Thursday, July 30, 2009


Sorry for the lack of content this week, faithful readers. As you may have noticed, I'm taking a "staycation" to play bridge at the North American Bridge Championships, which the ACBL has thoughtfully scheduled about 4 blocks from my home. Back next week with more of your favorite content.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Ages of Bridge

As I remarked when this article came out, bridge has an image as an old person's game -- and a pretty well-deserved image it is, too. I'm considered a whippersnapper at the National Bridge Championships currently going on in Washington DC -- most of the players are in their 60s or older.

That's why it was so specially delightful to play against two young brothers in yesterday's game, and when I say young, it turns out they were nine and twelve. They were so cute! They played very fast and liked to help pass the boards from one table to the next.

And guess what -- in the first session of play, they had an excellent game. They finished at nearly 62% (non-bridge players, take my word for it, that's a very good score) and were tied for second in the overall event (out of 104 pairs participating). Hot stuff for anyone, especially for kids that age! They didn't do so well in the second session, but this pair is obviously going to go places in the world of bridge real soon.

Maybe there's hope for bridge after all -- I've been worried that the game will die out for lack of new players, but there are at least some younger folks still getting started.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Against the Best

One of the greatest things about playing bridge is that you can show up at a tournament, pay your entry fee, and literally play against the best players in the world. There's no other competitive activity I know where that happens. You can't just show up and play golf against Tiger Woods. You can't even play in the same tournament. But in bridge, you can.

Well, here at the summer North American Bridge Championships, being held right here in Washington, DC, my partner and I have already played against Zia Mahmood, whom many people regard as being the number one player in the world (althoug his official rank appears to be 15th). It was definitely a hoot to see him at our table.

And by the way . . . we beat him! Over the whole session! We finished a little above average and he and his partner . . . well, let's not publish the score. Of course, he was probably playing with a client (top players hire themselves out to play in tournaments), so his partner was probably not much of a player. But still! It was fun to play and fun to see the final score.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Who Loves States' Rights?

Yesterday, the Senate defeated a proposed law that would have required states to allow people to carry concealed weapons if they have a valid weapons permit from some other state.

Naturally, Republicans, who believe in states' rights, were against this proposal. Because they're such strong supporters of federalism, Republicans would, of course, want to protect each state's right to have its own gun requirements. If, for example, one state requires a strict safety training course before issuing a gun permit, it shouldn't be required to recognize a permit from some other state that doesn't, they would say. And, of course, if states want to recognize other state's permits on some kind of reciprocal basis, they don't need Congress's permission to do it. So no need for federal action, according to the Republicans.

Oh, wait. Actually, all but two Republican voted for this measure. It was Democrats who defeated it.

A persistent them in the federalism debates is hypocrisy. Republicans don't really believe in state's rights. They just believe in laws they like. If they can get the federal government to pass those laws nationwide -- on securities litigation, tort reform, gun licensing, or whatever -- they're happy to do it, and states' rights be damned. But when it looks like the federal government might mandate something they don't like, states' rights are sacred.

I have to admit, though, that the Democrats aren't really all that much better on this issue. They're somewhat more consistent but they're not above touting states' rights when it suits them, either.

The bottom line is that neither party has a real commitment to principles of federalism, either way. They're just something that's convenient to bring up, sometimes, and to ignore, other times.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009


I use T-mobile as my cell phone service provider. I made this choice several years ago. I picked T-mobile because it had the best plans, even though its coverage is a little spotty. I live in a city, so the coverage problem rarely comes up. So I figured I'd go with the provider that has the best plans.

But now I have to put up with being portrayed as the clod in this ad. Sheesh! I mean, really, what brand image are they trying to portray here? Presumably, it's something like, "T-mobile -- the mobile phone service for pathetic guys who pant after hot spokesmodels they'll never meet."

Frankly, I'd be kind of embarrassed to admit what phone service I use at this point. I wouldn't want anyone to think that this ad got me to pick T-mobile.

