Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Resolutions for 2009

Make 1,000 friends on Facebook (I’m about halfway there), and make new real friends also
Find a new type of lunch sandwich to add to my lunch sandwich rotation
Invest in the stock market again…and make money
Crash some random person's party just for the fun of it
Stay connected to my friends in New York
Find activities besides work and blogging to get involved in in D.C.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Israel's Burden

Since violence and war in Israel always hit close to home for me, all the more so now because my my sister and her fiance are currently living there, I wanted to share my thoughts on the recent spate of violence that is ongoing in Israel and the Gaza Strip.

Since the war began, Israel's leadership - which until now was bumbling its way to early elections in February - has apparently woken up, and now everyone, including Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, is getting along famously (even though Olmert is on his way to resigning because of a public corruption scandal, and Livni and Barak are candidates to take over his job). A part of me can't help but join their optimism and sense of unity, and get excited at the prospect of Israel finally putting a stop to Hamas's terrorist attacks, while also exorcising the country's demons from the disastrous war in Lebanon in 2006.

On the other hand, my principal reservation about this war is whether Israel will know when to stop and when its goals have been achieved. Israel, wisely, has made clear that it has no intention of reoccupying Gaza. Stopping Hamas's daily rocket attacks into Israel and forcing Hamas to commit, for real, to a cease fire is absolutely necessary. Nevertheless, at this point, the government's ultimate goal remains somewhat unclear. It intends to stop the rocket attacks, but does it also want to eject Hamas from office as Benjamin Netanyahu (the leader of the right-of-center Likkud party and another candidate for Olmert's job) advocates? If so, who would take over running the Gaza Strip? Mahmoud Abbas, who's Fatah faction controls the West Bank, enjoys little popular support in Gaza and, most likely, if Hamas is removed from office, the Gaza Strip will degenerate into something resembling civil war, a situation which could put Israel's own security further at risk. Shimon Peres, Israel's president, has thus far rallied behind the war saying it's goal is not just to stop the rocket attacks but also to stop terror worldwide. That objective sounds "slightly" over-ambitious in my humble opinion, and I'm pretty sure Al Queda isn't going to shutter its doors just because Israel has sent some planes to bomb a few buildings in the Gaza Strip.

One major gamble that Israel has taken in the current offensive is its bet that other Arab countries, such as Syria and Iran, will not take up arms alongside their Palestinian brethren in the Gaza Strip. Israel is relying in part on the history of the Palestinian people to reach this conclusion: the Palestinians have always been considered something of the unwanted stepchildren of the Arab world, and have therefore been left to fight their own war against Israel without direct military involvement by the other Arab countries (though Iran most certainly supplies Hamas with funding and weapons). So far, Israel's gambit is paying off. While the Arab world has spewed a lot of rhetoric against Israel over the last few days, no country has taken definitive action, and Egypt even closed its borders to refugees fleeing from Gaza. So much for brotherly love. If, however, other Arab countries decide to engage Israel and the war spreads to multiple fronts, the war will lose its appeal to many Israelis overnight, will cause major turbulence in the Middle East, and will put Israel's very existence in danger.

To a certain extent, Israel has learned over time to shrug its shoulders at international opinion. The United Nations has never been particularly friendly towards Israel; western European countries maintain a deliberate cold shoulder towards Israel because their home population counts many Arab immigrants in their midst; and Eastern European countries are more closely allied with Israel's Arab neighbors as a result of alliances developed during the Cold War. Nevertheless, it appears that this time around, Israel has hired PR consultants to ensure that its image doesn't take too thorough of a beating in the international arena. The most obvious manifestation of its marketing promo to bundle the new war into an acceptable package is that Tzipi Livni informed Egypt ahead of the military offensive, and then appeared on an American Sunday talk show the day after Israel first started sending planes into the Gaza Strip.

