Thursday, March 31, 2011

David Frum lifts the curtain...

...on President Obama's "kinetic military action" in Libya. Among other things (my emphasis):

...the U.S. mission is as deeply concerned with European energy security as with the humanitarian crisis. Critics correctly point out that the US has managed to ignore many other humanitarian crises – and is in fact ignoring one right now in the Ivory Coast. This particular crisis is occurring in a country from which NATO ally Italy buys more than one-fifth of all its net oil imports and in which Britain has a very large investment. We are not going to war for oil. But we very rarely go to war without oil.

(That's Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi with Moammar Gaddafy, above, in happier times -- for both of them.)

The cartoon of the day:

Recently, my 21-year-old son...

...told me how popular Twitter had become. "Everybody at Indiana University has a Twitter account," he said.

You don't say, I thought.

But the news didn't really sink in until last night, when I drove past a local restaurant, Grecian Kitchen Delight (above), on Dempster Street in Skokie. It's a good burger and fries joint, and their specialty is a pulled pork sandwich, which they advertise in big black letters on a sign outside. (You've seen this type of sign; it's the kind where a guy has to go outside, climb up on a ladder and painstakingly change each letter by hand.)

Well, when I drove by last night, instead of the usual message, the sign said, FOLLOW US ON TWITTER. And I thought, what kind of tweets could they possibly be posting? JUST SRVED ANTHER PLLED PRK? Or, FRNCH FRIES R RDDY? Or, U HAV 2 TRY R BRGRS?

So I became a follower. I'll keep you posted.

Today's George Orwell Award...

...goes to William G. Batchelder, Republican (surprised?) speaker of the Ohio House.

Before we get to Batchelder's classic example of doublespeak, though, a little background is in order. From an article in today's Times, "Ohio House Votes to Curtail Collective Bargaining" (my emphasis):

The bill would bar public employees from striking and would prohibit binding arbitration for police officers and firefighters. It would allow bargaining over wages, but not health coverage and pensions and would allow public-employee unions to bargain only when the public employer chose to do so.

Under the Ohio bill, when there is public-sector bargaining and management and union fail to reach a settlement, the legislative body, such as a county or school board, would make the final decision on what offer to accept. But if the legislative body refrains from selecting either side’s last best offer, the public employer’s last offer would become the agreement between the parties.

And the actual award-winner? (Drum roll, please...)

Immediately after the House voted, William G. Batchelder, the House speaker, said: “Today, this House has taken an unprecedented step toward public policy that respects all Ohioans, especially our taxpayers and our hard-working middle class.” He said the bill “protects the collective bargaining rights of Ohioans while also giving local governments an additional tool in the toolbox as they balance their budgets.”

But James Brudney, a labor law professor at Ohio State University, said the bill effectively crippled collective bargaining. “There’s a kind of mask or illusion element in this,” he said. “The essence of collective bargaining is when you can’t agree on terms of a contract, you have a dispute resolution mechanism, by strikes or perhaps binding arbitration. Here, you have none of that. That’s not collective bargaining. I’d call it collective begging. It’s a conversation that ends whenever an employer decides that it ends.”

Add Rutt's Hut, in Clifton, New Jersey,... my bucket list. (You know you're in the right place when you see a sign behind the counter that says, PLEASE PAY WHEN SERVED.)

A piece in the Times today says:

Rutt’s Hut, as most New Jersey gourmands know, is on the long shortlist of the state’s esteemed hot dog palaces. It dates from 1928. Most people eat standing up at plain white linoleum counters in a squat, industrial-style brick building. The menu includes chili and fried calamari, but the main draw is the Ripper, a deep-fried hot dog cooked until the skin rips open. At its best, it seems vaguely radioactive — but in a good way. It is best eaten with an equally celebrated sweet relish made with cabbage, onions and carrots.

Remember how the Wall Street Journal...

...used to always claim that the highly-skilled, heavily unionized and well-compensated German workforce was actually a bad thing because it led to high structural unemployment?

