November 21, 2017

Are North Koreans Terrorists?

President Trump has returned the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) to the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism. (See New York Times story here.) From any other president, this would seem an odd move. From this president, it’s par for the course.

Mr. Trump is obsessed with North Korea and frustrated with his seeming inability to affect that nation’s course of weapons development. Severe sanctions have been applied to North Korea to no conspicuous effect. Even China has been coöperated in this project, despite concerns that a collapse of the Kim regime would flood China with refugees and put an American ally on its doorstep. What more can the U.S. do?

The answer is not much. But officially labeling North Korea a state sponsor of terrorism allows the president to imagine that he is doing something significant.

DPRK flag
He is not. Not only will the designation have little effect North Korea’s ability to function, but the president’s action degrades the significance of the terrorism list itself. At least as far as the public knows, North Korea has done nothing in years that can be called terrorism. The administration cites the assassination of political enemies on foreign soil and the development of weapons of mass destruction. These are not acts of terrorism, which are acts designed to terrorize a population. If what North Korea has done are acts of terrorism,  the United States is also a state sponsor of terrorism. The CIA has carried out assassinations; President Trump himself has as much as threatened to unleash nuclear weapons on North Korea.

Mr. Trump had no reason to label North Korea a state sponsor of terrorism. He was simply running out of insults to heap on the Kim regime and thought branding North Koreans terrorists was a clever next step. He thereby has called into question whether the designation of North Korea (or any nation) as a state sponsor of terrorism means anything at all.

November 9, 2017

Diocesan Convention Ignores the Needs of the Handicapped

It’s convention time again for the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh. I have been attending these annual events every year since 2002. The diocese’s 152nd annual convention will be held tomorrow and Saturday at Christ Episcopal Church in Pittsburgh’s North Hills. I'm not looking forward to it.

Diocesan seal
The venue (or venues) for the annual convention varies from year to year, and some facilities work better than others. When since-deposed Bob Duncan was the bishop, at least in the later years of his tenure, the location of the convention was apparently chosen from among churches whose congregations were sympathetic to his theological proclivities. Such preferences led to meetings in churches that were ill-suited to hosting a convention.

Happily, since the departure of Bishop Duncan and his sympathizers, the annual convention has been held in churches that, in large measure, are suited to the purpose to which they are being put. The last five conventions have been held either at Trinity Cathedral in downtown Pittsburgh or at my former church, St. Paul’s, in Mt. Lebanon.

Which brings us to this year’s convention. The last diocesan gathering to be held in North Hills was that of 2011. I have certain negative associations with that church, as I broke a laptop screen at that convention due to my own stupidity, but the church is not responsible for that. However, Christ Church used its basement as well as its worship space. Most notably, the Friday night meal was held in the basement. I was attending with someone who was wheelchair-bound. Although the church proper is handicap accessible, a person in a wheelchair cannot reach the basement from within the building. Access to the basement is provided by a door that opens to the parking lot. An exceedingly steep temporary ramp placed over a series of steps leads down to basement level. Transit over this ramp in a wheelchair is best described as scary as hell.

In the six years since the convention was last held at Christ Church, one might have imagined that either the church would have provided more appropriate access to the basement or the convention would be staged elsewhere. I was told that the church is running a capital campaign which, I assume, will rectify a serious access issue, but the issue remains for this convention.

Why is our church not more sensitive to the needs of the handicapped? The convention need not have been held at Christ Church. I suspect that the fact that the rector of Christ Church is Secretary of Convention and responsible for much of its planning is not unrelated to this year’s choice of venue. That is a poor excuse for making attendance at the convention so difficult for the handicapped.

The 152nd convention of the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh should have been held elsewhere.

Update, 11/12/2017. Convention at Christ Church, North Hills, was even worse than expected for the handicapped. Some of the breakout rooms were totally inaccessible to persons with mobility problems. Displays, refreshments, and box lunches were in the basement (undercroft) reached by temporary ramps. The ramps were solidly built but were nonetheless inadequate. To reach the basement, one had to negotiate two ramps placed over sets of stairs. The ramp from the parking lot to the first landing was outrageously steep and could not be negotiated by someone in a wheelchair without help. Going up alone would simply be impossible—this required two strong helpers—and going down alone could only be done if one had a strong death wish. The second ramp, from the landing to the basement itself, was gentler, if not ADA compliant. It included a surprise at the lower end. A wheelchair invariably ran into a post at the end of a ramp if the notch at the bottom of the ramp was encountered unexpected. My wheelchair-bound friend vowed never to set foot (or wheelchair) in Christ Church again.

The pictures below will make clear how difficult entry was.

Ramp from parking lot
Steep ramp from parking lot to landing

Ramp to basement
Ramp from landing to basement, which necessitates a 90° turn

Sign above long ramp
Sign above ramp to basement (where I hit my head only once)

Bottom of ramp to basement
Notch at bottom of ramp to basement guaranteed to snag a wheelchair wheel

October 18, 2017

The Vietnam War in Four Pictures

Like many Americans, I watched all 18 hours of the Ken Burns/Lynn Novick documentary The Vietnam War. Many have commented on the PBS program, so I won’t try to evaluate it here. Instead, I offer some very personal observations.

I lived through all of America’s involvement in Vietnam, so much of what I saw was familiar. Like any good documentary, The Vietnam War clarified chronology and, to a degree, motivations. I didn’t learn a lot, but there were revelatory moments. I didn’t know how much we had helped the French. I didn’t know that Lyndon Johnson knew before the election that Richard Nixon had discouraged Vietnam from participating in peace talks. I didn’t know much about post-war Vietnam. I was happy to have watched The Vietnam War, but I felt like I was getting my life back when it was over, having been relieved of so much obligatory TV viewing.

A few turning points in the Vietnam War are particularly memorable—Walter Cronkite’s commentary on the futility of the conflict, Lyndon Johnson’s pulling out of the presidential race—but the war, for me, was really captured in four photographs. Those photographs do not summarize the war or present a coherent or chronological picture of it, but they stick in my mind and tell compelling stories. (Click on photos for larger images.)

Execution on Saigon street
Eddie Adams, The Associated Press
This picture was taken by Eddie Adams in Saigon on February 1, 1968, the second day of North Vietnam’s Tet offensive. It captures the summary execution of ­Nguyễn Văn Lém by Brigadier General Nguyễn Ngoc Loan, chief of the South Vietnam police. Adams had not anticipated that Loan would pull out his .38-caliber pistol and shoot Lém through the head. Lém was a Vietcong prisoner who allegedly had led a squad of Vietcong that had killed the family of a friend of Loan’s. The photograph, which won a Pulitzer Prize, emphasized the brutality and lawlessness of the Vietnam conflict.

Kent State shooting
John Paul Filo
This photograph was disturbing is a way that not even pictures of the war itself were. It was not taken in Saigon, but in Kent, Ohio, by photojournalist student John Paul Filo. The date was May 4, 1970. National Guard troops had been called to the campus of Kent State University, site of student protests against the Vietnam War. Ostensibly, the troops were there to disperse protesters. It is unclear why they carried loaded rifles and even less clear why they fired on unarmed students, killing four and wounding 9. Filo’s photo shows 14-year-old runaway Mary Ann Vecchio kneeling over the slain 20-year-old Jeffrey Miller. This photo, cropped and edited—the fence post over Vecchio’s head was removed—also won a Pulitzer Prize. John Filo brought the increasingly unpopular war home to the United States and raised questions of free speech and assembly under the Nixon administration.

Napalm attack victims
Nick Ut, The Associated Press
 On June 8, 1972, a Vietnam Air Force plan dropped napalm on a group of Vietnam civilians and soldiers mistakenly assumed to be enemy combatants. Nine-year-old Phan Thị Kim Phúc was among the victims of this attack. She tore off her burning clothes and was photographed running naked by Nick Ut, who took her and other injured children to a Saigon hospital. Kim Phúc survived, and her picture is seared in the minds of all who have seen it. A cropped version of this photo ran on the front page of The New York Times and subsequently won a Pulitzer Prize. The picture illustrates the horrors of war and, especially, the ghastliness of the use of napalm. (I feel a special connection to this photograph, having written a poem about an adult Kim Phúc,)

Saigon evacuation
Hugh van Es, Bettmann/Corbis
 Long before anyone in the government was willing to admit it, it was clear that the United States and South Vietnam could not win the war in Vietnam. The U.S. turned the war over to the South Vietnamese not really believing that the South could hold against the North. The situation was even worse than we believed, however, and the U.S. embassy was caught off guard when, on April 29, 1975, North Vietnamese soldiers were about to overrun Saigon. A chaotic evacuation of the embassy and of Vietnamese who had worked with the Americans was quickly arranged. The above photograph shows an Air America (i.e., CIA) helicopter taking evacuees to safety on waiting American ships. An expensive, ill-conceived, and insincere war had come to an end, but other such wars would follow.

