Friday, October 30, 2009

The Endless Hour

I am in significant discomfort. My thighs are shouting at me. Bending and sitting are almost out of the question. Resting my backside on the toilet seat and rising from that position may take the use of a crane. I have begun working out with a trainer.

After years of prodding, and one excruciating bulging disc, I understood that I did indeed have to strengthen my 'core'. If I was to have any chance of not spending my later years looking like I was continually searching to find a penny on the ground, I would have to do something far more significant than think happy thoughts about my back.

I am doing the beginner's beginner exercises. The third session took place yesterday (I am so grateful that I got a week off after the first 2 sessions, due to the vacation plans of my leader. I am seriously thinking of paying her to take a vacation every month). I was required to do lunges in which I was made to walk like Groucho Marx did, in all those movies. I cramped up in both legs after about 10 seconds.

On the bike, with the weights, then to the mat, moving always moving. Struggles pile up on one another. I do nothing well and some things worse than others. I can't even understand the basic instructions given to me, nor the control panels of the machines. I am totally uncoordinated and I dress badly. I was told by my family to get longer shorts to be sure my junk stayed hidden. I have started to wear basketball shorts that end well below my knees. I now look even more ridiculous than before.

Do you remember when you were in that class in school where it seemed like the hands on the clock never moved? Who knew they had moved that clock into the exercise room.

Today is Friday. My pain level seems to be moving ever higher but I hope it soon begins to recede. With much luck, and much Advil, I may be feeling pretty good by Monday, the day of my next workout. Welcome to my cycle of pain.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Partners in Crime

The US presence in Afghanistan feels like an uncomfortable fit on so many levels. Our CIA financial support and alliance with one of the apparent drug lords, who just happens to be the brother of President Karzai, is but one more head shaking example.

We struggle to deal with aligning ourselves with the best of a bad lot. We want to put our considerable weight behind a government that is credible to both the Afghan people and to the world that is watching. But we have had to twist the arm of the President to have a 'do-over' election which was mandated by an earlier vote marked by rampant fraud.

Now we learn of the CIA's willingness to look the other way while the President's brother allows the drug trade to flourish, to his considerable benefit, and to the detriment of those trying to eradicate this trade. The Taliban, we are told, rely heavily on the money generated by the sale of drugs, to sustain themselves. For President Karzai to be our partner in trying to rid the area of Taliban, and yet to have a brother who is sleeping with the enemy, makes our support for this government even more suspect.

Handing over money to Karzai's brother and looking the other way at his actions is like having to pay a bad guy to be an informant. We hold our nose and close our eyes. That has been part of our strategy through the years, as we have paid local warlords to abandon their allegiance to the Taliban. But is this what we are left with at the highest levels in Afghanistan?

We are in a critical moment in this country. We have decided, for better or for worse, that this area has become the new epicenter of our focus. We are in desperate need of a credible local partner. This latest story to come out of the region can only add to the feeling that we are hitching our horses to a broken down wagon.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Where is the Paperboy? (or Looking a Gift Horse in the Mouth)

What time is it? A little bit after 8 AM was the reply. This was the second Sunday in a row that our paper had not arrived in a timely fashion and it was disturbing the rhythm of my day. What was going on?

It grew closer to 8:30 and still no paper. I don't think the paperboy is going to get any Christmas present this year, I announced. Then the phone rang.

What is happening with our delivery Jo asked. We partied too hard last night and the paperboy is not moving so quickly this morning. This was totally unacceptable.

You see, our closest friend lives directly across the street in Great Barrington. Each Saturday and Sunday morning, for about 2 years now, we have had absolutely free home delivery by him of the NY Times, together with bagels. We have come to expect prompt and efficient service. Delay caused by anything short of catastrophe the night before is not an excuse.

I met up with my friend this morning,and chastised him for his lack of effort and his unwillingness to live by the schedule I had established. I am sure he understood the possible ramifications of any further failures on his part.

We have developed a strange and wonderful bond. However, bonds can be broken. This is now an official warning that he is on a very tight leash. I will be standing at my door at 8 AM the next Saturday we are both in the Berkshires. If there is no paper and warm bagel in my hand at that time, I will have to think seriously about our future together. You see something for nothing may just not be good enough.

Friday, October 23, 2009

The Curse - Part 2

In the recesses of my mind, it lingers. It speaks to me in my moments of uncertainty. As Nick Swisher flied out to center field and the series headed back to New York, the refrain in my head kept repeating itself. Was the curse of the Bambino transferred from the Red Sox to the Yankees in 2004?

From 1918 to 2004 the Babe had cast a spell over the team that traded him for a song and a dance. Yet, if we search our memory banks, we remember that the great Bambino did not end his career wearing the pinstripes of the team that traded for him in 1918, and whose House he built in 1923. He was discarded by the Yankees like an old worn out shoe and finished his playing days in 1935 wearing a Boston Braves uniform that must have seemed both foreign and demeaning. Maybe his early revenge was against the Sox, but possibly the ultimate prize was payback for the Bombers' transgressions.

