Friday, December 31, 2010

Auld Lang Syne

By Robert Burns, 1788

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
and never brought to mind ?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
and days of auld lang syne ?
For auld lang syne, my jo, for auld lang syne, we’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet, for auld lang syne.
And surely ye’ll be your pint-stowp !
and surely I’ll be mine !
And we’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.
For auld lang syne, my jo, for auld lang syne, we’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet, for auld lang syne.
We twa hae run about the braes,
and pu’d the gowans fine ;
But we’ve wander’d mony a weary fit,
sin auld lang syne.
For auld lang syne, my jo, for auld lang syne, we’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet, for auld lang syne.
We twa hae paidl’d i' the burn,
frae morning sun till dine ;
But seas between us braid hae roar’d
sin auld lang syne.
For auld lang syne, my jo, for auld lang syne, we’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet, for auld lang syne.
And there’s a hand, my trusty fiere !
and gie's a hand o’ thine !
And we’ll tak a right gude-willy waught,
for auld lang syne.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Storm furor unfair?

I was returning from Italy in the summer of 2009 when the second leg of my flight, from New York to Boston, was delayed due to weather and I was forced to spend seven hours at JFK, wandering around the airport and trying to nap on the dingy carpet. What most frustrated me during that episode was not the fact that my airline was not willing to send a jetliner into thunderstorms, but the lack of information I was getting from the company's employees.

Still, looking back, the airline's first job is to convey me to and from my destination safely, which of course they've done every time I've flown. The monotonous delay is now just a slightly funny anecdote, a footnote on the story of my fantastic trip to Europe. I don't fly that often, so I've been lucky enough to avoid horror stories about sitting for hours on the tarmac, which would be understandably terrible. This week tens of thousands of travelers will have their own horror stories about trying to get somewhere for the holidays when the recent snowstorm struck.

I do think, however, that the furor people are expressing is a bit unfair. I am not one to defend giant corporations, but imagine how incredibly complex the air travel system is and then add to it a weather event that cripples a number of important transportation hubs, including the New York metro area's three airports. This was, I read, the Big Apple's sixth-largest snowfall on record and it struck during the height of the post-Christmas travel period. Do people really expect that the planes, pilots, personnel and passengers can all be swiftly repositioned so that everyone is where they want to be?

Of course, if I missed a long-planned trip or the funeral of a relative or a holiday dinner I would be understandably upset, but the weather answers to no one.

Maybe people really were not irrationally angry about air travel delays; maybe it was just the media coverage that created hysteria where there was little. In New York City, however, people seemed genuinely upset by the municipal response to the two-foot snowfall, with Mayor Michael Bloomberg eventually accepting responsibility for the shortcomings of the response. Not being there, I'm not sure how well or poorly the city tackled the storm, but I again feel like the fickle feelings of the public were on display here. The nation is emerging from an economic crisis, people want governments to spend less, but when services -- from border security to trash pick-up -- are scaled back the citizenry goes beserk.

Today, Americans seem to want to have their cake and to eat it, too -- and then to have another piece while complaining about the price of the cake. It cannot go on like this forever. Another old but relevant proverb comes to mind: If we want to dance, we have to pay the piper.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Coming to America

There's some controversy surrounding comments made on a blog by the Phantom Gourmet, the secretive restaurant critic:
I’m sorry to tell everyone, but without illegal aliens, there is no restaurant business. 

Is it true? What about the hospitality field? Agriculture? Unskilled labor? If so, what should be public policy regarding immigration? Should there be stricter enforcement of employers?

The number of undocumented immigrants has decreased in the past two years, with estimates are that there are a million fewer than the high of 12 million in 2007. Much of that is in response to the weakened economy, but it has been under-reported that deportation of illegal workers has increased under President Obama and audits of employers have quadrupled.

Immigration is down in Arizona as well, and all of the rhetoric about waves of murderers streaming across the border was completely political -- a cynical, but common, tactic to scare voters to the right. The current Congress is unlikely to pass any immigration legislation, as it helps the Republican Party to continually vilify immigrants.

I discovered recently that there were limits placed on the number of Italians allowed to come to the US from 1921 to 1965. The Emergency Quota Act, signed by President Warren G. Harding, drastically reduced the immigration from southern and eastern Europe, principally Italy, while allowing larger numbers from western and northern Europe.

About five million Italians came to America seeking a better life for themselves and their children, and I am here and living comfortably because of several of those people. At the height of the influx, a number of Americans looked around and decided that they didn't like these newcomers, with their large families, different language and smelly foods, and they passed laws to keep us out. Shame on them, and shame on us if we turn around and look down upon the latest groups to set foot on these shores.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Eastie storm photos

Holiday plants along Bennington Street look even more appropriate.

