Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Why National Health Insurance Matters So Much To The Right

Samuel Gompers, founder of the AFL-CIO

There was a time, not so long ago to those of us who are old, when health insurance was generally provided by employers as a fringe benefit as part of a negotiated contract between the employer and the employees' union.  Over the years employers' interest and lobbying groups, collectively known as the Republican Party, used their control of state legislatures and the US Congress to undermine and eventually destroy the American labor movement primarily by passing so-called 'Right to Work' laws, state by state. 

Union membership among American workers fell from over 70 percent in the 1950's to less than 8% today.  Ironically most of those few remaining union members are public employees, notably teachers and the federal civil service.  Union membership and activity in the great mass of those workers working for corporate employers has all but vanished.

[I must note here the admirable and even heroic exceptions of the nurses and the hotel workers.]

The undermining and destruction of the unions was greatly facilitated by the transfer of manufacturing to non-union Southern states and, when even those states started to see unionization, the transfer of manufacturing overseas.  Workers in industries like steel, glass, autos, mining, and manufacturing generally, had been the bulwark of the American unions.

Their jobs are now done in China and other low-wage countries like Vietnam.  China has so far been immune to unionization because its Communist Party claims to already represent the workers.  In practice the Chinese Communist Party represents and protects Chinese workers about as much as the Republican Party represents and protect American workers - which is to say not at all.  Presumably the same is true of "Communist" Vietnam as well.

A second development by which the Republicans, with the connivance of the Democrats, undermined American workers' ability to organize into unions, has been keeping the immigrant population of tens of millions of Mexican workers illegal.   

Kicking them out would mean the end of the supply of cheap labor so that isn't going to happen.  Legalizing them would mean that they would no longer be quite so cheap so that isn't going to happen either.  So the fiction has been invented and perpetrated that there is something wrong with the border and that there just seems to be no way to keep them out.  Never mind that Canada effortlessly keeps them out by fining employers who knowingly employ illegal immigrants.  Never mind too that the US had such a law too but the Republicans gutted it by reducing the fine from a thousand dollars a day per illegal worker knowingly employed to ten dollars a day, an amount too small for the government to bother to enforce.

One does not have to be any kind of Marxist to regard these as huge victories for the corporations and their owners and managers and correspondingly huge defeats for the workers and their unions.  With the decline in union membership has come a corresponding decline in employer-provided health insurance.

During this same period and before, Presidents since Teddy Roosevelt just over a hundred years ago have attempted some sort of national medical insurance plan but it has always been stymied and defeated in Congress.  Now, a century of striving for Americans to have national health insurance has finally found fruition in the Affordable Care Act, quite justly called Obamacare because it is the signal and historic landmark for which his presidency will be remembered.   Even though it is carefully crafted to involve corporate insurance companies and free markets as much as possible, it is nevertheless a government program.

Which is a reversal in part of the historic victory of the corporations and their owners and managers in transferring the costs of health care from the corporations onto the workers or, failing that, to deprive them of health insurance entirely.  It is those who see their mission in Congress as to defend the class interests of the wealthy who are intent on fighting this to the end, even when the corporate interests themselves have agreed to the bill, and now law.

Dates of Adoption of Universal Health Care

1878  Germany
1939  New Zealand
1948  Britain
1955  Sweden
1956  Iceland
1956  Norway
1961  Japan
1961  Denmark
1964  Finland
1968  Canada
1974  Australia
1970's - 90's gradual implementation in Austria, Belgium, France and Luxembourg
1978  Italy
1979  Portugal
1983  Greece
1986  Netherlands
1988  Spain
1989  South Korea
1995  Israel
1995  Taiwan
1996  Switzerland
2013  United States of America

Many other countries have some form of universal health care as well.  (I remember being unable to become a citizen of Chile about 15 years ago because of their fear that immigrants would go there in part to take advantage of their health care system.  Which was exactly my intention.)

The list above can be read two ways.  One, the more obvious to most, is that all the developed countries of the world have adopted some form of universal health care twenty to sixty years ago.  But another is that the foreign countries of the world have one by one fallen into the sink of social decay and loss of self-reliance and fallen prey one by one to the siren song of socialism.  Only America has stood steadfast against the tide of moral rot.

The fact that the United States has lagged decades behind even countries like Portugal, South Korea, and Taiwan can be seen as a national disgrace that we are so far behind all modern and developed countries.

But it can also be seen as a shining example of American Exceptionalism.  When we say, "Everyone in Europe has it", they say, "Exactly!  The decadent corrupt Europeans have it.  And we as Americans must not, if only so as not to become the feckless, state-coddled, irresponsible, ingrate weaklings that the Europeans have become."  People of this mind see Obamacare as the strong entering wedge of European socialism, weakness, hedonism, and decay, the end of American Individualism.

To those who see the United States as its Puritan founders did, as a City on a Hill, a shining beacon and example to all the world, Obamacare means becoming like all the others, the worldling Europeans.

