Christmas Memories

hard-candy-750840_960_720  Hard candy cooling

It was the day that Christmas arrived from Indiana. Each year, my uncle from Indiana would drive the 500 miles from Rensselaer to Lincoln, Nebraska, and deliver Christmas. No matter how much we had decorated, or baked cookies, or shopped and wrapped presents, it was not Christmas until my Uncle Bill pulled into our driveway and delivered Christmas.

This was before my sister was born, so I shared the front bedroom with my two brothers. Late in the afternoon on the appointed day, I would begin a vigil, watching and waiting for him to arrive in the late afternoon of early winter. The sky would be streaked with purple and orange across the high clouds that reflected the last glows of sunlight. I would breath on the window, and my breath would condense on the cold surface of the single pane glass. Overnight, the window would show the spidery trace of ice crystals on the bottom of each pane, but during the day the ice stayed away.

I never knew what type of car my uncle would be driving, other than it would be a Chevy. He was a bachelor, never married after his service in Europe and Africa during the war, and it was his one luxury to buy a new car each year as the models turned over. So I kept my vigil as the shadows grew, and finally saw a car turn down our street from 33rd street, then slow and pull into our driveway. I would yell and race down the stairway, saying “He’s here”, and soon he would come up the steps towards our door. He always had a couple of big bags that he brought in first before he’d ever bring in his old suitcase.

There were the presents from him, and my other aunt and uncle, and my grandmother who all lived in the town of Rensselaer. That was the place we went to in the summer, to renew relationships forged decades ago. He always brought a weekly calendar from the Farmers and Merchants bank from his town, and that calendar with its space for notes for each day became the family planner for the next year. But the most important thing was the big box of chocolates that would soon have a place of honor on the table in our living room. It was like a 3 pound box of chocolates, and that was one of the highlights of our season.

Memories can be triggered by many things, but memories from smells are often the strongest. Of all of the smells of Christmas, nothing compared to the pungent cloud of anise-scented steam exploding out of the kitchen and permeating the entire house. As soon as the anise oil was poured into the sugar and water mix nearing hard crack, the mix would erupt in a boiling mass, and the smell escaped into the air. Anise candy was always dyed red in our house. Many years later I took to making it myself to bring back the memories of the aroma. I’ve added cinnamon oil for a cinnamon variety as well – the odor of cinnamon is almost as strong as anise.

Christmas eve dinner was traditionally chicken and noodles. No store bought noodles, though. My mother would make the noodles by hand, rolling them out and laying them on towels before they would be cooked. This year is the first Christmas since my mother died, so this piece is in honor of both my parents who helped to form the Christmas memories that bring back a sense of joy and longing.


Why Bother With Those Pesky People?

Delivery drone

I have seen the future, and in it I have totally freed myself from the need of having to interact with anyone at more than a superficial level. I need not familiarize myself with the grocery clerks at the local supermarket, because I have a service that takes my on-line order, and delivers it into my house when I’m not around since I gave access to my house through Amazon.

No longer do I need to go outside and venture into a restaurant for a meal. Instead, I can scroll through menu listings from hundreds of restaurants and select a meal, then wait for the service to come deliver it directly to my door. Still have to interact with a delivery person though – can’t wait for drone delivery to come so I don’t have to interact with anyone.

I never see my friends because I am so busy keeping up with my facebook friends, my twitter following, my instagram buds, who has the time to keep up face to face. Besides, if I went to see someone, I’d have to change out of my robe and slippers. No, online connections are so much better than having to put up with actually interacting with others.

Gas stations? Who needs gas stations? You can pay someone to deliver a set amount of gas to your car. Use Yoshi, and arrange for weekly fill-ups at work or home. It only costs a small delivery cost in addition to your gas purchase. Of course, I haven’t interacted with someone at a gas station for a long time since they put credit card readers out at the pumps. And I can arrange for someone to come to my car and do my basic maintenance, like oil changes. Pretty soon I won’t have to use a car at all.

