Monday, December 30, 2013


Saying goodbye is always a difficult thing to do; but it sometimes seems necessary.  And so, after 6-1/2 years, it may be long past time to give up what has become the rather time-consuming obsession of "Just Blowing Smoke".  After all, I would hate to discover later that I had hung on past my prime (not that I think I've actually had one); like so many have done in other fields.   

Politics is largely a vulgar and unchanging spectacle of self-aggrandizement by a self-chosen elite for most and an exercise of self-deception for the rest; with little room for logic or reason to exist in the space between.  Any challenge to whatever the current strictly established dogma is, even by those considered the faithful (and maybe especially by it), risks a condemnation for apostasy.  Attempts (almost by necessity) to cloak these efforts in skepticism risk their eventual transformation into examples of perverse cynicism through constant exposure to this toxic environment.  Attempts at irony or sarcasm as an amusing alternative become little more than a jaded form of gallows humor in the end.  

As for the 'perspiration to gain inspiration' required to break through the walls of a largely rigged game, they're often vilified without analysis either because of a lack of properly tenured credentials or their failure to follow ideological protocol for submission.  The heroic effort of dancing in the minefield of political correctness left to anyone trying to achieve any originality often yields little more than a stench of disillusionment and disappointment that no masking fragrance can ever cover.    

This is not to say that the overall experience of creating "Just Blowing Smoke" has been a bad one.  In fact, to say that I'm immensely grateful for the reception it's received, the size of the audience it's somehow manage to gather, and the geography it's covered is a vast understatement.  It was in June of last year for example while noting the 5th Anniversary of the site that I was celebrating 34,000 total pageviews, and as I now close the door a mere 18 months later, that same number has all but reached 78,000.  Unfortunately however, true success in such efforts is measured with levels of participation that are orders of magnitude higher.  Judged by these standards in fact, my own meager numbers will never even appear as a blip on the radar screen.

And since I'm being brutally honest ...

I should admit as well, that much of this effort began as a method to improve my ability to write.  If any such improvement has been been achieved over the years, it seems all but imperceptible; and despite my exalted aspirations in this regard, the only thing that I'll ever share with the likes of literary legends like George Will or Charles Krauthammer is species and gender (OK, gender ...).  Sparing the public the painful duty of acknowledging that rather sad conclusion on a regular basis could be the most decent thing I can do.    

"Writing is not necessarily something to be ashamed of, but do it in private and wash your hands afterward." - Robert Heinlein

While this departure does not mean that I'll be entering a monastic retreat (the constant kneeling is too humbling and far too painful for these old bones), I expect to be far less visible online and where my literary efforts are concerned.  I will no doubt attempt the occasional tawdry literary effort and send them off to venues willing to accept such submissions for no better reason than to feed an addiction that I can't completely kick.  The world being as fickle as it is however, I expect little more than to become lost in the next 'squirrel moment' and quickly forgotten.  

At any rate, I hate long goodbyes, and this one's already too long by half.  It's time at long last to bid a tragic farewell to the multiple personality disorder made up of the Department of Just Blowing Smoke Security, the lexicographers of the Stuck On Stupid Dictionary, and the other ne'er do wells that comprise the JBS Senior Staff as they're returned to the dark corner from which they've emerged over the years.  (Which I suppose is far better than turning them loose on an unsuspecting public.)  Thanks again for your support and your company on what has been a rather strange, often twisted, but occasionally interesting ride.  Who knows, perhaps some day we'll meet again ...  

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Silly Bits VIII

The end of the year (and that of 'Just Blowing Smoke') is apparently not one which provides a break for much of the silliness going on in the world today.  So while the calendar is winding down here, I thought it might be amusing to take one last shot at pointing out a rather glaring one.

In the Antarctica, there's a true bit of international silliness going on.  It seems that a Russian ship, the MV Akademik Shokalskiy, became trapped in the ice on Christmas Eve about 185 miles east of the French research station Dumont D'Urville.  A search and rescue mission was mounted, and a Chinese ice-breaking ship, the Snow Dragon; was expected to reach the beleaguered vessel a couple of days ago.  That mission was put on hold however, when the Snow Dragon was unable to reach the Shokalskiy due to ice that was more than ten feet deep.  An Australian ice-breaking vessel, Aurora Australis, is now on the way and closing in on the site in the hopes of completing the rescue mission.

Not to worry for the crew and passengers, who appear to be in good spirits with plenty of supplies on board to keep them content during their icy internment.  Some of the scientific experiments that they set out to complete are ongoing while they wait for their would-be rescuers.  The silliness of this particular situation comes in two parts:

1. The silence of the 'Climate Change' crowd over the stranding of a scientific vessel in an expanding ice pack at a time when the 'Chicken Little' cry is over the melting of such packs and glaciers around the world. 

2. While you're contemplating these 'sounds of silence' on the Global Warming issue, consider further that the Antarctic continent is currently experiencing its SUMMER.


Friday, December 27, 2013

Duck Dynasty and Tenure

As I've stated before, the situation surrounding the patriarch of "Duck Dynasty", Phil Robertson, is one that holds little or no interest to me.  In spite of statements by Sarah Palin, this is not a First Amendment issue, nor if the truth were known, is it even a matter of Free Speech.  In point of fact, it's a matter of contract law between Mr. Robertson and the Arts and Entertainment Network. 

I don't know much about the show, since the level of cable that I carry doesn't include this particular network, though I understand that it's well received and has a lot of fans.  (So do the Kardashians, and I've managed to by and large ignore them as well.)  I also understand that some of the things that Mr. Robertson said in his interview with GQ (as well as in other previous statements) regarding gay people and minorities were considered offensive by some and a blow against religious freedom by others.  But what they are in fact doesn't matter to me and shouldn't matter to anyone except in the context of the language of his employment agreement.  (If you're not familiar with specifics of such agreements, by all means feel free to look them up.)

