Sunday, November 16, 2014

Sunday Reading

How Al Franken Won — Patrick Caldwell in Mother Jones reports on how running with your party can make you a winner.

One evening a few days before the midterm elections, Sen. Al Franken stood on a low raised platform at the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party’s St. Paul headquarters, addressing a few dozen loyal supporters. Chris Coleman, St. Paul’s mayor, had introduced the freshman senator by telling the crowd that Franken had fulfilled the legacy of the late progressive icon Paul Wellstone, whose Senate seat Franken now holds. “Thank you for saying I’ve been your Paul,” Franken replied solemnly. “There’s no higher compliment.” Then he dove into a Wellstone-esque speech selling progressive policy ideas in simple, everyman terms, spelling out exactly how he’d raise taxes on Minnesota millionaires to help students refinance their loans. “We up here believe that the economy—and not just our economy, but our community and our state—it works from the middle up,” he said. The speech exemplified how Franken campaigned—and why he won.

When Franken first ran for office, in 2008, he beat Republican incumbent Norm Coleman by a scant 312 votes—and only after a recount that delayed his Senate induction for six months. Republicans naturally saw Franken as vulnerable heading into the 2014 midterm elections. But Franken defied those expectations. He won re-election by 10 percent in a state where most voters disapprove of President Obama’s job performance. And he pulled it off by bucking the trend. Across the country, other Democratic Senate candidates distanced themselves from President Obama and the Democratic Party platform. Mark Warner, who squeaked by in Virginia, preferred to talk about how he’d tweak the Affordable Care Act than his vote for the bill, while arguing that he hasn’t actually voted with President Obama all that often. Mark Udall in Colorado decided he didn’t want to be seen with Obama. Challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes in Kentucky wouldn’t even say if she voted for Obama in 2012—after serving as one of his delegates to the national convention.

Franken took the opposite approach. Instead of running away from the progressive accomplishments of the Obama era, he embraced them, railing against bankers, advocating for student loan reform—even defending the Affordable Care Act. Franken ran as an Elizabeth Warren-style Democrat, running a populist campaign that didn’t shirk discussion of the specific policies Democrats could pursue to help the middle class. And voters rewarded him. “This wasn’t a safe seat,” Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, said in an e-mail. “He earned his victory by being a proud populist Democrat for six years and inspiring voters.”

Whole Foods’ Labor Pains — Michelle Chen in The Nation on the work environment at the grocery chain.

With its dazzling array of exorbitantly priced eco-friendly products, Whole Foods Market fosters a love-hate relationship with customers who’ve gotten hooked on its cornucopia of guilty-liberal indulgences. But the company’s labor relations are even more sour, as workers grow increasingly frustrated that their workplaces aren’t nearly as progressive as the green-branding rhetoric.

Going beyond the usual grumbling about hipster commercialism, some rank-and-file workers are challenging the management to live up to the company’s purported values when it comes to treating its workers fairly.

Last week, dozens of Whole Foods employees in San Francisco partnered with the radical union Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) to protest a labor system that they say degrades workers while catering to wealthy consumers, and contributes to the city’s economic polarization. This Friday, they are taking their grievances to the regional corporate office in Emeryville, California. Their demand is simple: “a $5 an hour wage increase for all employees, and no retaliation for organizing their union.” Their message for Whole Foods—to live up to its brand’s much-hyped enlightened capitalist values—is more complicated.

The campaign kicked off at the South of Market Whole Foods, where workers rallied and presented a petition, signed by about fifty employees, demanding better working conditions. Like other retail workers, they say that their earnings, at $11.25 to $19.25 per hour, lag behind the exploding cost of living (about $30 an hour is needed to afford a regular one-bedroom apartment in the area). Today, they plan to threaten further job actions if the management did not heed their concerns.

Whole Foods declined to comment to The Nation. But evangelically libertarian CEO John Mackey has historically taken an anti-labor stance, comparing unions with “herpes.”

Campaigners say that while sustainability is on display on many of the store’s labels, it’s in short supply for employees whose wages cannot provide for their basic needs, even as the company champions green capitalism as a path to prosperity for workers and consumers alike.

Tracking Down the Past — In The New Yorker, Allen Kurzweil goes in search of the boarding school bully who tormented him forty years ago.

In 1971, I met a boy who changed my life forever. I was ten and he was twelve when, for a few indelible months, we roomed together in a British-style boarding school perched on an alpine meadow high above Geneva.