Unless I really need some money to pay for all of these delivery charges I’m racking up. Then I can use my car and drive for the ride services. Yes, I do have to deal with the people I carry, but I never have to interact with a supervisor or co-workers. I don’t even have a supervisor, and I don’t know who my co-workers are, since we are all contractors.

I can’t remember the last time I set foot in one of our local stores. In fact, I was surprised the last time I drove through one of the shopping areas in town. Looks like most of the stores are either closed or are having going out of business sales. Well, no wonder. They can’t compete on convenience with ordering things on line and receiving it within one or two days. I do wonder what I’m going to do with the mountain of cardboard I’m accumulating.

My insurance company has this great new service. If I have a cold or some sort of minor issue, I don’t have to go to a doctor. I can connect with the service and go through a series of questions, then have a brief conversation with a doctor, and then they will arrange for an antibiotic to be delivered to my door for my sinus infection. How wonderful! You do know that 67% of all communicable diseases are transmitted through doctor’s offices. Not having to go out  – that’s wonderful.

I can get my dog walked, even if I’m home. Just have to pay that service. One thing I haven’t gotten rid of though – still have to make it to a vet. No remote app for that – yet.

I’m living the good life.


Note: It seems like the purpose of most technology advances and technology business offerings is to eliminate the need to interact with other individuals. Soon we’ll flit through life like dragonflies, unaware of any other life form. Maybe we hook up and have a brief fling in the air, but then it’s over and we can fly off to our doom unbothered by any other human contact.

Scholarly articles are written pondering whether technology is fueling depression and loneliness. I don’t need a graduate degree in sociology to enable me to say, hell yes it is, and the race to the bottom is accelerating. Just look at how many folks check out of the moment where they are, and look at their phone to catch up with the latest text or facebook post. I’m sitting in a choir rehearsal, and if there’s a break of more than 30 seconds, my neighbor pulls out his phone and gets an update. I will admit, I have looked for a sports score sometimes, but I’m not guilty of seeking constant status updates.

With the social media movement, business has finally found something more addictive than slot machines. We the users gleefully allow ourselves to be parsed, analyzed, and monetized for our commercial exploitation. We voluntarily expose our natures and our most personal thoughts and expressions, and release it willingly, just so we can see how many likes we got on our last post.

You know, I’m really amazed that Twitter expanded their character limit recently. With the ongoing shortening of the national attention span, I figured they’d cut it down to 100 characters (and you can have 20 additional emoticons in order to make up for the loss of bandwidth in cutting the character limit). How many folks have the time to read 280 characters! Sad!


Things Fall Apart, The Centre Cannot Hold


“A House divided against itself cannot stand.” These words from Abraham Lincoln as he began his campaign for the Senate seat in Illinois, are just as true today as they were nearly 160 years ago. For the US in 2017 is divided against itself in ways that are difficult to comprehend. Fault lines exposed in our society in the 1960’s have widened, and the shifting of the electoral tectonic plates threaten our stability as a nation.

In the 1960’s, Richard Nixon evoked the image of the Silent Majority. That is, the good honest working men and families who shared true American values, who decried the changes in society playing out on TV and in the streets. Yet the 1960’s proved to be the time when the belief that American society was a monolithic culture, came apart. The beliefs in monogamy and consumerism were challenged by the hippies. The belief that the Federal government always had good motives and would never lie were chipped away as the truths came out regarding Vietnam, and past programs like the Tuskegee syphilis experiment. Then Watergate revealed that even our top leaders were capable of deception and crimes. A schism grew between those who considered themselves anti-establishment, and those who represented the silent majority.

Fast forward through the decades. Societal changes continued through the succeeding generations. Some changes were evolutionary, such as those wrought by the 1965 immigration bill that removed the preference for white, European immigrants in favor of other groups that were not as prevalent in the US population. The fallout of our war in Indochina led to a large increase in Asian immigrants. Small cities that had been homogenous, like Lincoln Nebraska, developed a growing ethnic nature through the settlement of refugees, and later, their families.

