Thursday, December 31, 2015


Its resolution season. 45% will make them this week and 8% will succeed at them. Losing weight, getting organized, spending less and saving more are the top three goals people have. I gave up on New Year’s resolutions some time back less out of frustration and more out of a realization that having self-improvement goals shouldn’t be tied to the calendar. A couple I know have a great tradition – on New Year’s Eve they write down their 10 resolutions for the upcoming year. They then open the resolutions from the prior year to see how they did. It’s a fun way to keep yourself accountable for a goal without all the hoopla. As we enter the 2016 political season, however, it’s all about hoopla.

The media – television, newspapers, social media – have covered political campaigns like sporting events for more than a generation. Who’s up, who’s down is more important than what they stand for. The reason why a candidate supports a policy is far more interesting to speculate on than the issue itself.

The country is divided – evidenced by a generation of split elections. The public is frustrated that the division has resulted in stalemate and inertia. Candidates respond to the anger by becoming more determined and firm in their position. We’re in an era of absolutists. The result is a polarized political culture.

Sticking to one’s beliefs is an honorable character trait. Being unable to waver from one’s beliefs is short sighted and will only lead to further deterioration of the political climate and bolster candidates who are long on hyperbole and theatrics and short on solutions. Likewise those who flip and flop on issues with regularity should be examined carefully. (Hilary & The Donald to name just two.)

As a card-carrying Libertarian the example of Social Security is a good issue to evaluate. If I eschewed to the letter of the party line I would exclaim that the Government has no right to take money out of my paycheck to redistribute it later – even if it’s back to me. The absolutists would resolve to eliminate the program altogether and return America to her greatness. “Keep the Government out of my wallet and out of my bedroom!”

In theory the idea should work as there is plenty of evidence from before Franklin Roosevelt that the U.S. thrived with small government, but it’s a practical world. The program has far outlived its original purposes and has become a noose choking federal coffers. After a century the entitlement citizens have adapted and the expectation and investment can’t be stopped. It wouldn’t be fair and would be too much of a jolt to the economy. Altering benefits, upping the retirement age and means testing are all ways to address the excesses of the system today in a practical world with a nod towards scaling the program down. By proposing some of these ideas, does that mean I’ve given up my core principles? Perhaps. I prefer to think of it as taking what I believe in and finding a way to impact the larger issue in a productive way. Winning an argument isn’t helpful, changing policy is. It’s not all or nothing. It’s an incremental adjustment.

Throwing down the gauntlet may feel good in the moment. Just like making a list of things to improve oneself on December 31st. But then a few hours later, hung over, the list doesn’t seem all that realistic anymore and people adjust. Too bad the politicians haven’t realized that the party is over and its time to accomplish something. Happy 2016!

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Twas the Night Before Christmas

Inspired by Major Henry Livingston Jr. (1748-1828) 
(previously believed to be by Clement Clarke Moore)
Liberally AND Conservatively adapted...

'Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the country
Not a consensus was found, not even agreement;
The issues were outlined by the pundits with care,
In hopes that St. Freedom soon would be there;

The politicians were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of re-election danced in their heads;
And pappa in his earplugs, and I in my cap,
Had just settled down for a long winter's nap,

When out on the internet there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from the bed to see what was the matter.
Away to the windows I flew like a flash,
Clicked open the laptop and logged in to see.

The emails and videos of the candidates grew
Gave the fact-checkers much work to do,
When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny hopefuls,

With a little old driver, so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment it must be St. Free.
No more rapid responders were needed,
And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name;

"Now, DONALD! now, HILARY! now, BERINE and RAND!
To the top of the news! to the top of the polls!
Now dash away! dash away! dash away all!"

And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the net
That reason and integrity which gives hope a chance.
As I surfed through to see the options,
Downloading the future, St. Freedom appeared.

S/He was committed to the constitution completely,
And privacy and individuality were not forgotten;
No special interests muddy the agenda,
With fiscal responsibility becoming the way.

S/He spoke not a word, but went straight to work,
And stopped all the violence; and acted with integrity,
And using diplomacy and trust to legislate,
And giving a nation a new opportunity;

And I heard the saint exclaim, ere he drove out of sight,


May 2016 bring us all closer to the Freedom that the Founders envisioned.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Word Wars

I enjoy Star Wars – but am not a super fan. My partner is and we enjoyed all six movies (in episodic order) this week in anticipation for the first showing of Episode VII. Not everybody is a supporter of the George Lucas franchise – and that’s what makes America great. In America you’re supposed to be able to say “Star Wars is great” or “Star Wars sucks” and have it be ok. Spirited debate? Sure. It’s a little thing the founders thought of called the First Amendment. It was so important to them that it is, you know the FIRST thing they agreed on to define the new country. Too bad free speech is becoming a vestige of a galaxy long long ago.