Because of Israel's history and the fact that every citizen serves in the army, Israel lives and dies by a realpolitik worldview: in many Israelis' minds, superior military strength is the principal avenue towards achieving peace with its neighbors. This mindset has, I believe, led Israel to focus first on military solutions to its security problems before considering other avenues to peace, such as diplomacy and economic agreements. In the immediate sense, however, Israel cannot afford to allow Hamas to continue firing rockets into the country, and Hamas has made clear that it has no intention of abiding by previous cease fie agreements. Moreover, unlike the 2006 war in Lebanon, Israel's military seems vastly more prepared to succeed this time. My only hope is that Israel will know when to stop. Until then, Israel must allow for humanitarian aid to reach Gaza's civilians. And when the war does stop, Israel must take steps to encourage the rebuilding of Gaza's economic infrastructure, in order to demonstrate its commitment to achieving a lasting peace agreement - one reached not through military coercion, but through a shared vision for an end to violence and to economic stability.

Israel, indeed, now carries a heavy burden on its shoulders.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Blog Challenge Recap

So, I made it. Or well, I thought I did. My 30-day blog challenge was supposed to go through December 19th, but for some reason I thought it ended on December 17th, until about 30 seconds ago when I double checked my dates. Whoops.

In the end, I wrote 18 posts, not including this one, during the month that I was writing on my blog on a daily basis. During that time period - from November 19th through December 17th - I only missed one weekday posting, and the only reason for that was because I was out of town and away from my computer that day.

After having the experience of writing so frequently, I now know what it feels like to be a journalist having to meet a regular writing deadline, sans editor, of course. On the upside, I learned that I was generally able to think of something to write about and, most of the time, was able to put a posting together that was moderately interesting, if not downright entertaining. (Yes, I'm patting myself on the back right now). I also started to learn how to write quality "short posts" instead of consistently long ones. On the downside, I sometimes felt like I was just writing something to see words on the page even when the a topic didn't merit a posting. Also, because 90% of my current job responsibilities involve me writing, there were times this past month when I felt like all I do in life is write and nothing else.

To my surprise, writing every day didn't lead to a significant increase in traffic to my site. Nevertheless, I received a bunch of comments about my postings, and my parents get the prize for sending me an email almost every day telling me straight up what they thought of my writing. As far as I'm concerned, the more comments and the more traffic I get, the better, so those are both things I'll keep working towards.

In sum, I would say that the blog challenge was a success for me. Now it's back to a more regular (i.e., less frequent) writing schedule!

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Mickey Mouse Club

I really don't want to publicize the fact that my new apartment has little mickey mice keeping me company (they were a preexisting condition when I moved in), but I couldn't resist posting this email along with the accompanying 8x10 glossy digital photographs that I received from my building manager today. Next thing you know, motion sensitive cameras and audio surveillance are going to be installed in the apartment, not so the building manager can actually get rid of the mice, mind you, just to make sure that he's tracking whatever grain of rice we leave wrapped in five layers of tinfoil and sealed in a ziplock plastic bag and tucked away in our kitchen cabinet and that most surely will be eaten by one lucky mickey mouse who managed to make his way through the plugged up holes. I'll let the rest of the email speak for itself.


I wanted to show you what work we are doing in your apartment to help eliminate mice in 109.

The pictures below are of another unit but it demonstrates the work we are doing in 109. Following those pictures are pictures from an inspection I performed in 109. Serious cleaning would go a long way to help the problem.

Mouse-proofing: The surface areas around the convectors will be removed exposing any holes or channels to the walls around the convectors.

Poison will be placed in the walls.

Then all channels will be sealed with a foam:

Self help:

Apartment 109 could use an intensive cleaning. There is plenty organic material that will draw and sustain mice, as well as plenty of harborage in the apartment.

Bait is ineffective when there is plentiful other materials around.

Behind your refrigerator there is plenty of organic material:

Appliance should be pulled out.

Area should be swept and scrubbed.

Mice are attracted to fruit.

Please keep fruit and other food items sealed and preferably in the refrigerator, especially while we are battling this problem.

There is a lot of food product under the burners of your stove.

This should be cleaned out and scrubbed.

The side of your counters needs scrubbed.

A quick sweeping of your kitchen floor provided plenty of food products. A grain of rice can sustain a mouse for days.

Sweep regularly and scrub.