One of the largest fault lines in US culture was created in 1973, with the Supreme Court decision in Roe v Wade. Before that decision, abortion was legal only in a few states, and services to terminate pregnancies were spotty throughout the rest of the nation. Desperate women sought the services of unlicensed and often incompetent practitioners, resulting in many having to go to hospitals to repair the effects of a failed abortion. In 1962 alone, nearly 1,600 women were admitted to Harlem Hospital Center in New York City for incomplete abortions. This document from the Guttmacher organization from 2003 gives an excellent perspective on the nature of abortions prior to Roe v Wade.

Quite simply, throughout history women have faced the issue of unwanted pregnancy, and have sought extreme means to relieve themselves of pregnancy. Although the stigma of unwed motherhood has been reduced (are there any homes for unwed mothers still around?), abortion will continue to be sought by women. It is only in the past 44 years that it has been recognized in the US as a right for the would-be mother to choose to terminate a pregnancy within certain bounds.

Another of the tectonic plate slippages of the past few decades is the change in religious attitudes. We have seen the demise of WASP (White Anglo Saxon Protestant) leadership in society. The P’s have migrated over the years, over to E’s and C’s (Evangelicals and Catholics), or to Nones. Those who moved to denominations with more fervent beliefs have led the efforts to reverse Roe v Wade. Those who moved from P to None are often wondering why the religious right is looking to take away their freedom. Those of us who have remained behind in one of the standard P churches are wondering how to retain our relevance in a society that seems to actively align against our own choices. The chasm that exists between the Christian sects gets ratcheted up multiple notches when non-Christian religions are brought into the equation. Especially in the past few years, the hydra heads of anti-Semitism have remerged, and the internet overflows with references to the Protocols of Zion, about Jewish domination of the US media empire, and with conspiracy theories of various false flag operations aimed at deceiving the US into fighting Israel’s wars by proxy.

Then there is the issue of Moslems. To many in this nation, Islam is viewed as an affront to all that is good and sacred. For those who are against Moslems, the words of the Quran are parsed and spat back out, showing those portions where the texts call for Jihad. Those quotes are taken as emblematic of the entire religion, relegating Islam to be a religion of hatred. Never mind that one can find similar quotes in the texts of the Jewish and Christian religion, and never mind that the history of civilization has often been punctuated by battles over religious supremacy. The despising of Moslems has motivated Donald Trump to try multiple ways to permanently ban one fifth of the earth’s population from having access to this country, all in the name of preventing domestic terrorism.

At least in the 1960’s and 1970’s, we still had the vestiges of a common enemy to unite our population. Communism was our existential threat during that time, and we built up our military-industrial complex to face its menace. Then, within the blink of an eye, the entire edifice of Communism collapsed, and suddenly the economies of nations long suppressed through isolation of socialistic regimes was unleashed. China became everyone’s favorite supply chain partner, and the US began hemorrhaging manufacturing jobs, especially low value-added jobs, and jobs in energy intensive industries like steel. Those were often the jobs that held together smaller towns and cities in fly-over land within the US. The phrase Rust Belt was coined to represent the decline begun when old manufacturing sites were shuttered and left to the elements to oxidize, since they had no economic value anymore. Entire regions where a good and honest living could be made through factory work, now had few options for advancement. Emotions began to boil as resentment built at the unfairness of life when those on the coasts were living the high life, while those in the heartland subsisted on fast-food jobs and big-box retail clerk jobs.

With the advent of the internet and the shattering of the old system of 3 television networks showing only what they wanted you to see, came the next stage of this nation’s partition. The media fragmented into self-reinforcing segments, and for those who stay within their media world, it becomes impossible to understand those who listen and watch the other side’s media. Fox News and Breitbart fans do not believe that old-time media outlets can report the truth. Thus the allegations against Roy Moore are viewed as part of the plot of the deep state to take down the leadership of Donald Trump. Similarly, those who follow the elite media and liberal television networks cannot comprehend why those who support Roy Moore are ignoring the facts. We are now in an age where facts are irrelevant if they don’t agree with your preconceived notion of the truth.