This morning, Bloomberg reports, "German Unemployment Fell in March for 21st Straight Month" (my emphasis):

German unemployment fell twice as much as economists forecast in March as instability in the Middle East and the crisis in Japan failed to deter companies from hiring.

The number of people out of work fell a seasonally adjusted 55,000 to 3.01 million, the Nuremberg-based Federal Labor Agency said today. That’s the lowest level since June 1992. Economists predicted a drop of 25,000, according to the median of 31 estimates in a Bloomberg News survey. The rate declined to 7.1 percent from 7.3 percent of the workforce.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Once again, I find myself... agreement with Andrew Sullivan (my emphasis):

I suffer, it seems, from an affliction that bedevils many. I now find myself largely opposed to most Republicans and in favor of a Democratic president as an even tempered pragmatist. But I have not reimagined myself as a leftist. Others have, of course, but I wince a little every time. Take the issue of taxes - and you see where the right-left paradigm is totally insufficient to the occasion.

Income tax rates are now lower than they were under Ronald Reagan and far lower than they were under Eisenhower. And yet it has become a Norquistian non-negotiable that no taxes can be raised at all on anyone, let alone the beneficiaries of the last thirty years - and those who differ must be "leftists" - even when the US is facing debt of historic and dangerous proportions. Someone advocating what Eisenhower was perfectly comfortable with would be regarded by the Republican right today as a communist.

My mother told me this weekend...

...that my sister is hopping mad at Governor Quinn of Illinois for raising taxes in order to close the state's yawning budget deficit. And all I could think was, "Where in God's name do Republicans think the money is supposed to come from?"

Stan Collender, writing in Capital Gains and Games yesterday (my emphasis):

...governors around the country are running into serious political problems when they try to do what they think they received a mandate to do at the last election -- reduce the size of government with significant spending cuts. The governors are having a hard time explaining why, if that's what the voters want, there doesn't seem to be as much popular support when they actually try to cut spending.

The answer is actually quite simple: The governors ... misread what the voters said last November.

As Bruce [Bartlett] and I have been pointing out for months here at CG&G, poll after poll after poll shows that a majority of Americans don't want smaller government; they just want the government they have to cost less. With the exception of foreign aid, Americans state repeatedly and definitively that they don't want government to do any less than it is currently doing, they just don't want to pay as much to get it.

It's not surprising, therefore, that the governors are running into big problems when they come up with spending cuts that are based on actual program reductions. In fact, it's entirely predictable.

It's as if, when the checkout person at the grocery store tells me my total, I answer back, "That's too much. I'm not paying it."

"Then you'll have to put some of this stuff back on the shelves."

"I don't want to. I need all of these groceries. I just don't think I should have to pay so much for them."

I thought Republicans were the ones who were always saying, "There's no such thing as a free lunch."

The New Yorker cartoon of the day:

Here's a really good, sensible piece...

...about the race for the Republican nomination, "How Big 2012 GOP Field Could Boil Down to Three":

When all is said and done, the race for the 2012 GOP nomination may boil down to just three serious contenders: former Governor [Mitt] Romney of Massachusetts, former Governor [Tim] Pawlenty of Minnesota (above), and Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi. 

I agree. Throw in a Quixotic tea partier or two (Michele Bachmann and Rand Paul are the latest candidates du jour), and you have your 2012 field.

So who gets the privilege of losing to Obama, er, I mean -- the prize?

Pawlenty could wind up on top by default as the least objectionable.

Again, I agree. T-Paw checks all the boxes: evangelical Christian, fiscal conservative and (soon to be) foreign policy hawk.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Times has a piece today...

...about Christopher Ely, "one of New York's premier butlers." Kind of like Mr. French (above), I suppose, from the 1960s sitcom, "Family Affair."

