Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Outing Gratitude

October 11 is National Coming Out Day. I remember when it started in 1988 – it was a powerful positive program to affirm being LGBT in the face of the devastation of the AIDS crisis of the 1980’s. In short order it grew and became a national tradition that the Human Rights Campaign eventually took over and continues to run. I never much needed a day to “come out” as for most of the last quarter-century I’ve been affiliated with one LGBT organization or another making it easy to be out. I always appreciate having a day to celebrate the cause in such a positive way and remind the world of our difference. Today I run a non-profit with “gay” in its name. In the ordinary course of day to day life the result is that I am constantly coming out. (“What do you do for a living?” “I run ….”) I live in one of the more progressive and “accepting” areas of the world and have little issues when having these interactions. When I traveled internationally recently it became an interesting refresher course on coming out and the power of being out.

My partner (boyfriend/lover/better-half) and I recently took a two week cruise. As a veteran of many prior sailings, I pretty much knew what to expect. This would, however, be the first one I did that didn’t have some sort of LGBT group formally on board that I was affiliated with and the first time I’d be traveling with a romantic companion. Our first outing occurred when we contacted the cruise company to add my partner to the room. There was the usual list of questions that they asked to make sure that the experience met our expectations, including whether we needed one bed or should it be two. The question that bemused us most was when the agent asked: “Why are you adding him to the room?” After a stunned moment my immediate instinct was to stay “none of your business” – but instead I said “Love!” The agent went “Oh. Right! Yes. Great!” And we continued on.

Every day on board at 7:00pm there was a gathering of LGBT passengers. While we never quite made it, there were many couples and singles who were on board and we became acquainted with. We met a number of wonderful non-gay people as well. All in all quite ordinary, which make the exceptions worth noting.

One day we were going from the spa back to our room and I was wearing a shirt I’d never dare wear around my job, but I enjoy wearing. (See photo.) An older woman asked me about it. Now let me be clear – cruising tends to draw an older demographic, but the line we were on and the route we were taking drew a particularly specific crowd. Our fellow travelers were very white and the average age was north of 80. We assumed the crowd to be quite conservative. The older lady asked “Where are you the Director?” And I told her: “The … GAY ….” And she looked me up and down and said “The … WHAT …?” I said “GAY” she said “GAY?” louder. She then looked at my partner. “Him too?” We both nodded and said yes. “Oh, how nice!” And off we all went on our separate ways wishing each other a lovely evening.

Less accepting were “Fran” and “Judy.” (These two women whom we never directly interacted with nonetheless received names and backstories from us.) They each had separately but identical reactions to our presence. Glares. Heads shaking. Tsk-tsk’s. Both worked hard to literally turn their back to us so they wouldn’t have to be exposed to us. The couldn’t look at us, especially if one of us had an arm around the other’s chair – not even necessarily making direct physical contact. During the times where there was some public display of affection it was consistent with the dozens of others we’d be circling the Promenade Deck. These people would physically turn their bodies so as to not have us in their sight lines. On the final night of the cruise "Fran" came into the dining room smiling and radiant. They seated her so she had a diagonal view of where we were seating and she saw us and her smile disappeared and a darkness overcame her. She glared at us her whole meal. I’m sad for her that just our being together (and the other LGBT couples on board) resulted in such a change in her demeanor.

Being who you are is a privilege and carries responsibility. It’s not always comfortable. Authentically being who you are isn’t just a gay thing. It’s why Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are popular and Hillary and Jeb are less so. On this Thanksgiving 2015 I’m grateful for the ability to be out and proud about who I am, knowing that isn’t true to too many. 

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Go Away

I’m just back after two weeks away. A holiday. A vacation. A luxury that has been years in the making and planning. Sure my contract provides for three weeks of time off per year, but as a workaholic I’ve never quite been able to justify take the time, despite the support of the team I work with. In the past 3 years I’ve turned back (“use it or lose it”) over 6 weeks of time. I’m not alone. 500 million vacation days lapse each year according to The Boston Globe. The hectic and stressful preparation for being away is matched by the whirlwind and obligations upon the return. The time in between is worth it, especially if you can ‘check-out.’ I did stay connected every few days as that’d probably be more stressful than not – but I was able to really get into a different way of being for a while. With that perspective it was amazing to come back and see what happened in the world with some fresh eyes.