None of the schools I had previously attended—two public, one parent-run, and one private—prepared me for the eccentricities of Aiglon College. Early mornings were given over to fresh-air calisthenics, cold showers, and meditation. Afternoons were reserved for skiing and hiking. A retired opera singer with ill-fitting dentures taught elocution. A Second World War fighter pilot—shrapnel lodged in his shoulder, Bible quotes lodged in his brain—served as the interim headmaster while Aiglon’s founder, a frail vegetarian bachelor drawn to Eastern religions, undertook a rest cure.

A wildly favorable exchange rate made it possible for my mother, recently widowed, to send me to a school far beyond her means. My dormitory housed a Bahraini royal, the heir to a washing-machine fortune, and an Italian aristocrat whose family tree included a saint, a Pope, and several princes.

To neutralize the income inequality of its charges, the school prohibited parents from sending their sons and daughters spending money. That was just one of the dozens of directives and restrictions detailed in “Rules and Ranks,” a thirty-six-page handbook that all students were required to memorize. Minor delinquencies, such as tilting back in chairs, flicking towels, or the failure to wear one’s rank badge on the “left breast at all times,” resulted in fines deducted from the pocket money doled out each Wednesday afternoon. More flamboyant insubordination (“being slimy,” “wolf whistling during meditation,” “loutish behavior”) would lead to “laps,” punishment runs to and from a stone bridge up the road.

Yet none of these gaudy particulars can explain the plastic milk crates filled with documents that litter my office—the physical evidence of a fixation tethered to my fleeting co-residency with a burly Filipino boy, two years my senior, named Cesar Augusto Viana.

How does a middle-class Jewish kid from New York end up at a fancy Christian-inflected boarding school in Switzerland? The truth is, I campaigned to attend Aiglon. The school was situated a snowball’s throw from the chalet inn where my family had vacationed each winter while my father was alive. (A Viennese émigré who had relocated his wife and children from New York to Milan under the Marshall Plan, he died, of cancer, when I was five.) I associated the locale with a bountiful time unburdened by loss.

I had my first noteworthy encounter with Cesar Augusto not long after I dragged my brass-cornered trunk to the top of Belvedere, a dilapidated hotel that the school converted into a dormitory in 1960. Cesar, a returning student with an easy smile, a husky build, and an unruly mop of black hair, took an instant interest in me.

“You know what that tree is used for?” I recall him saying as he pointed at a towering pine out the window of our penthouse room. “If there’s a fire and we can’t use the stairs, I’ll have to throw you into that tree. But don’t worry,” he added. “The small branches at the top will break your fall, and the bigger ones down below will catch you.”

The nightmares started a few days later. To stave off the panic that accompanied lights-out, I took to staring at the comforting glow of my Omega Seamaster, a watch that I had inherited from my father.

There’s no mystery to why Cesar held certain Belvedere boys in his thrall. He knew the ropes. Moreover, he was rumored to be the son of Ferdinand Marcos’s head of security. His name, his size, his command of the school’s pseudo-military regulations, the accuracy he demonstrated when strafing enemies with ink from his Montblanc fountain pen, enabled him to transform our dorm into a theatre of baroque humiliation. Nor is it hard to figure out why he singled me out for special attention. I was the youngest boy in the school. I was a Jew (one of a handful). And I bunked a few feet away.

Up in our room one evening, several weeks into the term, I watched Cesar roll bits of brown bread, filched from the dining room, into pea-size balls. As I remember it, he then lined up the pellets on a windowsill and saturated each with hot sauce. After lights-out, he approached my bunk, cupping the pepper pills in his palm.

“Eat it, Nosey,” he commanded, curving his thumb and index finger around his nose to reinforce the ethnic slur that would become my nickname.

When I refused, he motioned to his sidekick, the lantern-jawed son of an American banking heiress and a Hungarian cavalry officer (and the biggest of our three other roommates), to pin me down. Only after I had swallowed three or four of the fiery pellets did Cesar permit me to rinse my mouth. The force-feeding left me with a bitter taste for days.

[…]

Despite the daily torments, I never complained. Aiglon placed a premium on stoic self-reliance, a code of conduct that was clarified during the first week of school, when my housemaster forced another lowerclassman, bedridden with the flu, to clean up his own vomit.

Only once did I acknowledge my roommate problems. Toward the end of the first term, my mother visited and noticed that I wasn’t wearing my father’s watch. I tried to convince her that I had left it in my room, but she pressed for the truth. I finally told her what happened: One day, after showering, I went to retrieve the watch from under my pillow, stowed there for safekeeping, and discovered that it was gone. I became hysterical. The more upset I got, the more Cesar and his confederate giggled. I pleaded for the watch’s return until Cesar silenced me by making the “Nosey” sign.