Are these the photographs you remember from the Vietnam War?

Clueless Comcast Technical Support

People seem to love to complain about their cable company. Admittedly, cable service seems universally too expensive, a fact that is causing many to abandon cable for other sources of entertainment media. Price aside, however, I have been very satisfied with the functionality of Comcast’s Xfinity X1 platform, which provides both my cable TV and Internet service. Additionally, I have been generally satisfied with Comcast’s technical support. In my experience, telephone technical support has been provided by savvy technicians who are knowledgeable and patient. In-home service technicians have gone the extra mile to assure that my service was up to par.

Either I had an uncharacteristically bad experience last night or Comcast has decided that providing excellent telephone support isn’t important enough to justify its cost.

I am a fan both of baseball and of The Rachel Maddow Show on MSNBC. Particularly during the fall playoffs, this presents a dilemma. Last night, for example, the Dodgers-Cubs game began at the same time as Rachel Maddow. My DVR is set to record all the Maddow shows, giving me the option to watch at a later time (often the next day). What I planned to do last night, however, was what I have often done when Pirates games conflict with my favorite political show, namely, watch the game on the television without sound while watching Maddow on my phone or tablet. Last night, I got error messages on my phone and tablet when I tried to access the Maddow Show. I also had this problem the night before as well and had simply put up with it. (I viewed Maddow after the game.) I had encountered this problem some time ago and remember a technician walking me through a fix. Unfortunately, I had forgotten what the fix was, so I called Comcast to solve my problem.

Things went badly from the beginning. In the past, it was reasonably easy to get connected to a technical support person. Last night, however, I was immediately connected to someone who spoke barely intelligible English and who didn’t seem to understand my problem. I asked where he was and was told that he was in the Philippines. We didn’t communicate well, and, without my requesting it, he soon connected me to a woman who seemed to be an American.

After listening to a description of my problem, this next person put me on hold for a while. When she returned several minutes later, she assured me that the problem was an outage in my area that had begun that morning. I asked if the error code I had received indicated an outage and what the nature of the outage might be, since my TV and Internet services were working fine and had been all day. I received no satisfactory answers to my questions and asked to talk to a supervisor.

It took a few more minutes to speak to a supervisor, who, I was told, was helping another customer. After yet another explanation of my problem, I was told that, in fact, the system would not allow me to do what I was trying to do. I could not watch a program on my tablet that was currently being recorded on my DVR; I had to wait until the entire program had been recorded. (Meanwhile, I was missing Maddow and the baseball game, as the telephone call was requiring all my attention.) I protested that what I “couldn’t do” was something I had done many times before. My protestations that I most certainly could do what I wanted to do fell on deaf ears. The supervisor seemed as technically clueless as the last two Comcast employees I has spoken to. At this point, I gave up and said that, no, the supervisor couldn’t help me with anything else.

I looked forward to the telephone quality survey in which I had agreed to participate at the beginning of my call. When I received the automated call-back, I, sadly, was asked only two questions: Was I the person who had called for support? How would I rate the service on a scale from 1 to 5? The answers were, of course, yes and 1.

After my DVR finished recording The Rachel Maddow Show, I again tried to view the recording on my tablet. I received the same error message. About 20 minutes later, however,  I was able to begin viewing my recording on my tablet. However, about 40 minutes in, the recording repeatedly reverted to a position about a minute earlier. I had never seen this behavior before. I finished watching the Maddow recording on my television.

I decided to document the fact that the supervisor didn’t know what she was talking about. I arbitrarily chose an in-process program to record. The program was Ink Master: Angles (whatever that is) on Spike. After a couple of minutes, I brought up the recording on my phone. I then took the pictures below of my phone and TV.

TV and phone screens showing that program is being streamed
TV and phone screens. Ink Master: Angles is being recorded (indicated by the red bar under
the top left image) and being streamed on the telephone.

TV and Phone Screens Showing Same Program
TV and phone screens. Ink Master: Angles on TV screen and being streamed on the telephone.
(TV and streamed content are never perfectly synchronized.)

Clearly, Comcast technical support is clueless and needs to be improved. The people I spoke to last night seemed to be consulting documentation of some sort in an attempt to respond to my problem; they didn’t appear to understand what was happening or what was possible. The next time I call Comcast, I hope I get one of the technical people who knows what he or she is talking about.

October 3, 2017

Post-season MLB Games Begin

Tonight, the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox play a single game to see which team will be given a chance eventually to play in Major League Baseball’s World Season.  MLB’s regular 162-game season—i.e., a season of 162 games for each MLB team—is complete, and the most successful teams now advance to what is being called the Postseason.

MLB logo for the “Postseason”
As I wrote on my Web site seven years ago, “Postseason,” as a noun, is a horrible neologism. (See “Postseason.”) There is no season having to do with posts. The playoffs that begin tonight would better be designated the MLB “Playoffs” or “Championships” Perhaps “World Series Tournament” would be a good name.

Read the essay on Lionel Deimel’s Farrago and see what you think.

September 25, 2017

Thoughts on North Korea

I had been planning to write an essay explaining why President Trump’s approach to a nuclear-armed North Korea is flawed. But the increasingly hostile rhetoric from both Trump and Supreme Leader Kim requires a special warning and an immediate call to action.

Even if he had the capability to do so, it is unlikely that Kim would try to strike Guam or the mainland U.S. without actual military provocation. Retaliation for such a move would be (and would properly be) swift and decisive. The threat to explode a nuclear weapon in the Pacific Ocean seems less threatening and, therefore, more likely. The threat is real and significant. Korea has no island in the Pacific to use as a target, so the apparent threat is to explode a bomb over water. As Trump has observed, this would create a poisonous fallout cloud that the world has not seen in decades. But would it not, depending upon the circumstances of the detonation, also create a more immediately lethal tsunami? The threat from such a wave would be widespread, endangering not only parts of the U.S., but other Pacific Rim countries, most notably Japan, as well. We cannot let this happen.

Since effecting a brain transplant for our brainless president is impossible, I suggest that Congressional action is called for. Like it or not, we have to live with a nuclear-armed DPRK that possesses ICBMs for the foreseeable future. Kim sees his arsenal as the guarantor of his and his country’s survival. This view is clearly correct, except possibly when the White House is occupied by a madman like Donald Trump.

Congress should pass a law on a bipartisan, veto-proof basis, to the effect that:

  1. The U.S. will not attack North Korea or attempt to change its government unless it or an ally (notably South Korea) is attacked by North Korea; and
  2. No hostile action may be taken by our military against North Korea without a formal declaration of war by the Congress.
Obviously, Trump would not like to see such a bill passed. He might even change his behavior toward North Korea to forestall its passage. If not, such a law would provide North Korea with the guarantee of safety we should be delivering diplomatically, rather than threatening the country gratuitously. 

September 24, 2017

Amnesty Never

It is understandable that people of goodwill can differ on immigration policy. Our national immigration policy has been inconsistent over the years and has been racist as often as not. It is a rational fear that, if the U.S. literally welcomed all comers, we would be overrun, if not by scoundrels, at least by numbers. But draconian restrictions favored by President Trump are clearly excessive. Honestly, though, were I given the task of devising an immigration policy, I hardly would know where to begin.

It is a no-brainer, however, that a good place to start would be consideration of the status of people brought to this country as children by adults responsible for their care. Even in cases where such children may have had some influence over their immigration, they surely cannot be held responsible for it. Children brought here very young have grown to adulthood in America and may have no memory of their putative homeland and little or no facility in its language. These people are culturally American, even if they are not legally American.