The two weeks at the beginning of November is really a short period of time in the context of a year (4%), but it seemed much longer based on what happened while I was away. Trees went from a bountiful template of colors to largely bare. Pumpkins have been replaced by Christmas décor and holiday songs in every aisle. The psychological change that society makes into the holiday season is significant and it’s interesting to come off of a break into the holiday ‘rush.’

Politically there were a bunch of debates. Truly silly season. I agree with Edward Morrissey in TheWeek when he writes “Stop calling them 'debates.' They're game shows.” A couple of candidates for President dropped out.

There were some weather issues that dominated headlines and other things like earthquakes that momentarily held the spotlight. Being out of touch meant those came and went unnoticed even in a cursory review of what happened. Same with a whole series of attacks in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and other places where violence is the norm.

All of a sudden, though, my social media newsfeed started changing. It nearly instantaneously transformed to a sea of red-white-and-blue as the hundreds of connections I have simultaneously changed profile pictures to support France after the Friday the 13th bombings in Paris. It was an interesting phenomenon to experience this tragic event from the responses first, then seeking out what actually happened. The response felt so small compared to the event, but what else can people do?

I didn’t return and get back into a daily focus of world-events for many more days. By the time I was fully tuned back in there was a neat narrative surrounding the events. It was almost like reading a script or watching a TV show. (How many stars will you give it?) Evil ISIS hates everything the freedom loving world represents so they destroy it through terrorist attacks. Global outrage ensues and a plan to bomb the hell out of ISIS is agreed to by everybody. But it’s hard to do since ISIS isn’t actually centralized, so let’s “take out” some places we think they are instead. Boom! Oh, yes – let’s nail a suspect. The one guy who masterminded 8 simultaneous attacks. And let’s raid the place he was at months ago. Oops, we couldn’t find him ahead of time, but now we’ve found him in 12 hours! The message is clear: we need to be afraid of the terrorists but not so afraid because there’s “no credible” threats to be worried about.

There is no justification for the actions that happened in Paris. None whatsoever. But violence isn’t the answer. Violence begets violence. Is there nothing that history has taught us but that? The rhetoric is nauseating enough. But then there’s a whole series of emergency measures (in France, in England, in the US) to further curtail rights. One proposal attempts to punish those who criticize the Government in the U.K.  The goal is to empower the State to protect the People – something that has failed consistently.

Since September 11, 2001 the United States and most of the world have enacted massive amounts of legislation that has invaded privacy and taken about centuries of liberties that have been fought for. Phone calls are logged, emails are read, purchases are tracked. All in the name of safety and security. On Friday November 13, 2015 France’s 9/11 occurred. The tragedy is horrible. But it’s only the latest. 14 years later the restriction of freedom, the tracking of people and the invasion of privacy did not prevent this, the London attacks of 7/7 or so many others.

Let’s not keep doing the same thing. Let’s do what I did. Go away. The world needs a fresh perspective. Or maybe the terrorists could just go away. 

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Suggesting a tip

I was a terrible waiter. The summer of my freshman year in high school I took a job as a waiter at a higher end restaurant. I figured if I was going to be a waiter I might as well do it for a place where the total bill was high – and therefore the tips would be high too. How delightfully naïve I was. The ultimate insult came not from being stiffed on the tip – there were plenty of justifications for that (“they forgot” “they didn’t like the food” etc.). It was when they would leave $0.10 or $0.25 or $1.00 on a $150 bill. It was a clear memo: we know we should tip but you were so horrible that you only deserve a few pennies. I think I lasted six weeks and spent most of them bussing tables rather than serving. Today I make it a punchline: I tell people this was when I learned that I preferred to be served rather than to serve! There’s a movement on that would change all that.

Danny Meyer’s Restaurants (which runs establishments like Gramercy Tavern and Union Square Cafe in New York) announced recently (10/15/15) that they were instituting a “no tipping” policy starting in November. “Meyer’s group plans to increase menu prices and raise hourly wages for kitchen employees to $15.25 from $11.75 at The Modern. The increase will fall in line with the new state minimum wage of $15 an hour for fast-food workers. Menus will make it clear that prices include “hospitality”, and checks will not provide blank lines for a tip.”