I think it worth noting that Obamacare is crafted to minimize the citizen's contact with the government.  It merely provides efficient markets in which the citizen can buy health insurance from private insurance companies.  It is also very much worth noting that the only reason the Affordable Care Act passed at all is that the insurance companies bought in on it.  Had the insurance companies strongly resisted, it could not have been enacted.

But the fight, which could conceivably have been a debate about principles, about how to deliver public services without compromising American Individualism has become mere nasty obstructionism.

The President is not wrong in calling the Tea Party opposition ideological.  It is ideological for the reasons I have given.

To the Tea Party radicals I would rejoin, had the Congress to which Teddy Roosevelt appealed adopted universal health care in 1908 when he asked them, American Exceptionalism would have appeared as American leadership in social progress and humanitarianism and social efficiency.  Instead it appears as laggard rationalizations and selfish excuses.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Why Syria is More Serious Than We Are Being Told

F-117 Nighthawk


The press coverage of the civil war in Syria started by telling us that the opposition were activists seeking freedom, presumably things like our First Amendment freedoms of speech, press, assembly, religion, and even to vote, from an oppressive dictatorial regime.  It was, they told us, all of a piece with the Arab Spring. Only slowly did it start to leak out that the conflict was actually about a Sunni majority seeking to overthrow a minority Alawite-Shi'ite regime, not to establish freedom but to establish a Sunni regime.

Still, the story went, the rule of a majority is more like democracy than the rule of a minority and some of the Sunni rebels as they started to be called  were fighting for a secular democratic Syria.  Calling them "activists", people who go to meetings and demonstrations and organize committees and hand out leaflets, was getting pretty thin even for our press when there were pictures of them shooting Kalashnikovs and anti-tank weapons.  There has yet to be an any public admission that they never were activists.

These activists, these concerned citizens, somehow had large amounts of firearms and stockpiles of ammunition.  My sister is a long-time activist in Marin County politics but, unless she is keeping something from me, she has no anti-tank weapons in her garage nor rocket-propelled grenades, nor Kalashnikov rifles.  Which is nothing for her to be ashamed of - lots of people don't have them.  Only dribs and drabs of where the money for the weapons and the weapons themselves came from.  That has turned out to be Qatar and Saudi Arabia and the international arms black market.

This made a joke of the prior press reports, presumably by people who, like all reporters, claimed they were telling the truth, that the rebels were secular Arab Spring activists like the hundreds of thousands of unarmed Egyptians who filled Tahrhir Square night after night.   When it became clear that many of the heavily-armed rebels were actually affiliated with al-Qaeda and similar Salafist groups, the press narrative changed to how they were an unspecified sub-group, presumably a minority, within the rebel camp and that we as Americans should help the non-al-Qaeda rebels to keep the al-Qaeda groups from taking over the rebel movement.  The press continued to maintain that the people fighting the regime, even if not exactly activists, nor exactly secular rebels, were at least an uprising against an unpopular and oppressive regime.  And how could we oppose that?

But even though the money and arms were coming from foreign sources, the press led us to believe that it was only fair because the regime had the weapons, money, and organization of the national army.  Outside money and arms no more than leveled the playing field (an impossibly stupid and vicious sports metaphor - people are generally not killed with machine guns and explosives during soccer matches - except in England.)   This story also began to fray as interview after interview showed that some significant fraction of the "activists" were foreign Sunni jihadis, many of them veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan.  What we were told was an uprising against an oppressive military regime began to look more like an armed invasion by outsiders.

Syria, as I have noted here before, is only an instance of a larger zone of conflict between Sunnis and Shi'ites.  This zone stretches in a vast arc from Lebanon on the Mediterranean through Syria, Iraq, Iran, to Kuwait, eastern Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the UAE (United Arab Emirates) on the Persian Gulf..  The big dog among the Shi'ites is Iran.  The leading powers among the Sunnis are Egypt, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia.  This arc happens to match roughly what used to be called the Fertile Crescent.  It is conceivable that the place where civilization began could be the place where it ends. The Fertile Crescent may become the Fatal Crescent.

A public demonstration of the Sunni vs. Shi'ite character of the Syrian civil war has been the role of Hezbollah.  Hezbollah is a nominally Lebanese, specifically Shi'ite, terrorist militia.  It has fought two wars with Israel and lost them both,  Our press claimed that Hezbollah somehow "won" the last one because Israel did not kill every last one of them.  The Gentlemen of the Press blithely ignored that Israel's war aim was not to conquer Lebanon but to make Hezbollah stop shooting rockets at civilians in their northern cities, specifically Haifa.  The IAF (Israel Air Force) and IDF artillery put such a beating on Hezbollah that the "victors" have fired no rockets since, and Haifa lives in peace.

Hezbollah is not Syrian except to the extent that Syria has been a conduit for Iranian arms and money.  Yet Hezbollah has now marched into Syria and entered the war on the side of the Alawite/Shi'ite regime.  Hezbollah, officially designated a terrorist organization by both the United States and the European Union, is now one of the main pillars of the Syrian regime.  It is an irony of the Middle East that Syria, which conquered and then occupied much of Lebanon for many years, is now in a fair way of being occupied from  Lebanon.