Ely got his start at Buckingham Palace (yes, that Buckingham Palace; this guy is the real deal) and more recently worked for Brooke Astor, the famous philanthropist. He's now teaching weeklong classes at the French Culinary Institute. (You really need to read the whole article. It's a hoot!) Among other things, students learn that:

A bed should not be made immediately after one wakes, but rather, left alone, preferably near an open window, to allow the sleeper’s perspiration to evaporate.

When laying out an employer’s clothing, drape the trousers over the seat of a chair first, with a dress shirt folded — unbuttoned and with cuff links attached — atop them, and underclothes in turn atop the shirt, in reverse order of the boss’s getting dressed. Shoes, without horns, to the side, socks laid over them. Leave out three ties — the boss’s only choice to make in the morning.

Meat tenderizer is good for blood stains in cotton.

And that last one reminded me of this famous Seinfeld bit:

The cartoon of the day:

"The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis..."

...was a sitcom that aired on CBS from 1959 to 1963. Each week, the show opened with the title character, played by Dwayne Hickman, pondering some problem aloud in front of a reproduction of Rodin's "The Thinker."

I'm reminded of this because, like Dobie, I've been giving a lot of thought lately to a problem of my own, that age-old question, "nature or nurture?" And, more and more, I think "nature" has a stronger influence on us than "nurture." In other words, if your physical characteristics -- like height, hair and eye color -- are predetermined by your genes, why not your intangible qualities as well?

Take my neighbor as an, admittedly, purely anecdotal example. Before he was born, Bruce's parents didn't think they could have children, so they adopted a baby boy. Shortly after -- surprise! -- Bruce's mother became pregnant with him. So Bruce grew up in a house with a brother who was about 18 months older. But the two boys never had much in common. Bruce's brother struggled academically and may or may not have graduated from high school. Instead, he took an interest in cars and became an auto mechanic.

When Bruce's brother reached his twenties, he wanted to reconnect with his biological parents. His search was successful, and it turned out that his natural relatives were all a lot like him -- high school graduates with a particular interest in cars.

Oh, and Bruce? He followed in his father's footsteps and became an optometrist. (His wife once confided in me that Bruce was exactly like his father. I never figured out if that was supposed to be a good thing or not.)

Now, again -- granted -- this is merely an anecdotal example, but it illustrates my increasing suspicion that we are more a product of our genes than our environment.

Yesterday, the Daily Beast had a piece, "Is the Will to Work Out Hereditary?":

The reason some people hit the gym every day while others can’t bear it may be encoded in our genes. Casey Schwartz on new research that suggests the will to workout is hereditary.

Like so many things these days, the reason appears to be partially informed by genetic inheritance. Which genes really matter in determining our inborn appetite for exercise has yet to be determined, as does the extent to which they make a difference from one person to the next. But the field of exercise genetics is now turning up all kinds of findings that, put together, are beginning to advance the ball on this issue.

On a related topic, my son and I had an interesting discussion this weekend on determinism vs. free will. My son's position was that random events and circumstances are more important in shaping our lives than any individual decisions we make. In fact, he seemed to suggest that free will is nothing more than an illusion.

article in the Science section of the Times last week, "Do You Have Free Will? Yes, It's the Only Choice," addressed this topic:

Suppose that Mark and Bill live in a deterministic universe. Everything that happens this morning — like Mark’s decision to wear a blue shirt, or Bill’s latest attempt to comb over his bald spot — is completely caused by whatever happened before it.

If you recreated this universe starting with the Big Bang and let all events proceed exactly the same way until this same morning, then the blue shirt is as inevitable as the comb-over.

“Doubting one’s free will may undermine the sense of self as agent,” Dr. [Kathleen Vohs of the University of Minnesota and Dr. Jonathan Schooler of the University of California, Santa Barbara] concluded. “Or, perhaps, denying free will simply provides the ultimate excuse to behave as one likes.”

Some scientists like to dismiss the intuitive belief in free will as an exercise in self-delusion — a simple-minded bit of “confabulation,” as [Francis Crick, the molecular biologist] put it.