Now personally, I consider GQ offensive by nature as a publication.  No matter what the original purpose of this rag may have been; what's left is devoted to a 'Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous' attitude that's little more than an attempted exploitation of class warfare and the snobbish pursuits of the 1%.  I've resolved my personal problem with this particular bit of obscenity however by failing to subscribe to the outdated bit of tripe in a largely irrelevant industry that it's become.  I wouldn't even bring the subject up if it didn't relate to something I read this morning in the Kansas City Star that many are probably far less familiar with:

"Social media policy from Kansas Board of Regents threatens free speech" by Barbara Shelly.  It seems that, "On Dec. 18, the governing board for the states’ higher education system decreed that campus officials can discipline or fire employees, including tenured professors, for statements they make on social media.
With that move, Kansas became the first state to endanger the career of an academic because of something expressed in a tweet, blog post or Facebook entry." 

Now for those not living between Kansas City and Wichita, this received little media attention, so a bit of explanation is probably necessary.  This policy elucidation resulted from a tweet made by Professor Dr. David Guth of the Journalism Department at the University of Kansas soon after the shootings at the Navy Yard in Washington DC last September that resulted in the deaths of 13 people, and which stated"#NavyYardShooting The blood is on the hands of the #NRA. Next time, let it be YOUR sons and daughters. Shame on you. May God damn you."  He later apologized for the the posting, stating though he was a 'professional communicator', (Really!  What a clever disguise you've discovered in this epic failure.) and that he didn't do a good job of explaining his position. (No shit Sherlock!)

Ms. Shelly not surprisingly, is shocked at the policy decision made by the Board of Regents, seeing it as little more than caving in to conservative state legislators (who after all, only control University funding).  She would like to have this policy scrapped, since not only didn't they talk to the faculty before implementing it, but they ignored a letter that they got from the Foundation For Rights in Education, a First Amendment Group.  Apparently, tenured professors should be allowed to say what they want behind the protected status of their positions, and ignore the reality that their potentially offensive statements reflect upon the Universities that they work for.  Even if they are objectionable (or actionable against the University), they're made with a good heart.  She points out that the only people the Regents apparently did talk to, unfortunately, were lawyers.  (Well heaven forbid that the Regents would want to insure that a significant policy change was legal!)

Now I'm not a big fan of adding to the world's rules and regulations, but good for them.  Such actions not only reflect clear thinking, but fall well within the libertarian notion that my freedoms end at the point that they affect the freedoms of my neighbor.  Since such very public pronouncements can affect the bottom line of the University; as employers they should have the right to set policy with regard to such controversial or inflammatory statements.  'With great power comes great responsibility'. (I think I read that in a comic book once.)  

Neither of the situations described are First Amendment issues, nor are they subject to the whim of public petition or polling.  Both are situations which are ultimately only between an employer and an employee and their contract together.  Like the Board of Directors at the Arts and Entertainment Network, the University Board of Regents is responsible for setting employee policy and once set, insuring that all such policies be issued in writing.  If they choose to make one regarding statements released in interviews to the mass media, posted on Facebook, or Tweeted on Twitter, that's their privilege.  Many companies are far behind the curve in dealing with social media, their management being of a an age that doesn't understand it in the first place; so it's not surprising that it takes controversy to inspire them to get around to it.  

Once they do get around to setting policy in such situations however and regardless of the motivations for doing so, employees are contractually obligated to follow them or face disciplinary action up to and including termination.  As for all of the rest of us weighing in on the subject, we can all 'shut the hell up'.  

four days and counting ...



Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Christmas Eve Terror Alert

I was doing a bit of cleaning up the Command Center for the Department of Just Blowing Smoke Security after the recent and rather abrupt departure of the staff.  Apparently these authorities on uncovering secret information finally discovered that their jobs were no longer necessary only three days after I told them so (for the third time).  This Manatee Team of faux covert operations (SEAL was obviously already taken and Manatee fit the staff paradigm more accurately) had an extraction zone pre-arranged, and hung around just long enough to insure that there was 'no bottle left behind'.  What they did leave behind however, was one Cheetos-stained dispatch, apparently forgotten in their hasty departure. 

Now while I thought about not bothering to pass it on, since what follows looks to be far from a complete list; I do so in the spirit of the Holidays, recognizing that perhaps by posting their final effort (and as our politicians are oh so fond of saying),  
"If just one life is saved…."

Egg Nog: Let’s face it folks, considering the cholesterol and calories contained in the full strength version of this beverage, you might as well slather it on like sunscreen rather than drink it. Not only will you save yourself from the ire of the nation's health care providers, but I understand that it serves as an effective SPF-125 sunscreen and does wonders for the complexion. While there are myths that some of the harmful effects of Nog can be somewhat mitigated by thinning it with alcohol (dark rum is a personal favorite), there is nothing but anecdotal evidence to support such claims. (On the other hand, having partaken of it in this fashion, it's unlikely that calories or any other of its deleterious effects will any longer concern you.)
Fruit Cake: In spite of the bad wrap that this holiday treat has received over the years, the truth of the matter is that it poses little health risk to most of the population; and can in fact be used beneficially. It’s not the fruit of which it’s 'allegedly' comprised or the way in which it's prepared that makes it healthy; but the fact that it’s so often prepared improperly that it's all but toxic except when consumed in very small portions (even by government standards).  Additional benefits include its use as an emergency escape tool to break car windows in the event of a holiday automotive accident and as a substitute for a truncheon or throwing weapon to drive guests away from other tastier and potentially more deadly treats at the holiday table. 
Cookies: These tasty little confections, while around all year in some form, put on their ‘party best’ for the holiday season. Dressed in clever shapes, hued in artificial colorings, and of course clothed sprinkles and glitter (probably manufactured by Exxon), these dietary landmines are camouflaged in a variety of holiday masquerades.  These bakery booby-traps in fact contain most of the major food groups: sugar, chocolate, useless carbs, and unpronounceable chemicals.  (If someone could get red meat or bacon onto them, they'd be perfect.)  Vowing to abstain from future consumption of them and to exercise off the calories gained from them are among the top five of resolutions for each New Year.
Cheese: For some reason, cheese has long found a place at our holiday tables, often in rather bizarre forms. Sure you can go with the snooty specialty and European cheeses if what you’re looking for is something in the way of flavor, but the natural ingredients found in such products can expose the consumer to greater risk (including becoming un-American). The true American tradition is much more likely to be defined by cheese balls, cheese logs, and the ever-popular “Cheese Whiz”. As most of us know, the more processed such cheese is, the better it is for you; with the piston cans of "Easy Cheese" being the most healthy of all (since they contain the least cheese). There is nothing like emulsifiers or carrageenan to bring real cheese texture to a dish and nothing like citric acid when it comes to real cheese flavor. While we're at it, let’s not forget all of the wonderful processed products contained in most of the crackers we put this on, leading to an opportunity to add insult to injury (literally and figuratively).