Still, so what?  It was and is hard to gin up much sympathy for a minoritarian military dictatorship, especially one as reputedly nasty and brutal as the al-Assad regime.  Why should we care which collection of brutal thugs runs Syria?  People of good will came to see the question not as which thugs should rule, but how most quickly to end the war and its disastrous effects on the great mass of the civilian population.

Here the press came up with a new story - that the conflict could be settled and peace restored if only al-Assad were to go.  This seemed eminently sensible.  The worst that was likely to happen to al-Assad and his family if he left power was that they would spend the rest of their lives in the comfort of the Old Dictators Retirement Community (which used to be the fancy resort town of Estoril in Portugal.  Decades ago Patty and I saw their beachfront villas with their bodyguards and their Rolls-Royces.).

 As with so many other press explanations, the flaw in the argument was that it wasn't true.  Bashar al-Assad is not just a military dictator, he is also a dynast.  He rules Syria because his father, Hafez al-Assad, ruled Syria.  He is the one person on whom all the factions in the regime can agree.  Without the political focus of loyalty to the al-Assad family to unite it, the regime, which is under enormous pressure because of the war, would likely collapse.  Which is precisely why the opposition demands his ouster.  Why else would they care whether the dictator were al-Assad rather than someone else just like him?  So that is a scam.  One eagerly pushed on their media audience by the press, but a scam.

Affairs had gotten that far when the Obama administration proposed at the UN that a peace conference be convened with the understanding that the prearranged outcome would be that al-Assad would go and that Iran would not be invited.  The Putin administration vetoed it in the Security Council.


But why?  The press hinted broadly that it was on account of Putin being an authoritarian and a bad guy and besides he was mean to Pussy Riot.  (As an aside, how much jail time would Pussy Riot have gotten had they done the same thing in the Washington National Cathedral?  Probably about the same.  The guy who hit Willie Brown in the face with a pie when he was mayor of San Francisco got six months for it.)
It is beginning to leak out through dribs and drabs of information in the better newspapers (e.g. the Wall Street Journal) that there are two big reasons why the Putin administration cares desperately about what happens in Syria.  One is that they have a naval base there, at Tartus on the Mediterranean coast of Syria.  Getting run out of Syria by the Sunni rebels would be a huge defeat and loss of face for Russia.

Second there are, according to one report "tens of thousands of Russians" in Syria.  They aren't expatriates living there because Syria is such a pleasant country.  They are there to support the al-Assad regime as technical experts, medical personnel, teachers, and such.  If the war goes badly for the regime they would have to be evacuated to avoid becoming hostages.  If the Russian government were to withdraw those advisers it would likely lead to the quick collapse of the al-Assad regime, followed by a massacre of those Russians who could not get out in time and of course every Alawite (Shi'ite) in the country, by the victorious Sunnis.

That is the short term consequence that Moscow fears.  The longer term consequence is that another Russian defeat by Sunni Muslims (after Afghanistan) would embolden and legitimize Muslim separatists in Russia itself.  Muslims make up 14% of the Russian population, about 20 million people, almost all Sunnis.  Unlike in Europe or America, they are not primarily urban nor are they immigrants.  They are territorial majorities in many areas in the south and east of Russia, such as Chechnya and Daghestan where they have lived for centuries. They typically have their own cultures and languages and regard Russia as an imperial overlord.  The brothers Tsarnaev were Chechens.

The Russians fought not one but two long and bloody wars to suppress the attempted secession of Chechnya.  The Chechen separatist movement was and is explicitly Islamist.  In 2002 during the Second Chechen War, 40 Chechens seized the Dubrovka Theater in Moscow during a performance and took 850 Russians hostage.  In the retaking of the theater by security forces 130 Russians and all 40 Chechens were killed.  Mother Russia does not take kindly to mass killings of Russians in Moscow.

The parallel with 9-11 the previous year was obvious.   While 9-11 was traumatic for us, in Russia the attack came from within Russia's own borders.  Imagine if 9-11 had come, not from remote and foreign Afghanistan, but from the Texas or Alaska independence movements. How would we look on anybody who encouraged those movements afterwards?   In Russia, suppressing Sunni rebellions abroad which could embolden and legitimize Sunni separatists at home is what we would call 'Homeland Security'.

In the near term Russia faces the loss of its Syrian protectorate and the possible massacre of thousands of Russians living in Syria.  In the longer term Russia faces the prospect of moral, political, and even material support from a victorious Sunni rebellion in Syria to potential Sunni rebellions in Russia.  The Putin administration are not just being troublemakers.   They are protecting vital Russian national interests.


None of the combatants in Syria is any friend of Israel and on the face of it, it shouldn't matter much which tyrannical regime is in power in Damascus so long as they leave Israel alone.  But the connection with Hezbollah changes everything.  The safety of Haifa and indeed all of Galilee, depends on the IAF having command of the skies over Israel, Lebanon, and Syria,

Israel made it clear by direct action what their interests are.  Israeli fighter jets destroyed at least two major arms shipments being sent from Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

For reasons that are not clear, Russia has transferred A-300 ground-to-air anti-aircraft missiles to Syria.  The Sunni rebels have no airplanes so the regime has no need for ground-to-air missiles against them.  Indeed the missiles are a threat to the government forces because if they were captured they could be turned against the regime's own aircraft.  The missiles make no sense as aid to the Syrian regime but they make a lot of sense if they are intended not for Syria but for Hezbollah.  Clearly they are intended to shoot down Israeli aircraft not Syrian ones.  My speculation is that they were Hezbollah's price for sending their army to fight in Syria.

