Monday, November 9, 2015

That Time of Year Again

As inevitable as the Christmas promotions starting before Halloween, the War On Christmas has begun again.

Some people are angry about Starbucks’ new holiday cups. Really angry.

What is the issue, exactly?

In previous years, Starbucks’ iconic holiday cups, which the chain uses in lieu of white cups in November and December, featured wintry or Christmas-themed designs like snowflakes, ornaments and nature scenes. This year, the cups are more minimalist — a red ombre design that Jeffrey Fields, Starbucks’ vice president of design, said was meant to embrace “the simplicity and the quietness” of the holiday season.

Starbucks Christmas Cups 11-09-15

This is a huge problem for some people, who feel that the plain red cups are oppressing Christians by insulting Christmas.

“This is a denial of historical reality and the great Christian heritage behind the American Dream that has so benefitted Starbucks,” Andrea Williams of the U.K.-based organization Christian Concern told Breitbart. “This also denies the hope of Jesus Christ and His story so powerfully at this time of year.”

Fa la la la la, la la la barf.

If your faith requires that you pay $5 for stinked-up coffee with more ingredients in it than a figgy pudding and poured into a cup that will end up in the trash but only if it has depictions of a fairy tale on it, then your problem isn’t with the people who are selling you that stuff in the first place.

Here’s a news flash:  There is a war on Christmas.  It won.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Short Takes

The Navy sent a ship within 12 nautical miles of China’s artificial reefs in the South China Sea.

The Justice Department is investigating the body-slamming incident in South Carolina.

Ben Carson passes Donald Trump in a new national poll.

Walgreen’s bids to buy Rite-Aid.

American Airlines will go “no-frills” on certain routes.

GM to recall 1.4 million cars to repair intake manifold oil leaks (like the one my Pontiac had).

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Short Takes

Iran convicted Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, but they didn’t say of what.

Suicide bombers were behind the bombing in Turkey last week.

Russian warplanes are carrying out more airstrikes in Syria.

Confederate flag-wavers indicted for disrupting a black birthday party.

Dell Computers buys EMC for $65 billion.

The Nobel Prize for Economics went to Angus Deaton of Princeton.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Short Takes

Russian missiles bound for Syria landed in Iran.  Oops.

The CEO of VW of America got grilled by Congress.

Svetlana Alexievich won the Nobel Prize for Literature; a first for non-fiction.

Researchers believe they found the gay gene.

FIFA president Sepp Blatter suspended for 90 days.

R.I.P. Paul Prudhomme, 75, celebrity chef who popularized Cajun cooking.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Short Takes

VW admits to diesel emissions fraud.

E.U. ministers approve migrant plan.

Democrats defeat GOP abortion bill in the Senate.

The sage grouse doesn’t get protected status.

U.S. stops screening passengers from Liberia.

Tropical Update: TS Ida is still stuck in neutral.

R.I.P. Yogi Berra, 90, ballplayer and force of wit.

The Tigers beat the White Sox 2-1 in extra innings.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Short Takes

Fed holds off raising interest rates.

At least 11 people were killed in the 8.3 earthquake off the coast of Chile.

President Obama greeted the three men who thwarted the train attack in Europe.

Verizon now works in Cuba.

Doritos unveiled rainbow-colored chips.

Tropical Update: TD Nine heads west.

The Tigers had the night off.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Short Takes

The Amtrak train that derailed in Philadelphia was traveling at twice the speed limit.

Fast track trade authority could be back on track.

Traces of banned chemical weapons found in Syria.

House votes to end N.S.A. bulk phone data gathering.

Vatican to recognize the state of Palestine.

The Tigers lost to the Twins 6-2.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Short Takes

Amtrak train derails en route from Philadelphia to New York City; at least 5 dead.

U.S. Marine Corps helicopter missing on rescue mission in Nepal.

Keeping an eye on Iranian ships off the coast of Yemen.

Senate Democrats slow down “fast track” trade bill.

Verizon buys AOL.

No charges filled in police shooting of unarmed black teen in Madison.

The Tigers beat the Twins 2-1 in 10.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Short Takes

Officials send reinforcements to Baltimore.

The death toll in Nepal passed 5,000.

Iranian forces seized a ship flagged to the Marshall Islands and boarded it off the coast of Iran.

Tyson Foods will end using antibiotics on their chicken.

The NFL will give up its tax-exempt status.

The Tigers lost to the Twins 3-2.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Short Takes

President Obama apologizes for drone strike in Pakistan that killed two hostages.