I was at game 7 of the American League Championship Series in 2004, when the curse was lifted from the shoulders of the Sox. It was a palpable feeling of dismay that settled upon me that day. Kevin Brown was not a warrior and to place any trust in his resolve was an invitation to disaster. As the Red Sox flew around the bases and the fourth straight loss descended, a weight was lifted from one team and settled on another franchise.

Until World Series victory number 27 is completed, I will live with a doubt that was born on that terrible October day. Since then, a startling lack of consistency in post season pitching has doomed the Yankees to repeated early exits from the playoffs. We now have CC and AJ to calm our worried souls and bring us, once more, to our rightful place, but the job remains incomplete.

The gloom created by those 4 straight losses in 2004 will disappear for moments at a time, but will not go away. Last night I thought, ever so briefly, that with the 2 run lead in the 7th inning having come upon the Yankees with such swiftness, maybe the clouds were parting and the sun was about to shine once more. In my desire to drive all the demons away, I would have considered a 9 out call to the bullpen for the great one, Mariano. You see, the team would have received a 7 day all expenses paid vacation back to New York by winning last evening. But fate, and maybe the Babe, would not let such a scenario play out. Thus, we now await Saturday night, and the next installment of this series.

I ask the Babe, in all his greatness, to forgive the Yankees' trespasses. Vengeance is ugly, Babe. Let go of your anger, and bring us victory on Saturday and then against the Phillies. We do not curse you, but cherish your memory. Let's be friends once more.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

A Slap on Their Wrist, and a Slap in Our Faces

I believe in this administration. At least, I want to believe in this administration. But they continue to test my patience as they seem to be unable to turn words into meaningful deeds. Their struggles are no more evident than in the latest pronouncement on the oversight of the monies being paid out to 7 firms who have received billions and billions of dollars in bailout aid.

While we read in another front page article in today's NY Times of 500 people signing up to try to win 1 job paying $13 per hour, we are simultaneously advised that the top 25 earners at 7 companies who survived due solely to our largesse, may only have to settle for being very rich this year. Let's see, 175 people in total receive diminished compensation while millions of people do without. It doesn't take a math major to determine that there continues to be a staggering inequity here.

The companies who fall under the watchful eye of the government, are only those like AIG, Citigroup, Bank of America and Chrysler who have been unable to repay the government the monies delivered to them at the height of the crisis. Many others have shrugged off the continuing downturn as little more than an annoyance. For those companies whose ships have been righted, and who have handed back their government loans with a wink and a smile, there are no reprisals. These giants are about to pay bonuses larger than ever and there is NOTHING being done to stop them. Greed runs rampant in these institutions.

What message are we receiving when there is nothing but a symbolic slap on the wrist for all the pain and suffering caused by the misdeeds of these companies? Further,when the worst of the worst now are now once more living in excess without so much as a hint of remorse, or recompense, we feel deeply wronged. When one opening at a truck driving school in Indiana results in applications from a former IBM business analyst with 18 years experience, a former director of human resources and someone with a master's degree and 12 years at a top accounting firm, we know that something is still terribly amiss.

We continue to learn the ugly truths about the political process. Movement, we are told, is accomplished in slow, imperceptible ways. Early this year, the President spoke of the economy being like a big ocean liner, not a speedboat, that doesn't turn around immediately. When those who so abused our system remain unchecked except for the smallest of empty gestures, and when the trickle up economy has hardly seen a trickle, we search the horizon for answers. Sometimes it is hard not to feel like the big ocean liner we are on is the Titanic and all we see is an iceberg when we look ahead.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Too Smart for Wall Street? (Updated)

To the Editor:
I have an alternative explanation for Calvin Trillin to consider (Wall Street Smarts, NY Times, Oct 14, 2009).

The economic debacle on Wall Street was fueled by an intellectually and morally bankrupt administration that (as once and future partners of those involved in the chase for unlimited bounty) allowed lack of regulation and lax enforcement to create an environment where unchecked greed was not only made possible but was also encouraged.

UPDATE: You can read this post in today's (Oct 19, 2009) New York Times letters to the editor section (under the heading "Did the Smart Guys Destroy Wall Street?").

I am a bit dazed and confused by this. I have now been published in the letters section of this newspaper 5 times in the last year.

Meanwhile, I stumble along in my 'other life' doing things like last night, where I asked Richie to google directions for me and then gave him the wrong address. If it weren't for Joanne's quick thinking in the car, I would, much as I seem to do in many ways on many days, be headed for parts unknown. The brain is a mystery.

Apologies to email subscribers who may have received multiple notifications. We experienced some technical difficulties this morning.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

The dinner guest

I have had to confront life's harsh realities each of the last two weekends. Maturity motivated me to act in ways foreign to my instincts. While my inner voice was screaming for someone to turn on the television, the screen remained dark. I was a guest at dinner parties, while my beloved Yankees were battling the elements and the enemy.

