White House Correspondent Helen Thomas, highly respected until this week, resigned under fire for what she said in an on-the record interview.

The Facts: In a video-taped on-the-record interview Ms. Thomas replied to the question “Any comments on Israel?”  with the statement “Tell them to get the hell out of Palestine.” She went on to say “They should go home…Poland, Germany . . . and America and everywhere else.”

She then apologized on her web site I deeply regret my comments I made last week regarding the Israelis and the Palestinians. They do not reflect my heart-felt belief that peace will come to the Middle East only when all parties recognize the need for mutual respect and tolerance. May that day come soon

So, how should pundits, her colleagues or her friends respond?

My own reaction is twofold. First, I’m disgusted. Her comments were ignorant; as well as bigoted, hateful and asinine.

On the other hand, most of us have said (or thought) things that are ignorant, and probably some things that were at least somewhat bigoted, even hateful and certainly asinine. If expressing an opinion that is ignorant or asinine were grounds for being fired, I’d be unemployed within days.

But bigoted and hateful remarks, made in a public forum, by a public person, may be different.

Certainly she is free to be a bigot, to have hatred, and to express those thoughts. That is what a democracy is all about. She should not be silenced, jailed nor persecuted. But should she be given a seat of honor in the white house? Clearly not. A newspaper column? Not if she worked for me. Once a bigot reveals themselves, they are entitled to Constitutional protection, but surely not to a forum, much less being honored or even respected.

On the other hand, if we believe in a full and free exchange of ideas, should this woman who is a columnist, not a reporter, be pressured into retirement (if that is in fact what happened)? Certainly we are a better nation for our current intolerance of openly bigoted remarks than we were when we winked at them; but let’s not fool ourselves that we’ve got it right just yet. We are still struggling with that balance.

A final note, whatever our reaction, I’d be more comfortable if we applied it equally. But some bigotry is apparently less acceptable than other. Racist and anti-Semitic remarks are mostly shunned in our country, and with good reason. On the other hadn, bigoted remarks about Islam are often overlooked, especially when we are particularly frightened. And pay attention to the words spoken around Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and same-sex marriage to see the limits of our commitment to standing up to bigotry.

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It is the lot of the left-wing never to be happy.  We have been stripped, beaten and  kicked in the head every day for 8 years. Finally our prayers are answered, and we are welcomed into a warm home,  fed, given a comfortable bed and new hope, only to be heard complaining night and day “but the food here is crummy… and the portions are so small.”

  • National Health Insurance after 40 years of trying, and failing.
  • The Rule of Law restored
  • The overt and extreme politicization of the Supreme Court attenuated
  • The EPA funds restored and priorities rationalized
  • A national economic disaster averted, and, according to the NY Times, the most significant bank reform since FDR.
  • The Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell political tiger not only taken by the throat, but garrotted in what was expected to be a run-for-safety mid-term election session of Congress.

While President Obama may not be the best president I can imagine he is certainly the best I’ve experienced, with only LBJ as a possible contender (and his civil rights legacy seems doomed to be overshadowed by the debacle of Vietnam).

I don’t know about you, but I plan to vote for re-election. And then four years later, to vote for Michelle.


Seder at White House

The NY Times reports

Next Year in the White House: A Seder Tradition

By JODI KANTOR

WASHINGTON — One evening in April 2008, three low-level staff members from the Obama presidential campaign — a baggage handler, a videographer and an advance man — gathered in the windowless basement of a Pennsylvania hotel for an improvised Passover Seder.

The day had been long, the hour was late, and the young men had not been home in months. So they had cadged some matzo and Manischewitz wine, hoping to create some semblance of the holiday.

Suddenly they heard a familiar voice. “Hey, is this the Seder?” Barack Obama asked, entering the room.

So begins the story of the Obama Seder, now one of the newest, most intimate and least likely of White House traditions. When Passover begins at sunset on Monday evening, Mr. Obama and about 20 others will gather for a ritual that neither the rabbinic sages nor the founding fathers would recognize.

In the Old Family Dining Room, under sparkling chandeliers and portraits of former first ladies, the mostly Jewish and African-American guests will recite prayers and retell the biblical story of slavery and liberation, ending with the traditional declaration “Next year in Jerusalem.” (Never mind the current chill in the administration’s relationship with Israel.)

Top aides like David Axelrod and Valerie Jarrett will attend, but so will assistants like 24-year-old Herbie Ziskend. White House chefs will prepare Jewish participants’ family recipes, even rendering chicken fat — better known as schmaltz — for just the right matzo ball flavor.

