September 20, 2013

The Mad Hatter Goes To Washington

 There is a place. Like no place on Earth. A land full of wonder, mystery, and danger! Some say to survive it: You need to be as mad as a hatter.

Welcome to the Washington Tea Party, complete with its own Mad Hatters in the guise of forty or so Republican/Tea Party members of the House of Representatives who have forced Speaker John Boehner to allow a vote on simultaneously providing funding to keep the government open, while stripping away money to implement portions of Obama’s health-care law. That is part of a one-two punch that may well knock out the government. The second blow will land in a few weeks when the House will put forth a similar proposal to delay Obamacare before granting expanded borrowing authority to the Treasury in the coming weeks.

The House has already voted forty times to defund all or part of the Affordable Care Act. Each time, the Senate has refused to go along, as it will this time. So why do they keep doing it? Wasn't it Einstein who said that madness is doing the same thing over and over and thinking you will get a different result?

Geesh. There is no way the Affordable Care Act is going to be defunded. Period. Leading Senate Republicans have already made that judgement. The language will be stripped from the Senate version and returned to the House for reconsideration. What happens then is when the real games begin. Some sort of deal will be cut. That's what politicians do. The Tea Party contingent says they won't accept another symbolic gesture. The smart money say they will. Once again, the political process will be a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing.

If I believed that Obamacare was as bad as they say it is, then I would let it take effect and go to the people in the next election cycle and ask them if they are better off now than they were before health care reform. If the facts have made the case for you, then the Senate will fall to to the Republicans and the bargaining center of gravity will have shifted decisively.

Of course, Social Security and Medicare faced the same criticism. There were cries of socialism and the end of the American dream as we know it. Now they are third rails that politicians refuse to touch. Will the same thing be true of Obamacare twenty years from now?

No on can answer that question, but it will be interesting to see how it unfolds in a scenario where some states are 100 percent supporting the implementation of the law and some states states are 100 percent stymieing the implementation of the law. Could either Social Security or Medicare have survived the inevitable birth pains under such conditions?

The states are the laboratory of federalism. The fate of the Affordable Care Act in states such as California that are going all in and states such as Texas and Florida that are actively sabotaging the process will be fodder for many election cycles to come. As they would say in Las Vegas, "Place your bets and roll the dice."

September 12, 2013

The NSA

As we pass the 12th anniversary of 9/11, the debate intensifies over where to draw the line between safeguarding Constitutionally-guaranteed freedoms versus freedom from further attacks. New revelations about the extensive domestic spying capabilities of the National Security Agency (NSA) seem to come out every other day, along with reports of widespread abuse of the legal authorities granted to that agency.

The NSA has found the keys to unlock your e-mails, your banking records, or your medical records. They can track cell phone calls and monitor Internet traffic. It can begin with a conversation between two people you've never known, from a country you may never have heard of. A few degrees of separation later and you could be on the list to be monitored. Not that you would ever know. Any company official involved in granting access is forced to sign a document pledging secrecy under penalty of imprisonment.

Three issues relating to NSA's spying program should be of concern to every American. First, the standards whereby an individual can be swept up in NSA's dragnet. How connected do you have to be before you can be subject to investigation?  Second, the secrecy surrounding the opinions issued by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) Court that permits the NSA to conduct its eavesdropping. How can we the people exercise our consent to be governed if we can't learn anything about what is being done in our name? Third, the clampdown placed on corporations forced to hide their cooperation from their customers. How can an Internet business maintain the confidence of its customers if we don't know what is being done?

The Internet came into widespread use during the 1990s. Till now, the oversight of what has become an essential component to all aspects of society has been haphazard at best. It has been assumed that there is a level of privacy to our transactions on the Internet. This privacy is critical as we are forced to do more and more of our routine activities via the Internet. Think about voting, which, believe me, is coming soon to an Internet near you. How can we protect the sanctity of the private vote if the NSA can drop in and take a peak any time it wishes?