All the bags you keep can provide harborage for mice and bugs. They can also harbor bugs when they come from the store. Put in the recycling bins immediately after emptying.

Food items in light plastic bags should be placed in sealable containers to eliminate access and control smells.

The sense of smell for mice is many times that of humans.

Take trash out everyday. Do not leave it in your apartment.

You are steps away from the trash room.

There are plenty of crumbs under your cushions.

They should be vacuumed. It is possible mice could be nesting in your couch.

All the rags under the sink can provide harborage for mice and bugs.

A lot of food product in your toaster oven.

It should be thoroughly cleaned out after each use.

With all of us working toward the same goal we should be able to end this problem soon.


Your Building Manager

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Dynasty's Dame

When I was at the Democratic National Convention in August, I was lucky to have the opportunity to hear Ted Kennedy mark the twilight of his lengthy career of public service by giving what was presumably one of his last major speeches. At the time, everyone in the convention hall assumed that Kennedy's speech also signified the approaching sunset over the family dynasty. Though members of the Kennedy clan remain in the public eye (Maria Shriver, Rep. Patrick Kennedy, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend), none has achieved the prominence or transcendence that JFK, RFK or Ted Kennedy rose to in their lifetimes.

Governor Patterson now has the opportunity to polish off the dusty chandeliers at Camelot and rescue the Kennedy dynasty from its inevitable demise by appointing a new dame of the dynasty, Caroline Kennedy, to be the distinguished junior senator from New York. It's an opportunity, I think, that he should delicately pass up.

Though Caroline Kennedy is obviously intelligent and accomplished, any legislative appointment would be made principally because of her last name. Until she became involved in vetting Obama's vice-presidential short list, Caroline Kennedy did not have a career in public service and, in fact, consciously shunned the limelight. Numerous other individuals have devoted their lives to public service and who have a proven track record upon which Governor Patterson can make an appointment. Carolyn Maloney (congresswoman from Manhattan/Queens), Kirstin Gillibrand (congresswoman from Albany), Jerry Nadler (congressman from Manhattan) and Brian Higgins (congressman from western NY) all come to mind. (Andrew Cuomo doesn't because I don't think he's going to get plucked from his new position as the state's attorney general.) Moreover, Caroline Kennedy doesn't have any connections to upstate New Yorkers, whose support is crucial to keeping the reigns of political power in the state in Democratic hands, in Congress and at the state level.

Let Caroline Kennedy run for office in an election, when she would have the opportunity to prove her bona fides to the public and make more of a convincing case as to why she should serve as a representative of her state. Until then, however, Governor Patterson should keep those pearly gates to Camelot closed shut.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Play Ball

I'm on a mission. Since November 4th, I've been trying to score free tickets to an inaugural ball, mostly for the fun of it and for the chance of putting on a tux for something other than a wedding. I've hit up acquaintances, tracked down long lost friends and even asked one of the local valet businesses if I could park a few cars in exchange for a couple of dancing tickets. So far, no dice, though there's more than a month to make this happen. (Unfortunately, I know I'm not the only one trying to do this). Failing this mission of mine, I'd like to host my own anti-ball, pro-inauguration, black-tie-for-the-fun-of-it party, but my apartment only fits about, oh, 10 people. Uncomfortably. So, right now I'm up a creek. But hopefully I'll have an occasion to put on my dancing shoes and a bow tie by the time January 20th rolls around!

Thursday, December 11, 2008

How to Get Out of Quicksand, Part II

So, as I indicated last time, this second installment of the Readers' Manual on How To Get Out of Economic Quicksand will answer the question of why, when we're facing such a dramatic economic crisis, the government should engage in an expansionary fiscal policy instead of a contractionary policy or a more moderate expansionary fiscal policy.

Here's where things get complicated, and where many economists disagree with one another. It's also, truth be told, where I get a little lost without doing some more serious research, so I'll admit that my explanations might be oversimplifying things a bit.

Proponents of an aggressive fiscal policy in this dire economic situation concentrate on gross domestic product and unemployment as the centerpieces to solving our economic troubles. Gross domestic product (GDP) is the sum of a country's consumption, investment, government spending and the value of the country's exports less imports, and it is generally considered the principal measure of an economy's health.