Part of the justification is that the wage difference between kitchen employees (cooks to dishwashers) and wait staff has continued to grow disproportionately. (Various laws prevent tips from being pooled and shared.) Will it take away an employee’s incentive to provide excellent service? I would doubt it since they’ll likely be fired if they provide bad service.

Cruise ships are a good example of this policy. Many years ago at the end of your week envelopes would magically appear in your stateroom, at breakfast, lunch and dinner, etc. seeking tips. Woe is those who traveled without cash. At some point in the past decade that switched to a daily convenience fee being billed to your account. You can still add a cash tip at the end for those who have done exceptional service. There hasn't been a noticeable change in the quality of service in my experience. 

In many parts of the world wikitravel warns about tipping: “Giving a tip is not expected and offering one would be considered at best odd and at worst condescending or demeaning.”

A few years back when traveling in Sweden my friend and I had a lovely dinner and got the bill. We couldn’t tell if the tip was included or not – so ingrained in our being was it to tip the waitress. We ultimately asked her and she laughed at our Americanism and explained it was all included. It was quite convenient not to have to do the calculation and determine if we were going to be boorish or over-the-top in our tipping.

Evan Horowitz of The Boston Globe wrote an analysis about the policy. He wrote: “Abandoning the long-entrenched practice of tipping is a major departure from the restaurant norm, but in virtually every other industry, it’s management — not customers — who decides what employees should be paid.”

Moving wait staff to a regular employee status provides stability to the employee, additional funds to shore up Social Security and appropriately requires the establishment to price their product based on their actual costs. As Horowitz says: “Even if there were no tips, waiters and waitresses would still need to get paid. And the money would still come from customers. It would just appear on a different line of the bill, be it higher menu prices or an automatic service fee.” It’s a suggestion that is more than a tip!

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Limitation on Decency

I used to watch “The Cosby Showas part of NBC’s “Must See TV” line-up on Thursday nights. It wasn’t one of those shows I absolutely had to watch, but if I was able to see it then I would watch it. It held the 8pm slot for all eight seasons and was an innocuous look at a upper middle-class family with issues – they just happened to be African American. The show was accessible to everybody, producing ratings and honors that previously hadn’t occurred. It won a bucket load of awards, including the Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series. The show lived on in syndication from 1997. In 2015, the last television syndicators stopped running the show, though it remains available on Hulu. Events of the last few years are unlikely to have ever been part of the show's premise.

Bill Cosby, the show’s protagonist and namesake, had been a successful comedian and ad pitch man before taking on the role of Clifford Huxtable. After that, he continued to produce and star in television shows. He was a staple on our sets from the 1960s through the 2000s. He was somebody we knew, we felt comfortable with … and dare I say … we trusted.

Wikipedia states: “As of September 30, 2015, Cosby has been accused by at least 54 women of either rape, drug facilitated sexual assault, sexual battery and/or sexual misconduct, with the earliest alleged incidents taking place in the mid-1960s. He has denied the allegations and has never been criminally charged. Most of the acts alleged by his accusers fall outside the statutes of limitations for legal proceedings.”

There have been a slew of colleges, universities and other institutions that have withdrawn honorary degrees, awards, etc., based on the rumors. The comedian has refused to address them, stating that he doesn’t respond to “innuendo.”

“President Obama got into the conflict saying “there is no mechanism to revoke Bill Cosby's Medal of Freedom.” He then went on to say that having sex with somebody without their consent is wrong and is rape. The link was unmistakable – the President believes the allegations are true.

But they aren’t. At least, not legally. Nothing’s been proven. 54 people making similar accusations leads one to a very clear conclusion, and that’s why he’s become a pariah and can’t work and his namesake show is off the air. 

Wikipedia explains: “The purpose and effect of statutes of limitations are to protect defendants. There are three reasons for their existence:

     >  A plaintiff with a valid cause of action should pursue it with reasonable diligence.
>   A defendant might have lost evidence to disprove a stale claim.
>   A long-dormant claim has ‘more cruelty than justice’ ”

There’s something suspicious about 54 people not saying anything for decades. Bill Cosby carried no particular role of authority (like a priest or others). Awful, repugnant, and indecent are the actions that Cosby’s accused of. There’s also something wrong about convicting a man without a trial. It seems un-American to this most American of men. Perhaps this proves that there’s a limitation on decency?