I'm trying to be a loyal customer here, but these ads really make me want to switch to somebody else.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Oh, So Close

Middle-aged duffers everywhere groaned in dismay as Tom Watson's par putt slid away from the hole on number 18. He played so well for 71 holes. It would have been an amazing display of skill and sang froid for a golfer of any age. For most of the day, it was easy to forget that Watson was not just another top golfer in the mix, but a 59-year-old who by all rights and expectations shouldn't have made the cut, much less been atop the leaderboard. His steady play and spirit, including his recovery from bad holes, was inspirational. While younger golfers spun out of control in the rough (including Ross Fisher, who never recovered from a devasting quadruple bogey), Watson plodded on.

And all he needed to do was par the last hole. Just one more hole! But that's when your nerves get to you. Of course most golfers would hardly have been able to swing the club at all, much less produce such a fine drive as Watson did on 18, much less follow it up with an almost equally fine approach. And Watson did.

But then it slipped away. He couldn't get up and down. His final par putt was his poorest effort of the day. You could really see his tension and tentativeness.

After that, it was all over. Only Watson's shell showed up for the playoff. Finally, after bearing up under unimaginable pressure for 72 holes, he was physically and mentally spent. I'm sure he was replaying that par putt over and over again in his mind while his body went through the motions of making shots. He finished six back in a four-hole playoff. That wasn't the same player who played the first four rounds.

Oh, well. He came in second -- and who would have expected that four days ago? It's still an inspiration to older golfers everywhere. There might still be time for me to learn how to play.

Saturday, July 18, 2009


OK, this is too incredible. 59-year-old Tom Watson is leading the open after three rounds.

Anyone can have one great round. But you don't just happen to be in the lead after three rounds. This is truly amazing. He won the Open thirty-two years ago and now he's in the lead with one round to go.

Mr. Watson, you are inspiring middle-aged golfers across the globe. Keep it up! One more round! Go Tom!!

Friday, July 17, 2009

Conservative Pundit Calls for Massive, Wasteful Government Spending

Don't take my word for it, just read his column. Charles Krauthammer is upset that we're on pace to give up our manned space program. And even he says there's no real reason to have one: "Why do it? It's not for practicality. . . . We go for the wonder and glory of it."

I guess some people think it's OK to spend 364 days a year ranting on about how wasteful, inefficient, and generally hopeless government is, and then one day a year call for government to spend hundreds of billions of dollars "for the wonder and glory of it."

Frankly, I've been kind of baffled by the manned space program for a long time. Yes, it's very cool, but in an age of tight budgets it doesn't exactly seem like the top priority.

Age Does Not Wither

OK, it was impressive enough when 40-something Kenny Perry almost won the Masters earlier this year, but now Tom Watson was leading the Open Championship at age 59. He's a stroke back right now, but he had the lead for over seven hours yesterday.

Heavens! Maybe there's still time for me to learn how to play golf!

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Crime Wave

I haven't been a crime victim for a long time. But yesterday, as I got in my car, I noticed the backing of a little note pad on the driver's seat. Funny, I thought, I don't remember leaving that there. And one of my CDs was on the passenger seat. Funny, I didn't remember that either.

Then it hit me. I was right! I hadn't left those things there! I checked my stash of change that I keep for parking meters. Gone! Well, that was only a couple of bucks. But then I checked my glove compartment. No GPS!

I had just bought the GPS device about a month ago. Never had one before. It's great. And now it's gone.

Boy, it's really true what they say. I feel violated. I don't think I'll be able to look at my car the same way again. Not for a while, anyhow.

At least the thief didn't take the car. Or the registration. And there was no damage. A very clean job.

And he didn't take the CDs. I guess there's an advantage to my musical tastes. The one left out was the Mendelssohn.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Failures of the Capitalist System

I'm a big fan of capitalism -- my travels in communist countries showed that they just can't deliver the goods. That's why I get particularly frustrated when capitalism doesn't deliver the goods either.

