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!

February 13, 2019

Breakfast Encounter

I had a rough morning, so I decided to have breakfast out. I went to Crouse Café, which serves only breakfast and lunch, and which does a particularly fine job of breakfast. I sat down in a booth, took off my hat, gloves, and jacket, and got comfortable.

I soon became aware of someone sitting at a table facing my booth a few yards away. The person was a 20-ish, bearded male speaking what I guessed was Arabic. He wore earbuds and was carrying on a lively conversation on his cellphone. What was weird was that, although no one was sitting across from him, he spoke and gestured as though someone was. It was as if an invisible companion, with his back to me, was participating in the conversation. Were it not for the earbuds, I might have thought the guy was conversing with Harvey.

When I talk on the telephone, I don’t believer I act in the same way I would were I participating in a face-to-face conversation. Of course, I don’t observe myself in such circumstances, so I may behave stranger than I think.

Have others seen the behavior I did this morning? Do you think it is common?

January 15, 2019

Why Concern About the Trump-Russian Connection Is Not Simply Paranoia

If President Donald Trump did not have a problematic relationship with the Russian government and if he were a mentally healthy person of normal intelligence, he would recognize that appearances raise legitimate concerns about that relationship, and he would offer a satisfactory explanation for those appearances, rather than constantly asserting that “there was no collusion.”

January 14, 2019

Protecting Already-Born Women

Having read the extended report by the editorial board of The New York Times titled “A Woman’s Rights,” I was distressed to read the story in my local paper, The Indiana Gazette, that carried the headline “White Seeking Change to Pennsylvania High Court’s Decision.” “White” is the powerful local state senator Don White, and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision referred to ruled that a woman cannot be charged with child abuse for her drug use during pregnancy. A Gazette story a few days earlier explained that
The Supreme Court’s main opinion said the law’s definition of a child does not include fetuses or unborn children, and victims of perpetrators must be children under the Child Protective Services Law.
I immediately recognized the danger in Senator White’s proposal. After a couple of days’ consideration, I wrote a letter to the editor of the Gazette that was published last week. The text of my letter follows:
I oppose state Sen. Don White’s efforts to facilitate prosecution for child abuse of mothers who have taken illegal drugs (“White seeking change to high court’s decision,” Sunday).
Whereas his appears to be a sincere effort to protect the innocent, it is actually a step toward granting personhood to the unborn and abridging the constitutional rights of women. Attributing personhood (and therefore rights) to the unborn is a legal minefield intended by anti-choice activists ultimately to outlaw abortion and perhaps even birth control.
In the near future, it could allow for such absurdities as prosecution for homicide of less-than-perfect mothers experiencing miscarriages. Senator White’s proposal must not become law.
Lionel Deimel
Whether my letter will cause people to rethink their initial reaction to Senator White’s proposal, I don’t know. I hope it will.

Can We Find Common Ground on the Wall?

The government shutdown caused by President Trump’s insistence that Congress appropriate nearly six billion dollars for his border wall continues into this week. A wall from the Pacific to the Gulf of Mexico is a wasteful and ineffectual project dreamed up by the Trump campaign to rally Trump’s most rabid and ignorant voters. The Democrats, fresh from a major win in the recent midterm elections, see an opportunity not only to derail an ill-conceived project but also to deliver a devasting blow to a dangerous and incompetent president. Trump recognizes the threat and is seeking to avoid defeat at all costs.

I suggested earlier that the current standoff will likely end when constituents pressure the Congress to reactivate those parts of the government that have been closed down. At that point, a funding bill could be passed over a presidential veto. Before that happens, Trump may declare an “emergency,” which could trigger a constitutional crisis those outcome cannot be predicted. Is a compromise available that delivers at least a partial victory to each side? I think there is.