No one is waiting at the bus stop at Bennington and Byron streets, though I did see a bus pull up and let off one passenger.
This house remains in the holiday spirit despite the storm.

Bennington Street looking north. Green lights, but no cars.

Cars along Byron Street are already covered pretty well.

The winds drive the snow.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Merry Christmas

***On Christmas morning the Herald gives us a story of holiday cheer spread by a pair of East Boston cops. The duo (in the photo from turn a domestic call into an attempt to make one little girl's Christmas a little brighter.

***The Globe has reporter Joseph Kahn's year-end review of news and pop culture in verse.

*** wonders whether "It's A Wonderful Life" is the scariest movie ever.

***The New Yorker's Adam Gopnik took a look at a recent spate of books exploring the historical Jesus earlier this year.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Tension on Korean peninsula

South Korea, with encouragement from the US, carried out military drills with live fire right next to the border with North Korea, further stressing the relationship with its unpredictable communist neighbor. This morning the South is on standby in case of attack.

The North has frequently taken aggressive action in the 57 years since the armistice brought an end to the war that killed 350,000 Korean soldiers and 2.5 million Korean civilians, as well as 36,000 Americans, at least 200,000 Chinese and several thousand from other countries. The leadership of the communist state is irrational and no one wants to see them get away with the recent attack on the South's Yeonpyeong Island or last spring's attack on a naval ship.

However, instigating a nuclear war is certainly in no one's interest, and so the US and South Korea need to think long and hard before they provoke the North. The entire world has a stake in what happens there.

Image courtesy

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Assessing Obama

On his widely read blog, The Daily Dish, Andrew Sullivan argues that Barack Obama is not a weak liberal, but rather a tactical and cautious president who reads the country's mood and compromises to get what he can. Then he lists what Obama has accomplished in his first two years:
...universal health insurance, the rescue of Detroit, the avoidance of a Second Great Depression, big gains in private sector growth and productivity, three stimulus packages (if you count QE2), big public investments in transport and green infrastructure, the near-complete isolation of Iran, the very public exposure of Israeli intransigence and extremism, a reset with Russia (plus a new START), big drops in illegal immigration and major gains in enforcement, a South Korea free trade pact, the end of torture, and a debt commission that has put fiscal reform squarely back on the national agenda. Oh, and of yesterday, the signature civil rights achievement of ending the military's ban on openly gay service members.

It certainly is an impressive list, and though I was hoping for more bold legislation with a Democrat in the White House and large majorities in both houses of Congress, I do understand that political logistics must be taken into account when hashing out domestic policy.

As I've said before, it is in other areas that I have significant problems with Obama's leadership: the wars, the secrecy, the assault on privacy and civil rights, and Guantanamo Bay. In these areas the change in White House residents has given us little if any modification in policy. That is disturbing.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Fun with maps

Illustration courtesy of The Daily Kos.

It seems likely that Massachusetts will lose yet another Congressional district based on the numbers from this year's census. The state's population is somewhere around 6.5 million, which is a jump of about 4% from the 2000 census; however, the nation grew at around 9%. The trend of people moving from the population centers of the Northeast and Midwest to the South and Far West, though slowed a little, continues. (The housing crisis has been worst in Florida, Arizona, Nevada and California, which has lessened growth there recently.)

The latest official census figures will be released Tuesday and those numbers will determine if the Bay State keeps 10 seats in the House of Representatives or slides down to nine. From 1913 to 1933 Massachusetts had 16 members in the House and since then we've lost one every one or two decades. Whenever such adjustments happen it usually leaves two sitting House members running against each other.

One web site surmises that this time the 1st and 2nd Congressional districts will be combined, pitting John Olver against Richard Neal, and it'd be likely that Olver, who will be 76 at the time of the 2012 election, would just retire. Whatever the revised map looks like, we can be sure it will be a contorted mess of districts, drawn to protect constituencies. The US should depoliticize redistricting by removing it from state legislatures (as a few states have done) and turning it over to independent boards that use software to draw cohesive districts.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Books with a view

The plans to build a new branch library in East Boston are moving forward. The 14,600-foot, $11.3 million  facility will be built at the Day Square end of the Bremen Street Park, at what is officially 365 Prescott Street, with a tentative opening date of fall 2013.