I'm redoing my kitchen. The new appliances arrived, and I tested them all out excitedly, and get this -- whenever you switch on the oven in my new range, a fan comes on. No, it's not the convection fan. It's a separate fan that exists solely to cool the electronic control panel. And it's very noisy. I mean really noisy. It makes more noise than the dishwasher.

What's up with that? I'm sensitive to noise. I investigated in great detail how much noise the refrigerator and dishwasher would make. And they're great. But it didn't occur to me that an oven would make noise. My old oven was silent. Not quiet, silent.

The new design is so dumb. First of all, there's no need for the electronic control panel. I was happy with knobs. So first they put in this souped-up control panel that you don't need, and then they add a fan to cool it, so it doesn't overheat.

And here's the real problem. My dealer offered to take back the range and exchange it for another, but it turns out all ranges have this fan nowadays! Because they all have the control panel!

And as if that weren't bad enough, you can't even find out which ranges are quieter than others! Because you can't turn them on in a store! Stores don't have them connected up, because they run on a different power supply than a normal outlet.

So pretty much all new ranges have this problem, but you can't discover how bad it is until you've shelled out $1000-$2000 bucks for one and gotten it home. And believe me, I've tried everything to find out.

What's up with these manufacturers? Do they think no one cares? They know we care about noise from the dishwasher -- the new dishwasher is so quiet you can't even tell that you've turned it on. But are we not supposed to care about noise from the oven? That's even worse. You can at least run the dishwasher when you're asleep or not home. But you're definitely there for the oven.

C'mon, capitalists! Doesn't anyone want to exploit the market advantage of making the quiet range? I can't be the only customer who cares. There's money to be made!


Friday, July 10, 2009

Sad Echo for a Tax Protestor

I've mentioned before how pathetic, in the literal sense, the lot of a tax protestor can be: the government may not only throw you in jail, but it can seize and sell your possessions to pay your tax bill. But wait, it gets worse.

Ed and Elaine Brown, the sadly confused tax protestors who were sentenced in absentia to five years imprisonment after declining to attend their own trial, and who then held off the government for about eight months in a bizarre standoff in which they were holed up in their home before finally being captured and incarcerated, now face even more legal trouble.

During the standoff, Ed and Elaine threatened an apocalyptic ending -- they foresaw themselves leaving their home either free, or in body bags. They gathered up many weapons to defend themselves against the Feds and suggested that they wouldn't be the only ones ending up dead.

Well, you can't do that. It's against the law. And yesterday Ed and Elaine were convicted of a smorgasbord of offenses relating to the standoff -- Conspiracy to Prevent Officers of the US from Discharging Their Duties, Carrying & Possessing a Firearm in Connection with a Crime of Violence, that kind of thing -- that will add a minimum of thirty years to their existing sentences. Given that both of them are in their 60s, it seems likely that neither of them will ever leave prison alive.

What a sad, sad outcome for mixed-up people. It just shows how much people can suffer from tax protestor arguments, especially when it appears (in my lay estimation) that they suffer from some kind of mental illness that exacerbates their inability to distinguish law from hooey. But even they have to learn a modicum of self-control. It's one thing to dislike taxes -- everybody does that. And you can entertain yourself with crazy beliefs about the invalidity of taxes, and even government generally, as much as you want. But failure to pay is a crime, and gathering up guns and bombs and threatening the Feds with death is a crime too. Stay away from it.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Lieutenant Governor Ravitch

Can the Governor of New York appoint a lieutenant governor when the post is vacant? There's an almost comical need to do it -- the post is vacant because the lieutenant governor became Governor, which would normally be fine even though the LG is the backup to the governor, because the President of the state Senate is available as a backup to the backup, except that there is no clear President of the state Senate because of the deadlock there. So we need to know whether the appointment of an LG is legit.