Normally, the Federal Reserve can influence GDP by lowering interest rates because by doing so, as I discussed last time, investment goes up. However, when the Fed can no longer lower interest rates then investment goes down or remains static and downward pressure is exerted on GDP and unemployment increases. To avoid this scenario, the government needs to spend a lot of dollars. Spending has the ability to do two things (which are related): stimulate consumption and create jobs. By stimulating consumption, GDP goes up. And by creating jobs, people get paid salaries, which in turn increases consumption, which in turn increases GDP and creates more jobs.

In a normal economic environment, too much government spending creates the risk that the government will just start printing money at will, leading to high inflation. However, inflation is typically curbed by raising interest rates (because raising interest rates reduced the available money supply). When the Fed is starting with interest rates hovering around zero, the sky's the limit on its ability to raise interest rates. So, if the government overshoots its spending policy then the Fed can simply counteract that by raising interest rates.

Conversely, if the government takes a cautious approach to fiscal policy and falls shorts of its GDP goals, the Fed can't do anything to remedy the problem. It can't raise interest rates because that will just keep the economy stagnant when there's no need to curb inflation, and it can't lower interest rates because interest rates are already around zero.

Though the arguments in favor of an aggressive fiscal policy are compelling, such a policy is difficult to implement in reality. The news from today that the auto industry bailout faltered in the Senate demonstrates that politics combined with Congress's reticence in setting economic policy will affect the choice of medicines that we are ultimately told to swallow in order to revive our ailing economy. Drastic times call for drastic measures, but a more cautious approach may ultimately win the day.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

You're Wanted on the Telephone

I'm in a long distance relationship with a girl who's a Verizon customer. I'm a Sprint customer and, frankly, we're starting to have serious connection problems. When we whisper sweet nothings into our phone receivers, our "nothings" translate into eating up precious anytime minutes. So, I've ditched the romantic sound bites. Also, my nights start at 7 and hers start at 9, so I'm starting to live on Mountain Standard Time just so we can get our clocks (biological or otherwise) in sync.

Like Verizon, my girlfriend is a believer in "bigger is better" and in majority rules. She also has a fetish for catchy corporate slogans, and whenever I ask "can you hear me now?" she giggles and starts calling me her test man (it's sexy she says). I, on the other hand, am so familiar with dropped calls, my first child is going to be named after them. And I always root for the underdog, for those little people like Sprint just trying to get one chance to make it in life. Finally, I detest corporate slogans on the grounds that they're narcissistic.

The day is coming soon when I'm going to have to draw the phone line in the sand and tell my girlfriend that until we make a network connection, our spiritual connection is as bad as AT&T's cell phone coverage. My girlfriend may have my number, but these days that's just not enough.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Out of Africa

This is a good opportunity to catch up on posts that I've been meaning to write but haven't yet. Because my schedule was so busy at the time, I never had a chance to blog about my trip to South Africa in August with my brother.

One of the highlights of our trip was our 3 day safari in Kruger National Park. After spending time there, I'm not sure I'll ever be able to visit a zoo again (except to see panda bears). The animals who live at the park are given free reign to roam all over its thousands and thousands of acres and, recently, have even been allowed to enter neighboring Mozambique because the border fence was taken down to accommodate them. People drive along the designated roads in the park and stay in their cars, but are able to observe the animals up close and personal. These pictures represent only a few that I took during the safari, but help to capture the incredible animals and scenery that we saw during our trip.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Scouts' Honor

Since I grew up in the Boy Scouts you can get a pretty good sense of where I was on the cool meter in middle school. Nevertheless, I really enjoyed my scouting experience and still keep in touch with some of my fellow troop members, despite my subsequent disillusionment with the Boy Scouts as an organization. Earlier tonight I attended the first annual Salute to Scouting dinner for the National Capital Area Council of Boy Scouts. Though I haven't been involved with the Scouts for 10 years, I was interested to reconnect for the evening and find out what the world of scouting has been up to.