President Obama’s DACA program (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) provided some modicum of regularization of the status of children brought illegally to this country, but it failed to relieve their well-founded anxieties or to provide concrete hope of ever become full citizens of the United States of America.

It is unclear whether Mr. Trump’s termination of DACA ultimately will work to the benefit of those the program sought to help or whether it will result in shipping its former beneficiaries off to alien domains. Absent favorable court decisions, the fate of so-called Dreamers is in the (not so capable) hands of the Congress. Both Democrats and Republicans have expressed interest in saving Dreamers from deportation, but, since anything that can be called amnesty is anathema to the GOP’s ultraconservative base, Dreamers can hardly be sanguine about their continued residence in America, much less their prospects for actual naturalization.

Fundamentally, the Dreamers are as American as any of us. They don’t deserve deportation, and they don’t deserve any kind of amnesty. What they deserve is citizenship, and they deserve it now. Members of Congress, are you paying attention?

September 19, 2017

Impressions of Donald Trump’s Speech to the U.N.

I watched President Donald Trump’s speech to the United Nations General Assembly this morning. I would like to offer a few observations of his performance. By no means is this intended to be a full-blown analysis of the speech. I only want to mention a few things that stood out for me. I’m sure that much analysis will be forthcoming from others in the next 24 hours.

First, I must say that Trump is annoying to watch. He is incapable of adjusting his delivery style to the circumstances of a given speech. He addressed the U.N. in the same fashion as he addresses his rallies. His delivery is always a barely controlled scream that, perhaps except for his most ardent supporters, is hard to listen to. Watching Trump before the General Assembly reminded me, for whatever reason, of Fidel Castro’s addressing the body.

Trump speaking to the U.N.
Trump in a rare two-hand mode
Happily, Trump read from teleprompters and avoided—I sure he was warned to avoid at all costs—his notorious ad libs. His habit of driving home a point through repetition of a word or phrase, or his habit of interjecting his unfiltered innermost thoughts that seem to step all over his message was inappropriate before the General Assembly.

Unfortunately, his use of teleprompters has an annoying side effect. The president looks back and forth to read his text, never looking toward the people directly in front of him. Moreover, when he reads from the left screen, his left hand, with open palm, moves up and down like an American maneki-neko. When he reads from the right, his left hand disappears and his right hand does his little Japanese wave. I suspect that Trump would be struck mute were his hands in cuffs behind his back.

Trump attacked numerous countries by name, some—Cuba for instance—rather gratuitously, I thought. Under the circumstances, one might have expected an American president to say a few negative words about the Russian Federation’s behavior, particularly as regards our most recent national election. One would have been disappointed. At least Trump avoided saying what a great leader Vladimir Putin is!

For the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, he saved his biggest insult and most frightening threat. He referred to Kim Jong-un as “Rocket Man.” This was, no doubt, intended as an insult and was a shocking departure from what one normally expects in diplomatic discourse. On the other hand, I am not altogether certain that Kim would dislike the sobriquet. (Actually, he might prefer “Nuke Man!”) More worrisome than what seemed a violation of good manners was Trump’s suggestion that, to protect the U.S. or its allies, the president might have “no choice” but to “totally destroy North Korea.” I don’t know if this scared Kim, but it certainly had me thinking about fallout shelters and life after the apocalypse. Someone needs to give this man a shot of testosterone blocker!

Another primary target of our fearless leader was, not surprisingly, Iran. As he has so often, he criticized the Iran nuclear agreement as a terrible deal and intimated that he might withdraw the United States from it. This is problematic, since the agreement is multilateral, not bilateral. Nevertheless, Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was sitting in the General Assembly, was nodding his head in approval. The reality is that the perfect is the enemy of the good. An agreement involving both nuclear weapon and missile development might have been a more desirable one, but repressing Iranian nuclear weapon development is nevertheless a very good thing in and of itself. Trump spoke instead as though he believes that the current agreement enhances Iran’s prospects for getting the bomb. The agreement does not run forever, but, for now, it seems like a good thing to everyone except Trump and Netanyahu.

For me, the most surprising part of Trump’s speech concerned refugees. It seems that the president has found a way to justify his unwillingness to bring Middle East refugees to this country. It is expensive, he asserted, to resettle refugees in the United States. The money we might spend in resettlement would go further settling refugees closer to where they used to live. Ah, such a charitable man!

Trump made his usual complaints about trade agreements, suggesting that they are invariably not in our own interest. I need hardly say more about this.

The speech was more laundry list than focused address, perhaps because many hands had a part in preparing it. If one were to search for an overall theme, what would be found is a somewhat schizophrenic one: countries should all work together for a better world, but each country should put its own interests first. This seems more about justifying Trump’s own America-first philosophy. It sounds like a plan for us all to retreat into our secure corners and have as little to do with one another as possible. This is not the world I want.

Presidential speeches to the General Assembly are, at their very best, inspiring. President Trump’s speech was anything but that. It was, however, supremely frightening.

September 14, 2017

Baseball Rule Changes for Good or Ill

As the baseball season winds down, I think it a good time to offer some thoughts on aspects of the game.

Baseball diamondThe basic rules of baseball have remained unchanged for nearly a century. Parks have changed shape and size, but the location of outfield fences has never been standard. The height of the mound has been adjusted, but, from a fan perspective, this has hardly been noticeable; pitchers and hitters adjust.

What recent changes there have been have been a mixed bag. Rules intended to avoid injury-producing collisions at second base and home plate, while somewhat annoying, address fairness and (especially) safety concerns. (The NFL should be so concerned about safety.) It is difficult to make a conscientious argument that player safety should be sacrificed for more dramatic player collisions.

The most conspicuous addition to the major league game is the video review of disputed plays. Such an innovation could only be possible when all games are covered by multiple television cameras. The use of replays is frankly irritating, as reviews interrupt the continuity of the game. On the other hand, they largely make the game fairer. I have always been annoyed, for instance, by out calls at second base as part of a double play when the defensive player at second—the shortstop or secondbaseman—is only in the “neighborhood” of the base. (That is, the runner from first has technically not been put out at second but is called out anyway through a kind of gentlemen’s agreement.) The very existence of replays has largely eliminated this unfair stretching of the rules. On the other hand, the ability of one team to lose the right to demand a replay has the potential to allow bad calls to stand. I must grugingly—very grugingly—concede that video reviews have, on the whole, been a good thing.

Of course, the majority of umpire errors involve the calling of balls and strikes, a fact made obvious by the electronic magic employed frequently in televised games. Should balls and strikes be called by electronics, while the home plate umpire’s duties are limited to evaluating swings and misses and defensive plays at the plate? Perhaps, but this might be a step too far from tradition. In any case, allowing video replays of balls and strikes would be a huge departure from tradition and would lengthen games considerably. Nonetheless, it is infuriating when the home plate umpire calls a ball a strike or vice versa. In defense of umpires, however, it must be said that the man behind both the plate and the catcher has a less than perfect view of the plate.

Umpires are human, and they make mistakes. Actually, they make fewer than anyone has a right to expect. In the old days, we simply assumed that their mistakes would even out and not favor one team or the other. There have been some egregious bad calls by umpires, however, and it is probably best that we have a mechanism by which such mistakes can be averted.

The real impetus for this essay is the 2017 rule allowing a batter to be walked merely by declaring the intention that it be so. This new rule is, I think, a bridge too far. Presumably, it is intended to shorten games. (Baseball owners have become concerned with the length of games, which has been increasing of late. Recent rule changes have sought to speed things up, by requiring that a decision to review a play be made within 30 seconds, for example. Frankly, I’ve always felt that a longer game, and particularly an extra-innings game, gives me more entertainment for my money. Apparently, this view is not universal.)

There are a number of reasons to object to no-pitch intentional walks. First, tradition should not be thrown overboard without good reason, and there are, I assert, no good reasons for the new rule. It will not substantially shorten games. Intentional walks are infrequent, and speeding up an occasional game by a minute or two will make no real difference to anyone.

More significant is the fact that the new means of walking a batter relieves the pitcher of throwing four additional pitches. In an era when managers seldom allow pitchers to throw more than 100 pitches in a game, the new rule can have an effect on when a starting pitcher is replaced by a reliever. Realistically, even a soft pitch thrown to complete an intentional walk takes something out of the man on the mound.

