May 17, 2019

Trump, Iran, and the World

Donald Trump said yesterday that he doesn’t want war with Iran; he is only interested in keeping Iran from getting nuclear weapons.

Of course, the agreement with Iran that the president was so eager to get out of was designed to keep Iran from developing nuclear weapons. Moreover, the agreement was working well and was accomplishing its key objective.

What Trump didn’t like about the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was its multilateral nature. We have a president who hates co-operative agreements involving multiple states, whether they be NAFTA, the TTP, the JCPOA, the Paris Accord, or even the United Nations itself.

A former master of his own business empire, President Trump wants analogous control over U.S. agreements with other nations. He abhors the compromises required to obtain consensus among multiple partners, irrespective of the benefits that might accrue from an agreement. Trump’s need for control is obvious, too, in his domestic role as leader of the United States. Somehow, Donald Trump never learned those lessons in kindergarten about getting along with others.

Multilateral co-operation among nations has made the post-WWII world safe, prosperous, and largely democratic. Although the U.S. has been a key player in its creation, the Pax Americana was not the result of putting the United States first in all things, as Trump would now have it. The world was a better place because we actively sought a better world for everyone, not simply a world dominated by and for the United States of America. Donald Trump is now determined to destroy that world.

It will be up to the next president—one hopes a Democratic president—to rebuild the safe, prosperous, democratic world that Donald Trump is destroying.

March 27, 2019

A Different Redistricting Idea

My Great Decisions discussion group got somewhat off track yesterday and entertained a long discussion on the merits of the Electoral College as a means of electing our president. Although most participants had a negative view of the electoral system going into the discussion, a small minority—really only one person—claimed that the system gives minorities a fighting chance of having influence. She argued that our electoral system discourages insurrection by those who feel disenfranchised.

The counter-argument made was that voters in small states are afforded influence far beyond their numbers, and voters in large states dominated by a single party—New York and California most notably—have virtually no influence.

Someone made a suggestion I never considered and one that seems appropriate at a time when political gerrymandering is before the Supreme Court. Why not, this person suggested, redistrict the entire country into ten or so states with more or less equal populations? Is this not the kind of result progressives are seeking within the existing states? Not exactly, of course, though clever redistricting can concentrate voters of one party in one district and distribute such voters among several districts, in each case intending to reduce the influence of individual voters of one party. Of course, the worst case of voter inequality is enshrined in the U.S. Senate, in which a senator from Montana has many fewer constituents than one from California.

We aren’t going to redefine our 50 states into 10. The difficulties involved are legion. For federal election purposes, could we define, in some reasonably fair way, 10 or so virtual states, each with the same number of inhabitants and electoral votes? Or we could simply amend the Constitution to allow direct election of the president and vice president.

Ordnances

A report on NPR this morning spoke of removing “unexploded ordnances” in Vietnam. This immediately sent me to dictionaries to check my understanding of “ordnance.” The word refers to canons, artillery, or munitions generally, and it may, according to some sources, refer as well to related matériel.

In any case, “ordnance” is a collective noun. We normally don’t speak of one ordnance or many ordnances. An artillery shell is ordnance. A pile of artillery shell is also ordnance.

The NPR reporter Michele Kelemen was clearly wrong in her use of the phrase “unexploded ordnances.” In fact, it is difficult to imagine when “ordnances” might be properly used, though one can imagine comparing the military resources of two countries and remarking on the differences in their “ordnances.” Even that might be a stretch.

As an aside, I should note that “ordnance” should not be confused with “ordinance” (a decree, regulation, etc.), a word that is often used in the plural. It is amusing, however, to think about what “unexploded ordinances” might be.

March 24, 2019

Slogan Compromise

In light of the many unarmed black males killed by police, a popular slogan has become

BLACK LIVES MATTER.

The angry right-wing white reaction to this slogan became

ALL LIVES MATTER.

Of course, both of these slogans are true, though the second is intended to minimize the significance of the first.