If last year is any guide, Malia and Sasha Obama will take on the duties of Jewish children, asking four questions about the night’s purpose — along with a few of their own — and scrambling to find matzo hidden in the gleaming antique furniture.

That event was the first presidential Seder, and also probably “the first time in history that gefilte fish had been placed on White House dishware,” said Eric Lesser, the former baggage handler, who organizes each year’s ritual.

As in many Jewish households, the Obama Seder seems to take on new meaning each year, depending on what is happening in the world and in participants’ lives (for this group, the former is often the same as the latter).

The first one took place at the bleakest point of the campaign, the long prelude to the Pennsylvania primary, which was dominated by a furor over Mr. Obama’s former pastor. “We were in the desert, so to speak,” remembered Arun Chaudhary, then and now Mr. Obama’s videographer, who grew up attending Seders with his half-Jewish, half-Indian family.

No one led the proceedings; everyone took turns reading aloud. Mr. Obama had brought Reggie Love, his personal aide, Ms. Jarrett and Eric Whitaker, another close friend, all African-American. Jennifer Psaki, the traveling press secretary, and Samantha Tubman, a press assistant, filtered in. Neither had ever been to a Seder, but they knew the Exodus story, Ms. Psaki from Catholic school and Ms. Tubman from childhood Sundays at black churches.

They peppered the outnumbered Jews at the table with questions, which the young men sometimes struggled to answer. “We’re not exactly crack Hebrew scholars,” said Mr. Lesser, now an assistant to Mr. Axelrod.

Participants remember the evening as a rare moment of calm, an escape from the din of airplanes and rallies. As the tale of the Israelites unfolded, the campaign team half-jokingly identified with their plight — one day, they too would be free. At the close of the Seder, Mr. Obama added his own ending — “Next year in the White House!”

Indeed, the group, with a few additions, has now made the Seder an Executive Mansion tradition. (No one considered inviting prominent rabbis or other Jewish leaders; it is a private event.)

But maintaining the original humble feel has been easier said than done.

Ms. Tubman and Desirée Rogers, then the White House social secretary, tried to plan an informal meal last year, with little or even no wait staff required. White House ushers reacted with what seemed like polite horror. The president and the first lady simply do not serve themselves, they explained. The two sides negotiated a compromise: the gefilte fish would be preplated, the brisket passed family-style.

Then came what is now remembered as the Macaroon Security Standoff. At 6:30, with the Seder about to start, Neil Cohen, the husband of Michelle Obama’s friend and adviser Susan Sher, was stuck at the gate bearing flourless cookies he had brought from Chicago. They were kosher for Passover, but not kosher with the Secret Service, which does not allow food into the building.

Offering to help, the president walked to the North Portico and peered out the door, startling tourists. He volunteered to go all the way to the gates, but advisers stopped him, fearing that would cause a ruckus. Everyone seemed momentarily befuddled. Could the commander in chief not summon a plate of cookies to his table? Finally, Mr. Love ran outside to clear them.

Mr. Obama began the Seder by invoking the universality of the holiday’s themes of struggle and liberation. Malia and Sasha quickly found the hidden matzo and tucked it away again, so cleverly that Mr. Ziskend, the former advance man, needed 45 minutes to locate it. At the Seder’s close, the group opened a door and sang to the prophet Elijah.

In preparation for this year’s gathering, Mr. Lesser and others have again been collecting recipes from the guests, including matzo ball instructions from Patricia Winter, the mother of Melissa Winter, Mrs. Obama’s deputy chief of staff.

“We like soft (not hard) matzo balls,” Mrs. Winter warned in a note to the White House chefs, instructing them to buy mix but doctor it. Use three eggs, not two, she told them; substitute schmaltz for vegetable oil, and refrigerate them for a day before serving (but not in the soup).

The Seder originated with Jewish staff members on the campaign trail who could not go home, but now some celebrate at the White House by choice. Participants say their ties are practically familial now anyway. “Some of the most challenging experiences of our life we’ve shared together,” Ms. Jarrett said.

No one yet knows exactly what themes will emerge this year. Maybe “taking care of people who can’t take care of themselves and health care reform,” suggested Ms. Sher, now Mrs. Obama’s chief of staff.