Sure, I was allowed to talk about the game. Everyone at each of the gatherings was aware of the depth of my obsession. However, much of the evening's conversation focused on various topics that I find myself immersed in when in the company of others without my myopic interests.

Time and effort had gone into the planning of each of these events. I understood that it would be an insult to our host and hostess, and a blatant sign that I was a boorish idiot if I made too much of a fuss. Even as I made periodic momentary retreats to capture slivers of what was happening, I knew I had to tough it out.

Actually, both of these evenings were much fun. The food was excellent, the smiles were genuine, and there was a flow to the conversation. By the way, I am not just sucking up to my friends who may be reading about their efforts.

But, by the time dessert was served and eaten, I had lost all pretense. On both occasions, as the last morsel passed my lips, I made a hasty exit into the den. I only hoped that I had met the mandates of civility and could now spend the remaining part of the evening screaming at the sights and sounds of little men running to and fro.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Should Rush Be Thrown for a Loss?

Marge Schott was a majority owner of the Cincinnati Reds in the 1990's. Her repeated remarks showing bias against Jews, blacks, gays and Japanese people led to her being banned from running her own team for a three year period from 1996 to 1998. We now learn that Rush Limbaugh is hoping to join the fraternity of owners in the National Football League. Much as my daughter says about the wearing of Spandex, ownership in a professional sports enterprise is a privilege, not a right.

We have had an ongoing discussion over the past years about the damage done in the sports world by the use of performance enhancing drugs. Central to the debate is the question of the message that our athletes are transmitting to a world that is watching and listening so intently. Athletes, and the owners who they work for, do have an impact on our society far greater than the sum of their wins and losses. Lives are changed by how these people act and what these people say.

Mr. Limbaugh is a divisive figure. Some revere him for what they see as his unflinching honesty. Many find him to be boorish at best and a Marge Schott type at worst. From his limited time behind the microphone as a sports analyst, to his current perch as the not so silent voice of the conservative movement, Mr. Limbaugh's prejudices have repeatedly surfaced. The National Football League should not endorse Mr. Limbaugh and give him another platform from which to espouse his views, especially when those views are so disparaging of many who would be in his employ.

All the Good and Bad Ideas That Are Fit To Print

A post by Richie Jay

Though I try to read most of the New York Times each day, I am a mere mortal, and there are simply more words in each issue than I have the capacity to process. So, after scanning the front page and maybe a few science articles (it is Tuesday, after all), I often flip to the op-ed page. The New York Times has a reputation for being liberal--and this is an arguably true description of their editorials--but what makes their op-ed columns and letters different from most other papers is actually how diverse they are ideologically. In addition to having a slate of both liberal (i.e. Krugman, Rich) and conservative (i.e. Brooks, Douthat) staff columnists (and they used to have Kristol, who swung the median ideology of all their columnists about 10 steps to the right), the Times prints submitted op-eds from across the political spectrum. (An aside: Much like the length and depth of its news articles, this is a testament to the intellectual rigor and openness to criticism and debate of the Times, characteristics not shared by most other American publications and media outlets).

Today being no exception, the op-ed page is filled with a variety of ideas from across the political spectrum, some more specifically ideological than others.

In good ideas, David Brooks (yes, I can see eye-to-eye with conservatives) praises recent trends in academia, where the line between 'soft' social sciences and 'hard' natural sciences is blurring, each side helping to inform and improve the other, as well as to improve public policy (though his last sentence about 'policy wonks' seems tinged with conservative cynicism). He explicitly refers to the growth of "social cognitive neuroscience," a field I was fortunate enough to dabble in as an undergrad and as a grad student studying, what else, public policy. At Dartmouth, I worked in a social cognition lab, where we studied how cognitive processes affect and are affected by attitudes about race, gender, and class (i.e. How do people think, feel, behave, and process information, and does this differ depending upon the race, class, or gender of the people they are working with/talking to/reading about?). My advisor there, Dr. Jennifer Richeson, has since gone on to receive a MacArthur Genius Award for her work, and continues to be an innovator in the field. At Berkeley, I worked with Dr. Jack Glaser, whose social cognition work on racial profiling has helped inform real-world criminal justice policy.

In bad ideas, the Times printed an op-ed co-written by Virginia Republican George "Macaca" Allen (Why do we continue to take him seriously?) and Virginia Democrat Paul Goldman (ah, the bipartisanship of bad ideas!). In it, the two argue that the best solution for our dilapidated and outdated schools is not to adequately finance their maintenance, renovation, and construction, but instead to support huge tax breaks for private developers, who can buy the schools, rehabilitate them, and then profit by renting the schools back to the districts indefinitely. In addition to adding a profit motive to public education, a dangerous precedent, the two fail to consider the long-term costs of such a process, and they fail to consider the possibility of funding school districts to engage in these projects themselves (with no added cost for profit), dismissing that as costlier than subsidizing private for-profit developers to do the same thing (without showing the math). They also argue that there should be a "level playing field" between the public and private sectors, but fail to see the irony of arguing for massive tax breaks for private entities in the same breath. It's worth pointing out that this staunchly anti-government, pro-privatization ideology is in large part responsible for the economic mess we find our country (and, by extension, our school districts) in today, and Allen and Goldman show woefully little awareness of this fact.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Hole Once More

The first was short, low, ugly and lost. The second, I didn't even see. Welcome back to the wonderful world of golf.

