I Was Just Following Orders, Judge

credit:  joseantoniovargas.com

credit: joseantoniovargas.com

Immigration is one of the prime issues of our time and has only been made more prominent by the humanitarian crisis of foreign children, many unaccompanied, pouring over our southern border in the last few years. I have been struck by the frankly ugly passions evoked by this crisis. My blogging colleague, Pied Type, recently posted on the matter and expressed outrage that the avowed undocumented Jose Vargas, a Pulitzer prizewinning journalist at the Washington Post, has been able to “flaunt” his illegal status for years without being shipped back to the Philippines, which is where he was before his parents brought him here at age 12. She feels he should be made an example of as a lesson to other lawbreakers.

The United States is a nation of laws and I too believe in enforcing those laws, but the fact that Vargas declared his illegal status in Time Magazine’s cover story two years ago and still hasn’t been prosecuted is symptomatic of the political divide over the issue. In general it seems that conservatives, even the George W. Bush compassionate kind, favor strict adherence to the law, regardless of mitigating circumstances such as whether a child has legal relatives here or, as in Vargas’ case, whether they have proved themselves to worthy and valuable citizens. Progressives generally seem to believe that such mitigation is proper. One thing I hope we can all agree on is that the immigration law as it stands needs serious revision. Such a revised law was passed in the Senate with a bipartisan 68 – 32 vote, but it has languished in the GOP controlled House where the leadership has refused to bring it up for a vote, ostensibly because its approval would be considered a Democrat victory.

I submit that it is facile to dismiss Vargas’ case as one of simple illegality. I consider myself a law-abiding citizen but in cases like this I believe the law can and should be bent on the side of national self-interest, if not humanity. Does that make me a criminal? I don’t think so. The laws of the land are always subject to interpretation, there has always been wiggle-room. Prosecutors have always had broad latitude in bringing charges, for example, and also to interpret those laws in novel ways, as they have in combatting organized crime. To do otherwise would be a mistake – laws don’t come down from God etched in stone tablets, but from lawmakers who are human and who often don’t even read everything their staffs add to the fine print. The law is a process, one that involves human beings (judges) and, well, judgement.  (In researching this post I did come across an article that does mention prosecutorial discretion on the part of ICE in deportations, something I hadn’t known.  Somebody on some congressional staff must have had a good day to think of that.  The link is at the end of the post.)

Another example of reason over strict legality is, strangely enough, to be found in the organization and management of the United States’ military. While an enlisted person’s oath includes a promise to obey the orders of those appointed over them, an officer’s oath of office omits that expression and instead avows to “support and defend” the Constitution of the United States. Why the difference? It can only be that leaders are expected to place judgement, within context, above blind adherence to orders. In fact, one could make a good case that this nation was founded by a cadre of lawbreakers who placed principle above (King George’s) written word. One might also consider how many crimes agains humanity have been justified by the need to “follow orders”?

Jose Vargas is an immigration activist. He was detained when he visited the Texas border and was ordered to attend a future hearing on his citizenship status. It will be interesting to see if we will deport this exceptionally talented man who has never known another country since the age of 12. It seems stupid, but if the courts do, maybe it will help move the GOP in the House to do what’s right and pass an immigration reform bill. But if Vargas is deported, it ought not be a cause for celebration by any citizen. I personally will be embarrassed for our country.

Posted in Immigration | Tagged , , , | 14 Comments

Measuring Up, Plan or Plot?


credit: medicaldaily.com

How does a parent measure a dose of liquid medicine for her child when the label says, give child ¾ teaspoonful by mouth twice a day for 5 days ? This was the real-life example used in a report by the journal, Pediatrics, and featured on NBC News the other day. The medicine, Tamiflu in this case, was accompanied by an oral syringe, but the syringe was calibrated in milliliters. And just to make the problem even more confusing, the medicine box also carried the marking for this “oral suspension” of “12 mg/mL”. That has only to do with the concentration of the medicine, of course, not the dosage size.  (The abbreviation mL is also used for milliliter.)

The basic problem here is, I think, what used to be a matter of convenience has now become a problem. For many years, liquid medicine came without any kind of measuring device, but every kitchen had a spoon. In the above case an oral syringe was supplied but, unfortunately, it was calibrated in milliliters (thousandths of a Liter) and the dosage was in teaspoons.


credit: deandecrease.wordpress.com

Anyone knows that spoons vary widely in shape and depth, whereas a milliliter is a milliliter. It is far past time, I submit, that the United States finally adopt the metric system. (We would be the last industrialized nation on earth to do so.)