One of those stories that doesn’t have to be true…

Recently in a large city in France,  a poster featuring a young, thin
and tan woman appeared in the window of a gym.  It said,  “This summer,
do you want to be a mermaid or a whale?”
A middle-aged woman,  whose physical characteristics did not match
those of the woman on the poster,  responded publicly to the question
posed by the gym.

To Whom It May Concern,Whale breaching

Whales are always surrounded by friends (dolphins, sea lions, curious
humans.)  They have an active sex life,  get pregnant and have adorable
baby whales. They have a wonderful time with dolphins stuffing
themselves with shrimp.   They play and swim in the seas,  seeing
wonderful places like Patagonia,  the Bering Sea  and the coral reefs of
Polynesia .

Whales are wonderful singers  and have even recorded CDs.   They are
incredible creatures and virtually have no predators  other than
humans.   They are loved, protected and admired by almost everyone in
the world.

Mermaids don’t exist.  If they did exist,  they would be lining up
outside the offices of Argentinean psychoanalysts  due to identity
crisis. Fish or human?   They don’t have a sex life  because they kill
men who get close to them, not to mention how could they have sex?  Just
look at them … where is  IT ?   Therefore, they don’t have kids
either.  Not to mention, who wants to get close to a girl who smells
like a fish store?

The choice is perfectly clear to me:  I want to be a whale.

P..S.   We are in an age  when media puts into our heads  the idea
that only skinny people are beautiful, but I prefer to enjoy an ice
cream with my kids, a good dinner with a man who makes me shiver, and a
piece of chocolate with my friends.

With time, we gain weight  because we accumulate so much information
and wisdom in our heads  that when there is no more room,  it
distributes out to the rest of our bodies. So we aren’t heavy,  we are
enormously cultured,  educated and happy.


A buddy just told me he has been diagnosed with ADD and it has uncentered him. I certainly understand. My own phases were:

  • Denial – naah, I’d have known by now
  • Fantastic Relief – this explains so much (see “You mean I’m not Lazy, Crazy or Stupid?” under books
  • Remorse, Regret, Concern – what did I miss not knowing, what did I do that could have been avoided. What does this imply?
  • General acceptance, coping

Here is an ad-hoc list of stuff that has worked well for me. Your mileage not only may, but will vary…

Books

You Mean I’m Not Lazy, Stupid or Crazy?!:
The Classic Self-Help Book for Adults with Attention Deficit Disorder

By far the best first book to read on ADD; if you don’t relate to some of
this, I’d be surprised, but NB: as much as you may say “that’s me,” be
prepared to say “that’s not me.” And then read “The Unfocused Mind” –
two books down, which explains that ADD is not one thing.

Delivered from Distraction (1st);
Getting the Most out of Life with Attention Deficit Disorder

Hallowell is world famous for his writing on ADD, and his upbeat
attitude is great, but I find his books a bit light.

Attention Deficit Disorder: The Unfocused Mind in Children and Adults
Best book on ADD in adults I’ve read, though it is somewhat clinical
when you are ready for a deeper treatment of the topic
Organizing Solutions for People With Attention Deficit Disorder:
Tips and Tools to Help You Take Charge of Your Life and Get Organized

This book is indispensable. I happen to know Susan and she is great, and her book
would have been perfect if the publisher didn’t add photos that undermine the
message of the book. I found a dozen useful tips in here that have helped enormously.

First Principles

I find these to be true, empirically:

  1. If I don’t have it with me, I won’t use it
  2. The more difficult it is the less likely it is to work
    2a: the easier it is, the more likely to work, and automated is best
  3. The more places it might be, the less likely it is I’ll find it
    3a. All notes go in the same place
    3b. Use Search, not tagging or filing
  4. If it doesn’t reach out and remind me, I won’t remember
    4a Alarms are key

Getting Organized

For me, there are two dangers: under-organization and over-organization. Without dwelling on the pitfalls of forever tinkering with your organizer software, here are some general principles that have finally worked, and some software I like a lot for keeping me reasonably on track:

Bigger Bins/ Boxes/ Drawers

Susan Pinsky makes these points, all of which I’ve found to be true: (paraphrasing)

  • If it is difficult to do, you won’t do it
  • If it is easy to do you might do it
  • You don’t need to do many things you think you need to do

1. So: messy desk, but you can find everything: leave it alone. Messy desk but you can’t?
1a Do not have 50 places to put things (50 boxes, each neatly labeled) have 5 bigger boxes. It takes a lot less effort to say “all paper here, all wires here” then “these papers here, those papers there, usb wires here, ethernet cables there.”