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Branded Healthcare

In my fifth decade parts of my body remind me that I’m no longer in my second or third decade. Somewhere along the way I became that groaner – the one who expels a long breath/sigh after getting up. After a particularly long period of sitting at the desk I’ll rise and it’s like those old commercials for “Snap, Crackle and Pop.” I’m not complaining – I’m blessed with generally good health and most don’t think I’m anywhere near my actual age, which is always good for the ego if nothing else. Along the way, however, there are various things that have needed attention and as a result I take a couple of pills that those who are far brighter than I in such matters indicate that I need. Whether its my cynicism, bad luck or just the way the system works, it seems that the pills I’m on are always the ones that don’t have generic counterparts. My prescriptions therefore are quite pricey. I’m not alone.

In September 2015 Martin Shkreli made significant news by raising the price of a drug he acquired some 5,000%. He’s a hedge fund investor who has a history of acquiring a drug products and increasing its price. In this particular case his company Turing Pharmaceuticals purchased a company whose drug had been selling for $13.50 a pill to AIDS and cancer patients and upped the price to $750. Consumer activists, health care professionals and a range of progressives as well as politicians from all stripes derided capitalizing on people’s health in such a crass way. Shkreli suggested he’d lower the price, but never clarified to what or how much. His attempts to meet with Bernie Sanders by making the maximum contribution failed when Sanders donated those funds to charity.

It’s capitalism. That’s how it works. Supply and demand determine cost. It’s not always pretty. It’s not always right. And it’s not always fair. But it’s what we claim to be proud of about America.

Turn-around being fair play, Shkreli was himself outraged a few weeks later when Imprimis Pharmaceuticals announced that they would be providing an alternative (non-branded/generic) version of the same pill he was selling at $750 for $1 each.  Capitalism strikes back and wins.

This incident reignites the chasm I have between my philosophical libertarian beliefs and the practical application of them. Situations like these are crazy making not because of the positioning, but because healthcare should not be based on ability to pay. It just seems wrong to me. Shouldn’t America have a system where when you’re sick you go to a facility and are treated? If you need an operation you get it? If it’s vanity driven(and not medically necessary) then pay retail and there’s a price list to choose from. Sure there will be some diseases that affect a minority of the population that can’t be covered because this isn’t Utopia…but that happens in a more defecto way under the current system already. Let’s create a system where all of the decisions and discussions are around symptoms, remedies and recuperation and not coverage, eligibility and reimbursement.

Such a system was in place in America once. It was before government regulations and insurance became the driving for of healthcare…reinforcing my philosophical belief system. We can’t go back to that time. We can build from it. We won’t because of the entrenched interests of insurance and politics. To sell it, it has to be branded…the ultimate irony in capitalist healthcare. Guess we should all pray for good health. 

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Hacking a Hack

I joined America On-line in 1995. My account “name” was a series of numbers – you couldn’t personalize yet. I had a whole series of local phone numbers that the modem would try to connect to. After busy signals, the worst thing was the dreaded blue progress bar. The best thing was “You’ve Got Mail” calling out to you when you were connected. When spamming began a few years later I would naively reply back to each email with a polite “no thank you” or “remove.” Today my various accounts attract some 1,000 spams a week. AOL was responsible for moving the United States forward onto the information superhighway - at one point in the late 1990's half of all American's on the Internet came via AOL. The company was part of the largest merger in American history that nearly toppled and destroyed its acquirer/partner Time Warner. A variety of sales have occurred since then, the latest being Verizon buying the company in May 2015 for $4.4 billion. Today 2.1 million Americans continue to access the World Wide Web via AOL’s dial-up service even though using one’s phone actually connects to sites faster. Several of those users were embarrassed this week (10/20/15) with not only having an AOL account, but the disclosure that their accounts had been hacked.