Having been laid low by my back surgery, four months later I was given clearance to begin my battles anew. Maybe, I should have waited a little longer.

I was instructed to only play 9 holes initially. I did not even last that long, and to be quite honest, it had nothing to do with any recurring pain as I had none. It was the psychic battering that drove me from the course.

I had decided only to play every other hole, so as to not place undue strain on my back. The best part of this experience turned out to be the holes I did not play.

I met my friends as they finished the second hole. By the time the third green was in sight, I had already advised each of them as to the specifics of my surgery. I figured that would, at least in some small measure, explain the dribbles, the mishits and the shanks as I tried to follow the bouncing ball. It made embarrassing take on a whole new meaning.

The wind seemed to blow its hardest as I was in the middle of my backswing. The ball, when it did go in flight, seemed totally unimpressed with the force I tried to impart upon it. Is that the best you got, it seemed to say.

By the time we reached the 8th hole (and only the fourth I was playing) I was hoping for rain. My tee shot headed in directions unrelated to the fairway. I had felt the smallest of twinges upon completion of the swing. I announced that I was already through for the day, as I had courageously made one too many efforts to prove how tough I was. I gingerly entered the cart (to emphasize the point) and rode with my friends until the 9th green, where I bid them a fond farewell.

I was invited to join them for future adventures, but I know they were just being nice. This has been the lost season and now it had the perfect imperfect ending. Wait til next year is all that is left at this point. I am uncertain whether that is a promise or a threat.

Nickeled, Dimed, and Fee'd to Death

A post by Richie Jay

This is a letter I've been meaning to write to Chase ever since the federal government decided that it would be good for the American people to spend hundreds of billions of dollars supporting banks that are "too big to fail," while consolidating the banking industry into the hands of just a few enormous banks who couldn't give a crap about their customers, and don't really have to, since their market share is so great and the competition is not.

This letter specifically lists the concrete changes that Chase has made to the accounts of millions of assimilated WaMu customers like me, in an effort to reduce our benefits, no matter how trivial the cost, and increase our fees, no matter the impact.


To Whom It May Concern:

From my most recent statement:

"Starting 11/2/2009 there will be no Chase fee for the first two non Chase ATM inquires, transfers and withdrawals each statement period through 2/2/2010. After 2/2/2010, all non Chase ATM inquiries, transfers and withdrawals applied to your account will be assessed the standard non Chase ATM fees. Please call us at 1 800 935 9935 if you have questions."

I'd like to formally express my displeasure with the way that Chase has handled my checking account since taking over WaMu. At WaMu, I grew accustomed to straightforward account terms with no hidden fees and common sense benefits. After Chase took over--despite gaining millions of valuable new customers and tremendous market share in the process, and despite significant assumption of debt by the government to sweeten the takeover deal--things changed for the worse, and continue to do so. Just a few examples of the loss of benefits and addition of fees that Chase has applied to my account, and perhaps those of millions of other former WaMu customers like me:

1. At WaMu, debit cards paid either a 3 cent reward for every transaction, regardless of PIN or signature use, or gave a donation to a school of my choice with each swipe. Chase's free rewards programs are more limited (no PIN use, for one), and in fact my debit card appears to be ineligible for any free reward program at this time.

2. At WaMu, one returned item or overdraft fee was waived automatically each year, and the credits accumulate for each year as a customer. At Chase, I can special request one waiver per year after getting hit with a fee, and there is no carryover.

3. At WaMu, I could make free external transfers to and from personal accounts at other banks online. At Chase, this service costs $3 per transaction. This change is listed only deep in the fine print, and not in the summary of account changes in the merger booklet. (Update: Chase states that this fee is still waived for former WaMu customers)

4. At WaMu, most deposits became available same day. At Chase, most deposits become available next day.

5. At WaMu, free ID theft services were offered to all customers. At Chase, this free service is not offered.

6. At WaMu, high-yield savings accounts were offered, even to customers who maintain only modest balances. At Chase, the savings account rates are laughable--there are no options that allow anyone with less than $15,000 in the bank to earn more than 0.02%, which in essence means that Chase is marketing no-interest checking accounts with greater restrictions as savings accounts and money markets. Holding on to literally trillions of dollars in deposits and $2.1 trillion in assets, and leveraging them to lend even more, Chase can certainly afford to be a little more generous without harming profitability, and to fulfill its stated goals of helping Americans through very difficult economic times and giving back to the communities it serves.