We should compromise the black vs. white rhetoric by combining these slogans:

ALL BLACK LIVES MATTER.

March 19, 2019

Three Unneeded Presidential Candidates

The pool of candidates vying for the Democratic presidential nomination is large and growing. This is a mixed blessing, and some of the contenders are not helpful additions to the race.

It is gratifying, of course, that so many people are qualified (or see themselves as being qualified) to seek the presidency. Before hats began being thrown into the proverbial ring, I had a short, if tentative, list of those I thought reasonable candidates. My list included few of the present hopefuls, and at least one person on my list shows no inclination to run. It is good to have choices, though, and to learn of qualifications of which I had been unaware. But such a large field creates problems by its size alone.

Campaigning is expensive, and, although some candidates have reported striking fund-raising success early on, I worry that there will be insufficient money to create anything like a level playing field for all the players. But the advent of Donald Trump has energized the Democratic faithful, so my concern could be unfounded. I plan to give money to at least one candidate.

The value of presidential debates has been questioned, but debates among candidates for the nomination are undoubtedly useful, since, invariably, not everyone is well-known. With so many candidates, however, it is difficult to design a debate format that allows all candidates to be compared head-to-head. Certainly, the “kids’ table” plan used by the Republicans in 2016 was not satisfactory. I think Democrats are determined to avoid that mistake, but it is difficult to imagine a debate scheme that works equally well for 5 candidates and for twenty candidates. The fairness and usefulness of debates are difficult to assure.

Because there are so many contenders, it may be hard for voters to distinguish candidates from one another generally and from similarly positioned rivals specifically. Some candidates claim to be progressive, and others are pitching themselves as moderates, though they may not use that word. (Certainly, no Democrat is claiming to be conservative.) Devising a linear ordering of candidates from centrist to leftist is difficult enough, and it is complicated by differential financial support and the vagaries of debates and media coverage. Other factors complicate the choice faced by voters—issues of sex, race, age, experience, and aggressiveness.

With so many people running, our usual voting system is not well-suited to selecting the people’s choice. For example, the progressive vote could be split among left-leaning candidates, allowing a more moderate candidate to gain a plurality of votes. Delegate selection is not winner-take-all everywhere, of course, but, in an ideal world, we would be using some form of ranked preference voting in all our elections. (See, for example, “The People’s Choice (Round Two).”) Unfortunately, such an innovation is a hard sell. Don’t discount a crapshoot.

On the positive side, the presidential-primary process is a kind of trial by ordeal. Over a period of months, candidates invariably stumble. The nature of their mistakes and how they recover from them offer insight into their character, their staff choices, and their capabilities. One hopes that such insight helps voters make better choices.

Considering all of the foregoing, there are three candidates I would prefer not to see in the Democratic race: Beto O’Rourke, Bernie Sanders, and Joe Biden.

It concerns me that Beto O’Rourke is fundamentally a pretty face. He is winsome, articulate, handsome, youthful, and devoid of significant political accomplishment. Admittedly, youthfulness is not to be despised, but I worry that O’Rourke will draw support from older candidates of substance. I fear that Trump would eat him for breakfast.

There are two obvious strikes against Bernie Sanders, in my mind at least. First, he is not a Democrat. Why do we even let him run in Democratic primaries? Admittedly, he caucuses with the Democrats in the Senate, but one has to ask why he avoids casting his lot with the party whose nomination he seeks. If he does not win the nomination, he will remain only a near-Democrat. More importantly, Sanders is—pardon the ageist rhetoric—old, even older than Donald Trump. If elected president, he would begin his term at age 79. Is it a fair bet that he could remain a capable executive and commander-in-chief through two full terms? Surely, we do not want to elect a one-term Democratic president. Sanders has proposed interesting objectives, but it is less clear that he has practical policies that could reasonably implement them. One can only guess at Sanders’ foreign policy priorities. His candidacy will drain votes from younger left-leaning candidates without Sanders’ name recognition and fund-raising ability.