2. The choice for a note organizer is clear if you examine the Prime principles: Evernote. It has the following vital characteristics

  • It runs on Mac, Windows and iPhone and so I always have it with me
  • Synchronization is automatic, and you don’t get easier than that
  • It takes every possible kind of note (text, images, etc.) and parses them all with text reconition; thus, while you can create multiple notebooks and you can tag things, don’t. Just put all your notes in, and search for what you need. It finds things wicked fast. I defy you to run out of room.

If you find Evernote as useful as I do, upgrade to Premium: they need the money and the adverts go away.

3. Search don’t file: email

The first thing they tell you when you come to Microsoft is that you will be overwhelmed with email. That is an understatement.  A few resources: Scott Hanselman has two good post on this: a general approach and an approach specific to email. I modified his approach, briefly I have no mail sit in my inbox, all are handled by rules  that move messages to folders for the discussions I follow, and then key is that I have only 2 folders that matter and that everything I might need is in one folder I can search

  • Everything with me in the to line goes to “To Me”
  • Everything with me in the cc line goes to “CC”
  • Meeting Requests also go to the Meetings folder so that I see them right away
  • Absolutely everything that is not to a mailing list goes into my “Read” folder, so that I can delete messages as I wish and find them in Read if I need them.  I do not try to weed out what i need and what I don’t – it all goes to Read, and I know i have it (modulo Microsoft’s email retention policies)
  • No filing, ever, by hand.

My iPhone syncs to the ToMe and the CC box, so I see everything.

4. One phone Number rings EverywhereOne Voice Mail, and notification – I get all that from my Google Voice account which rings all my phones (skype, iPhone, desk phone, etc.).  No device is allowed to take messages except Google Voice, and when it gets a message it sends me email (so it appears on all my computers) and an SMS (so it beeps my phone).

5. A Task Organizer that:

  • Is on my computer and my iPhone (have to have it with me)
  • Sync’s automatically (mine syncs to my phone and to iCal and to Outlook)
  • Can let me filter to only those things I need to see (due soon, ready to be dealt with)
  • Supports context (I’m traveling, don’t show me things I can only do at home)
  • Alerts me –  beep my iPhone, and my computer

I’ve tried a few, my favorites are all iPhone Apps that have either Web or computer-based siblings:

  • To Do with Toodledo or Remember The Milk
  • ToodleDo with Toodledo.com
  • OmniFocus – this is the one I settled on

6. Alarms, but not too many

If alarms go off every half hour, you start ignoring them. So I have alarms only for the most important things, and the more urgent things have special alarms. All must work on the iPhone as that is the one thing I have with me all the time.

Software support for this includes

  • Good use of Growl
  • Good use of Prowl
  • Good use of OmniGrowl
  • Good use of Outlook calendaring
    • No tasks in Outlook, one place for all tasks (for me, OmniFocus)
  • Jott Assistant – for creating reminders by voice, especially in the car –if I don’t capture it when I think of it, it will be gone.

If you are Windows only, you’ll want to find Prowl and OmniGrowl substitutes. There is now a Growl for Windows, however which seems to work with Prowl.

7. Tracking use of time

I’ve tried a number of these and they are extremely dangerous.  Tinkering with them can consume days.  The one I’ve come back to, and now really value, is Rescue Time. It takes a bit of setting up and tinkering, but it is terrific at letting you know what you actually did.

8. Organizing files

Key here is to under-organize and search well.

9. Backup

Every additional backup system is an additional point of failure.  After some research, I use  Mozy, incredibly easy to set up, fire and forget,  extremely reliable and cross-platform

10 Synchronization

I like keeping my laptops in sync and so far GoodSync – has proven quick, easy, reliable and cross-platform.


In 1998  Lake Champlain, where my family vacationed when my kids were younger,  had the temerity to have itself declared a “Great Lake” by the US Senate.    

There was a general uproar because  they broke the mnemonic for remembering the names of the Great Lakes (HOMES = Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Earie and  Some other big lake.). No one liked CHOMES  and so, eighteen days later,  Champlain was stripped down to being a Very Good Lake.  

I’ve been brooding about this ever since  and it occurs to me that Great Britain is ripe for fixing as well.   

The problem is that the Brits have  too damn many names for their country. I grew up calling the whole thing England, but poor little Scotland and Wales insist they are not part of England, even though they all speak English. Well, except for Glasgow of course, and that one fish and chips place in northern Wales where they still speak mumble.   