Medicinal measurements in the metric system are easy, once one gets familiar with them. I thought it might be fun to review them. Here’s a practical summary:

A meter is about 3 inches longer than a yard.
A centimeter is one-one hundredth of a meter. There are about 2.5 of them in an inch.
A millimeter is one-one thousandth of a meter, or a tenth of a centimeter. There are about 25 of them in an inch.

Volume and Weight
A liter is the volume of a kilogram of water and is about 5% bigger than a quart.
A milliliter is a cube of liquid one centimeter on a side and is therefore one cubic centimeter (cc). That’s about the volume of your average grape.
One milliliter (one cc) of pure water weighs 1 gram and equals about 20 drops from the faucet. (A thousand grams is a kilogram, or 2.2 lbs.)
One teaspoon equates to about 5 milliliters. (So, in the example above, ¾ teaspoon would be 3.75 mL, which is easy to estimate on a graduated syringe.)

So, let’s each of us call on our Congress person to finally make metric measurement mandatory in the United States, for medicine at least, and to require that all liquid medicines be packaged with metric measuring devices (plastic syringes are cheap). That way we can at least claim to be more modern than the other two countries that don’t have it yet: Liberia and Burma. The only thing I can see standing in the way is if the Tea Party sees this as some kind of Kenyan plot. That could never happen. Could it?


credit: markkolier.wordpress.com

Posted in Culture, government regulation, Healthcare | Tagged , , , , | 14 Comments

(Credit) Card Games

English: 'I'm Lovin It' — HM1(FMF) Fred Turner...

English: ‘I’m Lovin It’ — HM1(FMF) Fred Turner swipes his gift card in McDonald’s new card machine, April 4. The new machine now allows customers to use debit, credit or gift cards to purchase food. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Seems to me, the bigger companies are, the more they manipulate customers. Financial institutions are arguably the most deft at this. We had been using the same couple of credit cards for several years when I recently spied an ad for a new one, from American Express, that I was eligible for through my credit union. It actually offered a clean 1.5% cash-back on all charges, credited at the end of each monthly bill. So I stopped using Discover Card and started using the AmEx for everything except food and groceries (discount stores excluded). For those I use a Visa card that pays 5% on gasoline and 3% on groceries. To leverage this even more, I’ve found I can use the AmEx card to pay my cable, satellite and insurance bills.

The kinds of cards have exploded, with all kinds of specialty uses. Those most unappealing to me are the air-travel ones for which you get “miles”. They must be lucrative (for the airlines) because I don’t think a month goes by that Mollie and I don’t each get a big packet in the mail urging us to apply. The USPS should be grateful. One would think the airline would have figured out after 15 years that I’m retired and no longer a business traveler, but they clearly haven’t. We only take a couple of flights a year, if that. And I’m really not sure what a “mile” is, anyway. How do you define that? Small print, obviously, with restrictions that run several pages. I’ve been accumulating American Airline “miles” for at least 15 years now and I still don’t have enough of them to pay for a ticket anywhere. Every year or two they try to get me to “spend” some of them ordering magazine subscriptions.

Speaking of fine print, you know that Visa card I mentioned above? This year, instead of crediting the pay-back to the statement, they started paying in “points”. What’s a point? One might think a point is one percent, but one would be wrong. Turns out, when I now go to redeem points I either have to use them to buy from a list of sponsored products at non-

PT-barnum-MONEY-GETTING-Poster Credit:  kevin.lexblog.com

Credit: kevin.lexblog.com

discounted (or even elevated) prices, or to buy a debit card, and it takes 11,800 points to get a $100 debit card. That’s a 15% hit (100/118 = 0.85)! A hundred “points” is therefore 85 cents, not a dollar.  And isn’t it a little transparent for them to move the decimal point two places to the right?  Well, maybe not.  P. T. Barnum and all that, you know.

I wondered if Discover Card might get upset at me for dumping them, somehow, but there’s no indication of it.  They still send me a friendly-sounding email once in a while and I’ll likely go back to using them again when the rules change, which they are bound to do. Discover has a nice web site that makes it easy to manage billing and even do budgeting. Their irritating gimmick, however, consists of switching their percentage discounts to different categories every three months. One quarter it will be restaurants and the next, for example, home improvement. Clearly, they think I’ll forget what the current category is and use the card for everything.  (They would be often right.)  It’s all a game, and one I probably wouldn’t be so assiduously playing if I weren’t retired. Not as much fun as crosswords, but still kind of interesting and, hey, the money I get back is free of tax because its just return of some of what I spent.