Although I have not seen it done in a major league game, I have seen a batter hit a ball while the battery was attempting to walk him. This takes a good reach, but it can be done. The new rule precludes using this unorthodox move. Likewise, a runner on second could conceivably attempt to steal third while an intentional walk is being effected.

Although walking a batter in the conventional manner hardly requires extraordinary skills of pitcher and catcher, it is always possible that a wild pitch or passed ball could allow a runner to advance or even score. Such a surprising and exciting development is not possible if a walk is simply declared.

Finally, I object to the new walk rule as a fan. I was watching a game the other day and took my eyes off the television for just a moment. Suddenly, the batter was on first base. What happened? What did I miss? It was very disconcerting.

Next, I would like to propose a new rule. Bats are shattering with increasing frequency these days. Parts of bats fly off in all directions, endangering both players and fans. Surely nothing is more distressing to a fan than seeing a bat flying in his or her direction (unless, of course, it is being turned around and not seeing a bat flying at your head). The reason this is happening is that, over the years, players have ordered bats with increasingly slender handles. I personally own a bat with a chubby handle and one with a thin handle, and I can tell you that wielding the thin-handled bat is a lot more fun and can result in lots more bat speed. However, the thinner the handle, the more likely the bat is to shatter at the plate.

Hitters like thin-handled bats because they can be whipped around quickly. If the bat splits, the result is often a bloop single. On the other hand—and this is likely not widely appreciated—if a bat breaks, much of the energy that would otherwise go into powering the ball on its way is instead channeled into fracturing and propelling part of the bat. That bloop single could have been a double or even a home run.

My proposal, then, is that bats, whose weight, length, and maximum diameter are already limited, should have their minimum diameter prescribed as well. I don’t know precisely what the measurement should be or whether it should be a function of the type of wood from which the bat is fashioned. Scientific investigation should be able to set minimum diameters for bats that will minimize turning bats into dangerous missiles. (Please don’t anyone suggest that major league baseball should use metal bats!) MLB, are you paying attention?

Finally, I must comment on the designated hitter rule, that abominable newfangled rule that disqualifies the American League from being able to claim that its teams play true baseball. Baseball owners seem to think that a ballgame isn’t exciting unless there is a lot of hitting, particularly home-run hitting. This simply isn’t true, although the spectators who have become addicted to the gladiatorial fight that is football may indeed be bored by well-pitched, low-scoring games. The true baseball fan, I think, is not.

One of the most exciting baseball games I have ever seen was played this past August 23. The Pittsburgh Pirates bested the Los Angeles Dodgers 1–0 in 10 innings. Dodger pitcher Rich Hill was pitching a perfect game through 8 innings. Pirate pitcher Trevor Williams, for the same 8 innings, pitched out of a number of jams while keeping the opposition scoreless. In the top of the ninth, the perfect game was ruined, not by Hill, but by third baseman Logan Forsythe, who misplayed a routine ground ball and allowed Jordy Mercer to reach first. Nonetheless, the no-hitter went into extra innings. In the bottom of the tenth, Josh Harrison hit a home run to win the game for the home team. The Dodgers had 8 hits and one error. The Pirates had one hit and no errors.

That game may not be direct evidence against the designated hitter, but it certainly supports the notion that a game can be exciting despite few runs being scored and lots of hits being made by both teams.

The designated hitter rule is predicated upon the assumption that pitchers, who play much less frequently than position players and who concentrate on pitching rather than hitting skills, are, in fact, poor hitters. This is generally true, though not tautologically so. (Babe Ruth would have been a famous pitcher had he not been such a spectacular hitter that he needed to be played every day!) The American League says don’t let the pitcher bat; put in a non-defensive player who can hit in place of the pitcher. Although this results in more hits in a game, it eliminates a good deal of managerial strategy, thereby making the game less interesting. There are fewer sacrifice bunts and no need to remove a pitcher from the game for a pinch hitter. Managers have an easier job in the American League, but the game is thereby impoverished.

It is my fervent prayer that the designated hitter never comes to the National League and that the American League will eventually come to its senses and play real baseball again. Meanwhile, I am happy that the Pittsburgh Pirates play in the National League.

September 11, 2017

A Poem for September 11

I wrote the poem below on September 27, 2001. It is one of several poems I wrote in response to the attacks of September 11. This poem resulted from my asking the question I’m sure many Americans asked themselves: What was it like to be in the World Trade Center towers on that fateful day? The poem, along with commentary, can also be found on my Web site here.

Falling from the Sky

by Lionel Deimel

My mind rejected the truth it knew when the first tower fell.
Expecting the second collapse, it rejected that reality also.
How many lives had I just seen truncated?
What was it like?
How had they died?

What became of those who telephoned at once to say they were all right but who were never heard from again?
What happened to those on lower floors who waited too long to become alarmed?
Did they know what was happening?
What did they hear?
What did they smell?

Was immolation by jet fuel worse than the fire felt by Joan of Arc?
Those who jumped must certainly have thought so.
The air was fresh,
And one could fly,
At least for a moment.

The second plane penetrated the wall like a heavy object dropped onto a cake.
Was anyone staring out the window as it became larger and larger?
Could they see into the cockpit?
Was the pilot smiling?
Was he serene?

The lucky ones died instantly of trauma,
Hearing only a loud crash before being overtaken by a dark, eternal silence.
Were they spared fear?
Did they gasp?
Did they pray?

Stairwells were filled with smoke and water and people,
Their downward journey slowed by the firefighters and hoses on their way up.
How many almost made it out?
How many fell?
How many gave up?

As steel buckled and failed under assault from the terrible fire,
Was it worse to be above, as the floor slipped away, or below?
Did people understand the meaning of that monstrous roar?
Did time stop?
Did they go mad?

As the end came, space was no longer filled with air but became a maelstrom of angry particles
Fired from millions of machine guns pointed in every direction.
Could any bodies even remain whole?
Was there pain?
Was God there?

Remembering September 11th

September 6, 2017

I Support DACA

I am continuing my postcard campaign of lobbying my senators and representative in Washington. (See “Beginning My Postcard Campaign.”) I am now into my second batch of postcards purchased at the Indiana post office.

Yesterday, the Trump administration announced that it was ending the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program. This decision is a mean-spirited attack on innocents aimed at fulfilling a campaign promise of which Trump’s base, though not the American people generally, is especially fond. (His base, of course, is indeed base. But I digress.)

Yesterday, I wrote postcards to Senators Toomey and Casey, as well as to Congressman Schuster. (Casey is the lone Democrat of the bunch.) Here is what I said:
Now that President Trump has cowardly foisted on Congress the job of doing something about DACA, Congress should act on the matter before taking up other legislation. We should grant citizenship immediately to current people covered by DACA who are 21 or older and have no criminal record. Moreover, the program should be continued with a similar grant of citizenship once participants reach 21. As Baby Boomers retire, we need these DACA people to assure an adequate workforce.

Show that Americans believe in justice, mercy, and enlightened self-interest, not simply in the rule of law.
In announcing the demise of DACA, Attorney General Jeff Sessions declared the program unconstitutional and asserted the importance of the rule of law in the United States. The constitutionality of the program can only be tested in the courts, and many legal authorities disagree with Sessions’ analysis. Anyway, as I suggested in my missive, legality is not the only matter at issue here.

I was unable to say everything one could say in support of the Dreamers (immigrants for which DACA was engineered). I’m sending postcards for God’s sake!

I Support DACA
Show your support by clicking here.
My guess is that my opinion will have little influence. Congress likely will take up the fate of Dreamers in just under six months from now. Will it save the hundreds of thousands of people who are Americans in every way save the technicality of not having American citizenship? Or will those people be exiled to countries whose culture is completely alien to them? Personally, I’m placing no bets.

September 4, 2017

Additional Labor Day Thoughts

1956 Labor Day stamp

The stamp shown above was issued in 1956. I have used it to illustrate my Labor Day poem “A Labor Day Lament,” which I wrote in 2011. Some of the references in the poem may seem dated, but my lament is still relevant, perhaps more so in 2017 than in 2011.