It's not an easy question to answer offhand, but I will venture this much: Governor Patterson's claim of power is not frivolous. The NY state constitution says nothing about filling vacancies in the LG post, but the state's public officer law (section 43) says: "If a vacancy shall occur, otherwise than by expiration of term,with no provision of law for filling the same, if the office be elective, the governor shall appoint a person to execute the duties thereof until the vacancy shall be filled by an election." Well, a vacacny has occurred, other than by expiration of term, there is no other provision of law for filling it, and the office is elective. So this law would seem to fit the case.

Of course, to be confident, one would need to scour all of NY's constitution and laws to see if there are other provisions that bear on the issue. Too much for a mere blogger. But the text of the law seems to fit the case, and just because no one has tried it before doesn't mean it doesn't apply.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Those 60 Votes

Everyone's still talking about how Al Franken's arrival in the Senate gives the Democrats the magic 60 votes . . . except not really, because two Democratic Senators are sick, two are really Independents and several are moderates who don't always toe the party line.

So here's a radical idea -- how about taking those 60 votes, and . . . changing the 60 vote rule! It's not as though the rule is in the Constitution. It's just Rule XXII(2) of the Senate rules, and it could be changed any time by majority vote . . . if you could get 60 votes to close debate on the rule change, that is. Well, now the Dems have 60 votes, kind of, so why not lower the cloture threshold to 55? Or how about 51? Call me crazy, but why not implement majority rule?

It's always been absurd that 41 Senators can veto something the other 59 want to do. It's particularly absurd when one considers that, because of the appalling malapportionment of the Senate, the 41 Senators blocking legislation might represent as little as 11 percent of the U.S. population. (That's right, the 20 least populous states, plus half of the next least populous state, make up only 11 percent of the total population. Check it yourself.)

Of course, in pointing that out, it's only fair to point out also that, if the Senate operated by majority vote, the 51 Senators passing legislation might represent as little as 17 percent of the U.S. population. Even the 60-vote rule guarantees only that legislation will have the support of 24% of the nation (that's what would happen if the Senators from the 30 least populous states voted for cloture on a bill), which is still kind of crazy. But because the House of Representatives is population-based (putting aside minor glitches such as the requirement that each state have at least one Representative), it guarantees popular support for legislation. So the power of 11% of the nation to block legislation is a more egregious failure of democracy than the power of 17% or 24% to pass legislation, inasmuch as legislation requires majority popular support to get past the House.

So the bottom line is that the possibility of filibusters in the Senate is a pernicious departure from the basic principle of majority rule. Yes, the Framers of our nation's Constitution designed the Senate to be part of what makes the federal government creaky and inefficient, to protect us from too much national power. But even a 51-vote requirement in the Senate does that. The Framers didn't stick in a 60-vote requirement. Let's take the 60 votes the Dems have now and lower the threshold to something more reasonable. If we can't get it down to 51, 55 would be better than what we have now.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Helping Your Client

When choosing a lawyer, one looks for discretion and good judgment. These qualities are not exactly on display by Sarah Palin's lawyer, Thomas Van Flein.

According to CNN, Van Flein said that David Letterman's tasteless jokes about Palin's daughter contributed to her decision to step down.

Is this helping your client? To suggest that even though she's a politician who ran for Vice President, she can't handle a comedian's lame jokes?

Van Flein also reportedly said that Palin needed a break after being "on duty now for two and a half years solid."

Are we supposed to sympathize with a politician for working for "two and a half years solid" out of a four-year term? Last time I checked, four years was the term of the President and the Vice President. Is Van Flein really suggesting that his client can't be expected to work in a political office for four years straight? That's not good advertising for the future.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

In Her Own Words

"People who know me know that besides faith and family, nothing is more important to me than our beloved Alaska. Serving her people is the greatest honor that I could imagine."

Therefore, I'm resigning as Governor.

"It may be tempting and more comfortable to just kind of keep your head down and plod along and appease those who are demanding, hey, just sit down and shut up. But that’s a worthless, easy path out. That’s a quitter’s way out. And I think a problem in our country today is apathy. It would be apathetic to just kind of hunker down and go with the flow."