What about you, fellow consumer? Anyone else out there who plays credit-card games?

Posted in Personal Finance | Tagged , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

The Prosperous Face of Terrorism

Prominently rising in the Bergdahl controversy is the issue of paying ransom to terrorist kidnappers, never mind the fig leaf the Obama administration resorted to by using the Qatar government as an intermediary in negotiating his release. Releasing five high-ranking Talibani’s in exchange for a hostage is something of a precedent for the U.S. (if you omit the Iran Contra scandal, I suppose), but other countries caved long ago. In an online article for The Atlantic, Time reporter David Rohde discusses the matter cogently, including this comment (emphasis mine):

In every case I know of, the U.S. government has refused to pay ransom and, until Bergdahl, refused to release prisoners. Over the last three years, however, European governments have paid $100 million in ransom to various al-Qaeda splinter groups across the Middle East and North Africa, according to British officials. Israel released 1,000 prisoners in exchange for one Israel soldier.

credit:  www.vosizneias.com

David Rohde, on assignment. credit: http://www.vosizneias.com

Rohde’s perspective, I submit, is important to keep in mind as the Bergdahl affair continues to bleed information and the controversy swirls. We are entering a 21st century that is quite different from the 20th. Before Afghanistan, wars were between nations, political entities which could control their own populations and military forces. Nations set rules of engagement, signed treaties, accepted and promoted standards like the Geneva Convention for treatment of POW’s.  That hardly describes the Taliban government we defeated before trying, fecklessly, to reinvent it as a democracy.  But, our enemies, deprived of the semblance of government, are turning to other methods.  These politically and religiously motivated fanatics are finding success in the kidnapping business.

Rohde’s compelling story of his 7 months’ captivity by the Taliban encapsulates the political dilemma we face. In the wake of our recent celebration of D-Day victory and the old ways of war, it is important that the public now become aware of how things have changed. There is no going back.  War is not the same. Because of nuclear weapons, the major nations will no longer fight one another, or at least not in all-out battle.

Economics isn’t the same either. The global economy will not be reversed. The third world will continue to produce cheap goods by exploiting cheap labor and Europe will not any time soon divorce itself of dependence on Russian oil. We have no choice but to cooperate with all civilized nations in policing the international thuggery of terrorism, and a vital part of that cooperation needs to be a uniform policy for dealing with ransom demands. But with Israel trading 1,000 for 1, is that even possible? I can see ears and fingers arriving in the mail already.

Terrorism is an age-old police problem turned international, yet some politicians are insisting on putting the (financial) emphasis the old kind of war.  Can we adapt?  We don’t need half a million-person Army and billion-dollar jet fighters to fight terrorists, we need special forces, drones, and police skills.

David Rohde has the right priority, I think, when he says (referring to demonizing Bergdhahl)

The focus of our anger should be the kidnappers. They are the problem, not hostages, their families, or a government that meets a demand. We must unite in fighting the perpetrators of a craven crime—not each other.

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Posted in Armed Forces, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments

Man Overboard!

The current kerfuffle over probable deserter Bowe Bergdahl reminds me of a true sea story.

It was 1971 or 1972 and I was the Executive Officer (second in command) of a U.S. Navy stores ship steaming across the Atlantic to help replenish the Sixth Fleet. It was a beautiful day at sea, puffy white clouds and periods of sun, sea state about 2 (no whitecaps). On that afternoon, one of our crew, a very junior Seaman, calmly put on a lifejacket, walked up to the side of the forecastle (f’o’s’le, the front of the ship), waved his arms in the air to get the attention of personnel on the bridge, and jumped overboard.

credit:  wwww.boatingmag.com

credit: wwww.boatingmag.com

A stores ship, by its nature, does lots of “ship handling”, including alongside replenishment in close proximity to other ships, and our officers took pride in their skills that way. The Officer of the Deck promptly executed a perfect man-overboard drill, performing a “Williamson Turn” (hard-left rudder!) to maneuver the ship’s screw away from the now-bobbing man as he passed down the ship’s side and reversing course back down the same track.  We came to a stop while lowering one of our boats and its crew motored over to the bobbing miscreant and fished him out of the water – it all took about 8 minutes after the jump.