CBS reports: “The personal emails of two of the highest-ranking national security officials have been hacked. CIA Director John Brennan and Homeland Security Secretary Jay Johnson.” Late night comedians, radio show hosts, pundits and bloggers have run amuck with the rich irony that the leaders of two such important government security institutions have themselves been victimized. It’s like the landscape architect who has brown grass and rocks in their garden or the financier who’s in bankruptcy. The irony is amusing.

IBM has reported that in 2015 there have been more than 600 data breaches and the average cost of a breach is $3.8 million. So there is a direct cost of $2.2 billion to the economy in a partial year. The study further identified that in 2014 25.33% of the attacks were on finance and insurance. Retail “took a hammering” with a 30% increase in attacks.

Willie Sutton, the original ‘slick Willie’ and famous bank robber was asked by reporter Mitch Ohnstad why he robbed banks. According to Ohnstad, he replied, "Because that's where the money is." He later claimed the story was made up by the reporter, but the simplicity and humor of the answer is as true for today’s hackers. It’s where the money is.

In the hack of the emails of the CIA and Homeland Security chiefs the perpetrator, claiming to be a high school student, tweeted: "We are not doing this for personal satisfaction, we are doing this because innocent people in Palestine are being killed daily.” Then, taunting officials the hacker asked: “Anyone know who we should target next?!” On CNN the allegedhacker said he was “probably high” when he did it. Newsflash: A high teenager breaches American Online’s email system.

In the 1990’s I learned the hard way what spam mail was. My defense of that naivete is that I wasn’t alone and the entire world learned at the same time. Two decades later you’d think that the leading security experts for the United States would have a more secure way of handing personal emails than AOL. I don’t know which is the bigger bunch of hacks – the guys who breached their privacy or the schmucks running the CIA and Homeland Security with their accounts on outdated technology.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Standard Training

I am the son of educators. My parents spent their lives imparting wisdom to others - truly one of the most noble professions I know. The transfer of knowledge from one generation to the next is an incredible chain that ties the species together back to the beginning of time. Directly or indirectly my entire family is in the field – whether in the classroom or in my case working at a non-profit that enlightens in its own way. Before my current position I worked as a consultant where I would mentor and guide clients to be self-sufficient. That’s the benefit of training – giving others the ability to do for themselves. The U.S. has aspired to a similar goal but has had a long string of disappointments in this area especially in its foreign policy.

The current deployments of American military personnel cover a wide spectrum of projects throughout the globe. It involves everything from energy and environmental projects to health, human interest and community relations. Wikipedia  details further: “The military of the United States is deployed in more than 150 countries around the world, with over 156,000 of its active-duty personnel serving outside the United States and its territories and an additional 70,000 deployed in various contingency operations as well as through military attache offices and temporary training assignments in foreign countries.” There are currently 1,148,530 active duty personnel – so 6% of them are helping others to help themselves. A noble goal that is a failed policy.

President Obama recently ended his administrations training of Syrian rebels. The idea was that American forces would take the Syrian rebels and show them how to fight, use strategy and weapons, organize and defeat the oppressors. Half a billion dollars was spent. In September 2015 the Pentagon admitted that only “four or five” rebels were trained. Others who were being taught in Turkey surrendered to the opposition. I’m not quite sure how one spends $100,000,000.00 in six months to train one person. I rather doubt that those five guys are going to have much of an impact in the region.

Rather than giving up on its approach the Guardian report continues: “A senior US official said there would no longer be any recruiting of Syrian rebels for training in Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates. Instead, a single training centre would be set up in Turkey, where a small group of ‘enablers’ – mostly leaders of opposition groups – would be vetted and taught operational methods, such as how to call in airstrikes.”

I am not a military expert. Far from it. I abhor violence and am largely a pacifist. It's from watching and enjoying war films and tv shows that I know a communications system (walkie-talkie, cell phone, etc.) is all that’s needed to alert somebody to an airstrike. Perhaps there’s more to it that justifies an entire program of training and funded by the American taxpayer...but there's no evidence of that.

President Obama in 2014 proposed a regulatory regime that would punish schools “for failing to place graduates in well-paying jobs.” That ill-advised idea that makes the educational institution responsible for its students performance can’t work and has been tied up in the legislative process because the President still supports the idea. Since he proposed the concept perhaps the same standard can apply to the military and their training efforts? Where's our refund?