Warm-fuzzies, from Chase's own literature: "We believe that building a strong, vibrant company, one that stands the test of time, will eventually benefit not only our shareholders, but everyone we touch. It is what enables us to give back to our communities. In one sense, we view ourselves as a small business. If we were the neighborhood store, we would give kids summer jobs, sponsor local sports teams and support local organizations. We operate this way in many of our communities around the world, striving to be as supportive as we can."

7. For several years, even as a checking customer at WaMu, I used a credit card issued by Chase. After taking over WaMu, Chase changed the terms of the credit card rewards program so that only Chase checking customers could receive the existing rewards program. Chase treated me as a non-Chase customer at the time (even though WaMu was fully owned by Chase for half a year before this change in terms occurred), and dramatically cut my rewards program. After my WaMu checking account became a Chase checking account, it still took several months--and the hassle of opening, and then closing, a new Chase credit card, and getting different answers from phone reps and branch bankers--until the Chase checking customer rewards were restored to my credit card (although less generous than they had been).

8. Lastly, one of WaMu's most important common-sense and customer-friendly policies was the lack of WaMu fees on ATM transactions. Customers were still incentivized to use WaMu ATMs to avoid steep fees assessed by other banks at their ATMs. Now, however, Chase has decided to profit from the misfortune of customers not near a Chase ATM, charging $2 per transaction--on top of the up to the $3 charge by the ATM owner--for any non-Chase ATM transaction. This is a sleazy move especially considering that the continued lack of ATM fees was explicitly announced in the merger materials, and it is one that will cost customers millions, if not billions, of dollars, for a service that probably costs Chase virtually nothing at all. Furthermore, Chase still collects millions, if not billions, of dollars from all non-Chase customers who use their ATMs. Those fees alone should be sufficient for Chase to continue extending this modest but well-loved courtesy to former WaMu customers (heck, let's not be selfish. They should extend this courtesy to all customers, as many other banks do. Some banks are even more generous, refunding the fees that other banks' ATMs charge, but I'm willing to start small here.)

9. This one's an afterthought, because these are policies that don't affect me or other former WaMu customers, but it should be noted that customers who have the misfortune of having started at Chase (rather than WaMu) lack even more no-nonsense benefits like free checking accounts with no minimum balance, that also come with free cashier's checks and money orders, free booklets of standard checks, and free outgoing wires; These remain grandfathered to former WaMu customers, but unavailable to regular Chase customers (Some Chase customers can get some of these benefits, but none of them can get all of them in a standard free checking account). I fear it is only a matter of time before these benefits--like the ATM fees--get 'ungrandfathered' as Chase adds billions of dollars in fees to its former WaMu customers.

Taken alone, each of these policy and term changes may seem to be a minor nuisance. In fact, I am personally unaffected by several of them. But, taken together, they demonstrate the worst proclivities of the most enormous American companies, the strenuous drive to profit at all costs, even if it means causing measurable financial harm to the very customers (and/or taxpayers) who keep you in business, as you slowly nickel-and-dime them to death.

That'll be $2.50,
Richie Jay


Postscript: While this blog post is ostensibly about my mundane personal experiences with and observations of Chase Bank, the larger point I am at least trying to make through this one example is that a barely-regulated, highly-concentrated, too-big-to-fail financial industry is bad for all Americans. Fortunately, Robert Creamer did that for me today on the Huffington Post. You can dismiss mine as a rant about minutiae, but I hope you find his to be an intelligent analysis about the state of our nation.

UPDATE: It is worth acknowledging that a Chase customer service representative actually responded to this message within hours, and did so quite thoroughly. While the answers may have been somewhat scripted, many of her responses were actually thoughtful, and she addressed nearly every point I made above, in order. Though the bank merger guide does not waive the external transfer fee for standard WaMu accounts (and does explicitly for other account types), she stated that the $3 fee is waived for former WaMu customers. However, I am also told that I can enroll in the free debit card rewards program, but Chase's own website refuses to enroll my card, deeming it ineligible.

A Beginning, Middle and End

What is 140 characters or less and capable of standing on its own as a work of art? Hint fiction.

Life and death. War and peace. Love lost and found. Sadness, happiness and everything in between. If you can put these ideas into a twitter length piece, you could have a best seller on your hands.

An anthology of tweet stories are due to be published soon, with accomplished authors like Joyce Carol Oates contributing short thoughts.

Off the very top of my head, I have composed 4 possible submissions:

"She was young, but not for long. He was on the hunt, she the prey.The autopsy reported he had been stabbed over 70 times."

"The diagnosis was death. The result was a life he never imagined."

"The occupation of Washington by the united forces of the middle east created a new world order. Our democracy was now a footnote in history."

"'President Palin, the North Korean President is on the line.' 'Hang up,' she replied."