Monday, March 28, 2011

This just in...

...Vienna Beef hot dogs will be back at Wrigley Field for the 2011 season!

According to a story in the Chicago Tribune today:

Vienna Beef, which opened its first store in Chicago in 1894, this season will once again become the official hot dog of the Chicago Cubs. It replaces Sara Lee's Ball Park franks. Vienna dogs were served at Wrigley prior to 1982.

Oh, and don't forget, it's the North Side:

Also, Enjoy Life Foods will be the supplier of gluten-free, allergy-friendly food. Lifeway Food will provide its frozen kefir, a low-fat soft-serve treat — an alternative to ice cream — that is 99 percent lactose-free and gluten-free.

In addition to allergy-sensitive foods, the park will offer a vegetable chopped salad and assorted fresh vegetables with hummus, he said.

And on the South Side? offerings at U.S. Cellular Field include an Irish pub...


The New Yorker cartoon of the day:

Paul Baran, who helped create...

...the Arpanet, the government-sponsored precursor to today's Internet, died at age 84 (my emphasis):

In the early 1960s, while working at the RAND Corporation in Santa Monica, Calif., Mr. Baran outlined the fundamentals for packaging data into discrete bundles, which he called “message blocks.” The bundles are then sent on various paths around a network and reassembled at their destination. Such a plan is known as “packet switching.”

Mr. Baran’s idea was to build a distributed communications network, less vulnerable to attack or disruption than conventional networks. In a series of technical papers published in the 1960s he suggested that networks be designed with redundant routes so that if a particular path failed or was destroyed, messages could still be delivered through another.

Mr. Baran’s invention was so far ahead of its time that in the mid-1960s, when he approached AT&T with the idea to build his proposed network, the company insisted it would not work and refused.

Tonight the president will address...

..."the situation in Libya." Which, as Ross Douthat says in the Times today:

...sounds less like a military intervention than a spin-off vehicle for the famous musclehead from MTV’s “Jersey Shore.”

Sunday, March 27, 2011

According to Maureen Dowd's column... the Times today:

It’s the Mormon moment.

The Republican Mormons Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman may run for president, braving more questions about whether they wear the sacred undergarment and more resistance from evangelicals who consider Mormonism an affront to Christianity.

Is Ms. Dowd apologizing for Mormonism?

If you already find some aspects of Mormonism exotic and strange — including its start with crystal-gazing Joseph Smith, the buried gold tablets with hieroglyphics and an angel named Moroni — the musical won’t assuage your doubts.

Smith claimed Jesus appeared to him in upstate New York.

Sorry, but I find that more than just "exotic and strange." It's a little disturbing. Do Mormons really believe, for example, that the Garden of Eden was in Missouri? Really?

In the end, the message is not against Mormonism but literalism: that whatever our different myths, metaphors and rituals, the real purpose of religion is to give us a higher purpose and a sense of compassion in the universe.

“The moral,” the writer Andrew Sullivan observed on opening night, “is that religion is both insane and necessary at the same time.”

Again, sorry, but if something is insane it's not necessary. And, frankly, I do want to know if Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman believe in magic underwear. It's important to me that we have a rational president.

Melancholy... how I would describe my mood today.

This morning, my older son went back to college after an especially good visit. And my younger son remains at his new school in Hyde Park.

The four of us were together on Saturday and it was a nice reunion. We went out to eat at the Original Pancake House (how many original pancake houses are there?) and then went over to the Museum of Science and Industry for a few hours. We hadn't been there since the boys were young.

And now my wife and I are empty nesters again. It's bittersweet.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

The song of the day...

...was written by Willie Nelson in 1961.

Not sure about that headband...

Friday, March 25, 2011

I say Michele Bachmann... running for president in 2012, and Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee are not.

In the beginning there was IBM, then...

...Apple, then Microsoft, then Google, then Apple (again), then Facebook...