In 2017, the fault lines of this nation have split off both sides of the spectrum. On the left you have the remnants of the counter-culture of the 1960’s, with calls for radical redistribution of wealth across society. The right itself has fragmented, and what has emerged is the Donald Trump manifestation of nationalism and ethnocentrism taking over the Republican party in a hostile takeover. This segment of the population has assumed the anti-establishment role that hippies played in the 1960’s. They have a deep distrust of all things related to social elites. Even though they have seized the reins of power, they have not yet been successful in exerting their will to move the ship of state to their liking. The events of the next year will likely determine the eventual fate of this movement. Will they be reaffirmed by continued electoral success, or will the segment of the population still residing in the center of the political spectrum end this attempt to hijack the American experiment?


Holy Grail of Growth!


Economic growth as far as the eye can see! A thundering flood of growth, enabling total tax revenues to increase while cutting the absolute share of income going to taxes. That is what Congress in the US have pledged will happen by their adoption of yet another version of trickle down economics. This post is not intended to discuss the merits of the tax bill. Instead, it is intended to discuss the holy grail that we seek – economic growth. What is it, and how is it different now than it was during the time period that Donald Trump seeks to return us to – when America was great.

Back in the 1950’s and 1960’s, the economic cycle was centered directly on manufacturing things. When the economy was good, factories that made things expanded. Capacity of making things kept increasing. Eventually, capacity exceeded demand, and the manufacturers of things cut back on production, procurement, and people. Layoffs would occur, and since the economy was in synch, cutbacks in one segment caused cutbacks in others. Within a few months, or a year or two, the imbalance in supply and demand would favor production, and the economy would reverse its downward trajectory and start expanding again.

This cycle held firm through the post war period, until the 1980’s. The byproduct of these economic cycles was inflation, especially when it was accompanied by deficit spending from the Federal Government. Severe fever medicine was supplied to the economy through crippling interest rates. I remember buying my first house in 1982, when I assumed existing mortgages. One was a smaller second mortgage with a 15% interest rate. The inflation fever broke, and the economy of the US began a glide path enabled by falling interest rates.

Throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s, the economic cycle began to change. US manufacturers, having grown complacent servicing their captive market, began to lose market share to those who paid attention to the voice of the customer and improved the quality of their products. Often those were foreign producers. Auto manufacturing was the poster child for this transition. But the change to the economic cycle accelerated due to the end of the Cold War, when the entire world became open for production. Now began the exodus of manufacturing jobs to lower wage nations as China became everyone’s favorite supply chain partner. No need to worry about those union workers and the environmental regulations – we will outsource both our labor and our pollution.

But a strange thing happened in the 1990’s – the economy grew even though the manufacturing sector declined. How was this possible? It was because an increasing portion of our economic output depended not upon the manufacture of things, but upon the manipulation of electrons. With the advent of the internet, it enabled generation of economic activity that relied much less upon the manufacture of things. Compare and contrast the economic activity of the old Ma Bell phone company, with their offspring, the cell phone and internet service providers. Since phone service was viewed as an essential public good, the old phone company received a monopoly to service a region. They were regulated so they would be ensured of operating at a profit, but not so much that their fees would generate a backlash. Then they had to maintain their system of copper wires and switching centers, and received payments from each household for renting their phones, for local service, and charges for each long distance call made by a subscriber.

Now look at the telecommunications sector today. Cell phone service is rapidly replacing land lines, and in order to provide cell service, it requires dispersed cell towers instead of a distribution network of fibers and poles. Much less stuff is required to maintain a network, meaning that manufacturing and resource use decreases, while the economic activity from cellular services grows exponentially. Then you have the alternative service providers, like those who bundle internet, cell service, and TV in one package. And then there’s the lucrative practice of selling data. Quite literally, the economic activity generated by electronic waves means that money is being plucked from the air. If you compared the fraction of income that was spent on phone service back in the 1970’s, with the fraction of income spent on cell service, data features, and internet service now, far more economic activity is occurring in the telecommunications sector now than in the era of Great America.