Trump’s wall is clearly a wacky idea that, even if built, would not fulfill his promise of its being paid for by the Mexican government. That said, our southern border already contains lengths of barriers that have been considered necessary and effective by both Republicans and Democrats. Trump’s funding demand clearly will not complete a Great Wall of America. However, what if the president proposed building a specific type of barrier in specified places and articulated credible justification for the project? If he is incapable of doing this, gridlock will continue. If Trump can offer a rational argument for a limited construction project and not just his I-want-it-so-you-have-to-give-it-to-me reasoning, perhaps politicians can find a compromise to fund an enhanced border barrier and reopen the government.

Likely, neither the president nor congressional Democrats will be fond of my suggestion, but, if politics is the art of the possible, there may be a way forward to be had on the table.

January 5, 2019

A Prediction

I am not in the habit of making predictions regarding political events. Prognostication too easily leads to embarrassment. Nevertheless, today I confidently stick my neck out: The partial government shutdown will not last a year (as President Trump suggested it could) or any substantial part of a year. You can take that prediction to the bank.

As we enter the third week of the government shutdown caused by Trump’s insistence of being granted billions of dollars—the latest number is 5.6—for construction of a wasteful and unnecessary wall on our southern border, neither the president himself nor the newly empowered Democrats seem inclined to abandon the presently held position. Trump views wall-building as the fulfillment of a major campaign promise, though he seems to have forgotten the other part of his promise, namely, that Mexico would pay for the wall. Democrats, emboldened by their electoral success in the recent midterms, are presenting a united front against funding Trump’s Folly, though not against money for “border security.” Each side believes it would be suicidal to relent.

Democrats, however, have the stronger position. The government shutdown, contrary to Trump¹s confident, yet uninformed, prattle, is not popular, particularly among those whose livelihood is being threatened by it. Moreover, Trump has gleefully taken credit for the shutdown, though he now is trying to pin the blame on the Democrats. The Democrats, led by Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, on the other hand, have presented a picture of reasonableness, being willing to pay for border security and to accept funding priorities previously adopted by a Republican Senate.

Long before the year Trump has suggested a shutdown might last, Americans will revolt. They will insist on having their National Parks, airport security, and income tax refunds. The Trump base may stick with its champion, but Republican members of Congress will see the writing on the wall. If they continue to support the president and his infantile tantrums over wall funding, their own continued employment will be in jeopardy. Republicans will eventually have to respond to the angry cards, letters, and phone calls from Americans demanding an end to governmental insanity and a return to business as usual. Calls for money to build a wall will be few and far between.

In the end, President Trump will lose and lose big. His intransigence may itself be sufficient to make impeachment seem like the only reasonable way forward.

God save the United States of America!

January 4, 2019

Congress, Grow a Backbone

For the past two years, Congress, under Republican control, refused to pass bills—in many cases, even refused to consider bills—that President Trump had declared he would not sign. Undoubtedly, congressional Republicans and the president were often in agreement regarding public policy, though likely not always. Party loyalty was assuredly being put before concerns for the public good.

The Founding Fathers created a form of government consisting of three branches. Those branches—executive, legislative, and judicial—were related to one another, but they were intended to possess a substantial degree of independence. In particular, it was not the intent of the Constitution that the president would be the determiner of what bills Congress would pass.

To a remarkable degree, President Trump has merged the legislative and executive branches into a unified body for the creation of public policy. More worrisome still has been the Republican packing of the judicial branch with judges holding unpopular views, but views consistent with those of our current, unpopular president. It is not hyperbolic to suggest that the checks and balances built into the polity of the United States of America are threatened as never before.

A ray of hope for democracy is represented by the capture of control of the House of Representatives by members of the Democratic (not Democrat!) Party. Democrats are immediately challenging what has become the status quo. The House has passed spending legislation consistent with what the Senate passed in the previous Congress. That legislation lacks funding for Trump’s ill-conceived wall, however. The Senate should concur with what the House has done and challenge the president to veto the legislation. Surely, Trump would be inclined to exercise a veto, but doing so would likely be widely unpopular, particularly among workers being deprived of their livelihood by the current partial government shutdown.

