Saturday, March 31, 2018

Cartoon Saturday

It's the last day of March. Finally.

North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un traveled to Beijing for a meeting with Chinese president Xi Jinping, presumably in preparation for Kim's possible upcoming meeting with Donald Trump; in the latest Cabinet shakeup, Donald Trump replaced Veterans' Affairs director David Shulkin with Ronny Jackson, Trump's doctor ... a respected combat surgeon and military veteran, but without signifiant management expertise; retired Supreme Court justice John Paul Stevens called for a repeal of the Second Amendment, throwing the NRA into paroxysms of delight at hearing a despised liberal hand them a gold-plated talking point; Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai returned to Pakistan for the first time since being shot in the head by Taliban militants at age 15 for advocating education for Pakistani girls; and in an attempt to put a happier face on the White House press operation, former Disney Channel teen star Caroline Sunshine was hired as a press assistant. I did not make that up.

This week, in honor of Donald Trump and the Right's fixation with fake news (defined as anything with which they do not agree, or find unflattering), we have a collection of cartoons about the news media ...

Making news channel selection easier ...

The stupid chyrons* crawling around the screen drive me crazy ... how about you? ...

And speaking of chyrons ...

There are people who distrust the media that much ...

True. Especially on Faux News ...

Summing it all up ...

Well, of course you do ...

Now this is what I call brutal and inhumane torture ...

That's how it works, isn't it? ...

Yes. Yes, they have ...

I don't know about you, but I don't know what I'd do without the cartoons to take the edge off the news.

It looks like it'll be a good, if chilly weekend here in NoVa, where we're keeping our gardening fingers crossed for the eventual arrival of spring ... at the rate we're going, probably sometime in June. Oh, well ... at least I'll have plenty of time to fix up the garden plots I won't be able to plant in for a while.

Have a good day and a great weekend. More thoughts tomorrow.


* Or, as Dr Edward Tufte would call them, "chartjunk."

Friday, March 30, 2018

The On-Crack Ass Clown for March, 2013

As we prepare to depart the seemingly never-ending month of March, the calendar gives us a third opportunity to provide targeted dishonor to a worthy recipient. And thus it is that we present the award for

The On-Crack Ass Clown for March, 2018


Cambridge Analytica

In case you are one of the two or three people who are unaware of the story, Cambridge Analytica is the company that harvested the personal data of tens of millions of Facebook account holders and used it to develop "psychographic profiles" that enabled the Trump campaign to develop and deploy political ads on Facebook that were precisely targeted to the personalities and preferences of potential Trump supporters. The company also apparently assigned dozens of non-U.S. citizens to provide campaign strategy and messaging advice to ­Republican candidates in 2014, an activity illegal under US election law. And in addition, the company CEO, Alexander Nix, is under investigation in the UK after he was captured on video claiming that Cambridge Analytica operatives could entrap political rivals in far-off lands with beautiful Ukrainian women.

Back in 1957, journalist Vance Packard published his landmark book The Hidden Persuaders that detailed how the advertising industry employed all sorts of clever tricks to manipulate consumers. Today, with all the vast amounts of data we expose, willingly or not, 21st century hidden persuaders like Cambridge Analytica can help shameless political hacks to steal elections.

Ladies and gentlemen, Dear Readers, Cambridge Analytica is named as our On-Crack Ass Clown for March, 2018. They've got your number.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow, when Cartoon Saturday returns.


Thursday, March 29, 2018

Thinking About the Health Care System, Part 2

Last week, I posted the first of a series of articles on the topic of our health care system in America. My intent is to focus first on how it became the contorted mess it is today, and finish with my proposal for how to fix it.

In the first article, I proposed that one contributing factor to the situation was the traditional American focus on self-reliance and individual responsibility. Today, I'll float what I believe is the second major reason for our health care mess:

Americans believe that the free market will always deliver a better, cheaper product or service than any government-run alternative.

Well, maybe.

There's certainly no argument that a capitalist, profit-driven free market system has worked well for the United States. We have, on average, a high level of prosperity and quality of life, and access to a range of goods and services most other nations might envy. But is a profit-driven free-market system the best approach to the delivery of medical care if the people who need it can't afford it?