A middle-schooler wearing a t-shirt with a storm trooper holding a gun on it was banned from wearing the shirt. The school is in Texas. Texas! Texas is where you can wear a side arm to Starbucks or sling your shoulder rifle during a spree at Walmart. The ‘zero tolerance’ policy at schools takes no prisoners. Common sense isn’t part of the equation.

Bullying, harassment and intimidation of students by their classmates is a serious problem. According to the Department of Health and Human Services which has compiled results from many studies 70.6% of teens “have seen bullying occurring in their schools – and approximately 30 percent of young people admit to bullying themselves.” Bullying includes both physical in-person and cyber taunts. But is banning speech - and t-shirts - the answer?

Colleges have taken aggressive action on mitigating ‘hate speech.’ According to a Huffington Post article in January 2014 -  59% of higher education institutions actively restrict free speech. There are some extreme examples:
  • The University of Connecticut prohibits people from “actions that intimidate, humiliate, demean persons or groups, or undermine their security of self-esteem.”
  • The University of South Carolina prohibits “’teasing’, ‘ridiculing’ and ‘insulting’”
  • The State University of New York at Oswego (SUNY) suspended a student when (for a school assignment) he asked a hockey coach from an opposing team for thoughts on SUNY’s coach. The suspension came because he said the comments didn’t have to be position – something SUNY interpreted as an attempt to “defame, harass or intimidate” a faculty member.

62% of colleges have speech codes that violate constitutionally protected speech. Where did these schools get the idea to do that? The Departments of Education and Justice mandated a speech code that universities had to adopt to continue to receive their federal funding.

What happens on campus has now spilled into the ‘real’ world. According to Mediaite Newsweek has been threatened with a lawsuit for publishing each side of a rape case – the accuser’s perspective and the defendants. A news organization is being threatened that just by airing an alternative perspective will land them in court. So much for balance. So much for the presumption of innocence.

The Guardian reported in 2013 on the first ever report by the highly respected Committee to Protect Journalists that the “Obama presidency has ushered in a paralyzing climate of fear for journalists and sources alike.”

The article continues:
Six government employees, plus two contractors including Edward Snowden, have been subjects of felony criminal prosecutions since 2009 under the 1917 Espionage Act, accused of leaking classified information to the press—compared with a total of three such prosecutions in all previous U.S. administrations. Still more criminal investigations into leaks are under way. Reporters' phone logs and e-mails were secretly subpoenaed and seized by the Justice Department in two of the investigations, and a Fox News reporter was accused in an affidavit for one of those subpoenas of being 'an aider, abettor and/or conspirator' of an indicted leak defendant, exposing him to possible prosecution for doing his job as a journalist. In another leak case, a New York Times reporter has been ordered to testify against a defendant or go to jail.

Donald Trump makes headlines saying outrageous things. People are paying attention. I think he’s spewing forth bile and proposals that are absurd in their simplicity and would never see the light of day in the event he did take the Oval Office. And I’ll fight for his right to say his nonsense.

Offensive speech pisses people off. It offends. That’s what it does. That’s a good thing in a democracy. It’s good to be annoyed.

Donald Trump’s fascist statements led to a social media burst recently – Facebook users were able to see who of their friends were ‘following’ the real-estate-mogul-reality-star-GOP-candidate. You could then ‘unfriend’ those folks – under the presumption that they were following the man because they supported him. The result is that people are filtering out more and more of what they disagree with, making for a less rounded and less informed people.

The impact of the speech restrictions from Middle School to College has had an impact. The majority of millennials (58%) are ok with restricting speech according to research by the Pew Foundation. Americans overall (95%) believe its important to be able to criticize the government but only 67% agree that speech should be free to criticize groups and others. In other words: 1/3rd of Americans think the First Amendment isn't needed. Now that's terrifying.

Restricting expression is restricting thought. It has to stop. It has to. Let’s hope the Force is with us all.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Heil History

I’m not book smart. I pick up things by watching and doing, less by studying and memorizing. This resulted in my being a mediocre student but a smart-ass wise-aleck in the classroom. Even though I learn a little differently than many, I have a deep appreciation for history. I agree with poet and philosopher George Santayana who said "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." (Thanks Wikipedia!) This has never been more true than today.