If you can't say it quickly, don't say it at all. We are a society living in soundbites. How much less is there to say?

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Finding No Peace

Thomas Friedman's "The Peace (Keepers) Prize", while an intended tribute to our military, instead creates certain fictions that only do our present soldiers a disservice.

Friedman, fantasizing on the Nobel acceptance speech that President Obama should give, says "if you want to see the true essence of America, visit any military outpost in Iraq or Afghanistan" to see "young men and women... who work together as one, far from their families, motivated chiefly by their mission to keep the peace and expand the borders of freedom".

Yet, 3 days ago, the Times of London reported that "American soldiers serving in Afghanistan are depressed and deeply disillusioned"... Many feel that they are risking their lives - and that colleagues have died- for a futile mission and an Afghan population that does nothing to help them". The article, based on the comments of 2 Army chaplains, spoke of these religious leaders having counseled many soldiers angry about being there, in a state of depression and despair who "just want to get back to their families".

In fact, in August of this year the Army reported that it had begun planning a mandatory training program to try to combat rising rates of suicide and depression among soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

One of Mr. Friedman's fellow op ed contributors, Frank Rich, today wrote that in our desire to give a rational basis for our presence in Afghanistan, we have created false realities of what is going on. As Mr. Rich questions, "why let facts get in the way?". Mr. Rich asks why we are considering increasing our troop presence in a country where, he suggests, there remain less than 100 Queda insurgents. (Two Wrongs Make Another Fiasco, NY Times)

It appears to me that Mr. Friedman tries to make the facts fit his opinion piece so to give a clean image to honor soldiers past and present. He would have done better to provide the harsh truths and do real honor to those who now serve in an engagement they do not understand and can no longer justify.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Exhibit A

This is what Abner Doubleday had in mind.

With each event adding another layer of drama, I kept calling my children, who were attending the game. All I could hear on the other end of the line was the sound of 50,000 people being enveloped in the moment. My son or daughter's screams to me were drowned out by the pure energy of the crowd.

The bookends were home runs by the 2 men paid huge sums of money to propel this team to victory. Early on, and then in the most crucial of moments, there were base running gaffes by each side. There were times of triumph and tragedy in waves.

My friend Howie always tells me that being a spectator at a baseball game is like paying to watch the grass grow. Last night, my friend, was Exhibit A as to why you are so very wrong.

Friday, October 9, 2009

The Nobel Peace Prize Winner

Barack Obama has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize today. It is striking that this award would be presented to a President who is so new to his post, and who is still struggling to gain his footing. The award appears to be given in large measure as a repudiation for all the errors that former President Bush committed in 8 years of misguided bravado. To Bush, you were either with us or against us. Obama recognized the fallacy in that logic. His efforts to begin to repair the damage caused by past errors serve as the predicate for today's announcement.

We do have a President committed to dialogue with our 'enemies'. He has opened up a line of communications with Iran. He has traveled to Cairo to speak of an understanding of the Muslim world and apologize for errors made in the past. He has attempted in his speech in Prague to begin anew the dialogue on nuclear disarmament. He has set the course of discussion on a rational path.

There must, however, be concern that his words have not yet produced concrete results. Jimmy Carter was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his lifetime of efforts, including brokering of a mid-east peace between Israel and Egypt. Al Gore was recognized by the committee only after he produced a book and award winning film awakening us all to the inconvenient truth of global warming.

In contrast, Mr. Obama is at the beginning of his journey. Not only does he face a world where Iran and North Korea are ratcheting up their efforts on nuclear capabilities, but his own landscape for peace is strewn with obstacles in Afghanistan and Iraq today, and Pakistan in the days to come. Can a President who may be committing us to more years in what many now perceive as unwinnable war, be seen as the most shining beacon of peace?

I applaud the President for his efforts, as the committee states to "create a new international climate" and his ability to "capture the world's attention and give its people hope for a better future". He has fashioned a more positive global image for America.

Former President Bush set the bar as low as it could go for American diplomacy. President Obama now hopes to bring us back to a place where words do not always have to serve as weapons, but can be tools to move us in a forward direction. The Nobel Peace Prize committee, much like the American people, have expressed their belief in Obama's vision of change and hope for a better future. Only time will tell if words produce desired results.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The view from under my desk

I read the op ed from Thomas Friedman in this morning's NY Times (Our Three Bombs) and immediately wanted to hide under my desk, much as we were instructed to do as children. Once there, we were supposed to be somehow safe from the Communist menace. In Mr. Friedman's analysis, today there appears to be no place of refuge large enough to shield us from the unrelenting problems that attack us on all sides.

I pulled up the First Inaugural Address of FDR, as I tried to think of some moment in our past where we felt trapped by enemies on multiple fronts. But in 1933, all Roosevelt saw on the horizon was the economic woes that had created our national anxiety. When he spoke of fear as the nameless, unreasoning , unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance, this concern was directed, for him, only on material things. There was not a mention in his speech of the perils of a second enemy who would await us on foreign soil 8 years later.