Those who advocate the free-market approach to health care claim that providers who charge too much ("more than the market will bear") will be driven out of business by their cheaper competitors. This sounds pretty good in theory, but if it were true, we wouldn't have the problem of unaffordable health care we have now, would we?

Consider that it's economically advantageous for a profit-driven system to keep the prices for services as high as the market will bear*. Consider also that manufacturers of drugs do not have an economic interest in developing medications to address rare illnesses and conditions. These do not speak highly of the capitalist free market as a particularly good approach to moderating the cost of health care.

Most developed countries have a government run national health insurance program, sometimes with optional insurance plans available for those who can afford them. In general, these programs work well, although - as with any system - there are apocryphal horror stories. Americans, though, are conditioned to assume the superiority of the free market and to believe the relentless drumbeat from the right that anything run by the Big Bad Government™ is by definition doomed to failure because of gross government ineptitude.

So, my proposed second major reason for the health care mess is a belief embedded in the American DNA that only a capitalist, free-market approach to health care is acceptable.

We'll look at my proposed third reason in the next installment of this series, coming in a few days.

Have a good day, if you can afford it. More thoughts tomorrow.


* I'm reminded of the famous comment by French economist Jean-Baptiste Colbert about taxation, that "The art of taxation consists in so plucking the goose as to procure the largest quantity of feathers with the least possible amount of hissing." In the case of health care, we all know who's getting plucked.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Witch-Proof Windows

I find all sorts of amazing things online. Some of them are amazing because I can't believe anyone would believe such a load of bovine excrement*, and others are amazing because ... well ... they just are.

In the second category comes this interesting article I found the other day - The Witch-Proof Windows of Vermont.

It seems that an architectural oddity of many old Vermont farmhouses is a crooked window tucked up under the eaves at a crazy angle, as in this example -

What on earth is the purpose of such a window, evidently known locally as a "witch window?" According to an architectural historian cited in the article, legend says that the angled window makes it difficult for witches to fly in on their broomsticks. Ooookaaaayyyy ...

Another rationale mentioned in the article is that the angled windows are "coffin windows," which supposedly make it easier to move a body in a coffin from the second floor without having to navigate a narrow or crooked staircase ... one just slides it out through the window and down the roof. Hmmm ... I would have thought it would be easier just to carry the body downstairs and put it in the coffin outside, but then, I have limited experience with moving bodies**.

Or if the purpose of the crooked window is to keep out unwanted evil spirits, why not install crooked doors to ward off door-to-door salesmen, religious flacks, and political pollsters?

I would have thought the most logical explanation was that the windows were installed by the lowest bidder.

So, Dear Readers, have you ever seen or heard of a Vermont "witch window," or have you lived in a house that had one? What do you think is the best explanation for having a window like that in your house? Leave a comment.

Have a good day. Use screens to keep flying things out of your windows, crooked or not. More thoughts tomorrow.


* Pretty much anything tweeted by Donald Trump or generated by the NRA, for example.

** Although the events of the last year or two have caused me to consider making a detailed study of the issue.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

"Assume Good Faith"

I carry a pocket notebook* in which I jot down random ideas, quotes I've heard, ideas for blog posts, things we need to pick up on the next trip to the grocery, etc. I also have two notebooks and a blotter on my desk in the study for the same purpose. Every once in a while I go back and page through the notebooks and old blotter pages to see what I wanted to remember and think about why I was inspired to write it down.

In the middle of a page of one of the old notebooks I read through the other day was this phrase:

The page is undated, so I don't know when I jotted it down, and because it has quotes around it, I must have found it written somewhere or overheard it in conversation.

"Assume good faith" is a nice idea, but nowadays it doesn't seem like a very good assumption.

It's hard to assume good faith when a president rails about "fake news" ... and then goes ahead and does exactly what was reported.

It's hard to assume good faith when some Members of Congress put party loyalty over discovering the truth about threats to our democracy.

It's hard to assume good faith when our children who have been the victims of school shootings and are demonstrating against the easy availability of deadly weapons are insulted and demonized rather than listened to.

It's hard to assume good faith when a police officer blatantly lies in court about the circumstances surrounding a traffic stop**.

