate feature “Great Moments in Editing,” and that means that it’s time to announce our February 2015

Left Cheek Ass Clown of the Month

As always, the number of potential awardees is huge, and spans the worlds of politics, religion, entertainment, and all-around general ass clownery. But a choice needs to be made, and so it is with a sad shake of the head that I present the award to

Bill O'Reilly

Fox News host Bill O'Reilly, accused of embellishing and/or fabricating reports which placed him at the center of dramatic news events, has reacted in typical fashion - not by forthrightly admitting his mistakes, but by threatening one of the journalists asking questions about the accuracy of his accounts. O'Reilly told New York Times reporter Emily Steel,

"I am coming after you with everything I have ... You can take it as a threat."

O'Reilly has a well-deserved reputation as a blowhard and a bully, eager to dish out abuse and vindictiveness but unwilling to accept it when he is the target. It is not in his nature to admit error or to apologize, but to automatically assume that others are as crude and despicable as he is.

For his self-centered, arrogant behavior and thin-skinned, belligerent reaction to criticism, conservative bully Bill O'Reilly is designated as our Left Cheek Ass Clown of the Month for February, 2015.

Have a good day. Come back tomorrow for Cartoon Saturday. More thoughts then.


Thursday, February 26, 2015

To Your Health! Well, Not So Fast, There ...

Among the many other weighty issues before the Supreme Court this session is the meaning of four words buried deep in the thousands of pages of the Affordable Care Act*: “established by the State.” A decision on what those four words mean in the context of the law will have an enormous impact on whether or not the law as a whole will be able to survive, and whether or not many thousands, if not millions of people will be able to afford health care in the years to come.

Here’s how we got our semantic knickers into this twist …

The Affordable Care Act (we’ll call it “ACA” for short) provides for the establishment of "exchanges" through which individuals can purchase competitively priced health insurance, and authorizes federal tax credits** to low- and middle-income Americans to help offset the cost of health insurance policies, which tend to be higher than many people of modest means can afford. Today, 16 states and the District of Columbia*** have set up their own exchanges; the other 34 states depend on exchanges run by the federal government. The Internal Revenue Service, which implements parts of the ACA, has ruled that the tax credits (also called subsidies) apply to all exchanges, state or federal. The plaintiffs in the case now before the Supreme Court say that because a subsection of the law contains the words "established by the State," the law intends subsidies to be available only to people living in states that set up their own exchanges ... not to people who purchased their insurance through a federal government-run exchange.

The implications of the decision are clear: if the court rules in favor of the plaintiffs, millions of people who live in the 34 states using federal exchanges will no longer be able to use federal tax credits to purchase their insurance, and may thus lose it.

It seems to me that something has been lost in the endless arguing over the ACA, and it revolves around the meaning of a single word, rather than the four the Supreme Court is considering. That word is “affordable.”

In case you haven't noticed, health care in America is expensive. Millions of low and middle-income Americans cannot afford it. Many have full or part-time jobs that do not offer medical or dental insurance benefits, and many others don’t have jobs, period … and neither can afford sky-high insurance premiums. Even people with insurance coverage can be wiped out by a single catastrophic medical expense.

The reasons for the huge cost of health care are many: medical schooling is expensive, modern diagnostic equipment is expensive, drugs are expensive, and malpractice insurance is an enormous burden for medical professionals, driven up by enormous judgements awarded to plaintiffs in malpractice suits. Everything about our present health care system drives up the cost far beyond what many people can afford, and the burden of paying for those who cannot afford their own care is indirectly borne by everyone else in terms of higher insurance costs and, for businesses, loss of employee productivity.

Whether you love the ACA, like parts of it but not others, or hate it on principle, you have to admit one thing: it represents an attempt to fix a serious problem. Most everyone agrees that the law is flawed in one way or another, but it seems to me that the answer is not to work feverishly to kill it … the answer is to propose something better to replace it****. I’m still waiting for the GOP to do that.

Until then, good luck if you get sick.

Have a good day. Be here tomorrow, when we'll announce this month's Left Cheek Ass Clown of the Month.


* That’s “Obamacare,” for those of you who prefer to call it by a more disparaging name.

** I have an issue with the idea of “tax credits,” but that’s a discussion for another post.

*** Technically not a “state,” but not for want of trying.

**** The answer is not "tax credits." See ** above for preview of an upcoming rant.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Book Report: In the Garden of Beasts, by Eric Larson

As you all know, Dear Readers, I’m a history buff with a particular interest in the World War II era. As such, I found Erik Larson’s book In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin to be a marvelous depiction of diplomacy and the search for normality in a time of sheer insanity.