The Patriot Act and FISA were passed at the height of the post-9/11 trauma. A decade later, it is fair to ask if putting limits on the NSA makes us less safe from an attack by terrorists? In my view, not one bit. Theoretically, there is supposed to be concrete evidence before NSA undertakes any kind of domestic surveillance. What's at issue here is how concrete that evidence has to be and the width and breadth of the dragnet that stretches out to bring in ever more people with only a tenuous connection at best to the initial threat. Individuals found through normal intelligence processes to be directly connected to a suspected threat can be investigated thoroughly under any reasonable interpretation of the laws. It's the friend of a friend of a friend who is calling about getting his lawn mower back that is the issue here.

Sure, you can dismiss the whole NSA thing by saying that anyone using the Internet should not expect privacy. But the fact is we do expect privacy. And even if we don't necessarily expect it, we certainly would like to have as much privacy as possible. The policy should be to carry out needed investigations with an aim towards preserving our right to privacy guaranteed under the Constitution, not exploiting loopholes in hastily crafted laws to gain unfettered access to our on-line lives. We the people have a right to set limits. We have a right to say this is where we draw the line between giving up our hard-earned freedoms in the name of domestic tranquility. That is what is meant by the consent of the governed.

To me, the greater worry is what one person creates, another person can steal or replicate. Now that the whole world knows how it can be done and, more importantly, that it has been done, NSA's feat will eventually be replicated by other governments, not to mention some corporations that have resources equal to many governments.  It is only a matter of time.

September 5, 2013

What's Cooking?

A few weeks back, I saw this cooking show while I was tread-milling. Yeah, I know. How pathetic is that? Anyway, the show included this two-ingredient cake thing using a box chocolate cake mix and a 15-ounce can of pumpkin. Gee, I thought, how hard could that be? So when I saw a similar recipe posted by a friend on Facebook, this one using a yellow cake mix plus a glaze, I decided to give it a try. It's just two ingredients. Nothing for a seasoned veteran of the Food Channel like myself. Hah!

First I had to get the ingredients, so I went to the store. I hadn't bothered to write any of the ingredients down. I mean it's just a box cake and a can of pumpkin, right? Oh wait, there's the glaze. No problem. I'll just look it up on Facebook using my cell phone. No signal. Now we got a problem. But I had made glazes before, starting with an infamous episode involving a spice cake that we need not distract ourselves with here, so I shrugged it off as a minor glitch in an otherwise smoothly unfolding plan of action.

Back home, I quickly assembled the two ingredients with all the confidence of a master opener of cans and boxes. Into the stand mixer to blend while I looked to see what I would cook them in. I had assumed it be a 13"x 9" pan. No problem. Except this recipe called for a 7"x11" pan. Now we got a problem. Shit. I had no idea if we had one -- although my wife later found one immediately, buried under a stack of other baking pans that hadn't been used in a couple of decades. Undaunted, I selected a 10"x10" Corning ware casserole dish. Close enough would have to be good enough.

With the cake in the oven, I moved on to the glaze. No problem. Made a ton of those in my day. The recipe called for confectioner's sugar ... check ... pumpkin pie spice ... hmm, don't see any ... and apple cider ... wtf, who keeps apple cider around? Now we got a problem. Well, I'll just have to improvise.

Pumpkin pie spice. Hmm. I decided it must be a blend of existing spices, so I looked in the spice cupboard and pulled out some cinnamon, allspice, and nutmeg. I blended them in equal measure and combined them with the confectioner's sugar. Problem solved. On to the glaze.

Now I was really stumped. We didn't have any apple cider -- although it turns out there were some small boxes of apple juice behind the cereal boxes left over from the last visit by the grandchildren -- but honestly, who would think to look there? Besides, that would actually require moving things, a distinctly un-guy activity.

In my search, I did find some unsweetened apple sauce, another holdover from the grandchildren. Not that I was desperate, but the cake was baking and a decision had to be made. So, I took a couple of spoonfuls of apple sauce and blended it with water, coming up with a rather insipid looking fluid that a designer would label dirty rainwater. I threw it into the confectioner's sugar and spice blend, ending up with a syrupy concoction reminiscent of a sewage overflow. I sampled it and well, let's just say I wasn't overcome with taste bud euphoria. But it was what it was.