From the assessment of Mr. Friedman our enemies now seem too many and our problems too massive to ever conceive of being in a position tomorrow, or for as many tomorrows as we can see, to finish our work. It is a sad commentary that we live in a world where, at least in Mr. Friedman's view, it seems likely we may never again be able to emerge from under our desks.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Truth in Advertising

Posted by Richie Jay

Ticketmaster, for those of you who've never heard of them, is a company that makes lots and lots of money by doing very, very little.

Basically, for indefensibly and usuriously large sums of money, Ticketmaster provides a website (and in some, but not all, cases, a phone line) that sells tickets to events at many venues. With their near monopoly on sporting event and concert ticketing (at least in the New York City area), they add dramatic surcharges to almost every ticket sold. On cheaper tickets, the surcharges can sometimes exceed the ticket price (The Yankees sell $5 tickets for certain seats at select games, but after Ticketmaster fees, the price per ticket usually exceeds $10). For most orders, there is a per ticket fee, a per order fee, and then a shipping fee (if applicable). You can opt to have the tickets e-mailed to you as PDFs, instead, but that also costs money. There is no way to avoid the first two fees (per ticket and per order), but the third fee (shipping) can be avoided if you opt for standard first class mail without tracking. You can circumvent Ticketmaster if you go to the actual venue to buy tickets, but for most people this would involve making two trips, often of significant distance, and the inconvenience is simply not worth it. In some regulated industries, making virtually every person pay a fee on top of the advertised price would be legally suspect, but for entertainment tickets in the US, anything goes. So, with no better options, we resign ourselves to paying money for a service that should be free or nearly free (online plane, bus, and train ticketing: free, and usually cheaper than in-person or by phone; online museum, theme park, and zoo ticketing: usually free, and often cheaper; online movie ticketing: $1 or so, which I still don't get.).

Last week when I bought tickets to postseason Yankees games, I was not surprised to face steep Ticketmaster fees. During a short window of time--stated as 7 hours, but usually about 10 minutes or so in reality--the few tickets made available to the many partial season pass holders go on sale through Ticketmaster. You can only buy these tickets online. Not in person. Not by phone. There is NO way to avoid the Ticketmaster fees. If the Yankees or Ticketmaster were an airline, this practice would be illegal, as the total advertised price would not include all the mandatory taxes and fees, and NO ONE could actually buy the tickets for the prices shown. But, as you know, the Yankees and Ticketmaster are not airlines (You think the fees are getting a little ridiculous for air travel now? Just imagine what Ticketmaster would conjure up charges for!).

I ordered 2 tickets to one game in the ALDS series, paying per ticket fees of $6 each ($12) and a per order charge of $3.25. I was offered shipping options ranging from $2.50 (for PDFs) to about $20 for overnight shipping. Since I figured that Ticketmaster already got enough money, and tickets are guaranteed to arrive on time no matter the method, I opted for the free method (first class mail).

Since the ALDS is just a few days away now and Ticketmaster has not yet printed and shipped the tickets, they decided to send me PDFs instead. This is where things get humorous. Ticketmaster decided to extol their generosity by sending an email trumpeting how they are waiving the $2.50 PDF ticket charge as a courtesy, even though I did not request it, and even though it is their own delay in printing and shipping the tickets that has necessitated 'upgrading' me to that ticketing option. Oh, and they conveniently neglected to mention that they've already gotten more than $15 out of me for this one electronic ticket order, involving no human contact or intervention whatsoever, nor any postage.

As a free courtesy to Ticketmaster (no charge!), I've decided to slightly edit their recent email to better reflect the truth:

Hello, this is Ticketmaster Customer Service with an important alert for your upcoming event New York Yankees, scheduled at Yankee Stadium.

Our records show that you selected either standard US mail or UPS delivery. Because there is not enough time for your tickets to be shipped by standard mail or UPS (since we were too busy brainstorming new and exciting fees), your tickets will instead be sent to you electronically via Ticketmaster’s ticketFast® electronic ticket delivery system. Ticketmaster will waive the standard $2.50 ticketFast delivery fee for this event as a special offer to you, and will instead charge you $15.25 for the order, or almost $8 per ticket, to cover the enormous costs involved in the fully automated purchasing and emailing of your tickets. These charges would be much greater, but due to the economies of scale generated by selling over 140 million tickets each year, we pass the savings on to you! In fact, there's only three cents in ticketing costs borne by each customer for each ticket--the other $7 or so covers the absolutely necessary administrative costs of our lean, efficient operation, like private jets for our executives to fly to Hannah Montana concerts around the globe (our CEO is her #1 fan), 4-ply toilet paper for their famously sensitive nether regions, and stacks and stacks of hundred dollar bills to fill the eco-friendly 'green' waterless swimming pool on the roof of our corporate headquarters. Simply print your tickets on any standard printer and bring the printout(s) to the game to be scanned for entry.