I'd like to be able to assume good faith, but I'm a man of experience ... and recent experience on many fronts has led me to assume good faith only on the part of those I most trust.

There are fewer of those all the time.

Have a good day. Assume good faith at your own risk. More thoughts tomorrow.


* So did Leonardo da Vinci. I'm in good company!

** But it's better than being shot.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Guest Post

Hey, there!

We haven't met yet, but I'm Gloria. I'm the top'o'the pecking order chicken in Bilbo's family.

I noticed that Clara and Lucy, the dog and cat of the family, have been able to post on Bilbo's blog, and I figured that I might as well post on behalf of the four of us in our little flock: the others are Cinderella (Cindy), Nightingale, and Bob. No, Bob's not a rooster ... she's all girl. She just likes to keep people guessing. It'll take me a while to peck out this post, so bear with me.

I guess what I'd most like to say is that we chickens get a bad rap. Think about it: what do you say when someone is a coward? You say he's a chicken. When something is silly or overly complicated you say it's chicken ... uh ... poop. If you're not paid enough, you call your salary chicken feed. If you go to an overpriced political fund-raising dinner, what do they serve? - rubber chicken. When somebody can't type very well or quickly, you say he hunts-and-pecks. If you're feeling old, you say that you're no spring chicken. And the list goes on.

But we're a lot more than that. Think of all the things we do for you: when you're sick, we give you the chicken soup that makes you feel better and gives you energy. We gave you the most famous of philosophical questions: which came first, the chicken or the egg? Those ham and egg breakfasts wouldn't be nearly as tasty without our support. We're intelligent, curious, and very social. And think of how beautiful FabergĂ© eggs are ... 

You don't see anything like that inspired by dogs and cats, do you?

Oh, and how about all those cartoons we inspire ...

So, how about a little respect? You don't want me to use fowl language on Bilbo's page, do you?

Have a good day. Bilbo will be back tomorrow with his own thoughts. Until then, buck-buck-BUCKAWWWW!


Sunday, March 25, 2018

Poetry Sunday

Today's offering isn't really a poem per se, but it's about as appropriate to the moment as any poem I might have picked. Here are the lyrics to the classic song by Leonard Cohen ...

Everybody Knows
by Leonard Cohen

Everybody knows that the dice are loaded
Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed
Everybody knows the war is over
Everybody knows the good guys lost
Everybody knows the fight was fixed
The poor stay poor, the rich get rich
That's how it goes
Everybody knows

Everybody knows that the boat is leaking
Everybody knows that the captain lied
Everybody got this broken feeling
Like their father or their dog just died
Everybody talking to their pockets
Everybody wants a box of chocolates
And a long-stem rose
Everybody knows

Everybody knows that you love me baby
Everybody knows that you really do
Everybody knows that you've been faithful
Give or take a night or two
Everybody knows you've been discreet
But there were so many people you just had to meet
Without your clothes
And everybody knows

Everybody knows, everybody knows
That's how it goes
Everybody knows

And everybody knows that it's now or never
Everybody knows that it's me or you
And everybody knows that you live forever
Ah, when you've done a line or two
Everybody knows the deal is rotten
Old Black Joe's still pickin' cotton
For your ribbons and bows
And everybody knows

And everybody knows that the Plague is coming
Everybody knows that it's moving fast
Everybody knows that the naked man and woman
Are just a shining artifact of the past
Everybody knows the scene is dead
But there's gonna be a meter on your bed
That will disclose
What everybody knows

And everybody knows that you're in trouble
Everybody knows what you've been through
From the bloody cross on top of Calvary
To the beach of Malibu
Everybody knows it's coming apart
Take one last look at this Sacred Heart
Before it blows
And everybody knows

Everybody knows, everybody knows
That's how it goes
Everybody knows

If you'd like to hear the song performed live by Leonard Cohen, go here.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Saturday, March 24, 2018

Cartoon Saturday

Every week you think it's just got to be better than the last week. And then ...