Adolph Hitler was an Austrian-born German politician who was leader of the Nazi Party, NSDAP), Chancellor of Germany from 1933 to 1945, and Führer ("leader") of Nazi Germany from 1934 to 1945.
  • He was a decorated war veteran from World War I
  • He gained popular support by attacking the Treaty of Versailles and promoting Pan-Germanism, anti-Semitism, and anti-communism with charismatic oratory and propaganda.
  • He denounced international capitalism and communism as being part of a Jewish conspiracy.
  • His Nazi regime was responsible for the genocide of 6 million Jews and millions of other victims whom he and his followers deemed sub-human and socially undesirable.
  • He was responsible for the killing of an estimated 19.3 million civilians and prisoners of war.

Adolph Hitler was evil incarnate. World War II constitutes the deadliest conflict in human history and he is responsible for it. Thankfully there are few like him. Making comparisons to this guy should be done carefully and deliberately.

Presidents have been likened to Hitler going back decades to John F. Kennedy. More recently comparisons of George W. Bush and Barak Obama to the German leader have been staples of opposition propaganda and have diminished the impact of the allegation. Much of the hyperbole comparing somebody to Hitler seems to be less about who Hitler was and what he did and more about that Hitler has become a catch-all symbol of something awful.

Donald Trump is the latest to be compared to Hitler. The bombastic real estate and reality television show star who is seeking the GOP nomination has said many things that can be easily and legitimately aligned with the Fuhrer’s approaches and statements. Trump’s latest proposal to ban Muslims from the United States has kept him at the top of the news and is the key driver of the latest comparisons.

Combined with Mr. Trump’s other policy proposals and public comments about women, Mexicans and other groups make him toxic to the “politically correct” crowds and they’re like crack cocaine to television and the internet who luxuriate in the extremist statements.

Hitler came to power by being popular and by demonizing groups. Trump is popular and is seeking power by demonizing groups. Therefore they are the same? Seems to be a faulty equation – way too simplistic – though lots of the media are doing so. Trump may be a buffoon, a blowhard and a bad idea for President for innumerable reasons (including his fascist beliefs) – but he’s not the Führer in a toupee.

The United States in 2015 is not Germany in the 1930’s. The legislative branches of the U.S. Government reflect the nation: they’re split. President Obama is stymied at nearly every step in passing any of his progressive agenda. Would such a divided Congress ever permit a President to seal the borders and toss out tens of millions of people based on their race and/or religion? Aside from the logistical impossibility of such an action – the system of government in place and operational just wouldn’t allow it.

It doesn’t mean we should ignore such statements or be complacent about their implication – but if we laser focus only on the wild comments, we miss what’s really at risk.

With the political narrative dominated by such absurdities making for good and entertaining discourse, the more serious issues get ignored.

In May 2015 a U.S. appeals court ruled that the NSA’s spying program into people’s phone records is illegal. The NSA continued to operate the program until December 13, 2015 and kept the data until (at least) February 2016 – in absolute and direct violation of the law. (Nobody’s gone to jail and nobody’s being called to account for the breach. The administration’s justification has been “national security” and “terrorism” - arguments that failed in court and aren't supported by their own facts. Yahoo News reports: “A presidential review committee concluded the surveillance regime did not lead to a single clear counter terrorism breakthrough that could be directly attributed to the program.”

Starting after the "shutdown" the NSA launched a ‘scaled back’ program which collects the same information but with a court order instead. Really no change then. As of 2013 the court has rejected 12 requests. Out of 35,529. As a percentage it’s 0.003% that are denied or 99.997% are approved. It’s basically a rubber stamp and it will take years for the real judicial branch to catch up again. (The FISA Court is not part of the US Justice system, it’s appointed by politicians and the Chief Justice and is part of the PATRIOT ACT and its successor the FREEDOM ACT.)

The launching of a separate judicial track also seems to be an important issue that there’s little discourse on. The main judiciary has determined over and over that the peeking into Americans records and lives is an overt violation of the U.S. Constitution. Yet it continues. No punishment and no consequence. In America! This breach by the government of the rule of law, the stripping away of constitutionally guaranteed rights is appalling. It is scary. It is actual fascism taking over actual democracy. It has to stop. Now THAT is where a comparison to Nazism is worthwhile.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Merry Voting

We have a wonderful gift giving tradition in our family. My grandmother gave each of her grandchildren some money to buy presents at the holidays. Her premise was that there’s as much (if not more) joy and satisfaction in being the gift giver rather than the receiver. It stuck and I’ve been a giver ever since.

In September I remember seeing the first holiday display go up in a store. People on social media bemoan the “early” start of the marketing and commercialization of the Christmas season. If nobody bought anything from that display until the beginning of December, it’s pretty much guaranteed that the displays would disappear until then. The marketplace is the decider.