Congress has an opportunity to assert its independence and should do so forthwith. It is unlikely that Majority Leader Senator Mitch McConnell will allow a vote on legislation the president doesn't want, but allowing the Senate to vote on the legislation passed by the House will give the Senate, Senator McConnell, and the American people more power. Congress’s growth of a backbone just might force the president to do something he doesn’t want to do. At the very least, it would put President Trump between a rock and a hard place.

October 26, 2018

Miscellaneous Thoughts on Trump

Lyin’ Trump

I listened to 1A on NPR yesterday. The New York Times reporters who investigated the source of Donald Trump’s wealth were interviewed (see “Trump Engaged in Suspect Tax Schemes as He Reaped Riches From His Father”).

Trump’s origin story has always been that he received a $1 million dollar loan from his father, which had to be repaid with interest, and which he parlayed that into a multibillion-dollar fortune through his real estate dealings. What the Times learned is that Trump’s story is nowhere close to the truth. Over his lifetime, Donald Trump received hundreds of times that $1 million from his father, little of which was ever repaid.

A listener of the program asked what difference it makes how the president made his fortune. This is a good question.

The importance of the findings of the Times reporters is that Trump’s lies are hardly a new phenomenon. Lying for Trump is a way of life and has been so throughout his career. Trump doesn’t simply shade the truth; he makes up his own “facts” out of whole cloth. His supporters may not care, but they should.

Secure Communications

The New York Times reported that President Trump frequently uses an unsecured iPhone to make personal calls to friends. Moreover, those calls are being monitored by the Chinese and Russians (and God only knows who else). This is driving intelligence folks crazy. Their one consolation is that Trump isn’t very curious about government secrets, so his ignorance is a check against his divulging them.

The Times story is distressing and goes into significant and disturbing details not worth repeating here. You should read the article.

What I find most interesting in Trump’s refusal to give up his unsecured phone is the contrast between his communications that we now know are being monitored by our country's adversaries and his insistence that Hillary Clinton’s use of a private e-mail server, which appears never to have been compromised, was criminal.

All I can say to the latest revelations is, “Lock him up!”

Presidential Rhetoric

In light of the apparent bombs sent to prominent Democrats recently, Donald Trump has called for unity and civility. Of course, what he really expects of his opponents is surrender to the Trumpian cause. It didn’t take long for Trump to renew his venom directed at the news media, as if journalists created the atmosphere of hate in which bombs being sent to his opponents seems almost predictable.

Trump has often complained that news stories about him are predominately negative. This is a rare instance in which he is entirely correct. He goes on to complain that this situation is unfair, however. There, he is wrong. Most news stories about Trump and the Trump administration are negative in tone because most actions of Trump and the Trump administration are hateful, meanspirited, self-destructive and stupid. Well, at least Trump got something right!

The Refugee “Caravan”

President Trump has used the parade of thousands of Central American refugees walking north to alarm his base supporters. (We should use the phrase “base supporters,” which, of course. is a double entendre.) He has talked about closing our borders—by which I assume he means only our Southern border—to avoid admitting any more people to the U.S., whether or not they have legitimate asylum claims. Apparently, he is even carrying out his threat to send regular Army troops to patrol the border, a potentially illegal move.

Rather more stupidly, Trump has threatened to reduce aid to the Central American countries from which members of the “caravan” are fleeing. On the one hand, reducing aid is likely to make life in Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala even nastier than it is already. That, of course, would induce more people to leave in search of a more secure life. On the other hand, were Trump, by whatever means, to induce these countries to prevent people from leaving, would he not be creating a virtual prison for their populations? Is this really a proper role for the “freedom-loving” United States?

Oh, sorry, we are only concerned with making our own country great; the rest of the world can go to hell!

Here’s an idea: Let’s get out of Afghanistan. Our efforts there are clearly a lost cause. We can use the money we save thereby to strengthen democracy in Central America. This would help make America (and the Americas) great.