As I learned, a lot about the Boy Scouts hasn't changed, and it's still an organization that's predominately white and Christian and conservative. My own disillusionment began while I was still in the scouts, when my troop was discriminated against at several Boy Scout camps for being a Jewish troop with kosher dietary restrictions, and only grew during the 1990s when the Boy Scouts made the news for refusing to open their membership to gay and atheist/agnostic scouts and adult leaders. (The courts upheld the organization's policies because it's a private organization.) Since then, the membership policies have faded out of the news headlines, though they continue to remain in place. Despite my reservations about the Scouts, it's hard to dispute their good work in the community and, aside from their social conservatism, the valuable life skills such as leadership and civic mindedness that they teach. They also run several organizations designed to promote scouting among depressed urban communities.

The big questions that I wrestle with are whether I could see myself as an adult leader in the Boy Scouts and whether I would want my children to participate in scouting. Even after tonight, I'm still unsure. My sense is that the programs in the inner city schools focus more on self-improvement and community building than they do on the points of the scout code that codify the Boy Scouts' positions on atheism and homosexuality. ("A scout is...clean and reverent"; "I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country and to keep myself...morally straight.") So, to that extent, perhaps I could get involved in those troops with a clear conscience. On the other hand, I can see myself having a hard time being part of an organization that espouses values with which I so strongly disagree.

Much is made of a scout's honor; it reflects qualities such as honesty, dedication to hard work and civic duty, and to being a leader in the community. Yet, for me, my own scout's honor conflicts with some of the traditional notions underlying the concept. What in my mind is the more "honorable" thing to do in this case, disavow the Scouts or participate in them as a leader? Becoming involved in order to advocate for change in the organization sounds like the happy medium, but joining an organization solely for the purposes of radically reforming it is a significant undertaking that, if history is any predictor, has little chance of success. For the time being, therefore, my question remains unanswered; it is a dilemma with which I continue to grapple.

Friday, December 05, 2008

The End of the Week

Writing a good post on my blog every day isn't always easy (Exhibit #1: Lamb Stew), but I'm proud to say that I'm still making it.

A few scattered thoughts as I look forward to the weekend.

I'm not going to elaborate it on myself, but Paul Krugman has a good posting on his blog about why deflation isn't a good thing even though it raises the real value of money (i.e., a dollar tomorrow is worth more than a dollar today). That was a question I left unanswered (and unasked) in my posting.

Watching OJ Simpson's sentencing proceeding this afternoon brought to memories the day I listened to the jury render its verdict in his murder trial 13 years ago in 7th period math class, right after the final bell for the day had rung. It's one of those moments that I'll always remember where I was when it happened.

To elaborate on lamb stew, since I've received several inquisitive comments about it: I was supposed to make lamb stew for dinner tonight but then found out that the frozen meat that I thought was lamb in my freezer was actually chicken. On top of getting locked out of my apartment when I returned home after midnight yesterday, that discovery made me one unhappy camper!

Lamb Stew

It's really disappointing when my lamb stew turns out to be made from chicken.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

How To Get Out of Quicksand

Understanding today's economy and how to fix it has consumed economists with far more expertise than I possess. Nevertheless, I’d like to take a stab at explaining the ideas Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman has recently trumpeted on his blog, Conscience of a Liberal (he's unapologetic about his worldview). My motivation in undertaking this exercise is simply to help me understand the nature of the current economic crisis and what can be done to remedy it, and perhaps, to help a few more people down the line understand these issues as well.

So, with that foreword, here's the first installment of the Readers' Manual on How To Get Out of (Economic) Quicksand:

Reviving the economy in a state of depression requires more than just a few doses of medicine to spark a happier spending mood among consumers. It requires an aggressive policy of fiscal expansion; even more aggressive, perhaps, then the current best estimate of what’s needed. (Chuck Schumer threw out a cost of $700 billion but pulled that number from pretty much out of nowhere). [For an Econ 101 primer: Fiscal policy relates to government spending and taxation and is within the domain of Congress and the President. Monetary policy, on the other hand, is controlled by the Federal Reserve and seeks to influence the direction of the economy by regulating the supply of money and interest rates. Lowering interest rates generally increases the supply of money and economic investment, and therefore is considered an economic stimulus.]