“Black Friday” has become its own event – rather than just a description accounting people use to describe the day after Thanksgiving when many retailers move from being in the ‘red’ to being in the ‘black’. Now there’s Pre-Black-Friday sales and Black-Friday specials all throughout November. It’s a ridiculous concept – but people buy and buy and buy so soon there’ll be a monthly Black Friday event.

Communities were outraged when stores opened on Thanksgiving Day. And then they shopped and shopped and shopped. Guess what? More stores are now open on Thanksgiving Day. Some communities are banning the practice resulting in online sales surging.

Election 2016 officially began the day after President Obama was re-elected in 2012 and probably was unofficially underway for Mrs. Clinton and others before then. There was no break, no opportunity for a governing process to be attempted. It’s now one constant cycle of electioneering – as if it were Christmas year round. There’s plenty of complaint about it, but like the displays at the stores, we still engage and buy so the message is clear: we will participate.

Hopeful politicians lock up fundraising experts, local advocates and a slew of other elements of the ‘machine’ of becoming President years before any votes are cast. Candidates are branded and packaged and put under the proverbial tree.

It’s very expensive. The Presidential Election for 2016 may cost as much as $5 billion according to an article in The Hill. It’s not much of a stretch given that the 2012 White House run incurred just over $4 billion in costs.  If the estimate is right, it will be about $15 for every American. But not every American votes. In 2012 approx. 127 million votes were cast for President. If that same number voted again the candidates and their various PACs will be spending about $40 per vote.

How many of those votes are really up for grabs? Much of the U.S. is already set – whether it’s for the GOP candidate or the Democrat – they’re highly unlikely to change their opinion. In consumer terms, BrandLoyalty is when a consumer buys your product over and over – even to the point of paying more when there’s other options. (Apple is a prime example of a high profile company that has extreme Brand Loyalty.) Political parties have the same level of loyalty.

Elections (like marketers during the holiday season) is all about convincing that percentage of people who are willing to look at something other than what they’re used to. In commercial terms it can be upwards of 20% of buyers. In voting terms it’s 7% of the voters who represent less than 3% of the population. Reuters has put together an entire section about the Undecided Voter. 9 million people in 6 states actually control the 2016 Presidency.

All this noise and all this money aimed at a micro-minority of Americans. There has to be a better way.

My grandmother challenged the notion that I had about the holidays being all about me getting presents. It’s time for the rest of the country to challenge the idea that there’s only two parties and only two options for the Presidency. Until then, Merry Voting!

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Outing Gratitude

October 11 is National Coming Out Day. I remember when it started in 1988 – it was a powerful positive program to affirm being LGBT in the face of the devastation of the AIDS crisis of the 1980’s. In short order it grew and became a national tradition that the Human Rights Campaign eventually took over and continues to run. I never much needed a day to “come out” as for most of the last quarter-century I’ve been affiliated with one LGBT organization or another making it easy to be out. I always appreciate having a day to celebrate the cause in such a positive way and remind the world of our difference. Today I run a non-profit with “gay” in its name. In the ordinary course of day to day life the result is that I am constantly coming out. (“What do you do for a living?” “I run ….”) I live in one of the more progressive and “accepting” areas of the world and have little issues when having these interactions. When I traveled internationally recently it became an interesting refresher course on coming out and the power of being out.

My partner (boyfriend/lover/better-half) and I recently took a two week cruise. As a veteran of many prior sailings, I pretty much knew what to expect. This would, however, be the first one I did that didn’t have some sort of LGBT group formally on board that I was affiliated with and the first time I’d be traveling with a romantic companion. Our first outing occurred when we contacted the cruise company to add my partner to the room. There was the usual list of questions that they asked to make sure that the experience met our expectations, including whether we needed one bed or should it be two. The question that bemused us most was when the agent asked: “Why are you adding him to the room?” After a stunned moment my immediate instinct was to stay “none of your business” – but instead I said “Love!” The agent went “Oh. Right! Yes. Great!” And we continued on.

Every day on board at 7:00pm there was a gathering of LGBT passengers. While we never quite made it, there were many couples and singles who were on board and we became acquainted with. We met a number of wonderful non-gay people as well. All in all quite ordinary, which make the exceptions worth noting.

One day we were going from the spa back to our room and I was wearing a shirt I’d never dare wear around my job, but I enjoy wearing. (See photo.) An older woman asked me about it. Now let me be clear – cruising tends to draw an older demographic, but the line we were on and the route we were taking drew a particularly specific crowd. Our fellow travelers were very white and the average age was north of 80. We assumed the crowd to be quite conservative. The older lady asked “Where are you the Director?” And I told her: “The … GAY ….” And she looked me up and down and said “The … WHAT …?” I said “GAY” she said “GAY?” louder. She then looked at my partner. “Him too?” We both nodded and said yes. “Oh, how nice!” And off we all went on our separate ways wishing each other a lovely evening.