I selected the image of the stamp to decorate the page containing my poem because it seemed relevant and was readily available. When I was considering using it again in a post on this Labor Day, I decided to look more deeply into the image on the stamp.

To begin with, I was surprised that the government ever issued a pro-labor stamp at all. I suspect that such a subject for a stamp would not be considered by the Postal System today. Incidentally, the stamp was a first-class stamp. In 2017, a first-class stamp costs 49¢, representing something like a 1500% price increase.

Mural in AFL-CIO Washington Headquarters (detail)
Mural in AFL-CIO
Washington Headquarters (detail)
The image on the stamp is derived from a large mosaic in the south lobby of the AFL-CIO headquarters in Washington, D.C. The mural, which contains elements not shown on the stamp, was designed by Lumen Martin Winter and executed by the now defunct Ravenna Mosaic Company. President Eisenhower dedicated the building containing this art work in 1956. One cannot imagine President Trump presiding at such an event.

What is not shown in the picture at the right (or on the stamp) are representations of work over the ages. (The mosaic is enormous!)

Whereas there is much to be admired in the Winter mural, it is clearly a product of its time and, perhaps, not the best image for our own time. “Labor Is Life,” as the mosaic is generally known—Carlyle is so quoted in the mural—shows a male worker protecting his wife and son. The woman is teaching the boy, presumably about work. There is no suggestion that the woman has any bread-winning chores. “Labor Is Life” is, therefore, rather sexist in its representation of the “ideal” nuclear family of the 1950s.

The labor movement in the United States has, in many ways, been a progressive force in the country. Certainly, it has been responsible for higher pay for workers, for more humane work hours, and for safer working conditions on the job. On the downside, labor unions have been dominated by men, primarily European, Christian, white, heterosexual men. Unions have a spotty record of seeking to benefit all workers and have often engaged in mean-spirited discrimination.

We need unions, however. The lack of union strength has contributed to wage stagnation in the U.S. Unions need to fight for the right to organize, particularly in red states, and need to stand for fair treatment for all workers. On this Labor Day, let us hope and work for a resurgence of organized labor in the United States.

NOTE: My previous post on Labor Day can be found here.

Labor Day 2017 Thoughts

Labor Day 2017 finds most workers no better off than they were a decade ago. Wages are largely stagnant—there have been signs of a slight upturn here—union membership is down; the stock market is soaring, though the rich are its greatest beneficiaries; rights seem to expand for corporations and contract for individuals; and President Trump is hell bent on eliminating regulations protecting workers and the environment. If this administration is able to effect any “tax reform,” it is likely that the rich will be its major beneficiaries.

Labor Day 2017 seems a good day to turn to art for inspiration for producing a better, more just and more democratic America.

One of my favorite movie scenes is from the 1979 film Norma Rae. Sally Field plays a textile worker turned union organizer who, while waiting to be taken away by the police from her cotton mill workplace, stands on a table showing a hand-lettered sign proclaiming “UNION” to her fellow workers. In response, the machines in the mill fall silent one-by-one. It is a very emotional moment in American cinema.

Norma Rae Webster was modeled on the work of union organizer Crystal Lee Sutton at the J.P. Stevens plant in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina.

The still below is from that famous scene in Norma Rae.  Sally Field won an Academy Award for her role in the film.

Sally Field as Norma Rae Webster
Sally Field in Norma Rae
In the struggle between labor and management, one advantage of labor is that it has had better songs. One of the most famous is “Which Side Are You On?” The lyrics were written in 1931 by Florence Patton Reece, wife of a union organizer in Harlan County, Kentucky, which saw an epic, sometimes violent, struggle between coal mine workers and coal mine operators.

Which Side Are You On?

by Florence Patton Reece

Come all of you good workers,
Good news to you I'll tell
Of how that good old union
Has come in here to dwell.

Which side are you on?
Which side are you on?
Which side are you on?
Which side are you on?

My daddy was a miner
And I’m a miner’s son,
And I'll stick with the union
Till every battle’s won.

They say in Harlan County
There are no neutrals there—
You’ll either be a union man
Or a thug for J.H. Blair.

Oh, workers can you stand it?
Oh, tell me how you can.
Will you be a lousy scab,
Or will you be a man?

Don't scab for the bosses,
Don't listen to their lies.
Us poor folks haven’t got a chance
Unless we organize.
J.H. Blair, by the way, was not a coal company, but the sheriff, who, with his men, were hired to intimidate the minors in the bitter labor dispute.

Many singers have popularized this song, though not all have been true to the original. The version below changes none of the words of the song, though it does omit the repeat in the chorus.

This Labor Day, we should be asking why there is an increasing wealth gap between the very rich and everyone else. The diminished influence of labor unions is certainly one factor. Other factors include the power of corporate lobbyists and the greater voice given big business by the Citizens United decision. One of the most significant changes that has affected the welfare of workers is the notion that the corporation has no obligations save to its shareholders. This idea has been absolutely toxic to the body politic. Making everything worse, of course, is an administration that never met a federal regulation it liked.

What can we do to restore prosperity to all of our citizens? Which side are you on?

August 21, 2017

Anticipating the Eclipse

I am here in Indiana, Pennsylvania, shortly before the much-touted eclipse of the sun will begin to be seen on the west coast. Although the event certainly interests me, I didn’t seriously consider traveling to the path of totality. Seeing the full eclipse would involve both travel and luck. One could be at the center of the eclipse path and still see very little if the sky is overcast. In a few years, a total eclipse will be visible much closer to home, and the odds of not wasting a good deal of effort will be better.

Solar eclipse
Image courtesy of Luc Viatour
A few days ago, today was predicted to be sunny in Indiana. Alas, the reality is that it is a relatively cloudy day, punctuated by occasionally sunshine. I’m still hoping to see a partial eclipse. My eclipse glasses are at the ready. Supposedly, 70% of the sun will be covered by the moon where I am. My DVR will be recording the coverage of the eclipse on television. While I’m outdoors I will probably be listening to NPR, though radio coverage of an eclipse does seem lame.

A solar eclipse is a truly miraculous event. One could never happen were the sun and moon not the relative sizes they are and the distance they are from one another. No other planet in our solar system—perhaps no other planet in the universe—experiences what many Americans will see today.

On the other hand, I do not consider it a miracle that a solar eclipse will be seen across the United States on August 21, 2017. Religion News Service has reported on what various religious people have said about the eclipse, much of which is simply stupid. Anne Graham Lotz—I had thought she was the reasonable offspring of Billy Graham—sees the eclipse as some kind of warning to America about its sinful ways. Well, maybe. But that interpretation suggests more belief in predestination than I suspect Ms. Lotz consciously accepts. Since eclipses can be predicted centuries ahead, God must have known—or ordained—that the United States would need a warning in the twenty-first century. I guess we’re all living the lives God has planned for us, only imagining that we have any control over them. This may, in fact, be true, but it is an idea that really isn’t very useful.

Well, it’s nearly time to turn on the TV. I hope the sky is clear where you are. I’m hoping the same for Indiana, Pennsylvania.

Update, 3:15: The clouds were largely co-operative. Until maximum coverage was achieved, clouds only occasionally covered the sum. Now, however, one can only see clouds. What is amazing is that, even when 80% of the sun is covered by the moon, out star still shines brightly. I’m grateful for seeing as much as I did.

August 15, 2017

North of the Border

 The song “South of the Border” is widely known. It was written by James B. Kennedy and Michael Carr and was featured in the 1939 movie of the same name starring Gene Autry. The song has a pleasant tune and tells a simple story reflecting a plotline of the film. Over the years, the song has been sung by many artists, including Autry, Marty Robbins, Slim Whitman, Frank Sinatra, and others. “South of the Border” has also been the subject of various instrumental arrangements. (Listen to the Gene Autry vocal version here.)

In this season of Trumpism, many people have toyed with the idea of escaping to Canada. Such talk is often in jest, but some have actually left the country, particularly immigrants in the U.S. illegally. This situation invites a parody of “South of the Border.” Hence, here is at least a first draft of “North of the Border”:
North of the border, up Canada way—
That’s where I plan on goin’; that’s likely where I’m havin’ to stay.
I’m fleeing this country; I’m leavin’ today,
North of the border, up Canada way.