One of the main reasons that the government is going to need to adopt such a bold strategy is because we’re currently hovering on the brink of a liquidity trap. Japan suffered through ten years of such a trap during the “Lost Decade” of the 1990s and we don't want to go through the same thing. Without getting too complicated, a liquidity trap occurs when the following happens: 1) The Federal Reserve loses its ability to stimulate the economy through monetary policy because it can’t lower interest rates anymore to increase money supply; and 2) banks decide that they're unwilling to lend money to consumers and businesses, so the investment rate tanks. When the interest rate approaches zero, as it is now, people choose to keep their money at home under the mattress instead of injecting it into the economy. This tends to cause deflation (sustained losses in general price levels) and can lead to a vicious downward spiral of people delaying purchases as prices fall, which lowers overall consumption, which causes more deflation. When this happens, we're in a liquidity trap because monetary policy is no longer effective in regulating the supply of money.

With monetary policy rendered impotent, the only way to escape the throes of a liquidity trap is to adopt an aggressive fiscal policy.

If you've gotten all the way to this point in my posting, then the next logical question of course is why does the government have to engage in an expansionary fiscal policy? Why does the government have to spend more to stimulate the economy and take on huge deficits, instead of pursuing a contractionary fiscal policy (or at least a more moderate expansionary one) by cutting back on spending and taxes? The answer to this question invokes Keynesian economics, the New Deal and FDR and, in the interest of keeping this post to a reasonable length, will have to wait for the next installment of the Reader's Manual on How to Get Out of (Economic) Quicksand. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Jovie's Story

Jovie is a member of my extended family and an inspiration to me and to many others. Over the Thanksgiving weekend I spoke with him and, though he never boasts about his many accomplishments, I couldn't help but reflect on his incredible path to today. I'm hopeful that one day Jovie's story will be published in the pages of a newspaper or magazine, as it deserves to be, so today I'll only share a nugget of it.

Nearly ten years ago, my brother, David, spent his junior semester abroad in Senegal. When he first arrived, he and several other American students lived with a host family in Dakar. Soon thereafter, David's host-brother, Jovie (I’ve changed his name to protect his privacy), became sick. Within about a month, Jovie’s health deteriorated to the point that he required hospitalization and, without proper care, was given only a short time left to live. The doctors and hospital in Senegal, however, weren't equipped to treat him.

During the semester, Jovie started dating one of the other American students living with his family. Thanks to the unbelievable efforts of both his new girlfriend’s parents and my own parents, all of whom were back in the States, Jovie was flown to the United States and received the medical care he needed. Miracles and persistence combined to make Jovie’s trip possible, from a lucky, last-ditch, midnight phone call to the one official in the State Department who had the authority to overturn the U.S. consulate's decision denying Jovie a visa, to Jovie’s doctors in the States, all of whom donated their services.

Jovie arrived in the States in such poor health that he had to be taken by ambulance from the airport directly to the hospital to undergo surgery. After convalescing in my parents' house for nearly a year, Jovie went to college and completed his bachelor's degree in computer science in two years at a backbreaking pace. The girlfriend he had just started dating when she and her family helped bring him to the States? They maintained a long distance relationship through college. After his graduation, they married and a year later gave birth to a set of twins. Jovie began working in the computer industry, but after several years decided to change careers and pay forward the medical treatment he received here. So, he went to graduate school while still working and taking care of his children. This past year, Jovie completed his nursing degree and today, works as a nurse in a hospital's intensive care unit, using his story to inspire his patients and bring them on the road to recovery. The life that was saved in Jovie has become a beacon of happiness for his family and friends, including myself, and has helped save the lives of others many times over.

Monday, December 01, 2008

December First

The beginning of the end of the Year. This is the month I look forward to looking back; to reading all the magazine and newspaper articles listing the “Best/Worst of 2008" and the New York Times magazine's annual issues reviewing the new ideas and inventions of the last 12 months and the personalities (celebrity or otherwise) who passed away this year.

It's funny how quickly 12 months go by. I feel like I just got the hang of signing "2008" on the date line of checks.