The reign of terror in Austin, Texas came to an end when the serial bomber blew himself up as police closed in; a UK company called Cambridge Analytica apparently tried to influence American voters in favor of Donald Trump using personal information collected from 50 million Facebook users without their knowledge; HUD secretary Ben Carson defended the purchase of a new $31,000 set of furniture for his office dining room by claiming his "facilities people felt that the [existing] dining room table was actually dangerous;" a crew member of Fly Jamaica Airways was arrested at JFK Airport in New York after a search found 9 pounds of cocaine taped to his legs; and according to a report on the BBC, one outcome of the United Kingdom leaving the European Union ("Brexit") is that the new blue UK passports (which will replace the current burgundy-colored EU passports) will be manufactured ... in France.

This week, in honor of Cambridge Analytica and the abuse of personal information posted on social media, we have a collection of cartoons about ... social media.

I'm told this is also known as the "Russian Bot Approach" ...

I know the Ides of March was last week, but ...

An unending source of negative energy ...

They're everywhere ...

It pays to be careful what you post ...

The way things used to be ...

Yes. Yes, he is ...

They need a higher fence ...

First world problems ...

This one reminds me of the old joke about the lawyer who has a heart attack and shows up at the Pearly Gates*. He complains to St Peter, "How can this be? I'm only 35 years old!" St Peter says, "Well, we checked the number of hours you billed your clients, and according to those, you're 127!" ...

And there you have it - Cartoon Saturday ... certified app-free.

Right now it looks as if we'll have a fairly nice weekend here (weather-wise), but in NoVa, you just never know. The National Park Service has revised its estimate yet again for the peak of the cherry blossoms ... lately, that forecast changes more often than the White House staff. Winter may (we hope) finally be over, but at least we can be sure of the snow jobs coming from the White House.

Have a good day and a great weekend. More thoughts tomorrow, on Poetry Sunday.


* God knows how.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Great Moments in Editing and Signage

It's that time again ...

New layout editor wanted ...

They must have been in the infantry ...

There are some specialized supplies that you need from time to time ...

I think this juxtaposition was set up by the same layout editor we met in the first item ...

It's not so crazy ... there may have been a hit ant at large ...

Some people dream less big than others ...

This isn't as funny as you might think ... when I rented a storage unit some years ago, one clause of the contract forbade me from living in it ...

I think that's not a bad idea ...

Well, when we bought our new refrigerator, there were models with built-in video screens ...

Yes, please do ...

And that's it for today - proof positive that odd signs and newspaper items can be entertaining. 

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


Thursday, March 22, 2018

Guest Post

Huh? What? Oh, hey! I didn't hear you come in ... I was just catching a little nap so I have plenty of energy to let everybody know when the mailman and garbage man and the UPS and FedEx guys and door-to-door religious flacks get here. Busted!

Oh, well ... I'm Clara, Bilbo and Agnes's granddog. I post here once in a while when Bilbo's away or runs out of good ideas, and I just realized that it's been almost a year since I last posted anything! I guess I'd better get moving, eh?

I don't want to say anything about your silly politics thing this time*. I'll just say that, like all dogs, I have a really good sense of smell. And I can tell you that lately, things don't smell very good. 'Nuff said, as Bilbo would say.

I want to talk about this dumb weather we've been having. Just the other day, the temperature was almost 70 degrees as you guys measure it ... it was what we dogs would call pretty comfortable. But now, it's snowing. A lot.

I'm a pit bull, and we have very short hair. For you humans, that's a good thing, because we don't shed in your houses. For us, though, it means that in the winter we get really cold. How would you like to have to go outside and squat your bare backside over a few inches of wet snow to do your business? I'm here to tell you it's not fun.

And that stupid snow makes it harder to do my duty of protecting Bilbo's daughter and her family. I mean, I'm loyal and I'll do what it takes, even if it means chasing some bad guy through the cold, wet snow ... but if I have to do that, then he is going to be really, really sorry.

So, I'm ready for Spring. And for Fall. Summer around here is too hot, and Winter is too cold and unpredictable. Maybe instead of believing in stupid stuff and arguing with each other, you humans can work on something worthwhile, like trying to fix this climate change thing Bilbo is always complaining about.

Have a good day. Bilbo will be back tomorrow. 'Til then, woof!