That country’s got health care and folks real polite,
Got few religious nuts or people on the alternate right.
Their leaders aren’t crazy, don’t have feet made o’ clay,
North of the border, up Canada way.

I will say to my friends, “I’m returning,”
Not forever declaring goodbye.
By degrees, I am quietly learning
My country will never return.

The States are in trouble, I’m sorry to say.
The country is goin’ to hell because of the fools within the beltway.
There’s peace and there’s safety where the Kochs cannot pay,
North of the border, up Canada way.

I’ll eat at Tim Hortons and learn to say “eh,”
Pick up a little French and take up curling to learn how to play,
But I’ll miss Sunday football and Memorial Day
North of the border, up Canada way.

Aye, aye, aye, aye; aye, aye aye, aye.
Aye, aye, aye, aye; aye, aye aye, aye.
I’m fairly happy with most of these words, though the bridge (“I will say to my friends,” etc.) is a bit ragged. I have tried to mirror the bridge of “South of the Border,” which rhymes imperfectly, at best. (The lines of the original end with “mañana,” “parting.” “mañana,” and “came.”)

Comments are welcome, either here or on Facebook. Help with the bridge would be particularly appreciated.

Flag of Canada

August 14, 2017

The Confederate Flag Revisited

A few days ago, I was returning to my car in the Walmart parking lot and found myself walking behind a woman in jeans, flip-flops, and a top that was not a crop top but was nevertheless too short. Her car was closer than mine and couldn’t escape my notice. It was a Ford SUV with a Confederate flag plate on the front bumper and a large decal at the top of the windshield proclaiming the driver to be a “BADASS GIRL.” The driver, however, was well past girlhood.

Flags at Charlottesville demonstration
The Confederate flag (or some variation thereof) on a pickup truck always gives me an uneasy feeling. On a woman’s modest SUV, it prompted some reflection. Particularly in light of the weekend demonstrations in Charlottesville, Virginia, where the flag was juxtaposed to Nazi flags, we should reconsider our attitudes and speech related to symbols of the Confederate States of America. What do such badges really mean? (Note: What is usually called the “Confederate flag” is actually some version of a Confederate battle flag. CNN offered a tutorial on CSA flags after the murders in Charleston, South Carolina, which you can read here.)

At the outset, I have to emphasize that I hold the First Amendment to be sacred. It would be wrong to ban the display of CSA or Nazi symbols in our country. One cannot exhibit a swastika legally in the Federal Republic of Germany, but an analogous prohibition in the United States would be profoundly un-American.

To some, perhaps even to the woman in a Pennsylvania Walmart parking lot, the Confederate flag may be a symbol of personal independence or rebelliousness. If that is what is being symbolized—it clearly was not in Charlottesville—it represents an ignorant and unfortunate choice. The flag cannot be divorced from its historical context. Patriotic Americans need to demonstrate that we understand that context and condemn the flag and all that it represents. The situation cries out for what the Alt Right would call “political correctness.”

What we can do is reframe references to the Confederate flag? Begin by countering the notion that it represents “Southern pride.” Pride in what? The flag was the product of the Civil War and, as such, can hardly represent some mythical antebellum pastoral gentility. Besides, the antebellum period in the South was really one that saw much of the white population in poverty and virtually all of the black population in brutal servitude. Even white folks should not be proud of that. Actually, the flag became a symbol of racial animus and Jim Crow oppression following the war, but particular in response to the twentieth-century Civil Rights Movement. Any pride in that is misplaced and needs to be castigated. If Southerners want a symbol of regional pride—the South can legitimately be proud of its musical, culinary, and literary heritage—let them find a symbol that does not call to mind rebellion and the widespread violation of fundamental human rights.

So, what shall we call the “Confederate flag”? I suggest that we appeal to that actual history. It was a flag used by troops that intended to overthrow the legitimate government of the United States of America. Why not call it the “sedition flag” or “treason flag“ or “rebellion flag”? If you like, put “Southern” before one of those names. Whatever it is, the flag is not—should not be—the “Southern pride flag.”

NOTE: I was born and reared in New Orleans and take no pride in the Southern slavery, rebellion, or racial oppression.

July 26, 2017

Fifteen Years Ago

Fifteen years ago, a life-and-death drama was playing out in the Southwestern Pennsylvania coal fields. On Wednesday, July 24, 2002, nine coal miners were trapped in the Quecreek Mine when they broke through a wall that allowed massive amounts of water to flood the mine, barring their escape. Rescue efforts were begun immediately, although it could not be known whether the miners were alive or dead.

Coal miner
News of the accident and  attempted rescue was broadcast worldwide. Nowhere was the coverage more extensive than in Pittsburgh, the major market closest to the flooded mine. I spent several tense days checking often on the progress of the effort to reached the trapped miners. I went to bed hopeful on Saturday night and woke up Sunday morning to the news that all nine miners had been rescued and were, as they say, in good shape for the shape they were in. What could have been a tragic accident had a very happy ending.

The Quecreek Mine Rescue Foundation will be celebrating the fifteenth anniversary of the events in Somerset County over the next few days.

The anniversary also seems to be a good time to call attention to my poem about the accident and rescue, “The Quecreek Mine Disaster.” I was very moved by what happened fifteen years ago and sought to tell the story in verse. Here is a sample verse:
On Thursday afternoon, the big rig came
To drill a shaft a rescue cage could thread;
That job would take a half a day or more
To reach the barely living or the dead.
Rereading the poem, I think I did a fair job of conveying the anxiety and anticipation of those three days in 2002. See if you don’t agree.

July 9, 2017

A New Anti-Trump Button

Like so many peopele—a majority of voters, no doubt—I was distressed by Donald Trump’s winning the presidential election. I anticipated that his presidency would be a disaster for the country. Alas, I was mistaken. It promises to be an utter catastrophe.

Almost immediately, I thought of creating buttons with the slogan “Don’t blame me. I voted for her!” I waited several months to order buttons, however, and finally did so when I could stand our man-child president no longer.

I have decided to wear one of my buttons every day Trump is in office. I’ve received many comments on my button. No one has asked me for one, however, or tried to argue with the sentiment expressed thereon. Nevertheless, I persist.

The buttons shown in the photograph below are 2¼" in diameter. It isn’t clear whether I should have more made, but if you would like to purchase one or more, please send me e-mail from here. I am not seeking to make a profit, but I would like to cover as much of my cost as possible. If I lose money on this project, I will consider that it was done for a good cause.

Don’t Blame Me buttons

July 6, 2017

Trump on Trade

I am not in the habit of reacting to every asinine tweet made by our dumb-ass president, but I feel compelled to do so now. As President Trump left on Air Force One yesterday to meet with foreign leaders and confirm their worst fears about his ignorance and stupidity,  our Tweeter-in-Chief wrote the following:

Once again, Trump demonstrates that he knows nothing of trade, politics, or economics. Why should we expect our trading partners to “help” us, the most powerful and richest country on earth? It is not their job—and perhaps, not even in their interest—“to make America great.”

Trump has a naïve mercantilist view of trade—he likely doesn’t even know the word “mercantilism,” of course—and appears to believe that trade between nations is a zero-sum game. The U.S. can “win” only by making our trading partners lose. He wants a favorable balance of trade with every nation on earth. The president simply does not understand that trade can benefit everyone. This is fortuitous because our trading partners want to benefit their own countries as much as we do ours.

The world has changed. Instant communications, computers, automation, and ubiquitous international supply chains have created the world in which we live today. Those changes have also created new problems, complex problems that challenge a President of the United States. Unfortunately, the present office holder is a person of limited imagination. He cannot see new solutions to new problems; he can only imagine a “better” world as the world used to be. Moreover, just as he is a narcissist on a personal level—he seems genuinely to care only about himself—he is a kind of nationalist narcissist. Trump cares, at some level, about the U.S., but really has no empathy for the rest of the world unless it enhances his commercial empire’s bottom line.

Trade agreements are necessarily less than perfect, as interests other than purely economic ones invariably have to be taken into account. But free trade—or something very much like it—have made the world richer. Let us hope that Donald Trump doesn’t screw that up.