The project architects revealed their preliminary plans at a meeting at the Meridian Street Branch this week, and input from the BPL trustees and the public will be adapted into the project. To see sketches of the site, check the BPL site here. This seems like a fantastic location, and the building is rumored to have large windows and a deck that look out onto the park.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Taking advantage of generosity

Charitable giving is important, but one should always be aware of where his or her money is actually going. AG Martha Coakley released a report today on charitable giving campaigns conducted in Massachusetts in 2009, and the numbers show that just 43% of the money collected goes to the causes represented. The rest goes to companies that carry out the campaigns.

These are most often, I believe, the mail or phone solicitations that ask for contributions in the name of the cause -- frequently police or firefighter associations -- without ever mentioning that the caller works for a firm or that most of the money will not benefit those the contributor would like to support. I think it's good advice to never commit any cash to such callers; instead, give directly if you can.

Following the links on the report reveals how much charities actually receive and how much goes to the fund-raising company.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Bush league decision

It was 10 years ago that the Supreme Court rendered a decision that has and will continue to have lasting implications on the nation. By a 5-4 margin the justices brought to an end the recount of Florida's ballots in the presidential election between George W. Bush and Al Gore. The GOP ticket was awarded Florida's 25 electoral votes despite the questionable result and Bush -- who had 550,000 fewer votes nationally -- became the 43rd president.

It is a mystery to me why the Court would not allow the recount to continue, but the five conservative justices would seem to have interceded in the political process, and as a result the US had eight years of Bush/Cheney. It may take us eight decades to dig ourselves out from that foolish and tragic period.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Ron Paul tells it like it is

Ron Paul deserves credit. No matter how much I disagree with many of the Texas Congressman's positions, mostly on domestic policy, there is much overlap in his libertarian ideology and the uber-liberal viewpoint that I come from -- and he is never afraid to stand up and say what he thinks.

Yesterday Rep. Paul was on the floor of the House offering a vastly different assessment of WikiLeaks than most other Republicans, who are calling for the web site's public face, Julian Assange, to be either prosecuted for espionage or taken out like a terrorist.

"Is this not an example of killing the messenger for bad news?" asked Paul. He also had nine questions that we should be asking ourselves:
Number 1: Do the America People deserve know the truth regarding the ongoing wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen?
Number 2: Could a larger question be how can an army private access so much secret information?
Number 3: Why is the hostility directed at Assange, the publisher, and not at our governments failure to protect classified information?
Number 4: Are we getting our moneys worth of the 80 billion dollars per year spent on intelligence gathering?
Number 5: Which has resulted in the greatest number of deaths: lying us into war or Wikileaks revelations or the release of the Pentagon Papers?
Number 6: If Assange can be convicted of a crime for publishing information that he did not steal, what does this say about the future of the first amendment and the independence of the internet?
Number 7: Could it be that the real reason for the near universal attacks on Wikileaks is more about secretly maintaining a seriously flawed foreign policy of empire than it is about national security?
Number 8: Is there not a huge difference between releasing secret information to help the enemy in a time of declared war, which is treason, and the releasing of information to expose our government lies that promote secret wars, death and corruption?
Number 9: Was it not once considered patriotic to stand up to our government when it is wrong?

Friday, December 10, 2010

Jailed dissident presented Nobel

The Nobel Peace Prize was presented today to an empty chair. Or, rather, to the man who couldn't be in that chair because he has been sentenced to 11 years in jail in China. Liu Xiaobo, who participated in the 1989 Tienanmen Square protests, has been sent to prison four times -- the latest for co-writing an appeal that advocates democracy for China.

The Chinese government is furious that the Nobel Committee went through with the ceremony and blocked media and internet reports of the story. They did report the event on state news, calling it a Western conspiracy against China.

Photo courtesy of Radio Free Europe web site.

Fouling the air

Glad to see that the GOP has its priorities straight. Yesterday, Senate Republicans refused to allow a vote on a bill that ensures emergency personnel who responded to the 9/11 attacks get proper medical care. Their reasoning? Nothing gets done until the wealthy get their tax cuts.

This is even worse than not believing it's a worthy bill, as Republicans apparently feel that such items can be used as bargaining chips. Nothing is more important to the GOP than the rich getting richer.

Photo of 9/11 responder from

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

It was 30 years ago today...

At Savio High School I wrote my senior thesis on The Beatles and their influence on culture and society. I got an A. I'd been a fan of the group since freshman year -- so much so that on the day after John Lennon was shot there were students who offered condolences to me.

Like many artists and celebrities who die young, Lennon is not encumbered by widespread images of his "fat phase" or sad commercials for life insurance. He'll always be the rebel -- including his surprising choice to ditch fame to be a homebody dad.

Thirty years have passed since a madman murdered Lennon and we've all gotten that much older. I'm not longer the high school kid who has the records and the bootlegs and who knows the release dates and other arcane information. I'm just sitting here watching the wheels go round and round...