I was talking to my 21-year-old son and his friend last night and they surprised me when they said they hardly ever go on Facebook anymore. In fact, they had me wondering if Facebook's fifteen minutes of fame were just about up.

And where did all the young people go? Twitter.

Looks like Isabel Wilkerson...

...will have to write a sequel to The Warmth of Other Suns, her 2010 best seller about the Great Migration of southern blacks to the North from 1915 to 1970.

From an article in the Times today, "Many U. S. Blacks Moving to South, Reversing Trend":

 The percentage of the nation’s black population living in the South has hit its highest point in half a century, according to census data released Thursday, as younger and more educated black residents move out of declining cities in the Northeast and Midwest in search of better opportunities.

The five counties with the largest black populations in 2000 — Cook in Illinois, Los Angeles, Wayne in Michigan, Kings in New York and Philadelphia — all lost black population in the last decade. Among the 25 counties with the biggest increase in black population, three-quarters are in the South.

General Electric, the nation's largest...

...corporation, paid no taxes in 2010, according to a front page article in the Times this morning.

A new series, "But Nobody Pays That," is an eye-opener (my emphasis):

While General Electric is one of the most skilled at reducing its tax burden, many other companies have become better at this as well. Although the top corporate tax rate in the United States is 35 percent, one of the highest in the world, companies have been increasingly using a maze of shelters, tax credits and subsidies to pay far less.

Such strategies, as well as changes in tax laws that encouraged some businesses and professionals to file as individuals, have pushed down the corporate share of the nation’s tax receipts — from 30 percent of all federal revenue in the mid-1950s to 6.6 percent in 2009.

While G.E.’s declining tax rates have bolstered profits and helped the company continue paying dividends to shareholders during the economic downturn, some tax experts question what taxpayers are getting in return. Since 2002, the company has eliminated a fifth of its work force in the United States while increasing overseas employment. In that time, G.E.’s accumulated offshore profits have risen to $92 billion from $15 billion.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

My good friend Kevin...

...drove all the way up from Flossmoor today to have his first-ever Hackneyburger. (Can you imagine waiting until you're in your fifties to have your first Hackneyburger?)

We debated whether to go to the one on Lake Avenue (which I can see from my bedroom window) or to the original one on Harms, across the street from the forest preserve. Kevin, being the purist that he is, opted for the latter, which dates back to 1939.

According to the restaurant's Web site, Jack Hackney and his wife Bebe began serving hamburgers and beer on the back porch of their house in Glenview during Prohibition. (I wonder if they knew my great-uncle, "Red" Tom Duffy, the bootlegger who was shot and killed by Al Capone's gang.)

In 1939, the recently married Kitz and Jim Masterson (above) bought the establishment for the princely sum of one dollar. During World War II, the soldiers from the P.O.W. camp across the street were frequent patrons. The German prisoners, however, were not allowed to join them. (Kind of like my new basset hound, Stewart, who has to content himself with smelling the onion rings from afar.)

After Kevin and I made light work of a small plate of those famous onion rings, which were named one of the Top Three in the USA (top three what?) by Restaurant Management magazine in 2006 (don't tell me you don't read RM!), we each tore into an "Original Half-Pound Hackneyburger" on dark rye (of course), medium rare, with raw onions (can't get too much onion at this place), french fries and cole slaw.

Since Kev is trying to stay in shape, he washed it all down with a Diet Pepsi while I kicked it "Old School" and had a regular Pepsi, or "Peps," as my great-aunts used to say. There was no time (or room!) for dessert, so we shook hands in the parking lot and promised to do it again real soon.

Maybe Kev and I could try either the Victoria or Shillelagh Room -- or even Circe's Circle -- at the one on Lake. Or, better yet, we could eat outside at Harms (above) when the weather gets nice. If nothing else, there's always the Hackney's down in Palos on the South Side. (We could go there before or after a Homewood-Flossmoor football game this fall!)

How about you? Is there a Hackney's in your future?