Within the week, his henchman admitted that he’d hurled my watch off a balcony on a dare. I ran down the stairs, dashed outside, and dug through knee-deep snow until my fingers turned white and tingly. The watch never surfaced. The loss left me more than bereft. I felt annihilated.

Not long afterward, the sidekick was asked to leave the school, and Cesar disappeared—quarantined, I learned, years later, by a case of measles. I finished out my year at Aiglon without incident—in fact, I loved my final months at the school—and moved back to New York.

It didn’t take long to shed the habits I’d picked up in Switzerland. Plimsolls, anoraks, and rucksacks reverted to sneakers, parkas, and backpacks. The crossbars disappeared from my sevens. Yet reminders of Cesar kept popping up: while watching “Tom Brown’s School Days,” a BBC serial packed with boarding-school abuse; while reading novels for literature classes. (Dostoyevsky’s Prince Myshkin is subjected to cold showers and gymnastics in an alpine sanatorium.) I composed a list of dictators who endorsed the benefits of a Swiss boarding-school education (the Shah of Iran, Kim Jong-un). I found myself wondering, Was Darwin’s theory of natural selection inspired by the adversity he faced at Dr. Butler’s school? Would Orwell’s world view have been so Orwellian had the headmaster of St. Cyprian’s resisted the impulse to break a bone-handled riding crop on the student’s buttocks?

In 1991, while promoting my first novel in Italy, I found myself with a few days off and returned to Aiglon. Much had changed in the twenty years since I’d left. No more laps. No more cold showers. No more rank systems. One thing remained, though—my sense of dread. Looking out the window of the room I had shared with Cesar, I experienced a wave of nausea so intense that I had to sit down for a few minutes with my head between my knees.

The following day, I interviewed a veteran housemistress named Mrs. Senn, a marvel of institutional memory, who diverted me for hours with recollections about the year I spent at the school. One student lost the tips of two toes to frostbite. Another almost died when he fell head first into a seventy-five-foot-deep crevasse. A third was permanently disfigured on the local slalom course after she took a bamboo gate too closely. (“Poor girl. The doctors did what they could, but her nose was never quite the same.”) Mrs. Senn also informed me that my closest friend at Aiglon, Woody Anderson, had tumbled backward down a dormitory stairwell a few months after I left. “Poor, poor Woody,” she said. “He was dead by the time he hit the ground.” When I asked Mrs. Senn about Cesar, she drew a blank. And no one else at the school seemed to remember the boy I couldn’t forget. The visit yielded nothing more than Cesar’s 1973 mailing address in Manila, c/o the Realistic Institute.

Back home, I found a Manila telephone directory at the New York Public Library and discovered that the Kissingeresque-sounding Realistic Institute was actually a “vocational school for hair and beauty culture.” (So much for the family’s connection to the Marcos regime.)

I decided to give Cesar a call. After some dithering—should I start with small talk or get right down to the business of the whipping and the watch?—I dialled his number. Following a few rings and some long-distance static, the line went dead, and with it died the search. I directed my energies toward more pressing matters: writing, marriage, fatherhood.

I started thinking about Cesar again in 1999, soon after my son, Max, turned five. In the middle of a school holiday pageant, a dispute over a Pokémon card incited a boy known around the jungle gym as Thomas the Tank Engine to throttle Max with a necktie.

“How do you deal with bullies?” he asked me that night as I was tucking him into bed.

I didn’t know what to say. Max was looking for counsel from someone who was demonstrably unqualified to provide it. Eventually, I found an answer of sorts; I wrote a children’s book, “Leon and the Spitting Image,” in which a boy battles a thuggish composite of the real-life goons who had terrorized us. When the book was released, in 2003, I visited classrooms around the country and discovered that bullying had become a topic of national discussion. During the Q. & A.s, each time I mentioned that the antagonist in my book was inspired by an actual nemesis, hands shot up: What was the worst thing he did? Did you tell on him? Where is he now?

Read the rest of the story.  For those of us who endured such torment, it leaves a permanent mark.

Doonesbury — the danger zone.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Recalled

I got a recall notice from Ford last week; the Mustang is included in the airbag recall that’s going around.  I took the car in first thing Tuesday so they could get the information on what to order, and now it’s in.  So I’m off for at least half the day, depending on how long it takes to replace it.

What that means is that even though I automatically woke up at my usual time to write, I’m going back to sleep and I’ll be posting on a day-off schedule.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

They’ll Scare The Cash Out Of You

Where there’s a crisis, there are pigeons to be plucked.

The first patient diagnosed with Ebola on U.S. soil may have died Wednesday, but health experts say Americans don’t need to stock up on survival gear.