Less accepting were “Fran” and “Judy.” (These two women whom we never directly interacted with nonetheless received names and backstories from us.) They each had separately but identical reactions to our presence. Glares. Heads shaking. Tsk-tsk’s. Both worked hard to literally turn their back to us so they wouldn’t have to be exposed to us. The couldn’t look at us, especially if one of us had an arm around the other’s chair – not even necessarily making direct physical contact. During the times where there was some public display of affection it was consistent with the dozens of others we’d be circling the Promenade Deck. These people would physically turn their bodies so as to not have us in their sight lines. On the final night of the cruise "Fran" came into the dining room smiling and radiant. They seated her so she had a diagonal view of where we were seating and she saw us and her smile disappeared and a darkness overcame her. She glared at us her whole meal. I’m sad for her that just our being together (and the other LGBT couples on board) resulted in such a change in her demeanor.

Being who you are is a privilege and carries responsibility. It’s not always comfortable. Authentically being who you are isn’t just a gay thing. It’s why Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are popular and Hillary and Jeb are less so. I’m grateful for the ability to be out and proud about who I am, knowing that isn’t true to too many. 

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Go Away

I’m just back after two weeks away. A holiday. A vacation. A luxury that has been years in the making and planning. Sure my contract provides for three weeks of time off per year, but as a workaholic I’ve never quite been able to justify take the time, despite the support of the team I work with. In the past 3 years I’ve turned back (“use it or lose it”) over 6 weeks of time. I’m not alone. 500 million vacation days lapse each year according to The Boston Globe. The hectic and stressful preparation for being away is matched by the whirlwind and obligations upon the return. The time in between is worth it, especially if you can ‘check-out.’ I did stay connected every few days as that’d probably be more stressful than not – but I was able to really get into a different way of being for a while. With that perspective it was amazing to come back and see what happened in the world with some fresh eyes.

The two weeks at the beginning of November is really a short period of time in the context of a year (4%), but it seemed much longer based on what happened while I was away. Trees went from a bountiful template of colors to largely bare. Pumpkins have been replaced by Christmas décor and holiday songs in every aisle. The psychological change that society makes into the holiday season is significant and it’s interesting to come off of a break into the holiday ‘rush.’

Politically there were a bunch of debates. Truly silly season. I agree with Edward Morrissey in TheWeek when he writes “Stop calling them 'debates.' They're game shows.” A couple of candidates for President dropped out.

There were some weather issues that dominated headlines and other things like earthquakes that momentarily held the spotlight. Being out of touch meant those came and went unnoticed even in a cursory review of what happened. Same with a whole series of attacks in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and other places where violence is the norm.

All of a sudden, though, my social media newsfeed started changing. It nearly instantaneously transformed to a sea of red-white-and-blue as the hundreds of connections I have simultaneously changed profile pictures to support France after the Friday the 13th bombings in Paris. It was an interesting phenomenon to experience this tragic event from the responses first, then seeking out what actually happened. The response felt so small compared to the event, but what else can people do?

I didn’t return and get back into a daily focus of world-events for many more days. By the time I was fully tuned back in there was a neat narrative surrounding the events. It was almost like reading a script or watching a TV show. (How many stars will you give it?) Evil ISIS hates everything the freedom loving world represents so they destroy it through terrorist attacks. Global outrage ensues and a plan to bomb the hell out of ISIS is agreed to by everybody. But it’s hard to do since ISIS isn’t actually centralized, so let’s “take out” some places we think they are instead. Boom! Oh, yes – let’s nail a suspect. The one guy who masterminded 8 simultaneous attacks. And let’s raid the place he was at months ago. Oops, we couldn’t find him ahead of time, but now we’ve found him in 12 hours! The message is clear: we need to be afraid of the terrorists but not so afraid because there’s “no credible” threats to be worried about.

There is no justification for the actions that happened in Paris. None whatsoever. But violence isn’t the answer. Violence begets violence. Is there nothing that history has taught us but that? The rhetoric is nauseating enough. But then there’s a whole series of emergency measures (in France, in England, in the US) to further curtail rights. One proposal attempts to punish those who criticize the Government in the U.K.  The goal is to empower the State to protect the People – something that has failed consistently.

Since September 11, 2001 the United States and most of the world have enacted massive amounts of legislation that has invaded privacy and taken about centuries of liberties that have been fought for. Phone calls are logged, emails are read, purchases are tracked. All in the name of safety and security. On Friday November 13, 2015 France’s 9/11 occurred. The tragedy is horrible. But it’s only the latest. 14 years later the restriction of freedom, the tracking of people and the invasion of privacy did not prevent this, the London attacks of 7/7 or so many others.