One can imagine a debate within Putin's cabinet on whether to send armed Russian "advisers" to support the al-Assad regime.  Arming Hezbollah with anti-aircraft missiles is likely almost as distasteful in Moscow as it is in Washington (missiles that can shoot down Israeli planes over Galilee can also shoot down Russian planes over Chechnya) but it would be seen in the Kremlin as a lesser evil than sending Russian troops.  In this regard the American experience in Iraq and both the US and Soviet experiences in Afghanistan would be instructive.

Prime Minister Netanyahu made a special trip to Moscow to talk to President Putin about it.  While he reported that Putin had refused his request to not send the missiles, it is not the way of heads of state talking about sensitive negotiations with other heads of state to be completely open and candid with the public.  So there is no knowing what actually transpired in the Putin-Netanyahu talks nor what, if anything, was agreed.


The United States is the ally of Israel and cannot stand idly by while missiles, especially Russian missiles, rain down on its cities.  The defense against the A-300 is probably American stealth technology, on the theory that one can't hit what one can't see.  Stealth fighter planes, being invisible to radar, could destroy the A-300 batteries before their operators knew the fighters were coming.

Stealth is enormously expensive and only the US has  it.  It works.   Stealth is the reason US forces were able to defeat Saddam Hussein's army in only 100 hours.   The Stealth fighters destroyed the radars around Baghdad because the Iraqis never saw them coming until it was too late.  Once the radars were gone the rest of the destruction was inflicted by conventional attack bombers.

It is hard to imagine that the US would let Israel have its way-ahead-of-what-everyone-else-has technology.  The temptation to reverse-engineer American stealth aircraft and manufacture their own would be overwhelming.  The US has complained before of Israel selling American military technology to unfriendly countries like China.

Alternately the US could bomb Hezbollah's A-300 batteries ourselves.  But that would be direct involvement in yet another Middle Eastern war.  Plus there would be the enormous risk that the missile batteries would be manned by Russians.  Americans killing Russians would be a disaster and in the worst case could lead to a renewed Cold War.

The only simple solution I can see is the destruction of the missile batteries with swarms of unmanned Israeli drones if that is militarily possible.  While the Russians would be outraged if their people were hurt or killed in the process, the Israelis would be defending their territory and their citizens and would do so no matter what the diplomatic consequences.  Presumably the Russians would foresee that and not put their people in harm's way.  Again, assuming that it is militarily possible to destroy anti-aircraft missile batteries with swarms of drones.


Every major Sunni country - mainly Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey, and the various Gulf states - is vitally involved in supporting the insurgency.  There are Shi'ite majorities ruled by Sunni minorities along the whole southern coast of the Persian Gulf including eastern Saudi Arabia.  The south coast of the Persian Gulf is also where most of the Middle East oil is.  A Shi'ite victory in Syria could destabilize every government in the main oil producing areas.

Iran, the main Shi'ite power, is co-sponsor of the Alawite-Shi'ite regime in Syria and owns the northern coast of the Gulf.  Iran would face isolation and Sunni encirclement if al-Assad were to fall.

Even Turkey has cause for concern.  If the Syrian regime falls, it is possible that Syria's Kurdish northeast would seek and possibly get autonomy in the chaotic aftermath of the war.  An autonomous Syrian Kurdistan next to an already autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan would raise the specter of Kurdish unification.  Since the whole southeast of Turkey is ethnically Kurdish, this could cause Turkey big trouble internally.

Which means that this long brutal war figures to become even longer and more brutal.  Because so many parties are so vitally interested in the outcome, it is hard to imagine that it can be settled by anything but outright victory for one side and massacre for the other.  The stakes are far higher than just who runs Syria.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Possible Solution to Annoying Household Problem

It is surprising that what must be a common problem - sketchy wi-fi signals at home - can become so obscure to fix. My house has thirteen rooms, not counting bathrooms (Why does one not count bathrooms? They're rooms.) on two floors and it is difficult to get a usable wi-fi signal in many of the upstairs rooms. Rita's house is larger and on three levels and it is difficult to get a decent signal even on the same floor as the router. We have tried so-called range extenders, signal repeaters, with uneven and unreliable results, and hassled with the problem for years.  It has been and remains a major pain in the butt.

 I have just learned of the existence of a device that sends the signal through the house's electrical wiring so it can reach all parts of the house, regardless of distance. Cisco/Linksys, the biggest manufacturer of network hardware, sells the Linksys Powerline AV Wireless Extender Kit PLWK400 for $90 at 

I have sent for the device and will report on it when I get it and get it installed and perhaps even working.