Cocktail Weenies:  No one really knows what animals these tasty little treats come from, let alone what parts of those animals might be involved; and quite frankly (pun intended) no one wants to know.  This ostensible meat product however has become a holiday favorite over the years.  This probably has something to do with fact that it can be served in so many ways.  Drowned in equally toxic sauce and cooked so long that the surrounding liquid congeals to the consistency of paste, or wrapped in a variety of equally mysterious (and probably unhealthy) substances and baked, it can be served as a blue collar staple by the scoop or daintily displayed on the finest upper crust serving-ware  by impaling it upon toothpicks with colorful frills at one end.  Do not be distracted by its innocent appearance however (and be careful to apply the untasseled part of the toothpick to the weenie).  Not only is there little or no actual food value in this diminutive dog, but recent government funded studies have found it to be little more than a gateway food to dependency on its larger brethren:  the Hot Dog, the Brat and Andouille sausage.

Alcohol: The health dangers of exposure to alcohol come in many forms, ranging from what are largely the stealth efforts of rum balls and the aforementioned Egg Nog to the traditional holiday cocktails (like rum punch), and ending with the indulgence in every form of fermented and distilled beverages known to mankind. Let me state for the record that at DJBSS, we approve heartily in such indulgences.  Not only do recent studies continue to show the positive health effects of moderate consumption of such beverages, but with the year all but at its end, it’s probably long past time that as survivors, we celebrated its successful conclusion. 

Overindulgence carries significant long-term health risks however, usually from one’s spouse. The immature, impolite, and downright stupid behavior committed while under the influence of ‘that demon rum’ will no more likely be forgiven in the spirit of the holiday than they would otherwise. The damage can be significant and reputation rehabilitation process can be a long and painful one.

It should also be noted under this section, that driving while intoxicated can be additionally be damaging and expensive. Not only do you risk spending some or all of your holiday in jail and thereby ruining the occasion for the whole family; but the economic and employment repercussions can be devastating for subsequent year’s holiday celebrations.

While Santa is the spirit of the holiday season in many households, there's no reason to attempt to equal his girth as well as his good cheer.  So by all means enjoy your holidays and all the tasty treats of the season; but if for no other reason than the concerns of the DJBSS, please do so in moderation.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Dear Santa: 2013

Santa Claus
c/o North Pole

Dear Santa,

I know that this missive seems to be getting sent off to you later each year; and once again I would like to apologize for my horrible tardiness.   You're not the only one out there that gets really busy around this time of year you know, and with the prospect of shutting things down around here in just a few more days, it's been even more of a madhouse than usual. Thanks, by the way, for telling the Post Office not to drop ALL of those letters at my place this year. The three bags were plenty for use in my column a couple of weeks ago, and the elevator at headquarters only broke down once trying to get them to the third floor.

Before you ask, my family is doing surprisingly well again this year, in spite of having to put up with me.  As usual, anything that you were thinking of getting them from their lists certainly has my advance approval. As for myself, I'd like to tell you that I've been good this year as well, but that would be a bit of an overstatement. (OK, maybe misstatement is more of the correct word.) The truth of the matter however, is that I probably have been better than usual, but I'm told that going through open heart surgery will tend to do that to a person. (Don't worry, I'm sure this temporary spell of good behavior won't last.)

By the way, please note the names of the doctors and nurses that I've added to my personal nice list for your consideration. Anybody who can find a heart in this crusty old bastard, let alone fix it (as they seem to have done) deserves to be on the “Nice” list.  Add in their ability to do without telling me what a sorry, ungrateful #*&$ I am while doing it, and they should probably be near the top of the “Really Nice” list.

Perhaps surprisingly to some, I'm not going to suggest you doing anything regarding Obamacare, Duck Dynasty, or the 2014 elections. I'd like to tell you that I know you don't do that kind of stuff anyway, but the real reason is what little interest I had on these subjects must have slipped out of my pocket and into a snowbank as I leaned against a lamp post to catch the lung I was coughing up while walking to a drugstore to get something to relieve such symptoms from earlier this week during this most recent spate of Global Warming.  

I do have one particularly ironic political request however, for you deliver a lot of lumps of coal to those working for the Environmental Protection Agency.  I severely doubt it, but maybe they'll get the joke (or the hint), but that won't take the fun out of the gesture. 

I know I haven't asked for anything for myself once again this year. Truthfully, I've always felt fortunate over the years that you haven't given me what I truly deserved, and always managed to show up with some pretty great stuff, in spite of my usual misdeeds.  So thanks.  All kidding aside, I know that there are a lot of people out there whose need is far greater than mine, so you would be doing me a big favor to help them out as much as you can instead. (Come to think of it, you might want to get lots of them copies of the “Holiday Wishes 3” through the TFP, which would help twice over.)