Elizabeth Taylor died yesterday... age 79 and her obituary in the Times was so impressive -- situated prominently on the front page -- that it was practically worthy of some head of state. Here are some of my favorite tidbits (my emphasis):

In a life of many surprises, one of the oddest facts is that as an infant she was considered to be an ugly duckling ... At birth, her mother said, her daughter’s “tiny face was so tightly closed it looked as if it would never unfold.”

Elizabeth made her movie debut in 1942 as Gloria Twine in a forgettable film called “There’s One Born Every Minute,” with Carl Switzer, best known as Alfalfa, the boy with the cowlick in the “Our Gang” series. The casting director at Universal said of her: “The kid has nothing.” Despite that inauspicious debut, Sam Marx, an MGM producer who had known the Taylors in England, arranged for their daughter to have a screen test for “Lassie Come Home.” She passed the audition. During the filming, in which Ms. Taylor acted with Roddy McDowall, a cameraman mistakenly thought her long eyelashes were fake and asked her to take them off.

Since childhood Ms. Taylor had been surrounded by pets. When she was not allowed to take her dogs to London because of a quarantine rule, she leased a yacht for them at at reported cost of $20,000 and moored it on the Thames.

...In 1982 ... she held a wedding reception for her adopted daughter at the Helmsley Palace Hotel. There was talk that she charged it to room service.

(The picture at top is from her performance as Gloria Wandrous, a call girl, in the 1960 production, "BUtterfield 8," for which she won her first Academy Award for best actress.)

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

If you want to be the Republican nominee...

...for president in 2012, you can't be the least bit "dovish" on foreign policy:

[Haley Barbour] is also showing a willingness to challenge conservative consensus on some issues.

At an appearance in Iowa last week, he said he was not certain that the United States should have 100,000 troops in Afghanistan, given that most Al Qaeda fighters are across the border in Pakistan, suggesting he might take a different approach to the war from the one advocated by most in his party. While many Republicans say their support for budget cutting does not extend to the military, Mr. Barbour said the Pentagon should not be exempt.

“Anybody who thinks you can’t save money at the Pentagon has never been to the Pentagon,” he said, drawing applause at a Republican dinner in Davenport. “If we Republicans don’t propose saving money on defense, we won’t have credibility on anything else.”

And you can never, ever have raised taxes -- ever:

There is no doubt about [Mike] Huckabee's record during a decade in Little Rock as governor. He was regarded by fellow Republican governors as a compulsive tax increaser and spender. He increased the Arkansas tax burden by 47 percent, boosting the levies on gasoline and cigarettes.

And -- for the love of God -- don't ever go soft on social issues:

And then, [Mitch Daniels] says, the next president, whoever he is, "would have to call a truce on the so-called social issues. We're going to just have to agree to get along for a little while."

No, the Republican Party standard-bearer in 2012 will be someone hawkish on foreign policy, inflexible on taxes and a darling of the religious right. Who fits that description the most? Maybe ... T-Paw.

Health care reform...

...was signed into law a year ago today.

Jonathan Cohn, of the New Republic, is one of the best reporters I've found on the subject. Today he writes, "The Affordable Care Act, One Year Later" (my emphasis):

Are there better alternatives? Of course. But the loudest critics of the law, from the right, don’t have them. For all of their screaming, they have yet to put forward a credible plan that can do as much, let alone more, for less money. Their plans, stripped of misleading rhetoric, generally involve covering far fewer people, dramatically reducing the coverage that people have, or some combination of the two. Their dispute is not with the means Democrats have used to make health care affordable to all. It’s with the goal itself.

No, the way to improve the law is to build upon it--to bolster the insurance coverage, reach those Americans the law as written will not reach, and to strengthen the experiments in cost control that work. The best analysis of the law remains the one Senator Tom Harkin gave: The Affordable Care Act is not a mansion. It’s a starter home. But it’s got a solid foundation, a sturdy roof, and room for expansion.