17 May
I have received the device and installed it.  It is idiot simple to set up.  

Plug the included ethernet cable into one of the ethernet ports on the back of your router.  All routers have them.  Plug the other end into the ethernet port on the PLE400 box, then plug the box itself into an electrical outlet.   Then run downstairs or wherever you are not getting a signal and plug the PLW400 box (the one with more lights on the front) into an electrical outlet there.

Use a laptop or other computer able to receive wi-fi and check for a channel named 'PLW4'.  Click on that.  If you are paranoid and gullible* you can use the software on the included CD to set up security and other useless eyewash.  If not, you are ready to go.  

The 'PLW4' (Its default SSID name) signal is strong enough that it covers more than half the house from its end.  Since the signal path from the router to the PWL400 device is copper wire the whole way, the transmission rate is faster than before because the signal does not have to be re-broadcast, as with wi-fi range extenders.  Presumably a hardwired connection will be more reliable than a broadcast one, and certainly more than a re-broadcast one.

With the router near the uppermost rightmost frontmost apex of the house and the Linksys PLW400 device near the lowermost leftmost rearmost apex, the house is almost completely covered.  This is a three-storey roughly 4000 square foot house with woodframe construction and stucco outer walls, so the combination of the router and the Linksys PLWK400 should be sufficient to cover most houses.

The signal is not only plenty strong for laptops anywhere in the house but also fast enough for Roku boxes carrying Netflix or Popcornflix or Pandora to a television.  Most "streaming" movies are actually buffered downloads and the signal is plenty fast enough for that.  

To sandbag the signal speed and reliability, one could run one of the two included ethernet cables from the port in the bottom of the PLW400 to the back of the Roku box (or Smart TV if one has one).  Thus one would be connected by copper wire all the way from the cable company to the user's screen.  Similarly one could run ethernet to a game console for online multiplayer games.

The only caveat to buying this thing is that Linksys has several models with similar names.  The key to the product names is that the 'PL' stands for 'power line' and the 'W' for 'wi-fi'.  The other models are mainly for 4 or more ethernet connections at the output end instead of wi-fi.   The 'K' in the product name stands for 'Kit' since everything one needs is included.

The instructions say there can be a problem connecting the device if the input electrical socket and the output one are not connected at all, perhaps because the rooms are on different circuits and not joined by a circuit breaker anywhere in the house.  My experience and that of dozens of people who posted Amazon user comments is that this is seldom a problem.

Summary:  The Linksys PLWK400 is a complete and successful solution to the problem of getting adequate wi-fi and ethernet coverage of a large house.  It costs $80 directly from Linksys, more from others.   Linksys ships from California so, if avoiding California sales tax is an issue, order it from someplace out of state, possibly

*Router manufacturers make a fuss about securing your wi-fi signal with a keycode so that others can't "steal" it.  Since passwords are all encrypted, what exactly is being stolen is not clear - your Facebook pictures of kitties and puppies and smiling children?  In smaller housing units or apartment buildings, instead of one router supporting perhaps 10 neighboring users, each user must have her own.  Which means that the manufacturer sells 10 routers to that building instead of one.  Would manufacturers deliberately spread groundless fear and uncertainty in order to greatly multiply their sales and profits?  Does scum rise?  Does crap float?  Do capitalist lowlifes lie and mislead?  What do you think?

As more and more files are on the cloud and not on the local computer, fears of having one's signal "stolen" become even more fatuous.

Plump Jack Recommends

Surprisingly, 'Plumpjack' refers neither to me nor to Shakespeare's Sir John Falstaff.  Plumpjack is a fancy liquor store in the Marina district in San Francisco.  It, together with the fashionable Balboa Cafe across the street, are owned by the former Mayor of San Francisco and current Lieutenant-Governor of California, Gavin Newsom.  While I have little confidence in Gavin Newsom, I have considerable confidence in the buyer/sommelier of fancy high-end places like Plumpjack and the Balboa Cafe.

Rather than trying to figure out what are the best kinds of booze by a tedious and expensive process of trial-and-puke, I copied down the kinds on the Balboa Cafe's drinks menu and looked at the ads at Plumpjack.

Here's the list:

Bulleit Frontier
Woodford Reserve

Bulleit Rye



10 Cane

Jose Cuervo Tradicional Silver

Square One Cucumber
Belvedere Red
Stolichnaya Gala Apple
Charbay Meyer Lemon
Ketel One

My notes:
So far I have tried Bulleit Frontier bourbon and found it smooth and drinkable.  I tried Woodford Reserve but found it harsh and not drinkable.  Bulleit Rye is excellent.

Side-note - on no account ever buy Wild Turkey 101.  Nothing recommends it but the proof and that is no recommendation at all.  Wretched stuff.

Dewar's scotch comes in 10-year-old white label and 12-year-old blue label varieties.  One would assume as a matter of course that the blue label would be more expensive, and it is normally.  But Safeway had them both on sale such that the blue label was actually cheaper though the not-on-sale price was higher.  The blue label Dewar's is smooth and enjoyable.

I have not gotten around to trying the tequila nor the Ketel One vodka yet.