* Lucy the Cat covered all that in her last post. For a stupid cat, she's pretty perceptive.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Thinking About the Health Care System, Part 1

According to my records, I have written about the general topic of health care in this blog 30 times in the past 12 years. It's a topic I care a lot about, for a lot of reasons: for one, I have a large family with a lot of children and grandchildren, some of whom need various types of special care; for another, I'm getting old ... and we all know that as we get older, things start to go expensively wrong, no matter how well we've tried to take care of ourselves along the way.

Most people would agree that America's health care system is a mess. We have some of the best doctors in the world, supported by fantastic equipment, state-of-the-art facilities, and safe and powerful drugs. Unfortunately, too many ... if not most ... of us can't afford the the level of care that's available. Why is that?

I believe there are several major reasons why our health care system is such a dumpster fire. In this post, I'm going to talk about one of them; in a subsequent series of occasional posts I'll discuss the others, and then culminate with my proposal for a total reform of the American health care system. Stick around for the whole discussion before you tell me how little I understand about the real world and how stupid and un-American I am.

Here's the first of my theories about why our health care system is messed up:

We are conditioned by our history to stress individual responsibility and self-reliance. A real American takes care of himself and does not expect others to carry his weight.

This is essentially the same argument used to justify unrestricted gun ownership and open carry/concealed carry laws - you can't count on the police (or anyone else) to protect you, so you have to be prepared to protect yourself at all times. In the health care context, it means that if you get sick, it's your own fault because you didn't take care of yourself. Nobody else is responsible for taking care of you ... you need to plan to pay for whatever treatment you need to recover from the results of your failure to maintain your health.

This emerges from the doctrine of rugged individualism, defined* as

"The practice or advocacy of individualism in social and economic relations emphasizing personal liberty and independence, self-reliance, resourcefulness, self-direction of the individual, and free competition in enterprise."

This is the quintessential American approach, in which the individual is of primary importance and the country was always meant to be a land of rugged individualists - people descended from the tough men and women who conquered an untamed wilderness armed only with grit, guns, and self-reliance.

Thus, focus on individual responsibility is the first of the key elements that has shaped the American approach to health care.

That's Theory #1. Number two will follow in a few days.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


* In my trusty Merriam-Webster dictionary.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Murder in the Digital Age

* Update: I wrote this post several days ago. Yesterday, this story appeared on CNN: Uber Pulls Self-Driving Cars after First Fatal Crash of Autonomous Vehicle ... 

One of the stock scenes from old murder mysteries comes when the suspects are all assembled in the library of the old manor house. While a storm rages outside, the detective talks his way through the crime and the clues and - at just the right moment - he whirls about and stabs an accusing finger at the murderer, announcing in his sternest voice that "The butler did it!"

Well, perhaps it wasn't the butler. Maybe it was the maid. Or the gardener. Or the ne'er-do-well son. You get the idea, though.

But the traditional unmasking of the criminal may be very different in the not-to-distant future, when we learn to our horror that the evil villain is not human, or even a trained animal (as in The Hound of the Baskervilles or Murder in the Rue Morgue) ... but a machine.

The idea of murder by machine is not new - Jefferey Deaver's novel The Steel Kiss has the murderer using his computer hacking skills to turn common products into murder weapons. But what if there's no human involved at all?

This is the point of a fascinating article I read the other day titled, When an AI Finally Kills Someone, Who Will Be Responsible?.

If a driverless car runs down and kills a pedestrian, who is at fault?* If a complex power distribution grid managed by an artificial intelligence (AI) program suddenly shuts down power to a hospital and patients die, who is responsible? Is it the programmer? The builder of the AI system itself? The builder of the car or the designer of the hospital systems? Can the AI system itself be held criminally liable for its actions? If so, how would it defend itself? How could it be punished? Here's a quote from the article:

"If an AI system can be criminally liable, what defense might it use? ... Could a program that is malfunctioning claim a defense similar to the human defense of insanity? Could an AI infected by an electronic virus claim defenses similar to coercion or intoxication?"

This is not an angels-dancing-on-the-head-of-a-pin philosophical discussion, because the need to consider these things is now upon us. As we've already seen with the advent of e-mail, cell phones, and similar things, our laws governing privacy and the criminal use of communication devices are woefully out of date.