The correct term, they insist,  for their three demi-countries considered together is Great Britain.  This for an island that would fit neatly inside any of those square states in the middle of America.

When you add  the tip of Ireland they call that little collection   “The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.”  Now that is rich, the name is bigger than the country!   

This does not count the southern part of Ireland which is now officially named  “The Rest of Ireland” (see map)  

As an American I object to the disproportionate size of our name to theirs. We have, after all fields of grain, rivers of refuse, Valleys of vagrants and mountains of purple prose; yet only five words in our name, four of which we share with Mexico (don’t get me started).   

So, it is time to do to them, what we did to Lake Champlain.  Great no longer.  

While I very much like the name:  Little Britain, we don’t want to be vindictive. After all they are our allies and have given us incredible treasures such as clotted cream, Monty Python and a couple presidential lap dogs. So I propose we rename Great Britain to Extremely Good Britain. That seems more than fair.  

And since they have a queen, not a king, they may call themselves The Queendom of Extremely Good Britain and Some of Ireland.  

I’ll be visiting there in April, I’m sure to get a warm welcome.


Originally posted July 2006

Irrational Judgement

Plessy v Ferguson

The infamous 1896 Supreme Court decision Plessy v. Ferguson was born of a culture that simply could not imagine a world in which the rights of Black Americans were fully equal to those of white Americans. It wasn’t until 1967, a time when 90% of white Americans still opposed intermarriage, that the Supreme court struck down anti-miscegenation laws in Loving v. Virginia and with that the tide began to turn. The courts led, the nation followed.

The State Supreme Court in Washington upheld the manifestly unconstitutional ban on same sex marriage despite the illogic and irrelevance of the arguments they embraced. This can only be explained by an overriding set of assumptions that they could not see past.  The court held that “limiting marriage to opposite sex couples furthers the well being of children by encouraging families where children are reared in homes headed by the children’s biological parents.”  On the face of it, this is absurd.  First, same-sex marriage does nothing to discourage opposite-sex parents from rearing their children. Nothing. 

Second, if you believe that the only way to have opposite sex parents be so encouraged is to allow only procreating parents be married, then you must follow the logic of your own argument and  ban the marriage of heterosexuals who are not capable of having children, and you must ban same sex couples from adopting, and also you must forcibly remove their own biological children and give them to heterosexual parents.  But no one suggests any of these draconian measures (except possibly Jeb Bush).

Nor does the court explain how the children of same-sex couples would fail to benefit if their parents were married, which would also be in the state’s interest. The only explanation is that the justices were blinded by their preconceptions. It was a clear case of “draw curve, then plot points.”

The justices held that “DOMA bears a reasonable relationship to legitimate state interests – procreation and child-rearing.”  Alas, this is Alice-in-Wonderland reasoning. DOMA bears an inverse relationship to this state’s interest. It is in the state’s interest that adopted children, and the children of gay and lesbian parents, have married parents providing safe homes. DOMA undermines that interest for the children of same-sex couples, while doing nothing at all for the children of mixed-sex couples. It provides no protection against abuse, violence, neglect; it simply rules out a whole class of loving families as if that somehow would encourage an unrelated set to stay married.

One paragraph I particularly like is this: “DOMA does not violate the state constitution’s equal rights amendment because that provision prohibits law that render benefits to… one sex. DOMA treats both sexes the same, neither a man nor a woman may marry a person of the same sex.”  This reasoning was thrown out long ago by the Supreme court in the Loving case, in which the Supreme Court held “The Equal Protection Clause requires the consideration of whether the classifications drawn by any statute constitute an arbitrary and invidious discrimination.” I can not think of a more arbitrary and invidious discrimination than that found here.

This court failed in its responsibility to protect the marginalized against the assumptions and prejudices of the majority because the majority of this very court is so entrenched in those assumptions and prejuidices.

Without drawing pernicious comparisons, I think this is efficacious to our understanding of how learned people of past ages could make what look, in retrospect, to be unthinkable and nearly unbelievable mistakes. How did the educated people of Copernicus‘s age deny that the Earth was not the center of the Universe? How did Anti-semitism survive its obvious canards and allow the willing execution of millions? How did racism thrive through slavery and Jim Crow? How do today’s myths and lies continue?  Why are we still debating evolution?

The fact is that for many, even for those who make their career in rational thinking, underlying assumptions trump facts until they are wrestled to the ground by irrefutable and painful events.

While we wait, children and families suffer.