Safeway does not carry either of the gins so reports on them depend on whether Trader Joe's has them.

As to the others, I have not tried them because I consider flavored vodkas to be a frivolity reserved for the young and for people given to wearing bright-colored clothing.

Friday, April 19, 2013

What Caused the Second Boston Massacre?

[The First Boston Massacre - 1770]

Dogs are generally sweet lovable little guys and gals who love being petted, who protect our homes and children, and who can generally be persuaded to shit on our neighbors' lawns and not on ours.  Occasionally they bark too much or barf at inopportune times, occasionally one will bite someone, but we still enjoy having them around.

Most pit bulls are equally well-behaved and kindly.  It is rare for a pit bull to harm anyone.  It is rare for a pit bull to kill a child.  But when when one reads of a dog killing a small child that dog is not a poodle, nor a dachshund, nor a Labrador retriever.  It is a pit bull.

Few pit bulls ever harm anyone.  It is not fair to say that pit bulls harm children, nor is it true.  Most pit bulls are sweet good neighbors.  But it is also true that only pit bulls kill children.

So when Congress is deliberating what kinds of dogs to permit to be imported into the United States, should we import lots of pit bulls?  Or should we say, that as harmless as almost all pit bulls are, we should reduce or close the quota on pit bulls that may be imported, and increase the number of Saint Bernards and Irish setters that come in?

It would be unfair and unreasonable to discriminate among dogs already in the country, but as to importing them, shouldn't we limit the number of pit bull coming in from other countries?  We are bound to treat all dogs and their owners equally once in the country.  But we are under no such obligation as to dogs outside the country that are sought to be brought in.  As to which breeds we permit to be imported, we have nothing to consult except our national self-interest.  And it is not in our national interest to import pit bulls in preference to Afghans or foxhounds that might otherwise be imported in their stead.

This is true no matter how nice and sweet almost all pit bulls are after arriving.

Suppose we are not talking about importing dogs but people, about immigration.  There are as many nations in the world as there are breeds of dogs.  Which ones should we admit and which exclude or limit?

Once people are here it is unthinkable to us to discriminate against or among them.  But while they are living in their own countries seeking admission to ours, we are in no way bound to consider their interests but only our own.  We exclude people with communicable diseases, mental defectives, criminals, welfare dependents, addicts, alcoholics, and so on, not because it is fair but because it is in our interest.

It is true that, as with pit bulls, almost all Muslims are well-behaved honest citizens.  When bombs are placed at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, almost all Muslims are as horrified as anyone else.  But  just as when a child is killed by a dog, that dog is a pit bull, when people are massacred with bombs in Boston, the perpetrators are Muslims.

It would be unthinkable to discriminate against Muslims already in the US on the basis of the acts of a few.  But it is simply stupid to pretend there is no connection when we have seen the same pattern here and abroad over and over again.

People living abroad who seek admission to the US have no right to come here.  We choose which ones to admit and which to exclude.  Which ones we should admit is not an issue of fairness but of self-interest.  Reducing the number of people admitted from Muslim countries can and should be compensated by increases in the number of people admitted from China, India, the Philippines, Korea, Latin America, Africa, and so on.

People from those countries are just as law-abiding and kind and good citizens as immigrants from Muslim countries, but they do not come with the added cost of a handful of terrorists among them.

This is not rocket science and it is not likely that Washington does not see the obvious as well as anyone else.   One cannot help but wonder why the government would pursue such a policy.  The history of immigration policy in the US is a long sad tale of racism and bigotry from the McCarran Acts of the 1920's and on.   Minor reforms started only in the time of Lyndon Johnson and have progressed only slightly since then.  One cannot help but wonder what the reason might be for admitting so many from Muslim countries when so many from other countries are clamoring equally loudly for admission.

Given that racist history, one cannot help but wonder if part of the reason could be that Muslim countries west of Pakistan are predominantly white, while the peoples of India, China, the Philippines, Korea, Africa, and Latin America are not.

Call me a bleeding-heart liberal if you will, but I would rather see a Tiger Woods-colored America without bombs than a lily white country that pretends away its racism at the expense of seeing its citizens massacred.

8:45pm West Coast time.  
Now that they have arrested suspect #2 and have been more forthcoming about what authorities knew, my point is amplified and endorsed by events.  When the Russians told our government about the older brother Tamerlane, the FBI sent agents to talk to him.  Presumably they gave him the "We know all about you, we've got our eyes on you, so don't try anything or we will come down on you like a metric ton of bricks."  But having made the speech, there was nothing else they could do.  

We don't have preventive detention in the US.  Unless and until Tamerlane committed a crime our authorities could do nothing against him, even knowing how dangerous he was and how likely to commit a terrorist act (which is precisely what the Russians were warning us about).   Unless he violated the terms of his immigration status, they couldn't even deport him.  The only preventive measure open to the United States government would have been not to admit him to the US in the first place.   That would have worked.   But it wasn't what we did.

Monday, April 15, 2013

We All Have to Die, So Why Not Plan How to Do It?