The book tells the story of William E. Dodd, who was actually nobody’s first choice to be America’s first ambassador to Nazi Germany. He was a low-key scholar and Germanophile with a common touch, who disdained the expensive trappings of his office (for instance, he preferred driving his old Chevrolet sedan rather than the giant limousines favored by most of the diplomatic corps and the Nazis with whom he had to interact), and he was one of the first to recognize the deadly danger posed by Hitler’s Germany. He walked an unpleasant tightrope between his growing unease with the German government’s brutal and often illogical behavior and the incessant pressure from the State Department to avoid antagonizing that government, and push it at every opportunity to pay back its loans from American banks. His position was complicated by the activities of his flamboyant daughter Martha (which included affairs with both senior Nazi officials and a Soviet NKVD agent) and by the disdain in which he was held by most of the old-school, aristocratic diplomats of the State Department … and, indeed, many members of his own staff at the Berlin embassy. If truth is stranger than fiction, then this is a strange and engrossing story indeed.

From a linguistic perspective, I enjoyed the double meaning of the book’s title. “Garden of beasts” is a literal translation of the German word “Tiergarten,” which is generally translated as “zoo;” it also is a clever reference to life in Berlin under the Hitler regime. The Tiergarten itself was (and is again) a beautiful and bucolic park and zoo beloved by Berliners and by foreigners to find privacy and peace in the middle of a vast city that thundered every day with the belligerent parades and demonstrations of the Nazi party.

I lived in Berlin* from 1980 through 1982, and am familiar with many of the historical locales which appear in the story. Agnes and I married in Berlin, and we left the city in December of 1982 and haven’t been back since, although a visit is high on our travel agenda … especially now that my historical interest has been piqued by this wonderful book.

For history that reads like the most exciting and intriguing fiction, read In the Garden of Beasts. It has my strongest recommendation.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


* Technically, I lived in West Berlin, as the city was still occupied, divided and surrounded by the infamous Berlin Wall, so my experience in the eastern half of the city, where many of the old government buildings were located, is sadly limited.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

That's Mister Bilbo to You, Buddy!

As I get older, I find that more and more things irritate me, one of which is the idea of assumed informality. Here's an example ... a telemarketer calls the house, shilling for some product or service or religion or political party, and the call goes like this:

Bilbo: "Hello."

Anonymous Voice: "Is Bilbo there?"

Bilbo (in frosty tone): "This is Mister Bilbo speaking."

Anonymous Voice: (pause) "Uh ..."

I know that salespeople are trained to ingratiate themselves with customers, to establish a personal connection that will make it more difficult for the mark to say "no, thanks" when the inevitable pitch comes. This is why they'll start right off calling you by your first name. It's assumed informality, it's impolite, and it's wrong.

I think about this several times a week when I answer the unwanted calls that interrupt my free time*, and I noticed that I wasn't the only one offended by it when I saw this article in by Michael Strain in the Washington Post: Please Address Me as Mister. I Insist.

Mr Strain writes,

"Our society is suffering from a tyranny of informality. It is rude. It is false intimacy. It is a product of the utopian, egalitarian fiction that society is one big happy village. A friendship circle, where we’re all holding hands. Station and hierarchy should be leveled because they are so nineteenth-century. In the modern world, we are all equal — so we are all pals ... (but) ultimately, equality in all things is false. A PhD has added to the stock of human knowledge; an undergraduate hasn’t. A priest can transform bread and wine; a layman can’t. Chancellor Merkel can affect the near course of history; I can’t. My friend’s father has successfully raised four children; I haven’t. The way we address each other should reflect these differences because these differences are real and material, and obvious."

The privilege of calling someone by their first name ought to be something special. It ought to symbolize a degree of friendship and affection that has bridged the social distance between two individuals on a personal level. In many languages other than English, there are formal and informal modes of speech that indicate the social relationship between two individuals. In German, for example, one would always address a stranger or an older person with the formal pronoun Sie. Only family members and close friends to whom the privilege has been granted can use the informal pronoun du without giving insult. In English, we no longer have the formal/informal modes of address, having morphed down to the common you. But we have other ways to show social differences, one of which is the use of titles. When I retired from the Air Force, I was "Lieutenant Colonel Bilbo" to my military colleagues. Today, I'm just "Mister Bilbo." I would be offended if a child** or a stranger called me other than that until I had offered the use of my first name.

Mr Strain sums it up in his article thusly,

"If every relationship begins on a first-name basis, then I am robbed of the ability to signal to someone that he has become a friend or close colleague by inviting him to address me by my first name. If the guy who comes to fix my cable calls me 'Michael,' then what is left for my friends to call me? And isn’t it a little easier for the cable guy to give substandard service to 'Tom' than to 'Mr. Creal?'"

You, Dear Readers, can call me Bilbo. But everyone else ought to use "Mister" in front until I invite otherwise. It's the polite*** thing to do.

Have a good day. Save the honor of using your first name for those who earn it. More thoughts tomorrow.


* Despite the fact that we are registered on the national "Do Not Call List" which, I have come to realize, is pretty much useless.

** I don't mind my grandchildren's friends calling me "Mr Bill," but the use of my first name alone by a child is a non-starter.

*** Speaking of "polite," you might want to read some of the comments left online by people who read Mr Strain's article. Or not.