Let’s not keep doing the same thing. Let’s do what I did. Go away. The world needs a fresh perspective. Or maybe the terrorists could just go away. 

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Suggesting a tip

I was a terrible waiter. The summer of my freshman year in high school I took a job as a waiter at a higher end restaurant. I figured if I was going to be a waiter I might as well do it for a place where the total bill was high – and therefore the tips would be high too. How delightfully naïve I was. The ultimate insult came not from being stiffed on the tip – there were plenty of justifications for that (“they forgot” “they didn’t like the food” etc.). It was when they would leave $0.10 or $0.25 or $1.00 on a $150 bill. It was a clear memo: we know we should tip but you were so horrible that you only deserve a few pennies. I think I lasted six weeks and spent most of them bussing tables rather than serving. Today I make it a punchline: I tell people this was when I learned that I preferred to be served rather than to serve! There’s a movement on that would change all that.

Danny Meyer’s Restaurants (which runs establishments like Gramercy Tavern and Union Square Cafe in New York) announced recently (10/15/15) that they were instituting a “no tipping” policy starting in November. “Meyer’s group plans to increase menu prices and raise hourly wages for kitchen employees to $15.25 from $11.75 at The Modern. The increase will fall in line with the new state minimum wage of $15 an hour for fast-food workers. Menus will make it clear that prices include “hospitality”, and checks will not provide blank lines for a tip.”

Part of the justification is that the wage difference between kitchen employees (cooks to dishwashers) and wait staff has continued to grow disproportionately. (Various laws prevent tips from being pooled and shared.) Will it take away an employee’s incentive to provide excellent service? I would doubt it since they’ll likely be fired if they provide bad service.

Cruise ships are a good example of this policy. Many years ago at the end of your week envelopes would magically appear in your stateroom, at breakfast, lunch and dinner, etc. seeking tips. Woe is those who traveled without cash. At some point in the past decade that switched to a daily convenience fee being billed to your account. You can still add a cash tip at the end for those who have done exceptional service. There hasn't been a noticeable change in the quality of service in my experience. 

In many parts of the world wikitravel warns about tipping: “Giving a tip is not expected and offering one would be considered at best odd and at worst condescending or demeaning.”

A few years back when traveling in Sweden my friend and I had a lovely dinner and got the bill. We couldn’t tell if the tip was included or not – so ingrained in our being was it to tip the waitress. We ultimately asked her and she laughed at our Americanism and explained it was all included. It was quite convenient not to have to do the calculation and determine if we were going to be boorish or over-the-top in our tipping.

Evan Horowitz of The Boston Globe wrote an analysis about the policy. He wrote: “Abandoning the long-entrenched practice of tipping is a major departure from the restaurant norm, but in virtually every other industry, it’s management — not customers — who decides what employees should be paid.”

Moving wait staff to a regular employee status provides stability to the employee, additional funds to shore up Social Security and appropriately requires the establishment to price their product based on their actual costs. As Horowitz says: “Even if there were no tips, waiters and waitresses would still need to get paid. And the money would still come from customers. It would just appear on a different line of the bill, be it higher menu prices or an automatic service fee.” It’s a suggestion that is more than a tip!

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Limitation on Decency

I used to watch “The Cosby Showas part of NBC’s “Must See TV” line-up on Thursday nights. It wasn’t one of those shows I absolutely had to watch, but if I was able to see it then I would watch it. It held the 8pm slot for all eight seasons and was an innocuous look at a upper middle-class family with issues – they just happened to be African American. The show was accessible to everybody, producing ratings and honors that previously hadn’t occurred. It won a bucket load of awards, including the Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series. The show lived on in syndication from 1997. In 2015, the last television syndicators stopped running the show, though it remains available on Hulu. Events of the last few years are unlikely to have ever been part of the show's premise.

Bill Cosby, the show’s protagonist and namesake, had been a successful comedian and ad pitch man before taking on the role of Clifford Huxtable. After that, he continued to produce and star in television shows. He was a staple on our sets from the 1960s through the 2000s. He was somebody we knew, we felt comfortable with … and dare I say … we trusted.

Wikipedia states: “As of September 30, 2015, Cosby has been accused by at least 54 women of either rape, drug facilitated sexual assault, sexual battery and/or sexual misconduct, with the earliest alleged incidents taking place in the mid-1960s. He has denied the allegations and has never been criminally charged. Most of the acts alleged by his accusers fall outside the statutes of limitations for legal proceedings.”