Merry Christmas,


P.S. I will no doubt be up late again this year on Christmas Eve (who sleeps well at our age anyway), and I have laid in a supply of cookies and Egg Nog (yes, the low-fat kind so you can watch your cholesterol), so feel free to stop by as usual. Not that you'll need it, but I'll leave the light on.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Conservative Pension Inconsistencies

Congress is racing to get the Ryan - Murray Budget deal passed before taking some more time off.  (And believe me when I tell you that I for one, have nothing against our national legislature taking time away from their labors on behalf of the People.)   The House already passed it, Senate is poised to do so, and the President seems likely to sign it.  (He can always change things later if it doesn't work out, right?)  Neither side seems particularly pleased with the compromise reached, which not only pleases me, but makes sense when you consider that the two groups are supposed to be fundamentally, diametrically, and ideologically opposed; with the only thing that they can seemingly agree on (amongst themselves, at least) is that things would be better if their party were in complete charge.

The timing on the passage of this bi-partisan spending agreement is curiously compelling this year however, since it comes at the same time of the release of Senator Tom Coburn's annual report on government waste.  In it, the Oklahoma Senator details some $28 billion in 2013 government spending on things he calls "questionable or lower-priority programs".  One that particularly caught my eye however was that on the part of the military to junk a lot of the equipment used in Iraq and Afghanistan. "The military has decided to simply destroy more than $7 billion worth of equipment rather than sell it or ship it back home," Coburn said. 

It did so because one of the most hotly disputed bits included in this week's bi-partisan compromise is a provision to achieve a $6.3 billion reduction in federal spending through a one percent reduction in cost of living benefits for retirees under age 62.  This should of course lead one to question who the budget rocket scientists were who approved an amount for senseless equipment destruction that they refused retirees.  (Personally, I would have thought that we're so loved in that part of the world that we could have sent over a box of sledge hammers and set up a booth to charge locals for the privilege of helping us out with the process.  Maybe we could have even filmed it and turned it into a reality show.) 

Not surprisingly however, this particular spending cut has military and veterans groups up in arms in what's described as an attack on those who have already faithfully served their country.  Draconian budget cutting Conservatives seemed to rise to the attack as well on what could be considered a mere 'cost of living increase' modification on such pensions, which in turn got me thinking ...

Now perhaps it's simple jealousy on my part, that someone has managed to hold down a job with same employer for 20 years and could conceivably retire at the age of 38.  Even someone hanging one for the full 30 could therefore find themselves on the porch by 48.  Don't get me wrong, I respect and honor anyone who makes that choice for themselves; and can grant that those who have faithfully served their country might feel that such a reward is their due. 

As one working in the private sector however, I now see no escape from Congressional reform of the Social Security retirement age that will see it raised from 65 to 70 long before I reach either.  I've long since reconciled myself to passing quietly while sitting in a corner behind an unnoticed desk at some age beyond that (assuming they'll let me work that long) so that I won't be a drain on the nation.  I can't help but wonder over the huge reaction to even a minor modification for retirees as part of a greater discussion of public sector pensions.   

I wonder that many of the Conservatives crying the loudest over the mere proposed of cost of living adjustment to such pensions appear to be the very same ones crying over the crippling costs of police and firefighter pensions for those performing dangerous labors in their municipalities.  Isn't it the concept of making government pensions 'untouchable' that has many of those same Conservatives outraged with the very concept of public sector pensions?  Isn't the mountain of underfunded plans at local levels the major part of debt that has bankrupted Detroit, MI, as it did earlier to Stockton and San Bernadino, CA before?  Aren't both Illinois and California doing little more than bookkeeping tricks to hide their own massive burdens in underfunded state pensions plans?   

Now I'm sure that all of this already has me in trouble with many 'loyal American Conservatives' out there, who see my stance an attack on our gallant troops.  It isn't.  I'm not even saying that I approve of the the COLA adjustment, though I'd love to see House and Senate members who are up for election openly debate its inclusion rather than insert it through a backroom maneuver.  One must recognize however, that no one can hold back the future.  

Lifetime pensions are an endangered species in this country; even the ones long associated with government service like the military.  The courts are now only just beginning to sort out the contractual mess involved with deciding between the rights and obligations of a citizen as a government employee versus the rights and obligations of every other citizen not so employed.  It will take someone far wiser than most of us to reach a 'just' decision as to where these rights lie.  My advice however, before weighing in too heavily on one side of the argument or the other (or spouting out only when it's your ox being gored) is to make sure that you're attempting to judge each situation with the consistency that it deserves. 

Saturday, December 14, 2013

We're Sorry For The Slight Delay ...

Years of travel for work involved a considerable amount of time spent in airports; and while part of that involved getting from place to place, damn near as much involved dealing with the inevitable delays involved in the process.  The holidays, with their high volume of traffic and potentially inclement winter weather were especially troubling where this was concerned.

"We're sorry for the slight delay," was a gate area death knell sounded all too frequently over the years.  One which was inevitably followed by a plethora of somewhat plausible, but often feckless statements like:
  • The airport (though not necessarily the one you're at) is under delay or closed due to weather 
  • Your incoming aircraft has been delayed
  • We're experiencing a mechanical problem with your aircraft
It didn't matter what this moderately pleasant voice was trying to tell you however, since airline gate agents are well-schooled in misstating, misleading, and misrepresenting any semblance of the truth if it means maintaining the peace amongst a largely barbarian hoard of travelers.  (Those with advanced degrees often later became political spokespeople or press secretaries.)   