“I really can’t see that that’s an appropriate or reasonable response,” Arthur Reingold, Head of Epidemiology at the University of California, Berkeley, told The Huffington Post. “It’s reasonable for people to be concerned, though I would argue they should be more concerned about the dreadful situation in West Africa.”

“The fact is we don’t have transmission on the Ebola virus here in the community,” Reingold said. “I just can’t see why anybody would want to spend money on those kinds of things in response to concern about Ebola.”

Nonetheless, fears about the spread of Ebola have led to a spike in sales of disease protection supplies. LifeSecure, a Chicago-based emergency preparedness company, has sold more than 100 “Extended Infection Protection” emergency supply kits since officials confirmed the first case of Ebola in the U.S. last week, according to owner David Scott. Typically, LifeSecure sells just a handful of such kits per week.

I’m sure I’m going to start seeing Ebola prevention kits sold on late-night TV wedged in between the boner pills and the Bumper Thumper.  No one ever lost a dime by exploiting fear and paranoia.

More people in the U.S. have died of gunshots in the last 24 hours than have died from Ebola in the last ten years.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Saturday, October 4, 2014

COMCAST, YOU SUCK — Updated

Do not tell me a service call will be free and then hit me up for a $60 service charge.

I was getting sporadic drop-outs and freezes on my TV in my living room.  I called for a service appointment, and the last question I asked was would it cost me anything.  “Oh, no sir, since it seems to be our equipment, it will be free.”  Okay, so I set the appointment and the guy came out.  Of course by that time the TV was working fine.  He didn’t bother to do more than look at the back of the TiVo where the cable card is hooked up.  Then he went outside to see if everything was working outside.  Apparently it was okay as well, so he said it looks okay.  He left the card of his boss, we shook hands, and that was the end of it.

Or so I thought.  I got my cable bill today they have hit me for the service call.  I called Comcast to say WTF, and they said, “Oh, if we determine that it’s not our equipment, we hit you up for the call.”  I told them that no one told me that and if they had, I would not have scheduled the appointment.  I’m afraid I got loudly insistent with the customer service person and they agreed to meet me half-way and cut the service charge in half.

Comcast has the reputation for the worst customer service among internet service providers, which is like being the winner at a warthog competition.

I am now waiting for a supervisor to come on the line and tell me why I shouldn’t go to DirecTV or Uverse or just plain old TV.

Update: Persistence pays… as well as posting about the ordeal here and on Facebook and Twitter.  After an hour’s wait, a supervisor came on line and waived the whole fee.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Short Takes

Twenty-six NATO foreign ministers pledged to combat ISIS.

Secretary of State Kerry says U.S. is open to talking with Iran about ISIS.

GM will pay compensation for 19 deaths caused by faulty ignitions.

President Obama presented the Congressional Medal of Honor to two Vietnam veterans.

August 2014 was the warmest August since they started keeping records.

Tropical Update: TS Odile is battering Baja California.

The Tigers beat the Twins 8-6.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Monday, August 25, 2014

Timbits On Tamiami Trail?

Burger King is thinking about heading for the True North.

Tim_Hortons_logo_(original).svgBurger King announced Sunday that it is in talks to buy Tim Hortons and form a new publicly listed company that would be based in Canada.

The two fast-food companies said that Burger King majority owner 3G Capital would continue to own the majority of shares of the new company, with the remainder held by existing shareholders of Tim Hortons and Burger King.

The companies’ statement says Miami-based Burger King Worldwide Inc. and Ontario-based Tim Hortons Inc. would continue to operate as standalone brands but would share corporate services.

The Wall Street Journal first reported the talks and that the companies say there’s no assurance a deal will happen.

The new company would have 18,000 restaurants in 100 countries worldwide. The companies say that would make it the world’s third-largest fast-food restaurant company.

The reason for the BK move is to make it a Canadian-based company and do the tax-inversion shuffle.  But I wonder if that means that there will be Tim Hortons here in South Florida.  I’m always ready for a box of Timbits.

“Have Fun Slaughtering Your People”

What do you do when you’re a former prime minister and need a few quid to keep the polish on the Bentley?  Why, if you’re Tony Blair you sell your advice and what’s left of any decency to the highest bidder and help them get out of a rough PR patch.

Tony Blair gave Kazakhstan’s autocratic president advice on how to manage his image after the slaughter of unarmed civilians protesting against his regime.

In a letter to Nursultan Nazarbayev, obtained by The Telegraph, Mr Blair told the Kazakh president that the deaths of 14 protesters “tragic though they were, should not obscure the enormous progress” his country had made.