If you examine the economy over the last 50 years, manufacturing still maintains a high share of economic activity. But that share is spread more thinly across the landscape, since manufacturing productivity has increased so much, and manufacturing employment has declined precipitously. We are now at the cusp of yet another inflection point in productivity. Robotics and the use of Artificial Intelligence will replace the human worker at an increasing rate. In fact, one unintended consequence of the tax bill may be that companies who repatriate money from overseas and invest it in the US, choose to invest it in automation that further reduces the human input.

So it is possible to increase economic activity while decreasing physical inputs into an economy. We live better by consuming less. That is undoubtedly good for the environment, but how does that affect the world of labor and enable those who work to have motivation to improve their lot in the future?

The premise of the Make America Great Again movement is that we can withdraw into our own borders and internalize manufacturing, thus unleashing the ability to generate economic activity in every town in the nation. Manufacturing is viewed as the panacea that serves as a labor force relief valve for those who choose not to continue education. Yet now, manufacturing labor requires significant knowledge skills beyond that of a high school graduate. Many manufacturers despair of finding qualified candidates for their openings. Even if a candidate is able to pass drug screens, they are not willing to commit to a rotating shift lifestyle. And despite the desires of leadership to isolate the US economy, we are competing globally, and no one else owes us any economic favors now.

Economic expansion in the era of technology requires making a commitment to provide the labor force for high skilled manufacturing. This appears to be a requirement of the public sector to provide the training required, due to the failure of the private sector to serve as a competent trainer for skills. Think ITT technical and other private educators who delivered only excess debt instead of marketable skills. Community college needs to serve both as the foundation for trades education, and as the entry level for bachelor degree programs. It will require close coordination with industries so as to deliver potential employees with enough knowledge to be worth hiring. This increased support for community colleges is essential if we want to benefit from the leveraged growth that new manufacturing jobs can provide.

The other area where growth can be generated is in developing an extended plan for upgrading our deteriorated infrastructure. There are some places where private / public partnerships can be created to build new features, but that will result in ongoing expenses to ensure investment return to the private entity (think more and more tolls). Still, the huge unmet need in renewal of our existing infrastructure must be met by government expenditures. Again, this can be funded by the users of the infrastructures, but the traditional techniques like a gas tax will not work in the era of electric vehicles. At some point, those who keep trying to shrink government will have to realize that targeted tax increases are required in order to keep our civilization vibrant and productive, and to increase economic growth. The recent tax bill where simplification was touted, but the net result was to redistribute income up the income chain, shows that we as a nation are not ready to address the real issues facing our country. Maybe when multiple bridges collapse due to neglect we will realize our folly.


Had Enough Winning?


You’re a mean one, Mr. Trump

You really want to steal

You are twitty as a tweeter, you just want to cop a feel, Mr. Trump

You’re a bad example with no sex appeal!

A French philosopher of the 18th century, Joseph de Maistre, created the quote for our times. “Every nation gets the government it deserves”. If that statement is correct, what does it say for the United States that we have ended up with two competing parties in Congress who see only evil in the opposition, and will not ever compromise with the enemy. Then add to the top of this noxious mess a flippant amateur provocateur who believes whatever image was shown to him on the TV during the past 5 minutes. To me, it says that we’ve arrived at the perfect reflection of the American character.

You’re a monster, Mr. Trump

Your soul’s a lump of coal

Your lies ooze out like butter, your conscience is a black hole, Mr. Trump

I wouldn’t trust you with a nuclear code at your control!