When a lack of additional information (accurate or not) began to fray nerves and raise tempers, bringing the palpable level of tension at the gate to a level that would normally snap a bowstring, equally distressing information was dribbled out in tone that now seemed not only less compassionate, but wholly unrepentant:
  • We've discover the problem with the aircraft, but are now waiting on a part
  • The weather's opening up at the airport, but incoming flights await their own ATC (Air Traffic Control) release   
  • The incoming aircraft finally departed, but our airport is now below minimums and your flight will be circling the airport if and when it gets here
  • The aircraft has been repaired, but must now be refueled/de-iced before we can even hope to board  
As continued delay and obfuscation finally wore down the spirits of a once raging throng, they became little more than a dispirited and wretched mob that was now dropping to their knees in tearful supplication to whatever Deity they believed in for deliverance from their airline oppressors.  Undaunted and unrelenting in their misery disbursement, these tormentors sought to inflict a final bit of auditory suffering to a now utterly cowed collective of traveling human debris:
  • The aircraft you're waiting for has finally arrived, but instead of here at A-4, it will now be departing out of G-22
  • Our aircraft is now ready to depart, but unfortunately the delay incurred means that the original crew is now being placed on forced rest and we must await the arrival of a new crew before we can begin to board 
  • We're awaiting final paperwork, but if it doesn't reach us in the next five minutes, we'll miss the only departure window currently available and will have to wait for the next one 
I'm reminded of those days of abuse and sadism a lot lately as I watch Kathleen Sebelius, Jay Carney, the 'Waiver Granter-in-Chief' tap dance their way through recent press conferences and Congressional hearings on the Affordable Healthcare Act.  Accurate information on the ACA seems harder to come by these days than were details on the Manhattan Project during WWII.  It would probably be easier to hack personal information out of the system than it is to get a straight numbers from anyone with a government-issued microphone on something as simple as how many have successfully completed the sign up process and made their first payment.  (Where's Julian Assange or Edward Snowden when you need the creepy little bastards?)

The information that has been released to date is so full of obvious evasion and equivocation as to be next to useless (though most seem so happy to get it that no one seems to mind).  Any 'facts' or 'numbers' handed out carry more caveats than the sales contract warranty coverage used at 'Fly By Night Motors'.  The closest we come to anything resembling 'facts' as opposed to government issued 'truth' is when Secretary Sebelius or the President announce a waiver or delay in implementation; which at least tells us that that some part of the law either doesn't work properly yet, greatly offends a powerful special interest group, or would produce politically detrimental press coverage before the 2014 election.

Unfortunately, the strategy that the government has learned from the airlines has proved far too successful these days with a largely uninformed public.  Constantly lied to and recognizing that we've long since lost control of this situation (and the future), most now placidly await the next tidbit of disinformation with the same vague expression that the have for the next divorce announcement or plastic surgery attempt going on in the Kardashian family.  Fed up with months of inactivity, many get so caught up in seeing any movement of the queue that they forget to look down and notice that it's pushing them ever closer to the cliff's edge.  So desperate are they to get even bad news, that they gladly swallow the rosy interpretations and 'glass half-full assurances' delivered with them, and refuse to look beyond the sophistry and deception contained in the absurd pronouncements being made.   

The only thing missing of course, is government adopting airline language itself (and maybe a version of that's next):

"We're sorry for the slight delay in the implementation of the Affordable Healthcare Act due to circumstances that should have been well within our control, but which we mostly believe are none of your damn business.  We're sorry for the inconvenience, but since there's nothing you can really do about it now ... not so much.  We expect no change in the situation soon and little more than bad news to pass on to you; so sit back, relax your crack, and we'll get around telling you what we want you to hear when we damn well feel like it."


Friday, December 13, 2013

Happy Birthday Dad ...

This is a story that I've shared here before, but with the days quickly winding down on "Just Blowing Smoke" it seemed likely that this would be the last opportunity that I might get to retell one that I certainly think is one worthy of repeating.

You see ...

Today was my father's birthday.  

As you might have assumed from the way that this was phrased, my father is no longer with us; and to a certain extent I suppose that you'd be right.   It's certainly true that right before Thanksgiving back in 2007, after being ill for a number of years and quite literally surrounded by his family, he decided perhaps that he'd fought the good fight long enough. 

This particular tale however, occurred the following year and is not mine but that of my nephew Patrick.  At the time, my parents owned a house in Shawnee, KS for some years, and Patrick had been responsible for yard mowing, using a riding lawnmower that my parents already owned. 

Spring came early that year, as it often does here in KC, and while my mother enjoyed doing some of the trimming around the edges, she had no interest in using the tractor.  Patrick dutifully arrived therefore to resume his normal role for the larger share of the yard. Now the riding mower hadn't been run (or even started) since the previous fall's leaf pick up.  Unsure of the proper settings and procedures to get it started after so long a period of idleness; his initial attempts brought no success. He asked my mother for any suggestions that she might have; and while not normally shy about sharing her opinions and being a person of amazing skills herself, the riding lawnmower was an area on which she had nothing to offer. 

So Paddy returned to the garage to confront his solitary dilemma, but it wasn't long before the full-throated roar of the riding mower was heard and the task begun. While normally a hard working guy anyway, on this day he completed his task with particular alacrity (even for him), and departed with very little to say for himself afterward.

That hasty departure was explained a couple of days later, when my sister Maureen called to fill Mom in. It seems as though Patrick, standing in the garage and scratching his head over a situation to which he had no ready solution, clearly heard my father say, "Pull the choke out and start it". He did, and the mower immediately caught. Distressed and fearing my mother's sensitivity to the nature of his solution, he kept silent.  It was only later after returning home that he was able to speak about it with his own parents.

Now my father was the patriarch of the Higgins clan in the truest sense of the word; and while normally a rather self-deprecating individual, was rather proud of these 'Harry the Handyman' skills. (In point of fact he was a world-recognized master of all things mechanical in the bookbinding industry, with a score of patents to his name to show for it.)  He was also someone who was inclined to share that mechanical mastery (sometimes rather colorfully) with his offspring of every generation (and often without being asked). So it seemed only fitting (and hardly surprising) that he should find a way to make his presence felt when such a need arose.

When the story finally came to my attention, and knowing Patrick to be a fine man of good quality and upright character, I took it on face value. If this is the way that he believes it happened, then I too believe it. While I am not surprised however, I am singularly pleased to know that my Dad is still out there somewhere and keeping an eye on the rest of us. I for one, can use all of the help that I can get.

Happy Birthday Dad!

Sunday, December 8, 2013

The Fall ...

I've been trying to cure myself of a serious case of news addiction without recourse to the use of a West Coast rehab center.  While the weather's nice out there this time of year, based on some of what I used to see on the news regarding the treatments of their celebrity clients leads me to believe that their success rates hardly make it worth the effort of showing up.  