By now, the cake was done. I let it cool and then flipped it out on to a rack. Miracle of miracles, it actually came out. I poured the glaze over it and stepped back to admire my creation. There was a distinct sag in the center, due, my wife informed me, to using a casserole with a rounded bottom as opposed to a cake pan with straight sides. Who knew?

Other than that, it looked more than passable, and when I tried some later, the damned thing actually tasted pretty good, although the cake part was a bit dense. The hallmark of a homemade cake, I was assured, even if it did come out of a box I thought but did not say. Whatever. I'm good with the homemade cake theory.

So there you have it. A simple two-ingredient cake ... the hard way. Maybe I should go on that Food Network star-search show. My theme would be cooking for the clueless. A natural fit if ever there was one.

Guess I should have included the recipe in the original post:

1 box of yellow cake  mix (chocolate or spice would work too)
1 15-oz can of pumpkin (not pie mix)
Combine in mixer and beat until smooth. Pour into a greased 7"x11"x2" pan and bake at 350 for 28 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean. Let sit for 5 minutes and flip onto rack.

While the cake is cooking, combine 1 1/2 cups confectioner's sugar with 3/4 teaspoon of pumpkin pie spice. (Or blend your own.) Add 3 tablespoons of apple cider (or whatever you come up with) and stir. Consistency should be runny. Drizzle over cake when you flip it out of the pan. Poke holes with that toothpick to get the glaze into the center of the cake.

September 3, 2013

Syria: Deja Vu All Over Again

The country is caught up in a debate over how to react to the alleged use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government, a violation of an international ban on such weapons that dates back to 1925. The current crisis began when President Obama declared that the use of such banned chemical weapons would be a "red line" that would trigger a U.S. military response. The evidence of such attacks being incontrovertible, the President had to decide what to do in response.

When tasked to develop any sort of policy, especially one that involves military operations, the careful analyst will first look to see what was done in different times but under similar situations. The most cursory review of precedent would have stumbled upon the Iran-Iraq War fought throughout most of the 1980s. Midway during that war, Saddam Hussein deployed mustard gas and Sarin nerve gas against the Iranians. He did so with the full knowledge and silent acquiescence of a United States government determined to avoid an Iraqi defeat. In fact, the CIA provided Iraq with information about the deployment of Iranian troops, which shortly thereafter were subjected to nerve gas attacks.

This could not have been missed in the run-up to the current crisis, given that their use was common knowledge, as was our support for Iraq. The dots shouldn't have been all that hard to connect, especially since the intelligence community briefing the president would have been fully aware of what it did and did not do back then. Talk about the elephant in the room. I think it would have been better to take this head-on by stating the use of chemical weapons was wrong then and it is wrong now.

This is just one of many inexplicable aspects of our whole approach to the Syrian question. The indecision on which rebel groups to aid, the spectacle of being dragged across the red line by social media, the abrupt U-Turn on Congressional approval ... all this tells me that there is no great enthusiasm for a Syrian intervention.

But sometimes, history has a way of making itself heard in mysterious ways. We have just finished celebrating the March on Washington led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a man who speaks to the president as clearly as anyone living adviser. If President Obama has been reflecting on the life of Mr. King, he may have recalled such quotes as "The time is always right to do what’s right." Or perhaps this one: "I am not interested in power for power's sake, but I'm interested in power that is moral, that is right and that is good."

I have come to believe that at the root of this dilemma is a good man seeking to find a way through a very morally and politically difficult problem that no one else is particularly interested in solving. It's worth noting that back in the 1980s, Iran tried to drum up international outrage but had little success in rallying the world community to its side. The world turned a blind eye to Iraq's use of such weapons, just as the world is doing with Syria today.