That is the only time I ever saw our CO, a four-striper, lose his cool. His face was a nice red, trending toward purple as I recall, and he kept mumbling the word, “insane”. The young man told his shipmates afterward that it was only after he was in the water that he thought about sharks, much less being chopped to shreds by the ship’s propeller. (The man-overboard procedure provided for a sharpshooter who duly took up his station, but no fins were seen.)

Our bobber had apparently decided that he really didn’t like the life of a junior Seaman and thought this might be his ticket home. Maybe he saw the 1970 movie, MASH and was copying Corporal Klinger, I don’t know. He might have been a draftee, we did have some aboard at that time. I detested the draft – a combat organization where everyone depends on everyone else is no place for malcontents.

The incident also had interesting effects on the rest of the crew. Many saw it as amusing and a boredom-breaker, some were struck by the foolhardiness of it, but the Second Class Petty Officers (pay grade E-2) were pissed off big-time. Why the latter? Because the Captain threw the ocean-bobber in our tiny brig, and that meant that there had to be a guard there, 24/7. Guess who, by regulation, comprised the additional-duty guard? Right, the E-2’s.

We dumped our bobber on the Navy shore establishment in the Med at the first opportunity, along with charge papers. I can’t remember the charge now, wish I could. Several weeks later we were alongside another ship, replenishing by high line 60 to 100 feet off our port side when I heard somebody say, “look, there he is!” Sure enough, there amid the work detail on the other ship, lugging supplies, was our infamous bobber. I wasn’t close enough to the Captain to hear his reaction, and was glad of it.

Military service is serious business. We expect to take young men, some as young as 18, and turn them instantaneously into responsible, motivated men. That’s what basic training is all about. But no matter how good that training, people are different. Some succeed instinctually and some never get it. It’s essential, I submit, that those early times be a winnowing process and that we let the unfit wash out.

Sgt. Bergdahl was by all accounts an unusual recruit, and it’s already apparent to me that he didn’t fit the Army.  Even worse than jumping overboard, he foolishly deserted his comrades in a combat zone and by so doing very likely got some of them killed. He needs to be held accountable according to military law and, if my assumptions here are proven, he should at least be dishonorably discharged and deprived of any benefits of service.

I have to add, at this preliminary point, that I think the president and his advisors made a serious mistake in how they handled this. I have defended president Obama in the past when his lack of military experience has been challenged, but I can not in this case. All military people are not heroes. Some of them jump overboard, and some desert. This is a costly mistake that I think is destined to haunt the president.  Knowing him to be a man of character, I think he will take it as a lesson.  It’s going to be painful.

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Posted in Armed Forces | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 24 Comments

Traitor or Patriot? Initial Impressions.

匿名者 Anonymous (Guy Fawkes Mask) / 香港聲援斯諾登遊行 Ho...

匿名者 Anonymous (Guy Fawkes Mask) / 香港聲援斯諾登遊行 Hong Kong Rally to Support Snowden (SnowdenHK) / SML.20130615.7D.42258 (Photo credit: See-ming Lee 李思明 SML)

Contrary to my normal inclinations and following the historic NBC interview with the most controversial figure in the history of U.S. intelligence, I feel a need to express my initial impressions of Edward Snowden. Prior to the interview I had bought into the NSA’s description of Snowden as a young and relatively inexperienced computer hacker.  I pictured him as someone who was trying to get attention and perhaps, somehow, make some money for himself. The interview changed my opinion.

Clearly, we have not heard the end of this story. Snowden says there is much more to come in terms of revelations, and the press is still awash with the international repercussions of his actions. But, for what it’s worth, my impressions:

1. Snowden is an idealist and it seems likely that he did what he did because of his convictions and not for aggrandizement.  He seems to have forfeited his citizenship and his connections to his family and culture on behalf of ideals. One could compare, as he apparently does, his behavior to the same kind of treason committed by the founders against the British government over three centuries ago.

2. He was bright, poised and articulate in the interview and his mien lends credibility to his claim that he was advancing rapidly in the NSA organizational structure. His body language was assured, not defensive. His speech is not that of a youth, but of an experienced man. At 30, he is about the age of an O-3 (Lieutenant in the Navy), which is a responsible age.  He now meets the minimum age requirement for senator in Congress.