Mr Blair, who is paid millions of pounds a year to give advice to Mr Nazarbayev, goes on to suggest key passages to insert into a speech the president was giving at the University of Cambridge, to defend the action.

Mr Blair is paid through his private consultancy, Tony Blair Associates (TBA), which he set up after leaving Downing Street in 2007. TBA is understood to deploy a number of consultants in key ministries in Kazakhstan.

Human rights activists accuse Mr Blair of acting “disgracefully” in bolstering Mr Nazarbayev’s credibility on the world stage in return for millions of pounds.

The letter was sent in July 2012, ahead of a speech being given later that month by Mr Nazarbayev at the University of Cambridge.

A few months earlier, on December 16 and 17 2011, at least 14 protesters were shot and killed and another 64 wounded by Kazakhstan’s security services in the oil town of Zhanaozen. Other protesters, mainly striking oil workers, were rounded up and allegedly tortured.

Mr Blair had begun working for Mr Nazarbayev in November 2011, just a few weeks before the massacre.

In the letter, sent on note-paper headed Office of Tony Blair, Mr Blair wrote: “Dear Mr President, here is a suggestion for a paragraph to include in the Cambridge speech. I think it best to meet head on the Zhanaozen issue. The fact is you have made changes following it; but in any event these events, tragic though they were, should not obscure the enormous progress that Kazakhstan has made. Dealing with it [the massacre] in the way I suggest, is the best way for the western media. It will also serve as a quote that can be used in the future setting out the basic case for Kazakhstan.”

In his own handwriting, Mr Blair added at the bottom of the letter: “With very best wishes. I look forward to seeing you in London! Yours ever Tony Blair.”

It’s all one big episode of “Mad Men” for these people.

HT to FC.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Don’t Drink The Water

From the AP via TPM:

TOLEDO, Ohio (AP) — Long lines formed at water distribution centers and store shelves were quickly emptied of bottled water after Ohio’s fourth-largest city told residents not to drink from its water supply that was fouled by toxins possibly from algae on Lake Erie.

The warning effectively cut off the water supply to 400,000 people in Toledo, most of its suburbs and a few areas in southeastern Michigan.

Worried residents told not to drink, brush their teeth or wash dishes with the water emptied store shelves and waited hours for deliveries of bottled water from across Ohio as the governor declared a state of emergency.

Gov. John Kasich pledged that state agencies were working to bring water and other supplies to areas around Toledo while also assisting hospitals and other businesses impacted. The state also was making plans to make more deliveries if the water problem lingered, he said.

“What’s more important than water? Water’s about life,” Kasich said. “We know it’s difficult. We know it’s frustrating.”

The governor said it was too early to say how long the water advisory will last or what caused toxins to spike suddenly in the drinking water.

“We don’t really want to speculate on this,” Kasich told The Associated Press. “When it comes to this water, we’ve got be very careful.”

Samples of water were flown to the federal and state Environmental Protection Agency offices in Cincinnati and Columbus and a university in Michigan for additional testing, officials said.

Residents waking up to the warning on Saturday morning lined up outside just about any store selling water. Some were mothers concerned about how they would make formula for their infants and other were worried about their elderly parents.

The water system that handles that part of the state is aging and has been in need of serious upgrading for decades.  It’s fragile and expensive; my mom tells me that when they lived there, it wasn’t uncommon to get a $500 water/sewage bill per quarter.

Now, of course, it’s up to the government — state, local, and ultimately the federal — to come up with ways to supply safe and plentiful drinking water for the citizens.  Our infrastructure is crumbling, and when we’ve gotten to the point that it’s safer to drink the water in Tijuana than it is in Toledo, something needs to be done.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Monday, July 7, 2014

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Friday, June 6, 2014

Short Takes

The White House says the Taliban threatened to kill Sgt. Bergdahl if news of the swap had leaked.

One dead in shooting at a university in Seattle.

GM released the internal report that said corporate negligence and incompetence led to the ignition switch flaws.

Senate confirms Sylvia Mathews Burwell as the new Secretary of HHS.

VA reform bill gains bipartisan support in the Senate.

The Tigers lost again to the Jays.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Short Takes

China made sure that no one openly marked the 25th anniversary of Tiananmen Square.

The Supreme Court allowed same-sex marriage in Oregon to continue by declining to put a hold on the ruling declaring the ban unconstitutional.

Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran (R) will be in a run-off for his seat against a Tea Partier.

Sprint and T-Mobile agree to merger.

R.I.P. Chester Nez, 93, the last of the Navajo Code Talkers.

The Tigers lost to the Jays 8-2.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Thursday, April 24, 2014