Therefore, I'm resigning as Governor.

"There is such a need to build up — and fight for our state and our country and I choose to fight for it. And I’ll work very hard for others who still believe in free enterprise and smaller government and strong national security for our country and support for our troops and energy independence and for those who will protect freedom and equality and life. I’ll work hard for and I’ll campaign for those who are proud to be American and who are inspired by our ideals and they won’t deride them."

Couldn't do that as Governor.

"I sure don’t want anyone, any Alaskan dissuaded from entering politics after seeing this real climate change that began in August. No, we need hardworking, average Americans fighting for what’s right."

Therefore, I'm resigning as Governor.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

The Perfect Republican

Faithful readers might enjoy this commentary by John Feehery, former staffer to Republican House Speaker Dennis Hastert and other congressional Republicans. Feehery pontificates about the prospects for the country now that Al Franken's victory gives the Democrats (at least theoretically) 60 votes in the Senate.

What's so perfect about this commentary is the way it illustrates one of the prime features that got the Republican party to where it is today: its "We're Proud to be Luddites" attitude.

Feehery complains that the Democrats, now that they have attained a Senate supermajority, can be expected to start enacting crazy, left-liberal policies. His prime example? The metric system. It's his first sentence. Dems are going to impose metric the way they tried back in the 1970s.

See, that's what I mean. The metric system is used by the entire world except for the United States (OK, and Liberia and Burma. We're in such good company.) It's won out over the old British system because it is superior. Heck, even Britain doesn't use the British system any more.

Metric is so easy to use. If you go 17,525 meters, how many kilometers is that? Sheesh, it's 17.525. That took about 0 seconds to compute. Now if you go 17,525 feet, how many miles is that? Let's see, 5280 feet in a mile, so we need to divide 17,525 by 5280, so that makes . . . oh, you work it out.

With the whole rest of the world on metric, U.S. companies suffer in international trade. And we even screw up at home, like when NASA lost a Mars orbiter because of confusion between British and metric units.

Maybe that's why the Omnibus Trade and Competitiveness Act of 1988, signed by Ronald Reagan, declares that it is the policy of the United States "to designate the metric system of measurement as the preferred system of weights and measures for United States trade and commerce."

But even though the Republicans' favorite President signed this policy into law, Feehery isn't just against it -- he mocks it. He's proud that the U.S. lags behind the rest of the world in weights and measures. He holds out the metric system as one of those crazy, left-wing notions that the Democrats are just waiting to foist on us.

I doubt that the metric system is really high on the Democrats' agenda. But if it is, it's a good idea. Let's stop being proud of areas in which the U.S. is behind the rest of the world.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Filibuster-Proof Majority?

Does Al Franken's victory give the Democrats a filibuster-proof majority? In theory, yes. In practice, it'll be kind of tough.

The Senate's famous Rule 22, innocuously titled "Precedence of Motions," provides that a cloture motion can be passed by "three-fifths of the Senators duly chosen and sworn," which means that the Democrats would have to get all 60 of their members to vote for cloture to defeat a Republican filibuster. That won't be so easy, with two of the Democrats being quite sick, two of them really being Independents, and several of them being moderates who don't necessarily stick to the party line. Of course, they might pick up a Republican or two to make up for it, but based on recent history that doesn't look so easy either.

Bear in mind that even a successful cloture vote doesn't mean that the Senate immediately proceeds to vote on the pending bill; it just means that debate will eventually be brought to a close. Rule 22 provides for thirty hours of debate, which can include amendments, following a successful cloture motion. And the Senate rules provide innumerable other ways to clog up business, plus there's the "hold" practice that isn't even in the rules.

What the Democrats should do is use their filibuster-proof majority to amend the filibuster rule to make things a little smoother. Like perhaps they could lower the cloture vote to 55. That would be quite a change.