There have been a slew of colleges, universities and other institutions that have withdrawn honorary degrees, awards, etc., based on the rumors. The comedian has refused to address them, stating that he doesn’t respond to “innuendo.”

“President Obama got into the conflict saying “there is no mechanism to revoke Bill Cosby's Medal of Freedom.” He then went on to say that having sex with somebody without their consent is wrong and is rape. The link was unmistakable – the President believes the allegations are true.

But they aren’t. At least, not legally. Nothing’s been proven. 54 people making similar accusations leads one to a very clear conclusion, and that’s why he’s become a pariah and can’t work and his namesake show is off the air. 

Wikipedia explains: “The purpose and effect of statutes of limitations are to protect defendants. There are three reasons for their existence:

     >  A plaintiff with a valid cause of action should pursue it with reasonable diligence.
>   A defendant might have lost evidence to disprove a stale claim.
>   A long-dormant claim has ‘more cruelty than justice’ ”

There’s something suspicious about 54 people not saying anything for decades. Bill Cosby carried no particular role of authority (like a priest or others). Awful, repugnant, and indecent are the actions that Cosby’s accused of. There’s also something wrong about convicting a man without a trial. It seems un-American to this most American of men. Perhaps this proves that there’s a limitation on decency?

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Branded Healthcare

In my fifth decade parts of my body remind me that I’m no longer in my second or third decade. Somewhere along the way I became that groaner – the one who expels a long breath/sigh after getting up. After a particularly long period of sitting at the desk I’ll rise and it’s like those old commercials for “Snap, Crackle and Pop.” I’m not complaining – I’m blessed with generally good health and most don’t think I’m anywhere near my actual age, which is always good for the ego if nothing else. Along the way, however, there are various things that have needed attention and as a result I take a couple of pills that those who are far brighter than I in such matters indicate that I need. Whether its my cynicism, bad luck or just the way the system works, it seems that the pills I’m on are always the ones that don’t have generic counterparts. My prescriptions therefore are quite pricey. I’m not alone.

In September 2015 Martin Shkreli made significant news by raising the price of a drug he acquired some 5,000%. He’s a hedge fund investor who has a history of acquiring a drug products and increasing its price. In this particular case his company Turing Pharmaceuticals purchased a company whose drug had been selling for $13.50 a pill to AIDS and cancer patients and upped the price to $750. Consumer activists, health care professionals and a range of progressives as well as politicians from all stripes derided capitalizing on people’s health in such a crass way. Shkreli suggested he’d lower the price, but never clarified to what or how much. His attempts to meet with Bernie Sanders by making the maximum contribution failed when Sanders donated those funds to charity.

It’s capitalism. That’s how it works. Supply and demand determine cost. It’s not always pretty. It’s not always right. And it’s not always fair. But it’s what we claim to be proud of about America.

Turn-around being fair play, Shkreli was himself outraged a few weeks later when Imprimis Pharmaceuticals announced that they would be providing an alternative (non-branded/generic) version of the same pill he was selling at $750 for $1 each.  Capitalism strikes back and wins.

This incident reignites the chasm I have between my philosophical libertarian beliefs and the practical application of them. Situations like these are crazy making not because of the positioning, but because healthcare should not be based on ability to pay. It just seems wrong to me. Shouldn’t America have a system where when you’re sick you go to a facility and are treated? If you need an operation you get it? If it’s vanity driven(and not medically necessary) then pay retail and there’s a price list to choose from. Sure there will be some diseases that affect a minority of the population that can’t be covered because this isn’t Utopia…but that happens in a more defecto way under the current system already. Let’s create a system where all of the decisions and discussions are around symptoms, remedies and recuperation and not coverage, eligibility and reimbursement.

Such a system was in place in America once. It was before government regulations and insurance became the driving for of healthcare…reinforcing my philosophical belief system. We can’t go back to that time. We can build from it. We won’t because of the entrenched interests of insurance and politics. To sell it, it has to be branded…the ultimate irony in capitalist healthcare. Guess we should all pray for good health. 

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Hacking a Hack

I joined America On-line in 1995. My account “name” was a series of numbers – you couldn’t personalize yet. I had a whole series of local phone numbers that the modem would try to connect to. After busy signals, the worst thing was the dreaded blue progress bar. The best thing was “You’ve Got Mail” calling out to you when you were connected. When spamming began a few years later I would naively reply back to each email with a polite “no thank you” or “remove.” Today my various accounts attract some 1,000 spams a week. AOL was responsible for moving the United States forward onto the information superhighway - at one point in the late 1990's half of all American's on the Internet came via AOL. The company was part of the largest merger in American history that nearly toppled and destroyed its acquirer/partner Time Warner. A variety of sales have occurred since then, the latest being Verizon buying the company in May 2015 for $4.4 billion. Today 2.1 million Americans continue to access the World Wide Web via AOL’s dial-up service even though using one’s phone actually connects to sites faster. Several of those users were embarrassed this week (10/20/15) with not only having an AOL account, but the disclosure that their accounts had been hacked.