July 3, 2017

Independence Day Fashion

For many years, I have purchased a patriotic T-shirt to wear on the 4th of July. Many stores stock such shirts at very low prices as the 4th approaches. Often, the year appears on the shirts.

I went shopping today for a 2017 shirt. My job was harder than usual. Given the present political climate, I was unwilling to wear a shirt that touted freedom or liberty. Wearing such a shirt wouldn’t seem sincere, given that we are led by an autocrat who is interested only in freedom from taxes for the rich and the liberty to die or go bankrupt for lack of medical care for everyone else.

The shirt I finally bought is shown below. The flag is a bit flashy for my taste, but the legend “MADE IN AMERICA 2017” is relatively innocuous. And the shirt is, in fact, made in America.

4th of July shirt

June 13, 2017


I recently went to a nearby Pizza Hut/KFC restaurant. (Both chains belong to Yum! Brands, Inc.) I was interested in ordering a meal combo that included a spicy chicken sandwich, a combo I had seen advertised multiple times on television.

At my request, my waitress provided me with a menu. (She didn’t come to my table equipped with one.) The menu was long on Pizza Hut food but seemed light on KFC fare. What I had intended to order was nowhere to be found. I asked her about the advertised combo, but she knew nothing about it. (She was new on the job, she told me.) The waitress left to ask a manager about the combo, but the manager seemed not to know about it either. My waitress suggested that the sandwich I wanted to try was the Zinger Spicy Chicken Sandwich, which was on the menu, but not in a $5 combo.

Unable to order the combo, I ordered a two-piece chicken meal, which was mostly fine. Well, the meal was almost fine. KFC has always served tasty biscuits, and a biscuit came with my meal. Butter, however, did not. I asked for some and received a couple of the packets like this one:

KFC Buttery Spread packet
Buttery Spread packet (approximate size 3" x 1½")
I would have thought that an outfit that went to the trouble of using “11 herbs and spices” would at least serve real butter. I have no idea what I got in lieu of butter. The back of the packet was blank; the front of the packet gave little information about what was inside. All it declared was “KEEP REFRIGERATED” and “ARTIFICIALLY FLAVORED."

My visit to the Indiana, Pennsylvania, restaurant represented the second time I had been disappointed by its skeleton KFC menu. I once visited the restaurant in pursuit of a hot chicken sandwich. I had heard an NPR report on Nashville hot chicken, and I had seen a KFC advertisement for its own hot chicken sandwich. Alas, the Pizza Hut/KFC restaurant had no clue about the sandwich in question. On that occasion, I simply walked out.

Alas, one hand of Yum! Brands just doesn’t seem to know (or care) what the other hand is doing.

May 29, 2017

A Memorial Day Prayer

Memorial Day is most certainly an appropriate day of remembrance and gratitude for those who gave their lives for their country. But, it is all too easy to describe the sacrifices of our warriors as having been made to secure our freedom or to protect our way of life. In reality, some of those sacrifices were meaningless, either because they were the product of incompetent military leadership or because they resulted from wars that should never have been fought, that is, incompetent political leadership.

Earlier today, I read a prayer posted on Facebook that adopted a perfectly conventional attitude toward our war dead. We should, I think, both celebrate those who made the ultimate sacrifice—the usual subject of Memorial Day oratory—and meditate on whether their number should be as great as it is.

I don’t want to distinguish here between “good” and “bad” wars or between “good” and “bad” military encounters. Most of us could agree that at least some military deaths in some circumstances were meaningless and unnecessary.

Such thoughts led me to compose the following prayer. This surely should not be the prayer for Memorial Day, but perhaps it should be a prayer on our lips at some point on this day. My prayer:
Dear God, on this day we dedicate to the memory of those who died in defense of our country and its declared ideals, let us not forget the many whose death resulted from dreams of empire, hubris, or adventurism. Help us to comprehend and repent of errors that have needlessly cost lives, and give us the wisdom and humility to act, as a nation, with love and compassion, informed by the teachings of the Prince of Peace, in whose name we pray. Amen.

May 27, 2017


Some of my most treasured childhood toys were Smith-Miller trucks. These large-scale die-cast trucks were not museum-quality scale models, but they were realistic, fun to play with, and practically indestructible. I had four Smith-Miller trucks, all of which were purchased at a small, independent toy store that maintained a somewhat exotic stock. (I don’t recall seeing these toys at any other store.) My favor truck was a hook and ladder fire engine. (See the picture below, which is of an identical truck).

For some reason, I decided to look up Smith-Miller on the Web the other day. I was surprised that Wikipedia had no entry for it. However, I did find a corporate Web site for Smith-Miller, Inc. The site announces “Handmade Scale Toy Trucks in Miniature.”

I was happy to see that Smith-Miller trucks have not disappeared. The story of the company is not simple, however. I haven’t been able to learn much about the early history of Smith-Miller. It went out of business sometime in the 1950s, but it didn’t do it in the usual way. It simply stopped operating, leaving everything in the factory in place. A totally different company operated out of a portion of the toy company factory.

The subsequent history of Smith-Miller is recounted on the About Us/History page of the current company Web site. In 1979, a collector who had managed to track down the remains of the company in Los Angeles in search of parts arranged to buy what was left—lock, stock, and barrel—less the factory building itself. Eventually, that collector, Fred Thompson, sold off existing stock, including trucks that first had to be completed. The resurrected Smith-Miller then began producing trucks from new designs.

Not many kids will likely be finding shiny new Smith-Miller trucks under the Christmas tree. The trucks, which seem even better than the old ones, have an average price of about $1,000. (Currently available trucks can be found here.) It’s nice to know they’re out there though.

May 16, 2017

A Plea to Reporters

I was listening to Here and Now on NPR this afternoon. A reporter was interviewing some Republican woman; I wasn’t paying close attention at the time, so I can’t say who she was. My ears perked up, however, when the interviewee spoke of the “Democrat program” or some such. Although I had an immediate and negative reaction, the interviewer did not. She failed to comment on this phrase and on a similar use of “Democrat” as an adjective later in the interview.

“Democrat,” however, is a noun, not an adjective. In proper English, it is never an adjective. The correct adjective (and the one that should be used in referring to the Democratic Party) is “Democratic.”

Republicans—and by now, this includes virtually all Republican politicians—have taken to referring to the “Democrat Party” because the word “Democratic” has positive associations for most Americans. Republicans want citizens only to have negative feelings about the opposition party, and the use of “Democratic,” they believe, works against that objective.

Republican smear
“Democrat Party” (or “Democrat agenda,” etc.) is a gratuitous smear, and one that reporters should not allow Republicans to get away with. There is no “Democrat Party” in the United States, only a “Democratic Party.”

The reporter should have interrupted the speaker and said something like, “Excuse me. There is no “Democrat Party.” Are you talking about the Democratic Party?” Such an interruption, done repeatedly over the course of an interview should have an effect.

And so, reporters and Democratic Party politicians, stop letting Republicans get away with their now institutionalized slur. Better still, politicians can begin referring to the “Republic Party.”

April 30, 2017

Religious Designations

I was intrigued this afternoon by a discussion on the WNYC program On the Media involving the words “Jew” and “Jewish.” The point was made that, in some people’s minds, calling someone “a Jew” is demeaning. (The person asserting this was Jewish and didn’t mind the designation personally.) On the other hand, using “Jew” as an adjective—as in “Jew banker”—nearly always is an insult. It was suggested that politicians tend to use “Jewish” in order to avoid any possible negative implications. For example, a politician is more likely to say that someone “is Jewish,” rather than “is a Jew.”

The designations related to Judaism (or Jewish heritage, etc.) are odd in English. Words related to Christianity are not so problematic. For example, we say someone “is a Christian,” or we might refer to “a Christian banker.” Notice that (1) both the noun and the adjective are the same, and (2) neither phrase has negative connotations. (Well, mostly. For me at least, saying that someone “is a Christian radio commentator” might indeed suggest unsavoriness, but the adjectival form is mostly innocuous.)

Other religious designations operate mostly like “Christian.” Someone can be “a Muslim” or “a Muslim banker.” (“Muslim terrorist” is another matter—see below.) The religion itself is Islam, so usage differs somewhat from the Christian case, where the name of the religion is closely related. Also, we have the word “Islamic,” which we do not normally apply to people, except in cases where they have a formal or institutional relationship to the religion of Islam (e.g., “Islamic professor”).