Finally, we come to Joe Biden. In his way, he is as charming as Beto O’Rourke, though his propensity to hug anything that moves is a little creepy. Unlike some other candidates, no one seriously questions Biden’s qualifications—Trump would, of course—though, admittedly, he has some slipups in his past. Biden is nearly as old as Sanders, however, and I think that should be considered too old. Moreover, in the Democratic field, he is clearly a moderate. His name-recognition advantage may keep the party from selecting what I think is necessary to beat Donald Trump, namely, an aggressive liberal (or aggressive progressive, if you prefer).

The race for the Democratic nomination is just beginning. As of this writing, Joe Biden is still doing his Hamlet impression, but few doubt that he will enter the fray. I hope he does not and does not do well if he does. I hope people will see Bernie Sanders as a grumpy old man unlikely to gain the support of those who do not support him already. And I hope that Democrats will see Beto O’Rourke is a promising candidate in need of additional experience and accomplishment.

However the primary season plays out, it is likely to be a wild ride. Stay tuned.

March 4, 2019

Six Language Quibbles

What is wrong with the sentence below?

Both accused each other.

This is but one of the issues I deal with in a new essay on my Web site titled “Six Language Quibbles.” You can read what drives me crazy here.

March 3, 2019

An MLB Safety Concern

While watching a Spring Training baseball game the other day, I saw a fielder practically trip over a chair used by a ball girl in foul territory. Her chair need not have been a safety hazard. I’ve added an essay about this situation on my Web site. You can read “Another MLB Safety Concern” here.

February 19, 2019

A General Principle Regarding Odd Results

A few days ago, I baked cookies from a recipe published by The New York Times, a kind of salty chocolate chip shortbread. I had originally intended to bake the cookies for a Christmas Eve reception, but I was just getting around to it. Besides being intrigued by the ingredients of the cookies—including flake salt and demerara sugar—I was pleased that the recipe supplied both volume and weight for each of its dry components. Being able to weigh ingredients promised a foolproof baking experience.

Well, maybe not. The dough was very crumbly and difficult to work with. The baked cookies were just OK but were too chocolatey, a fact that reminded me of an oddity I noticed during preparation. The recipe called for six ounces of chocolate chips. I measured out chips from what was supposed to be a 12-ounce bag. Six ounces of chocolate chips seemed to require about three-quarters of the bag. I didn’t think deeply about this at the time, but I wondered if Ghirardelli wasn’t playing fair.

The next morning, I had cereal for breakfast, and, as I usually do, I measured out a 56-gram serving on my kitchen scale. The quantity of cereal seemed to be about what I usually put into my cereal bowl. I recalled, however, that the last time I had cereal, my 56-gram serving seemed substantially larger. I began to see a pattern I should have noticed earlier. Had my scale gone bananas?

After breakfast, I decided to check my scale’s calibration. Although I didn’t have a set of standard weights, I did have a few items of known weight, if only approximately so. I began with a three-pound hand weight. According to my scale, it weighed about 2.5 pounds. My other three-pound weight weighed about the same. I next tried weighing some coins. A nickel, which is supposed to weigh 5 grams, came in at 3 grams. At this point, I concluded that my kitchen scale had lost its mind. Time for another scale.

Eventually, I found a Cook’s Illustrated story rating kitchen scales. This led me to order an outrageously expensive Oxo scale from Williams-Sonoma, mercifully, with a 20% discount for God knows what reason. Alas, the scale is back ordered at the moment. I look forward to receiving it next month.

The next day, I checked the batteries in my scale (two AAA cells). They checked out fine and supplied almost exactly the same voltage. I really do need a new scale.

There is a lesson here, one that has nothing to do with baking. The lesson is this: When a result is out-of-the-ordinary, one should not ignore it or be happy if the unexpected result appears favorable. Instead, one should check out whether something is amiss, as it probably is. This principle applies to the behavior of computers, cellphones, cars (especially) and people. Stay alert!