Fortunately however, I'm still able to vaguely recall the days when I quit smoking cigarettes many years ago.  One of the best treatments to prevent potential relapses in those days was to, after not having had one in a couple of weeks, force myself to smoke a cigarette.  Not only was there no satisfaction in the experience, but the the re-introduction often left me shaken and sickened by doing so.  So I decided to try the same method where my inclination to gather information was concerned.  

(Strangely however, picking up the practice of smoking the occasional cigar years later had no similar effect on me.  But that's another story ...)  

Speaking of stories, I was surprised to discover that after days of not giving in to my obsession, the weekend shows appeared to be a 'Land Where Time Stands Still', as they continued covering the website in both its primary and secondary roll outs through a combinations of wearying critics and terrifyingly naive apologists.  

The former had little to add to the discussion beyond terrible numbers that few if any understand.  As for the even more terrible consequences that loom in the years ahead, it's my belief that most won't understand them until they come crashing through their door like the battering ram of your local constables on a warrantless search.  

As for the latter, they seemed little more than suicidal shock troops purporting to be spin masters.  These strident minions vociferously denounced attacks on the simple math of what was a pretty obvious failure, and sought a ringing endorsement for its vague future of unicorns and rainbows by comparing this program to rollouts of soon-to-be bankrupt big government efforts at wealth redistribution in our past, whose waste and corruption are a constant reminder of why government should be trusted with nothing more complex than the DMV.

Forget that wage and price controls during WWII created employer-supplied medical coverage in the first place, the historical result being what we now need to be saved from.  Forget that this program was designed to provide access to care and is as yet causing a sizable short term net loss in those covered.  Forget that a major premise of the system will be that by forcing more coverage on everyone (whether they need, want it, or not) we will somehow work magic and make more cost less.  Forget that by restricting the marketplace that we not only raise costs, but have gained Insurance company subsidies as an insult to this marketplace injury.  Forget as well that giving the government control of healthcare gives them collateral control of damn near everything else from the kinds of foods we eat to the amount of exercise we get.  (As for smoking, you can forget that ... unless of course, it's marijuana.)

So what is the mainstream media informing us of:  the website, the website, and the website ...

It's not the problems of successfully signing up for the ACA that should cause unease, but the danger that lies beyond such short-term concerns.  So while both saddened and amused by the myopic fare on these Sunday 'puppet shows', I was able to find far deeper truth imbedded in their cinematic counterparts.  In this case, such information came in the form of an equally pointless argument held between Paul Newman and Robert Redford in the classic film "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid:

I couldn't have said it better Paul; but as I watch with almost fatal complacency at the rocks below where the ACA is concerned, it's Redford's retort on the subject that keeps coming back to me:

Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhh Shhhhhhhiiiiiiiiiiitttttttttttttttttt..........

Thursday, December 5, 2013

TFP Column: Christmas List Haunted By Christmas Past

Doing an annual Christmas List has been a tradition almost since the beginning of "Just Blowing Smoke".  Moving that effort over to the more widely exposed of the TFP was a simple decision (and no cracks about my desires to be more widely exposed).  Last year's effort in fact saw me get a "Don Lee" cover.  (Which they reprinted again this year as part of the article; and which I am still rather proud of, as you might guess):

When I discussed repeating the effort as best I could this year however, no one was more surprised than I that Editor-in-Chief Michael Miller agreed not only to accept the offer, but to put it in the print edition.  In fact he gave me a bit more space than I normally receive (again, no cracks about the amount of space I require these days, please) in order to take on the rather prodigious list of political miscreants involved. 

In keeping with the holiday spirit, I hope that you will not only read "Christmas List Haunted By Christmas Past", but look forgive any naughtiness that may have leaked into the effort.  I haven't been doing so well in the N&N departments, and can't afford to blow my Christmas this late in the game.

Speaking of afford, I suspect that as always, you won't be able to afford to miss what's going on in Toledo and Northwest Ohio.  If you want to know however, you can't afford to miss Toledo's largest circulation Sunday newspaper, especially when it's also the best weekly newspaper in the State of Ohio for the fifth straight year (at least according to the Ohio Society of Professional Journalists).  So take a little time off from 'Mall Madness' and read the Toledo Free Press.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The Heroes of

Since the roll-out on October 1st, we've heard little more from the mainstream media than stories on how badly the website rolled out (OK, stumbled and staggered out), how long it's taken to get to working even badly (rather than mostly not at all), and how much this largely ineffective website has cost (certainly over $600 million plus by now).  Even now, after the deadline has come and gone for the site to be 'repaired', the best that anyone with an IT background will say publicly about it is that though partially incomplete, it still leaves a lot to be desired.  (What they say privately is largely in an obscene version of 'geek speak', that's wholly unintelligible and largely unprintable.) 

Now before we look too harshly on the code writers responsible however, it should be pointed out that they are mostly contractors given contradictory and constantly altering design parameters by politicians and bureaucrats who have no experience in insurance, less in administrating health care, and none at all in website design. To say that the resulting SNAFU was probably the best that could be expected would be an understatement.  So while all of the charges that you've heard about how bad things are with are apparently true, I believe that there's more to the story and that the website designers are getting a bad rap.

Like Washington DC bureaucrats who quietly (and regularly) attempt to perpetuate monumental governmental inefficiency to keep our leaders from 'saving us to death', these unassuming geeks have apparently done all in their power to keep a website that could do incalculable damage to millions from launching or operating successfully. And what do they get for throwing themselves under the bus in the nation's defense; constant ridicule from the media, and abuse both sides of the aisle.  Distracted by stories where the website is concerned, the greater tragedy potential in website success is all but ignored.  The media spends its time arguing about how badly the band on deck is playing, while largely ignoring the fact that the Healthcare ship is sinking under this law.  