I’m not sure why “Islam” and “Muslim” are seemingly unrelated. When I was young, I was taught about “Mohammedanism” and “Mohammedans.” These are seventeenth-century words, but “Islam” and “Muslim” seem to be somewhat older.

The related words “Islamism” and “Islamist” have taken on dark meanings in recent years. These have become specialized words related to a particular take on Islam. Mehdi Mozaffari, of Aarhus University, offers this definition of Islamism: “a religious ideology with a holistic interpretation of Islam whose final aim is the conquest of the world by all means.” Thus, we might speak of “an Islamist terrorist.” To speak of “an Islamic terrorist,” as do many Americans, President Trump most notably among them, is an unfair slur on the religion of  Islam.

Words related to Hinduism and Sikhism follow the usual pattern. Perhaps readers know of a religion whose related nouns and adjectives do not follow the usual pattern.

Most Christian denominations have words that follow the normal pattern (think Presbyterians, Methodists, Mormons, etc.) Episcopalians, as in many things, are different. We speak of “an Episcopal church” or “an Episcopal priest,” but an individual member of The Episcopal Church is “an Episcopalian.” Only the ignorant speak of “an Episcopal.” Go figure.

April 28, 2017

The Latest Concession to the Freedom Caucus Would Create Economic Inefficiency

One of the societal problems ameliorated by the Affordable Care Act was that people were discouraged from changing jobs if they had acquired a chronic medical condition that was covered by insurance at their current workplace. The ACA lifted pre-existing-condition limitations on insurance and made it easier to afford insurance not provided through an employer. This obviously helped many individuals, but it also helped the economy, as workers could more easily change jobs to one where their contribution to the economy would be greater.

House Republicans laboring to achieve consensus on a bill to repeal and replace the ACA have hit on a scheme to attract more votes from the Freedom Caucus. The latest proposal would give individual states the ability to tinker with insurance rates and coverage. If this idea finds its way into law, it will introduce a similar inefficiency into the U.S. economy. Workers who might want to change jobs to improve their lot (and that of the economy) would, with this provision, have to ask if moving to another state would cause them to lose vital medical benefits. This could deter worker movement. It could also encourage worker movement into more generous states, most probably those whose governments are not controlled by Republicans.

House Republicans continue their race to the bottom in their devising requirements for a new health care bill. It is to be hoped that, as the leadership tries to satisfy the Freedom Caucus, less radical representatives will realize that doing so will create a backlash that will sweep GOP members from the House in 2018.

April 26, 2017

R.I.P. American Health Care Act

President Trump’s second major initiative, his attempt to replace Obamacare with Trumpcare (a.k.a, the American Health Care Act) has crashed and burned. The disaster was even more dramatic than his failure to implement a Muslim travel ban, which, after all, though on life support, is not definitively dead. Alas, Trumpcare may not be definitively dead, either, as Vice President Pence is trying to sweet talk the Freedom Caucus into supporting a nastier bill that the one that went down in flames.

Now, between fights over health care, seems a good time to offer some thoughts on health care in general and on health care legislation.

Is Health Care a Right?

Liberals argue that health care is (or should be) a right. Conservatives contend that people should be held responsible for their own health care and that having it provided through the government breeds dependency and self-indulgence.

The Declaration of Independence asserts that among the “unalienable Rights” to be secured by government are “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Without life, however, other rights and privileges are illusory. People who cannot afford health insurance—and even many who can—cannot be guaranteed the medical care required to keep them alive. Regrettably, medical bills are the leading cause of personal bankruptcy in the United States. Even with insurance, a person can be one accident or one infection away from a totally ruined life. Most people, however responsible, cannot protect themselves from every medical catastrophe. Ruined lives hurt the economy and any sense we might have of being a compassionate society.

Virtually all developed countries save the United States have decided that the right to life entails the right to health care.

How We Organize Health Care

Most people of working age get health insurance through their employers. It is individual employers who determine what sort of coverage is available to their employees at a reasonable cost. Why? There are historical reasons for the system, but they have nothing to do with health insurance being inherently connected to employment. Unemployed need health insurance, too. This senseless system has had unintended consequences, at least as far a public policy is concerned. It has kept people in jobs to maintain their health insurance even when the employee could be more profitably employed elsewhere. The ACA has helped mitigate this problem, but, of course, the GOP wants to get rid of it.

Private health insurance companies; for-profit hospitals, labs, and imaging centers; rapacious pharmaceutical companies, and the whole fee-for-service system all help to drive health care costs higher. This is where the real savings are to be had. These sacred cows need to be taken on. The ACA did not do it, and nothing the Republicans will propose will do it either.

The Republicans Fail

For seven years, the GOP railed against the ACA. Candidate Trump spoke about repeal as soon as he got into office. Undoing Obama’s premier legislative accomplishment had virtually become the defining feature of Republicanism. And yet, when the GOP found itself in control of both houses of Congress, as well as the White House, it was obvious that Republicans had no real plan to effect their number one goal. President Trump had promised to repeal and replace Obamacare with something great, but it was clear that he had no idea what that great something should be. Moreover, it quickly became clear that a legislative “victory” on the health care front was more important to him than keeping his promises regarding retaining the parts of the ACA that were universally valued. He therefore farmed out creating legislation to Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, someone who didn’t care about Trump’s promises and who hated the ACA, taxes, and federal deficits.

The Ryan bill was created in secret with no Democratic input and minimal input from House Republicans. What emerged was a bill that jettisoned the most important objective of the ACA—substantially decreasing the number of Americans without health insurance—and adopted what seems to be the Republicans favorite, but unacknowledged goal, namely, providing tax cuts for the rich.

Alas, the Ryan bill, the American Health Care Act, was insufficiently meanspirited for the members of the Freedom Caucus, the outgrowth of the Tea Party. The Freedom Caucus simply wanted Obamacare gone. Attempts to mollify these extremists were not very successful and alienated non-crazy Republicans. In the end, the bill was pulled. At first, it seemed as though Trump and Ryan were ready to leave the ACA in place, letting (self-inflicted) wounds heal and giving time to craft a better-thought-out bill. It now appears that the Republicans will try to replace Obamacare sooner, rather than later.

The Danger Ahead

At the outset of the Obama administration, Republican leaders vowed to oppose the new president at every turn. They did so with great success, culminating in the blocking of Obama’s final appointment to the Supreme Court. Democrats tried valiantly—and foolishly, it turned out—to sweeten the ACA to attract Republican votes. Even though the basic outlines of the law were based on the plan implemented by Republicans in Massachusetts, congressional Republicans would not go along. Moreover, they and their allies whipped up opposition to Obamacare by lying about it. People were concerned that it would destroy Medicare, that their fate would be decided by death panels, and so forth. Countering the lies failed to move public opinion among Republican loyalists, and the belief that Obamacare must go became an article of faith disconnected from any objective analysis. Adherents to the faith increasingly elected like-minded people to serve in the Congress.

As the Trump administration was moving toward repealing Obamacare and replacing it with a program that would hurt more Americans than it helped, public opinion began moving in favor of keeping and perhaps improving the ACA. House Republicans failed to notice; their faith remained intact. They acted—and are acting—like Lucy in the strip below. When circumstances change or more information comes to light, old assumptions not explicitly contradicted tend to be retained, however outrageous that may seem.

Peanuts strip from November 18, 1960

As time passes, more Americans are concluding that the ACA may have more virtues than problems. Obamacare, it turns out, actually has helped millions of people. The next time Republicans try their repeal-and-replace trick. public opinion will be even more opposed to what Republican want to do. Rumors suggest that the next bill will be more draconian than the American Health Care Act. These trends almost certainly doom GOP plans, which will put yet another blot on Trump’s already tarnished escutcheon.

If Republicans truly want to change health care in this country, they just may have to work with Democrats. Democrats will not agree to tossing the ACA overboard, but they would certainly be willing to improve it. Unfortunately for Paul Ryan, any bipartisan bill will not lower government spending or give tax breaks to the rich. It might, however, improve President Trump’s reputation.