George Orwell was incredibly prescient. “War is Peace, and Freedom is Slavery, and Ignorance is Strength.  For, after all, how do we know that two and two make four? Or that the force of gravity works? Or that the past is unchangeable? If both the past and the external world exist only in the mind, and if the mind itself is controllable – what then?” The current administration clearly states its belief in alternate facts. Who cares if photographic evidence shows his inauguration crowd was smaller than Obama’s? Fake news! What does it matter if the President tweets videos that have been debunked because they fit his preconceived idea of the enemy! It’s not the videos that are important, it is the threat that they represent. So much falsity being slathered upon the national sandwich, day in, day out. And still his unthinking supporters celebrate each put down of the elite, reveling in their strong ignorance that sustains their belief in their dear leader.

You’re a foul one, Mr. Trump

Your hair is an orange pile

Your support has been expressed for an accused pedophile, Mr. Trump

Given a choice between the two of you, I’d curl up in a ball of denial!

Donald Trump has succeeded in establishing an agenda for his peers. Forget the pledges of the campaign, where he promised to sustain and never cut the programs depended upon by his supporters. Forget his pledge to give Americans really, really good health care. “It’ll be better health care, much better, for less money.” Then he abdicated his power of the bully pulpit to the machinations of the Republicans in Congress who tried to demolish all aspects of the Affordable Care Act and replace it with an ersatz version that would enable the reestablishment of inadequate insurance plans whose only benefit was a lower premium cost. He became fixated upon the prospect of giving the American people the most massive tax cut in history, only to again delegate all details to the slim Republican majority in Congress. Their baby, being birthed through a c-section since they can’t afford the time for a normal delivery, showers the GOP donor class with huge windfalls, while leaving very little golden shower to tinkle on the normal taxpayers of this nation. But to hear the cheerleaders in Congress, the rocket fuel given to the economy will cause economic pyrotechnics to stimulate the US economy in an orgy of growth. As far as trickle-down economics go, fool me once, shame on you (Reagan tax cuts). Fool me twice, shame on me (GWB tax cuts). Fool me 3 times, what the hell is going on here anyway?

You’re a vile one, Mr. Trump

You won’t even leave a crumb

You take thousands from your students while considering them dumb, Mr. Trump

The three words that best describe you are as follows, and I quote

“Skim, scam, scum”!

One campaign pledge Donald Trump made has been fulfilled. He has upset the order in Washington. In so doing, he has revealed that much of the overhead of the Federal Government really is needed in order to prevent chaos from overwhelming this nation. Through his unmitigated folly in denigrating the State Department, and in attempting to ghost this agency by neglecting to nominate diplomats, we are now celebrating all of the winning we are doing in international affairs. North Korea has been pacified by the bellicosity of the fire and fury style unleashed against them. Saudi Arabia has settled long-term issues with its neighbors Qatar and Yemen. Our long-time allies in Europe are hailing the improvement in relations with Washington after the years of neglect from previous administrations. Oh, I’m sorry, I thought today was opposite day.

You’re a rotter, Mr. Trump

You love to share weird plots

You deny that you’ll get richer but we connect the dots, Mr. Trump

Your soul is an appalling mixture of conceit shot through with hypocrisy,

Vanity, and insecurity all mangled up in tangled up knots!

Now it’s been more than a year since the election. The true believers see only unsullied fulfillment of their dreams, though their leader has turned their dreams into nightmares. Still, they cannot see through their Fox induced haze to notice that not only is the Emperor buck naked, he’s leading a parade of those who are taking off their clothes to follow his example. Meanwhile, those of us who use objective criteria to analyze performance, are concerned that the inconsistency, the depravity, and the rashness of our leader will end up destroying our democracy and will result in mass loss of life due to the wars he will call forth. Not even the Greeks could imagine a tragedy of such immense proportion due to hubris. May we live in interesting times.

We’ll let Mr. Geisel have the last set of words.

You nauseate me, Mr. Trump

With a nauseous super “naus”!

You’re a crooked dirty jockey and you drive a crooked hoss, Mr. Trump

You’re a three decker sauerkraut and toadstool sandwich with arsenic sauce!