Robert Heinlein used to speak in his novels about TNSTAAFL (There's No Such Thing As A Free Lunch).  Where Health Care is concerned, this 'Payment' includes, but it not limited to:  
  • Someone is going to have to pay for all those signing up who are being added to Medicaid rolls.  Whether it's Federal or State money, it's still taxpayer money.
  • These Medicaid additions will put a strain on the system creating cues for doctors far longer than those currently considered a problem on the website.
  • The lack of doctors will eventually force the government to raise Medicaid reimbursement rates to encourage greater doctor participation and ease the strain; further adding to the taxpayer cost of that program.
  • Insurance rates are already increasing for many of those going on the sites (Federal and State) more than expected, since the greater coverage mandated in the ACA naturally includes greater costs.
  • Small employers sooner, and eventually larger ones, will begin to drop employee coverage or likewise increase employee costs in order to reach ACA compliance.
  • Smaller network availability for those going through the website is likely to send it through the same fiscal spiral as Medicaid; quickly increasing rates and subsidies (and at the same time, debt and taxes). 
The day will come in the not-so-distant future when we will be forced to recognize the delaying action fought by these noble nerds for its true value.  (Can you say "Battle of Britain"?)  Sowing contention, confusion, and obfuscation; while fighting in the only way they knew how while fulfilling their limited contractual role, it's these efforts that may someday be recognized for providing us the time to create a winning strategy to seal a final victory over the ACA.  

I can see a shining day ahead, where some may even be awarded a coveted Presidential Pocket Protector of Freedom for their largely unheralded service.  All of them however, will have earned the thanks of a grateful nation for turning grossly ineffectual efforts into epically failing ones.

As a student of history and a libertarian who hopes that the ACA is a doomed bit of government overreach, I am humbled by the chance to salute the gallant geeks of for their heroic efforts in the current struggle.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

If It Ain't Broke, Don't Fix It

I spent a part of my Thanksgiving in a conversation with my daughter discussing the steps involved with repairing a leaky toilet in their home.  (What, this isn't the normal holiday conversation you have with your kids?  Really?)  Now that you're riveted to your seats by what's about to come next .... 

 (12/5/13:  An updated version of this effort was just posted to the TFP Website.)

I could do this because I was fortunate enough to have a father who while I was growing up (OK, growing older) was able to instruct me in the basic 'Harry the handyman' skills involved with maintaining a homeIn fact, he went on to instruct me in an apprenticeship program that he had taught at R R Donnelley and Sons that included basic mechanical, electrical, and hydraulic / pneumatic principles when I began my career in the printing industry.  One of the first things he stressed in those lessons was that since maintaining any complex system would be difficult enough for even the most conscientious maintenance staff: 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it'.  This is apparently something that the Congress and the President either never learned, or forgot about when creating the 'Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act' or 'ACA'.  
Oh I know that politicians often like to simplify subjects that they either don't understand themselves or don't think that 'the voters' will, in order to sell us something (usually a bill of goods); but the simple truth of the matter is that when all of this began, the US had a level of health care that was the envy of the world. That's why other world leaders and that pesky '1%' with the cash often came to this country for treatment of their ailments. This is not to say that there weren't things that needed improvement, but most of that seemed to be greater "access" to this wonderful system through minor modifications of health insurance coverage.

While even those who had no insurance or couldn't pay had access to some level of medical care, they needed more. Those with pre-existing medical conditions also needed the ability to obtain or retain insurance (especially when changing jobs). Doctors needed tort reform to reduce the amount of defensive (and expensive) medical procedures being performed for no better reason than to protect themselves from frivolous malpractice lawsuits, without removing the patient's right to seek redress from poor practitioners. Patients and doctors alike needed protection from the crony-capitalism in an insurance industry riddled with restrictive choices mandated by individual state insurance regulators.

In its normal ham-fisted approach to almost every issue however, our federal legislators chose a 'throw the baby out with the bath water' approach, without considering the ramifications of another 'never-ending gobstopper omnibus' effort, as well as the laws of unintended consequences. Far too concerned about winning points for their respective parties that they could store up like nuts for the next election (like there aren't enough nuts around in every election), our legislators allowed themselves to be caught up in the momentum of a 'sweeping reform' which only seem to clean out sound judgment, and good law. Sadly now, the nation is left with a result that even many of those who originally voted for it are less than pleased with.

This is not to say that the ACA doesn't positively address some of the issues that it intended to. Those with pre-existing conditions now have the access to insurance that they deserve. Unfortunately, this came with the cost that far too many of those who had pre-existing insurance plans lost them. Many who needed access to health insurance will finally get it, but in spite of all the back-slapping after its passage, 30 million will remain without it. Instead of freeing up the insurance market between states to make it cheaper, the ACA instead further restricted it to four 'government-approved' plans that make it even more expensive (and, contrary to the law's title, less affordable). Perhaps worst of all is that politicians who touted the necessity of this sweeping change and the fairness of their effort granted themselves their staffs an exemption from the rules that they insist the rest of us follow.

Not surprisingly, those seeking electoral credit for their legislative efforts are instead contracting incurable levels displeasure, disapproval, and disrepute that may cost them the privilege of the jobs they sought to protect with its passage. Curiously, it's only the distraction of the temporary collapse of the website used for enrolling in this monstrosity that's offering any protection to these wayward legislators from the greater ruin and future recrimination that awaits them. Tragically (if not perhaps fatally), the CYA and CYP (Cover Your Party) nature of the entrenched politics involved precludes even the most honorable of members of either party from doing what they know in their hearts probably now needs to be done.

So it's time for many to learn a hard lesson that apparently their fathers couldn't or didn't pass on to them. You don't fix a simple leaky toilet by ripping out the entire bathroom. You don't remodel a house by demolishing it and rezoning the neighborhood for commercial. In fact, with anything that needs repair, the first rule must always be: 

"If it ain't broke, don't fix it!"    


Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Time To Ban Thanksgiving

I decided that rather than attempt to come up with something especially fitting, amusing, and /or really original (well, as original as I'm able to anyway); I would instead attempt to foist off on you one of my previous efforts out of sheer laziness.  In my own defense, I did make some changes to this effort, but that's because the original was so poorly written that shame forced me to do so.  Be aware before going on, that considerable sarcasm awaits you!