As if you didn't have enough to worry about in the Age of Trump.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Monday, March 19, 2018

The Seven Deadly Sins, March, 2018

You may recall that I've written many times in this space on the subject of the so-called Seven Deadly Sins - Pride, Greed, Gluttony, Sloth, Lust, Envy, and Wrath. I think the topic is fascinating, and it's the hook for one of my favorite movies, Se7en.

I last wrote about the Seven Deadly Sins late last year, and in reading the news, I thought now might be a good time to take another look at how our national leaders reflect them:

Pride – Perhaps it’s normal to enjoy seeing your name in giant letters on everything you own ...

Greed - Forbes Magazine estimates Donald Trump's net worth as $3.1 billion. That's quite a bit of money, particularly for someone like me living on modest investments, Social Security, and a military pension. But don't you dare imply that Mr Trump is not a billionaire: in 2009, he sued a writer who claimed he was only a millionaire, not a billionaire. I'd say that qualifies as greed.

Gluttony - We tend to think of gluttony in terms of gross overeating, but it's more than just an overfocus on food ... it's an inordinate desire to consume more - of anything - than that which one requires. It's the state of always wanting more, of never being content with what one has. Go back and check that Forbes Magazine estimate I linked above.

Sloth – As of March 3rd, Donald Trump has played golf at least 79 times during 94 visits (at public expense) to his own golf resorts. Now, the job of president is not an easy one, and I would never begrudge the incumbent some down time to relax from the pressures of the office ... but we need to remember that this is the man who repeatedly berated former president Obama for golfing during his presidency, and who famously said during the campaign that "... I'm going to be working for you, I'm not going to have time to go golfing, believe me. Believe me. Believe me, folks." Here's a reminder.

LustStormy Daniels. “Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything.” ‘Nuff said.

Envy - God forbid you should have to live in a world marked by the accomplishments of a better man ... get rid of everything your predecessor did so that your own meager record won't have to suffer by comparison. Here's a partial list of the things undone (as of December 15th last year).

Wrath - "Lock Her Up!" "Build the wall!" 'Nuff said.

The Seven Deadly Sins are still with us and are being well-fed by He Who Shall Not Be Named.

Have a good day. I will not be envious or wrathful if you do.

More thoughts tomorrow.


Sunday, March 18, 2018

Musical Sunday

It's said that nostalgia isn't what it used to be, and it's true. I still love this great song by the Statler Brothers, anyhow ...

Have a good day. Remember the good times, in the hopes that they'll come again.

More thoughts tomorrow.


Saturday, March 17, 2018

Cartoon Saturday

Just when you thought it was safe to peek your head out from under the covers ...

Legendary French haute couture designer Hubert de Givenchy passed away this past week, as did renowned theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking; Donald Trump unceremoniously sacked Secretary of State Rex Tillerson by tweet, and after months of tweet-stormed criticism from Trump, Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe was fired ... two days before he could have retired with his full pension; at least six people were killed and many others injured when a new pedestrian overpass collapsed onto a busy highway in Florida; United Airlines continued to go to the dogs with the news that it had accidentally flown a family's dog to Japan rather than its intended destination of Kansas ... this followed another incident in which a family's dog died after a United stewardess told the owners the dog had to be stored in an overhead luggage bin for the duration of the Houston-to-New York flight; and Donald Trump named Larry Kudlow, a conservative television commentator with no education, background, or experience in economics and a track record of wildly incorrect economic predictions, to be his senior economic advisor.

Speaking of going to the dogs, I thought some cartoons about banks, investment, and the economy would be appropriate ...

I think that's a reasonable training requirement for investment advisors nowadays ...

You've just gotta watch out for yourself ...

Finally, an understandable economic benchmark ...

It's only fair ...

Them. Not you ...

This sort of puts it in perspective ...

I've often wondered how that works ...

But how do you discuss economics without crazy talk? ...

That seems like a typically political approach ...

Funny how that works, isn't it? ...

And there you have it - this week's collection of ya-ha's to help you recover from the past week's drumbeat of bad news. 

I hope you have a good weekend, and are ready for the next potential snowstorm ... which we here in NoVa may get by midweek. This is ridiculous ... I've got a garden to plant, for Pete's sake!

Have a good day and a great weekend. More thoughts coming tomorrow with Musical Sunday.