3. His side of the story appears to be consistent with the facts as published thus far in the press. Notably, the NSA has pushed back on one of his assertions that he actually did try to express some of his legal concerns through emails, but of course it’s hard to prove a negative, i.e., that there weren’t other emails.  In any case, anyone who has ever worked for a bureaucracy knows the fate of  one who rocks the boat.

4. He has really angered the government, including, prominently, Secretary of State John Kerry, who has called him not just a traitor, but a “coward”, I presume for declining to come home to be tried on charges. Whether Snowden is a traitor or not is an unresolved legal question, but I see no evidence that he’s a coward. I think it’s naive for anyone to suggest that he “come home to face the music” and be tried for his crimes, especially since the law enables his former employer to classify its side of the story. He would be naive to do it.

5.  I believe that the rule of law is essential to a properly functioning democracy, and by that standard, Snowden is clearly an outlaw.  However, classification, as I and many others have discussed in these blogs, has been abused as long as there have been wars.  Then too, there has been the explosion of secrecy and hidden budgets so well documented in the book, “Top Secret America” under the rubric of 9/11 fear.  I have to wonder, is Snowden the only person to actually try to do something about unbridled bureaucracy and secret budgets?

6.  Snowden has staked out his position and made it clear that he’s in this for principle. Whether he will be judged by history a traitor or patriot is an open question as far as I’m concerned.  What will history eventually say?

7.  NBC scored a major scoop with this interview.  I am chagrinned to observe that the CBS News said not a word about it tonight.  I don’t know about ABC.  Maybe they’re both working on it?

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Posted in Accountability, Federal Government, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 20 Comments


English: Official image of Secretary of Vetera...

English: Official image of Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Relative to the VA scandal, there is much to ponder. Even MSNBC’s sainted Rachel Maddow said the other night that it is “a test of government”, or words to that effect. Why does Medicare work and the VA healthcare system not?

None other than retired Colonel Jack Jacobs, recipient of the Medal of Honor, has written  a startling essay urging that the VA healthcare system be abolished and that veterans be afforded access to the regular system under a system modeled on Medicare. Big bureaucracy as a tool of government has clearly failed in this instance. Why is that? Is it because the VA is too big to manage, or is it fixable? I think there is more than mere size at issue here. There are other large bureaucracies that are successful, after all, including the Armed Forces, Medicare and Medicaid. They’ve got their problems, but on the whole they do a good job with relatively little corruption.

From news accounts I gather that General Shinseki, himself a wounded veteran, may have been overgenerous in seeking to treat difficult mental conditions like PTSD. There is no test for PTSD, nor for most other mental disorders. It is subjective. Blood tests don’t identify mental illnesses, nor MRI’s nor EEG’s. The doctor asks, “how do you feel” and proceeds from there. On the other hand, there’s no doubt in my mind that PTSD is real and is often debilitating. It arises from trauma and while more commonly caused by the stress of military service, I ‘m confident it is widespread among civilians as well, just not as much so. Causes don’t have to involve violence – stress alone is enough, and especially prolonged stress.  Vulnerability is a continuum. “Going postal” is symptomatic and “domestic disputes” derive from a common form.

So, Shinseki loaded his bureaucracy with difficult, maybe impossible work, and at the same time applied pressure to demand results. For carrots, he implemented a bonus system and dangled promotions rewarding good patient through-put. For sticks, he held doctors and administrators accountable for not meeting standards. But patients are not widgets and doctors aren’t soldiers.  Pills have a woeful track record for fixing mental problems.  That’s my sense of why the system broke down. Who was it that said, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”?


credit: umc-gbcs.org

All this is preliminary. Teams are searching for answers. But I think at this point Congress is wrong to judge Shinseki or the VA administration too harshly. Those who deliberately falsified or destroyed records and hid appointment data need to be held accountable.  That was criminal.  But we need to be careful not to destroy the good with the guilty. In the meantime, however, Colonel Jacobs’ suggestion deserves respect and consideration, and I hope there will be a renewed national interest in mental health. President Obama has been pursuing improvement in that since last year and has declared this month, “National Mental Health Awareness Month, 2014.” I hope the VA crisis results in more than mere lip service to this serious problem.

Modern medicine has convinced most people that it can handle almost every problem.  This is due mainly to the invention of antibiotics and anesthetics.  Mental health is a different and formidable challenge.  If we spent a tenth of what we now do on foreign intervention and nation-building on mental health research, just think what a different world it might be.

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Posted in Healthcare, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | 17 Comments