Thanksgiving will be celebrated tomorrow, as it is on the last  Thursday in November every year (though not the original fourth). In theory, we will commemorate what was three days of feasting with one day of binging, in order to celebrate the voyage of an early group of colonists who traveled nine weeks from Plymouth, England only to coincidentally find themselves in Plymouth, Massachusetts. (Coincidence ... yeah, right.  It's a conspiracy!)  

Many died on the voyage over from disease and hunger, and more still in the harsh winter that followed. (Evidently Al Gore hadn't let them in on Global Warming yet.)  When the spring of 1621 came however, the newcomers planted what they could in land cleared with help of the local indigenous population (who had no idea that's who they were), and with the following fall's harvest they chose to celebrate their good fortune.  Though we now repeat their celebration annually, it was a tradition they themselves never repeated.

Almost 400 years later however, the idea of maintaining a holiday based on the one-time celebration by a bunch of white people seems doomed from the start; and only becomes slightly more palatable (pun intended) if we can give some credit to these 'Pilgrims' for inviting their Native Americans saviors to the party.  (Of course, they probably made them bring most of the food.)  

Consider as well, that while the Waupanoag tribe were largely the architects of this colony's survival; these same Native Americans were, like most others in this country, later driven from their homes and the greater part of their lands by the greedy colonists whose lives they'd saved ... hardly something to remember with pride.  Only adding to the historic difficulty involved with the holiday is finding reasons to celebrate the culture and traditions of the same people who would only 70 years later give us the witch burnings in Salem. 

Speaking of arcane rituals, Thanksgiving has always been considered a semi-religious holiday, since its original purpose for coming into being was to allow these religious refugees from England to thank their GOD for bringing them through the illness and privation of the previous year; and we know how popular religious holidays are in this country.  Adding insult to injury (much like the holiday that follows), the religious nature of this celebration involves thanking only a Christian God; showing a massive insensitivity by ignoring the practices of their Native-American guests, among others. 

Quite frankly, it's amazing that there are not atheist groups across the fruited plain demanding that Pilgrim and Turkey displays on government property be taken down as violations of the separation of Church and State.  (I have more to say on this subject, but not here or today.)  
How anyone can consider continuing a national holiday with religious overtones that ignores both the cultural and religious diversity that has become so dear to the progressive ruling elite of this country is beyond me. 

But if all of this typical, well-documented, and disgraceful history were not enough to put this celebration in jeopardy; consider instead the treatment afforded the main course of this so-called holiday ... the Turkey.  Now Turkeys, for those of you who don't know your history, came within a hair (OK, a feather) of becoming the symbol of these United States. They were supported in this effort by no less than Founding Father Benjamin Franklin, who considered the eagle as being little more than a dandified vulture. The turkey is not the brightest of birds however (perhaps adding to its suitability as a national symbol by today's standards), though it does have a couple of rather interesting traits.  Not only does the male seek its mate by showing them its butt (in humans apparently, the trait is reversed), but this bird is also know for being fearless (or stupid) in the face of being shot at.  (Remember however, that these were the days before the 2nd Amendment or gun control.)     

Modern medicine, of course, could easily also demand the end of the Thanksgiving holiday for no other reason than the life-threatening caloric abuses carried out in its name.  The traditional menu in fact exposes the public to a naturally narcotic substance (tryptophan), which often induces sleep in humans. (Much like the speeches in the election season which immediately precedes it.)  This begs the question of how a government attempting to take over healthcare of its citizens can allow them to be exposed to such a toxic substance (turkeys I mean, not politicians)Any minor compensation for the consumption of turkey (the other, other, white meat) over its more deadly alternative of the red variety is far outweighed (literally and figuratively) by the chemically induced somnolence that follows a morning dedicated to the idleness of endless parade watching, followed by an epoch period of Thursday afternoon quarterbacking.  For many, the only holiday exercise apparently permitted is by thumbs manipulating smart phones for fantasy football league results.  

The fact that a single bird is pardoned each year by the President (Yet another religious symbol if you can you say Barabbas.), should be a source of national shame as PETA stands all but idly by while thousands of our tasty animal friends are disposed of (probably inhumanely and after 'aggressive interrogation') in the name of a holiday devoted to supposedly "thanking" the Deity that put these gentle creatures here in the first place.

Of course one might expect little more of something that, while first celebrated by our first president, was not seen as an official national holiday until 1863 as a political expediency to divert attention from the Civil War by President Abraham Lincoln.  (Apparently no one remembers that Lincoln was, after all, an evil Republican)

Today of course, it's easy to see now that the rampant gluttony and consumerism it exemplifies to be something typical of capitalism's staunchest supporters. Consumerism's greatest celebration, 'Black Friday', now not only follows, but has expanded so far as to encroach on the holiday itself, making it little more than a day of capitalist celebration, propaganda, and profit taking.  Far too many this year will be pushing themselves back from the table (assuming that they still actually can), only to begin the full contact shopping and unbridled consumerism of Christmas.  Far too many will gleefully abandon family gatherings for no better reason than a deal on a 60" 'smart' TV (with 3D of course) that will find itself under their own tree. 

We must therefore ask ourselves; what in the end has the Thanksgiving holiday in this country become and why should it continue.  Facts seem to indicate that like so much else of what goes on in this country, it's nothing more than a festival featuring the unwarranted murder of our fellow creatures under the guise of celebrating racism, gluttony, and the onset of soul-sucking consumerism.  As such, it no longer has a place in the caring, politically correct, and progressive society that we apparently long to become in this the 21st Century and should be banned for the bane it is. 

And so I say to those of you choosing to celebrate this week anyway with family and friends, gathering around a table to once more give thanks in the year 2013 (a year that may have fewer reasons than usual for doing so):

"Save me one of those drumsticks, will ya?"

Happy Thanksgiving!