And that is the ultimate elephant in the room ...  the cold, hard reality that President Obama confronts, which is that nobody really cares .. at least cares enough to seek retribution for the innocent victims of these illegal and immoral attacks.

International norms are only as good as the willingness of governments to enforce them, and, for reasons of realpolitik or ideology or memories of past mistakes, the vast majority of the world's governments are unwilling to go beyond protestations of outrage, not to mention the voices raised in opposition to any sort of military attack, some of whom make a compelling case. These same divisions will confront the president here in the United States once debate begins.

Being a good man in a bad world has never been easy. President Obama is finding out just how lonely a job that can be, even for the leader of the free world. But that having been said, we have all of us seen in our lifetimes instances where history has been bent to the will of a single individual. We may be in such a moment now. I hope so.

September 1, 2013

Another Golf Story

I had a busy day ahead, so I thought I would play a few holes of golf ... you know how it is, pleasure before business. Under a gray sky, the air heavy with moisture that condensed around every blade of grass, I headed out to the first tee. Rounding a corner, I startled a goldfinch into flight, the bright yellow wings flashing against the backdrop of drab clouds that clung to the mountains. I thought immediately of my father, the twin hits of golf and goldfinches bringing back memories from his dying days.

The first hole is a 140-yard par 3 with a slightly elevated tee and a huge willow tree guarding the right side of the approach to the green. About twenty yards in front of the green is a thick belt of weeds and tall grass, which is where I dumped my first shot. That is sort of a tradition for me, dumping that first ball into the rough, so I wasn't too upset. I think of it as tribute to the golf gods.

The next eight holes went pretty well. I'm actually playing the best golf of my life. That's not to claim I am a particularly good golfer, just that I am an improving golfer, which, in this game, is all you can hope for. The ninth hole, a par four, ended especially well ... a straight drive into the center of the fairway, followed by a crisp wedge with a leave just a few feet below the cup. I knew I should head home, but I wasn't quite ready to finish, so I went back to play the first three holes, which form a loop that ends near the first tee.

I rounded the same corner as I had earlier, but there was no goldfinch. Instead, I looked down and saw an old man standing motionless beside the tee box. I stopped, golf etiquette demanding that I not disturb his shot routine. But he just stood there, shoulders slumped, peering straight ahead. After a minute or so, an elderly Japanese lady spoke from behind me. "You go," she said. At once I understood. The man had been waiting for his wife, who had returned to their car to get something she forgot. I had seen them both before, two people who had grown old together as gracefully as the willow tree down by the green.

I thanked them and took out my 7-iron again. I was already warmed up, so I wasn't worried about hitting it into the rough. I stood over the ball and went through my current set of swing thoughts, mostly centered around my right arm action into the ball. I knew it was a good shot because I never felt the ball on the club face. I looked up and saw a high draw that arced over the willow tree and landed about ten feet short of the hole and rolled to within eight inches or so below the cup. That close to a hole in one.

The couple complimented me on my shot. I enjoyed a moment of quiet satisfaction made all the sweeter by having shared it with two people who embodied the gentle patience one learns both from golf and from growing old together into the twilight. The willow tree branches swayed gently in a breeze that broke open the sky and bathed us in steamy sunshine.

Walking to the green, I thought back on all that went into making the story that unfolded in my head. The precise timing to catch that goldfinch as it took flight ... a goldfinch being the only bird that would immediately trigger memories of my father. The decision to play a few extra holes. The image of the old man patiently waiting for his wife. The incredible luck of striking a perfect shot.

I had this feeling that something had just happened, something bigger than a golf shot. Was it some sort of message from my father? I can't bring myself to go quite that far, but there are moments when it does seem that nature is trying to catch my attention. Such moments are as evanescent as the flash of a bird's wings, a barely registered movement in the corner of the mind's eye. But I have come to understand that the more I look, the more I see.

I don't know what it is I am seeing, but I believe that I am seeing something ... an underlying current of kindness that persists in a world that seems at times to be drowning in malice. It's not much, but I'll take it.