Your ticket(s) will be emailed to the email address that you provided at the time of purchase. If you originally opted for UPS delivery, the delivery fees will be refunded to your credit card, but don't feel too sorry for us, because we'll do just fine with all the other fees you've already paid. Please allow 7-10 business days for the credit to process, because we've already been earning interest on your money for about a week, and with another week's interest we'll have enough money to commission a new 100-foot-tall statue of Ronald Reagan in our headquarters lobby, constructed entirely out of ticket stubs, and glued together with the tears of our customers.

We appreciate your understanding. If you have any questions, please contact us online (but don't you dare call us...phone operators are ex-pen-sive!) at:
Thank you for getting used by Ticketmaster!

Friday, October 2, 2009

Let's (Not) Talk About Sex, Baby

Posted by Richie Jay

Now that the new Tufts sexile rule has been universally panned as a really, really, really bad idea, I think it's time to propose a better alternative:

I keep arguing the point that this would be a much better rule if it weren't about sex. Simply put, roommates all have a right to feel safe and comfortable in their room, and if some guest is making them feel otherwise (for any reason, not just sex), then the issue should be addressed. Having schools police consensual private behavior is creepy, largely unenforceable, and may even present legal and ethical issues, but a simple, straightforward guest policy that has nothing do with sex and everything to do with the well-being of students would be much more enforceable. In my experience, sexiling is not as big of a problem as this policy seems to suggest (at most schools, upperclassmen live in singles, off-campus houses, or other accommodations that offer at least some modicum of privacy some of the time, and where that doesn't occur, roommates find ways to make relationships work in a mutually agreeable way). Also, this policy downplays the fact that guests other than sexual partners can actually be a greater source of tension or discomfort.

I told my dad I was sure that much better policies exist--ones that avoid sex and lay out a clear, enforceable general guest policy--and then I found this: Dartmouth College's guest policy from 2001 (when I was a student and a freshman hall advisor). Here are some excerpts:

"Host students are responsible for the actions of their guests and should make sure their guests are familiar with community expectations. It is the responsibility of the host to check with their roommate(s) before inviting a guest to the room. Any student who feels inconvenienced by the guest(s) of another student should discuss the matter first with the host student and then, if necessary, with live-in staff...in the Office of Residential Life."

"Residential Life staff...ensure that individual behavior does not interfere with the legitimate rights of other members of the community."

"the primary rights to sleep and study in the residential communities."

"Students who by virtue of their behavior or attitude toward themselves or other residents show an inability to live in a group setting, refuse intervention...may be asked to leave any residential community."

Simple. The worst consequence of this rule, which essentially boils down to the one line I italicized and gives any one roomie veto power over any guest, is a private feud between roomies (and, frankly, if it avoids an awkward public fight about sexual behavior, it's a net positive)--as compared to Tufts' new rule, which could literally result in an administrative hearing on what does or does not constitute "sexual activity" and whether or not said activity was going on in the presence of a third party who preferred not to observe and/or participate. The rule also appears to leave roommates powerless to address other sources of discomfort in the absence of observable sexual intercourse.

And, again, in my experience both as a student and a floor advisor, these kinds of conflicts almost always get resolved without having to resort to rule books, and especially without having to interrogate individuals about their sexual behaviors.

UPDATE: It turns out that Tufts already has a very straightforward (though grammatically incorrect) guest policy, which makes this whole sexile rule business even stupider and more unnecessary:

Overnight Guests

Students may allow overnight guests as long as his/her roommate (if applicable) has given permission for this to occur. A guest ’s visit should not, in any way, deprive a roommate of privacy, study time, or sleep. Students may not host more than two (2) overnight guests at a time...Students with Tufts-affiliated significant others (whether same sex or opposite) are expected to adhere to the residential guest policy.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Getting Tufts on Sex

Sometimes it is just better to shut up.

My alma mater just got some unwanted attention this week. The no-sex-while-your-roommate-is-in-the-room guest policy has now hit the newsstand. Oh boy.

I conducted alumni interviews of prospective candidates for Tufts for over a decade. I don't ever recall asking a question about the applicant's views on permissible sex in the dorms (or being asked a question on the subject, for that matter).

I am not going to debate the pros and cons of the 'oh my god, did we really put that into words' announcement. I just wonder whether this may be followed up by more goodies, like;

Consensual sex hours 8 to 10 PM on weekday nights and until midnight on the weekends
Consensual sex common rooms for off hours sex
For those in single rooms, the same restrictions on sexual activities as for those with roommates (equal protection)
Spooning with clothes on is a permitted activity

The list could be endless. I await the first lawsuit regarding failure to enforce the policy, or even worse, for enforcing the policy.

Somebody is losing sleep tonight, and it may not be the roommate who is a reluctant witness to a violation of the school's code. It may well be the administrator who opened up this can of worms in the first place.