CBS reports: “The personal emails of two of the highest-ranking national security officials have been hacked. CIA Director John Brennan and Homeland Security Secretary Jay Johnson.” Late night comedians, radio show hosts, pundits and bloggers have run amuck with the rich irony that the leaders of two such important government security institutions have themselves been victimized. It’s like the landscape architect who has brown grass and rocks in their garden or the financier who’s in bankruptcy. The irony is amusing.

IBM has reported that in 2015 there have been more than 600 data breaches and the average cost of a breach is $3.8 million. So there is a direct cost of $2.2 billion to the economy in a partial year. The study further identified that in 2014 25.33% of the attacks were on finance and insurance. Retail “took a hammering” with a 30% increase in attacks.

Willie Sutton, the original ‘slick Willie’ and famous bank robber was asked by reporter Mitch Ohnstad why he robbed banks. According to Ohnstad, he replied, "Because that's where the money is." He later claimed the story was made up by the reporter, but the simplicity and humor of the answer is as true for today’s hackers. It’s where the money is.

In the hack of the emails of the CIA and Homeland Security chiefs the perpetrator, claiming to be a high school student, tweeted: "We are not doing this for personal satisfaction, we are doing this because innocent people in Palestine are being killed daily.” Then, taunting officials the hacker asked: “Anyone know who we should target next?!” On CNN the allegedhacker said he was “probably high” when he did it. Newsflash: A high teenager breaches American Online’s email system.

In the 1990’s I learned the hard way what spam mail was. My defense of that naivete is that I wasn’t alone and the entire world learned at the same time. Two decades later you’d think that the leading security experts for the United States would have a more secure way of handing personal emails than AOL. I don’t know which is the bigger bunch of hacks – the guys who breached their privacy or the schmucks running the CIA and Homeland Security with their accounts on outdated technology.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Standard Training

I am the son of educators. My parents spent their lives imparting wisdom to others - truly one of the most noble professions I know. The transfer of knowledge from one generation to the next is an incredible chain that ties the species together back to the beginning of time. Directly or indirectly my entire family is in the field – whether in the classroom or in my case working at a non-profit that enlightens in its own way. Before my current position I worked as a consultant where I would mentor and guide clients to be self-sufficient. That’s the benefit of training – giving others the ability to do for themselves. The U.S. has aspired to a similar goal but has had a long string of disappointments in this area especially in its foreign policy.

The current deployments of American military personnel cover a wide spectrum of projects throughout the globe. It involves everything from energy and environmental projects to health, human interest and community relations. Wikipedia  details further: “The military of the United States is deployed in more than 150 countries around the world, with over 156,000 of its active-duty personnel serving outside the United States and its territories and an additional 70,000 deployed in various contingency operations as well as through military attache offices and temporary training assignments in foreign countries.” There are currently 1,148,530 active duty personnel – so 6% of them are helping others to help themselves. A noble goal that is a failed policy.

President Obama recently ended his administrations training of Syrian rebels. The idea was that American forces would take the Syrian rebels and show them how to fight, use strategy and weapons, organize and defeat the oppressors. Half a billion dollars was spent. In September 2015 the Pentagon admitted that only “four or five” rebels were trained. Others who were being taught in Turkey surrendered to the opposition. I’m not quite sure how one spends $100,000,000.00 in six months to train one person. I rather doubt that those five guys are going to have much of an impact in the region.

Rather than giving up on its approach the Guardian report continues: “A senior US official said there would no longer be any recruiting of Syrian rebels for training in Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates. Instead, a single training centre would be set up in Turkey, where a small group of ‘enablers’ – mostly leaders of opposition groups – would be vetted and taught operational methods, such as how to call in airstrikes.”

I am not a military expert. Far from it. I abhor violence and am largely a pacifist. It's from watching and enjoying war films and tv shows that I know a communications system (walkie-talkie, cell phone, etc.) is all that’s needed to alert somebody to an airstrike. Perhaps there’s more to it that justifies an entire program of training and funded by the American taxpayer...but there's no evidence of that.

President Obama in 2014 proposed a regulatory regime that would punish schools “for failing to place graduates in well-paying jobs.” That ill-advised idea that makes the educational institution responsible for its students performance can’t work and has been tied up in the legislative process because the President still supports the idea. Since he proposed the concept perhaps the same standard can apply to the military and their training efforts? Where's our refund?