France: Police say they’ve foiled five terror attacks since Charlie Hebdo.

Finally: Loretta Lynch confirmed as Attorney General.

The Deal’s Off: Comcast walks away from Time Warner merger.

The Tigers lost to the Yankees again 2-1.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Sunday Reading

A travel-sized edition today.

Nina Totenbag — Adrienne LaFrance in The Atlantic on how the NPR totebag became a thing.

NPR Totebag 04-19-15Tote bags are so synonymous with public broadcasting in the United States that they’re as much a physical manifestation of NPR as a radio. The humble tote bag is, and has been for much of the network’s 44-year existence, a powerful brand extension.

In the beginning, tote bags were a simple fundraising incentive—a “thank you” gift for donors who helped support the network. Tote bags have been around since at least the late 1800s, but L.L. Bean is widely credited for having popularized the bag. It was originally designed “to haul ice from the car to the ice chest,” in the 1940s, according to advertising material. Tote bags have since become a cultural phenomenon, so much so that the canvas bag’s association with NPR is an indelible part of the object itself.

“The tote bag is similar to the dawn of man, [like] figuring out fire for public radio,” said Barbara Sopato, the director of consumer products for NPR. They were popular from the start because “people just liked tote bags” in the early 1970s when public radio began, Sopato told me, but also because NPR had stumbled upon the quintessential object to represent both its brand and its audience. “It was an easy give away, affordable and useful,” she said. “That’s what fits in with public radio. It’s very affordable, very useful. We’re grassroots people.”

From the perspective of stations trying to raise money for operations, the appeal is clear. Each give-away tote bag costs a station about $5, according to one estimate, but donors often give at least $60 in exchange for one. (At the network level, NPR has switched to only U.S.-manufactured canvas totes, which drives up the cost.) Yet when Sopato opened NPR’s shop 15 years ago, she decided not to sell tote bags. That was a mistake. “I thought no one will buy a tote bag because everybody’s been given them,” she said. “Same thing with the mug. I was completely wrong. Mugs and tote bags are our best sellers.”

NPR sold about 2,000 tote bags last year. That’s in addition to the countless tote bags that member stations—NPR affiliates like WNYC, WBUR, Hawaii Public Radio, etc.—offered as part of local pledge drives. “I haven’t killed the tote-bag giveaway market,” Sopato said. “We’ve raised all boats by filling the world with more tote bags.”

It’s not just public radio.  I got an Inge Festival totebag and another in a long series of coffee mugs when I arrived in Independence.  And it’s gone international.  Several years ago I wrote a fan letter to Studio Sparks, a now-cancelled classical music program on the CBC Radio 2.  They sent me a totebag, which now graces the wayback of the Pontiac.

Doonesbury  — Russian dressing.

Happy birthday, Bob.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

The Other Side of The Coin

Mitt Romney was deservedly mocked in 2011 for asserting that “corporations are people, my friend,” and a lot of people were understandably concerned when the Supreme Court ruled in the Hobby Lobby case affirming the right of a family-held corporation to essentially have the same religious rights as a living, breathing human citizen.

It seems ridiculous that a company is entitled to the same protections under the First Amendment as a citizen, but if that’s the case, there’s an upside to it.  If they’re entitled to them, they can exercise them in ways that may not make their conservative allies happy.  Witness the number of companies that have voiced disapproval of the RFRA law in Indiana, many threatening or following through on their intention to not to business in a state that allows discrimination against gays and lesbians, and when Walmart warned the governor of Arkansas not to sign the bill, they got his attention.

Be careful what you wish for, my friend.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Adventures in Telemarketing

Scene: A living room.  Me sitting in a recliner doing a crossword puzzle.  Phone rings.

ME: Hello?

SALESDROID: Hi, your warranty on your car has expired or is about to expire. If you would like more information on how to extend it, press 1.

[I press 1. Live human comes on the line.]

CON ARTIST: I’m sorry but we can’t seem to pull up the information on your car. Please tell me the year, make and model.

ME: It’s a 1960 Edsel Villager station wagon.


ME: Hm, they must know that Ford only made 59 of them; hard to get parts for it. Oh well.

[I go back to doing the crossword.  Lights fade.  End of play.]

Friday, January 9, 2015

Short Takes

French police continue their search for the Charlie Hebdo killers.

Nigeria — More than 2,000 people reported missing after Boko Haram attacked villages.

The CDC warns that the current strain of the flu is one of the worst on record.

FHA announces fee reductions for borrowers.

Honda faces record fines for under-reporting defects.

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.