[for fullscreen click 4 outward-pointing arrows at lower right corner of video]

As one gets older, more and more of the people one knew begin to die.  My parents are both gone, my mother from lung cancer, my father from complications of diabetes.  My sister Miriam died of heart failure.  My Aunt Sophie died of bone cancer.  My friend Otis also died of bone cancer.  Danny died either of a heart attack or a drug overdose.  Jay Trachman died of lung cancer.  Rita's late husband Maurice died of prostate cancer.  My relative Bob Jaffe just died of liver cancer.

Most of them died in hospitals hooked up to machines.  Commonly when their cases became hopeless they were transferred to palliative care to make their last days or hours as comfortable as could be arranged.  The palliative care usually consists at the end of increasing and finally lethal doses of morphine.

While perfectly reasonable and understandable, this seems like an unconsidered, cramped way to go.  Death is an important moment in one's life and it should be done well if possible.   We are familiar with the notion of nobly dying in battle for one's country but the increasing technical improvements in combat mean that in the future the risks of combat will be that one might strain a thumb operating the trackball controller of a drone.  And in any case death in battle contemplates both that one is young and in the military, neither of which the old and infirm ever are.

As a lifelong Zionist, I wondered whether after a confirmed diagnosis of fully metastasized stage four cancer, I might try to infiltrate either Gaza or Teheran and blow myself up next to some Hamas or Iranian bigshot.  But there is too much wrong with terrorism to do it, even at no cost to myself.

I have been close enough to death to think about it a few times.  Once I worked on a halibut boat in Sheepshead Bay in Alaska for a man named Shorty Jessup.  The dory had an outboard but the pressure release on the motor didn't work so Shorty couldn't start it.  Which meant that if I fell in the water that he couldn't come after me.  The water was no more than a degree above freezing so if I fell in I would be dead of hypothermia in 20 minutes.  I thought that I was a middle class college graduate and I was doing this as an adventure and for the romance of it, not as a career that I was committed to.  I thought of telling Shorty that we had to go back.  But then it occurred to me that instead I could rely on myself to hold on tight, be prudent about what I did, and take personal responsibility for my not falling out of the boat.  I put my own abilities between me and death and that was enough.  One can, and indeed must, live without guarantees.

Another time, I and a friend were rock climbing in Yosemite.  We had started late, had lost the light, and had lost our way.  We were beginning to tire and it was starting to rain.  I begin to see how it was becoming possible that we weren't going home that night nor any other night.  While I was seconding my partner I had time to think.  I was in my early 40's then but in looking back on my life, though it had been shorter than I would have liked, what I had lived had been good enough that I could settle for it.  I had lived enough that I could die content.  That realization enabled me to relax and not be afraid.

These experiences gave me the notion that death is not really that terrifying.  It is not huge and existential.  It is just something one does on one day of the week, either in the AM or in the PM.  It is just one last thing to do.  Everybody does it sooner or later.

We have gotten so used to the trivialization of the expression 'quality of life' as an excuse for euthanasia that we don't hear it anymore.  All we mean by it now is dulling suffering with drugs or death.  All our lives we are hemmed in and weighed down by concerns about safety and prudence.  We hear our mothers inveighing against running with scissors.  Finally at the end of life when the jig is up, we are for a moment free of caution if we are willing to accept it.  Why can't the proximity of death mean an end-of-life life full of thrills, beauty, and adventure instead of drugs and hospitals?  

Which makes thinking about how to do it not morbid at all.  Planning one's death is as reasonable and ordinary as making a will.  But I still hadn't thought of an exciting or interesting way to do it when the time comes.

Last night everything changed.  Rita and I saw a documentary on television.  Now I know how I want to go.  I had considered skydiving but it seemed (and still seems) stupid.  One jumps out of an airplane to scare the crap out of oneself (often literally) but other than that just falls until the parachute opens and then just hangs until one alights.  It just didn't seem that interesting.

Things started to change with the invention of steerable-wing parachutes.  These ingenious devices are a silken wing composed of aerodynamic cells and the parachutist hangs in a harness below it.   The glide ratios of these things have been improved so much that they can be flown in places with updrafts all afternoon long.  I have seen steep-sided valleys in the French Alpes with the air crowded with flocks of brightly-colored wing-parachutes and their passengers floating in them.

The wing parachute has in the past few years dwindled to a minor pastime for those too faint of heart for wingsuit flying.  Wing parachutes have a merely vestigial role in wing suit flying.  Wingsuit flying converts a mere mortal into a flying squirrel.  Wingsuit flying is probably as close as human beings will ever come to actual human flight though in actual fact it is really a fast steerable glide.  At the end, instead of dying, one pops a wing-parachute to land.

Judging from the videos I have seen, such as the one above, it is about as close to completely exhilarating as one can get.  Everyone agrees that it is thoroughly dangerous since it involves flying through the air at around 100 mph (160 kph).  One of the pilots said in an interview with apparently no exaggeration, that if one hits anything, anything at all, a tree branch, a glancing blow off a cliff face, one is certain to die.  Having on occasion ridden bicycles downhill as fast as 30-odd miles per hour, I fully agree.  At 100 mph there are no serious injuries, only death.