Sunday, December 5, 2010

The reluctant president

In the last week a trio of liberal newspaper columnists expressed disappointment in Barack Obama's presidency -- a feeling that the left has been tormented by for months. Paul Krugman and Frank Rich of The New York Times and The Washington Post's EJ Dionne call out the president for his seeming reluctance to take a stand and fight the Republicans -- who use bellicosity as a strategy, no matter the issue and the lack of connection to reality of their position.

And what will Obama do about all this? Ronald Reagan ... found a way to stand strong, to fight back and to win. We will soon know whether our current president has this in him. 
It’s hard to escape the impression that Republicans have taken Mr. Obama’s measure — that they’re calling his bluff in the belief that he can be counted on to fold. And it’s also hard to escape the impression that they’re right. 
The cliché criticisms of Obama are (from the left) that he is a naïve centrist, not the audacious liberal that Democrats thought they were getting, and (from the right) that he is a socialist out to impose government on every corner of American life. But the real problem is that he’s so indistinct no one across the entire political spectrum knows who he is. A chief executive who repeatedly presents himself as a conciliator, forever searching for the “good side” of all adversaries and convening summits, in the end comes across as weightless, if not AWOL.
They're right. Two years ago Democrats won in grand fashion, but they've struggled since then to control the agenda and to communicate with the public. Most of the responsibility for that falls on Obama's shoulders. There have been some gains, some important legislation -- health care and financial reform, for example -- but in each of those cases, and in others, the policies that became law were much weaker than we'd hoped. The Democrats emerged from those battles bruised and limping, checking their pockets with the strange feeling that their wallets had just been lifted.

This reminds me of a scene from the TV show The West Wing -- in fact, it's almost exactly where we find ourselves. Look at the episode's summary from Wikipedia:
The staff begin to realize that the Bartlet administration has been ineffective because it has been too timid to make bold decisions, focusing instead on the exigencies of politics. 
If only the Obama administration were to reach the conclusion that the fictional administration reaches:
Finally, Leo confronts President Bartlet with his own timidity, challenging him to be himself and to take the staff "off the leash." -- in other words, he seeks to "Let Bartlet be Bartlet." The President and his staff resolve to act boldly and "raise the level of public debate" in America.
Please ... let life imitate art.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Truth as treason

I may not be a First Amendment absolutist, but I'm pretty close. I will allow that there are a few limited areas where national security trumps press freedom, but those should be quite narrow. Democracy depends on the citizenry having access to information, and few concerns should ever be allowed to top that principle.

In the four years of its existence, WikiLeaks has risen from nowhere to be a prominent shaper of news and information. Such is the way that technology affects us these days: Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and now WikiLeaks begin as an idea or a few lines of code and soon the way we see and understand the world is changed permanently.

Julian Assange, the force behind the site, is a wanted man these days. In the wake of WikiLeaks latest revelation -- 250,000 cables of US State Department reports -- a number of governments are investigating the Australian nomad, while Swedish authorities want to talk to him about sexual assault charges he has called phony. It's hard to see how this guy survives unless he takes cover underground for a very long time.

Texas Rep. Ron Paul tweeted this today: "Re: Wikileaks - In a free society, we are supposed to know the truth. In a society where truth becomes treason, we are in big trouble." While Paul -- a hardcore libertarian -- and I would disagree on many issues, on this one we share similar views. The US government has too many secrets. I am for a default position of openness and transparency in all branches and at all levels of government. WikiLeaks may have embarrassed the US and some of its allies this week, but exposing some of the workings of the State Department is, overall, a good thing.

When US missiles hit targets in Yemen one year ago, for example, it is the right of Americans AND Yemenis to know where those weapons came from, especially when many of those killed in these attacks were civilians -- including 14 women and 21 children. WikiLeaks is not the institution that illegally invaded Iraq and that has been occupying Afghanistan for nine years. That would be the US government.

News that dropped WikiLeaks from its servers yesterday and that today a New Hampshire company killed the domain (find the site here, at after Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman made some threatening comments is quite disturbing. This is not the way we treat information in the United States -- with the government actively seeking to prevent Americans from reading the truth. We're moving -- if we haven't been there since the passage of the PATRIOT Act -- toward 1984 territory. In that prophetic novel, one of the dystopian government's slogans would seem to be one that the US is now embracing: "Ignorance is strength."

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Hubster new and improved!

Well, for the first time since starting this blog I changed the design and added some features in the right-hand column, including my Twitter feed, which I seem to be using more and more. Also, note the slide-show of photos top right. I think the whole thing looks snappier.