Initially the purpose of the sport was to fly as far from the jumping-off point as possible and in the process to stay as far away from obstacles such as the ground, as possible.  As glide ratios improved, airplane jumps gave way to jumping off high mountain cliffs, now called 'base jumping'.

The day came when some American wingsuit flyers saw an anonymous Frenchman glide down the face of Mont Blanc, going not as high as he could but as low.  This was a revelation and a revolution.  Wingsuit flying became flying as close to the terrain as possible.  Instead of the terrain and its features being seen hundreds of feet below, one now saw them rushing by at three digit speeds only a few feet, and even fewer meters, below.  Wingsuits which had been flown only for stable lengthy flight, now were flown for maneuverability, agility, and dash.  This is called proximity wingsuit gliding, or just proximity gliding.  It is, judging by the videos shot from the pilots' helmets, the most exciting sport in the world.

The caveat for me is my ferocious acrophobia.  Even watching videos of other people jumping out of airplanes or off cliffs greatly upsets me, even though I am safe in my bed at home.  Standing near a precipice with anything less than an immovable armpits-high barrier in front of me induces panic.  I get agitated on some elevated sections of freeway and driving, let alone bicycling, next to drop-offs requires studied suppression of panic.

But I remember that I was able to diminish or perhaps to push down the panic by conditioning and by force of will.  I had to keep my eyes closed on ski lifts and would ask the person next to me to tell me when we were getting close to the hopping off station at the top.  With practice I could keep my eyes open longer at the beginning and open them sooner at the end.

This mitigation of the terror enabled me to undertake technical rock climbing.  There is an interior monologue in which one tells oneself that now (while one is climbing hundreds of feet up a cliff face) is  not the time to panic.  I will panic later when I am off this climb.  With real justifiable fear to back up one's arguments, even panic can be reasoned with, pushed down, but it never completely goes away.

I climbed for several years and though I was never good at it, I was able to follow easy 5.9's and to lead easy 5.8's.   On the Yosemite Scale, the 5 indicates technical climbing and the number after the dot measures the difficulty of the climb.  For perspective, the scale now goes up to 5.14 and is logarithmic, so each subsequent digit is at least half again as difficult as the one before it.  Any normal healthy young adult can climb 5.5 right now without really thinking about it, and can climb 5.6 if she pays attention to what she is doing.  So I wasn't that good.  On the other end of the scale, 5.14 is close to climbing across the bottom of a horizontal sheet of glass.  There are guys who can do things on rock that one doesn't believe even though one just saw it done.  I am not one of them.

The acrophobia was always somewhere nearby, right at my elbow, but I pushed it away as best I could and climbed anyway.  So here's the parlay.  To get to the top of really high mountain cliffs, one does not hike to them, one climbs to them.  These people do a long technical climb just to get to their jumping off place.  They reach the lip of an immense cliff face.  And jump off.   Intuitively what follows next is their bodies being crushed to a broken bloody mess on the rocks, moments of agony, then nothing, tears of those who cared about them, a funeral, and then after a decent interval, she remarries.  But that doesn't happen.  Instead they fly.

After millennia of envying birds, we can at last do it, we can fly.   But the miracle comes now, only now when I am old, fat and feeble.  The old is not negotiable, the fat I am fixing in 2013, and the feeble I mean to fix in 2014 as best I can.

If I don't get killed doing it, then I can go up and do it again.  If I do, then as Shakespeare says of some of his characters, "[exit laughing]".

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Monday, March 25, 2013

President Obama, President Peres, and Miss Israel

This is one of the many reasons why airlifting the Bnei Israel community from Ethiopia to Israel was such a good idea......

P.S.   She immigrated to Israel when she was 12, is an IDF veteran, and can kill you with a pencil.

Saturday, March 09, 2013

More Zionist Oppression

In yet another blow to the so-called Peace Process we read of the following outrage.   
The government demolished 75 houses in the Palestinian al-Rimal neighborhood; government officials say the houses were illegally built on public lands. Families occupying the homes demonstrated in front of the Legislative Council.
Where were Arab governments while this was happening?  Why didn't the UN pass yet another condemnatory resolution?  Where was the British Left while this was going on?  Why didn't the EU say something?  Why didn't the Norwegian or Belgian governments withdraw their ambassadors?   Have they gone soft on Israeli aggression?

The explanation for their unexpected flaccidity of a self-appointed world opinion can be found when the quote is seen without my devious editing.
The Hamas-run government in Gaza demolished 75 houses in the al-Rimal neighborhood; government officials say the houses were illegally built on public lands. Families occupying the homes demonstrated in front of the Palestinian Legislative Council.
The supposedly pro-Palestinian Europeans, the Left, and "human rights" organizations come out in full-throated howl when Israelis so much as build new houses near the Palestinians.  Here Hamas actually tore down Palestinians' houses without compensation and no one gives a crap.

Does anyone still believe that any of those condemning Israel at every opportunity actually gives a damn about the Palestinians? Tell me again how hostility to Israel is not an expression of Jew-hatred but only sympathy for Palestinians.  The Jew-haters themselves clearly don't believe it.