Those Baffling Buckeyes

Last night some friends graciously invited Kish and me to join them for the Ohio State-Minnesota basketball game. We had a fine time as the Buckeyes won, and I got my first personal exposure to a Buckeyes team that has a definite Jekyll and Hyde character.

IMG_1799The first half was dismal. The Buckeyes were completely inept on offense — fumbling the ball away, passing around the perimeter fruitlessly as the shot clock wound down, then launching a poor shot and not getting the rebound — and scored only 18 points. It was painful to watch. A middle-of-the-pack Minnesota team went into the locker room with a ten-point lead, and the Schott was totally deflated.

The second half was a completely different story. Led by high-flying Sam Thompson, the Buckeyes came out and attacked the basket relentlessly, pushed the ball up court at every opportunity, hit the boards to get some crucial rebounds, and quickly regained the lead. The Buckeyes were aided by steals and blocks on defense that were promptly turned into fast-break opportunities and either scores or foul shots. Ohio State held Minnesota to only 18 points in the second half, scored 46 points of their own, and won going away.

This team is a head-scratcher, and their record shows it. The Buckeyes started 15-0 and made it to number 3 in the polls, then floundered badly in the Big Ten in a stretch that saw them lose 5 of 6 games. Since then, the team has won 6 of 7, but it has been beset by stretches where it seems like the most offensively challenged team in college hoops.

Members of Buckeye Nation keep hoping that this team will find its identity offensively. Last night’s performance shows that the Buckeyes have the tools to play an up-tempo game, and with their apparent lack of outside shooters that approach seems like their best hope. As the Big Ten regular season draws to a close, however, we’re left to wonder: which team will show up — the bumbling crew that put up only 18 points in the first half, or the thrilling fast breakers who took the ball to the rim and cleaned the glass of every missed shot? Will we see Dr. Jekyll, or Mr. Hyde?

One Hour Of Vigorous Exercise A Year?

A new study confirms what many of us suspected: there are lots of Americans who are ridiculous couch potatoes. I had no idea, however, how deeply rooted those couch potatoes apparently are.

The study, conducted by the Nutrition Obesity Research Center at the University of Alabama-Birmingham, indicates that the average obese woman gets one hour of vigorous exercise per year. Obese men aren’t much better; they’re getting all of four hours of vigorous exercise a year. “Vigorous exercise” includes things like jogging, running, swimming laps, riding a bike fast on hills, playing singles tennis or playing basketball.

Consider what that finding means. There are 60 minutes in an hour, 60 seconds in a minute, and therefore 3600 seconds in an hour. Apply that to the 365 days you find in a year, and that means the average obese woman is getting less than 10 seconds of vigorous exercise a day.

It’s easy to joke about this, I suppose, but it’s really terrible and tragic. All of those immobile obese people, living their lives in their recliner chairs, have basically given up on living a normal life. They’re not even trying, and in the process they are creating all kinds of health problems for themselves — whether it is diabetes, or heart disease, sleep apnea, and joint problems, among many others.

Apparently, no amount of Richard Simmons videos or The Biggest Loser shows are going to get these people off their butts. We can talk about the obesity epidemic in our country, but these findings suggest that a big part of the problem is the lack of any motivation, or self-respect, on the part of many obese people. Why have they given up? Why aren’t they taking even the most basic steps to help themselves?

A Stewardess Story

Yesterday I flew from Washington, D.C. to Columbus, Ohio. On the flight I was seated next to an off-duty, but uniformed, stewardess — I think the current, correct name is “flight attendant” — who was heading back to her home in central Ohio. I took advantage of the circumstance to ask a few questions.

How do you become a flight attendant? This was a young woman who had gone through several majors before graduating from college with a general business degree and who wasn’t quite sure what she wanted to do. Flight attendant seemed like a good option, where you could make some money before moving on.

IMG_4243What’s it like being a flight attendant? It doesn’t sound like much fun, really. She had spent an entire day in Reagan National Airport after one of her flights had been cancelled. I hate airports, so that would be a special kind of hell for me. Flight attendants spend a lot of time in airports, of course. It sounds like they don’t get a lot of time to hang out in exotic locations; mostly they are guiding their rollerbags through the same boring airport concourses and hotel hallways that the rest of business travelers know all too well.

Has she had bad experiences on flights? Absolutely. Recently she had to break up an escalating alteraction between two men arguing about whether the plastic windowshade should be pulled up or down. She had to settle disputes between weirdly animated passengers who were were fighting over precious overhead storage space and whether a coat and backpack could be moved slightly so a rollerbag could be put up in the bin. If you do much traveling, you’ll recognize these types. It’s unfortunate, but there really are a lot of assholes out there.

Worst passengers? Drunks. Some people show up for flights so intoxicated they can barely communicate, and others are so inebriated they have lost all inhibition. She has to make a judgment if she can manage the problem for the entire flight. If you’re obviously wasted, acting out, and on a three-hour cross country flight with her, she’ll probably talk to the captain. It is not unusual for the captain to come back and tell a drunk he needs to get off the plane. Most captains are good about that, she says.

Does she use the airplane bathrooms? Never! She thinks they’re disgusting, and will gladly hold on and sprint for a terminal restroom rather than being exposed to the germinacious bathroom activities of the passengers.

Our conversation was brief. She was exhausted, and so was I. We dozed off, and this friendly young woman sank into a deep sleep that continued long after I awoke to prepare for landing. It obviously was the gloriously thrilling life of a flight attendant.

“Obamacare” And The Coming Elections

In 2014, every seat in the United States House of Representatives and 36 seats in the Senate — 21 held by Democrats and 15 by Republicans — will be up for election. Non-presidential election years are always unpredictable. In 2010, Democrats lost six seats in the Senate and 63 seats, and their majority, in the House of Representatives. Could 2014 see similarly significant swings in the makeup of Congress?

The wild card seems to be the Affordable Care Act, which everyone now seems to call “Obamacare.” In the past year, Obamacare has moved from concept to reality. The rollout of the law and its signature website have been beset by problems that have been well documented. The website hasn’t worked. Many of the deadlines have been delayed by executive orders that have angered conservatives who feel President Obama and administrators are bypassing the constitutional legislative process. Some individuals have been affected by the cancellation of their insurance policies or significantly increased premiums and other out-of-pocket costs. There is tremendous uncertainty about how, and when, and whether, other parts of the law may work.

As a result, Obamacare is not very popular with the public. According to the Real Clear Politics average of polling data, more than 50 percent of respondents oppose the law. Obviously, that’s not good news for Democrats who voted for the law. How will they respond?

According to a recent article in the National Journal, the plan for vulnerable Democrats is to distance themselves from President Obama, acknowledge difficulties with the law, but present themselves as working to fix its problems while Republicans just cross their arms and insist on a full-blown repeal. (Modern politics being what it is, I’m confident that the Democratic incumbents will be attacking their Republican challengers on a host of other issues, too, of course.) The National Journal article expresses some skepticism about whether the Democratic strategy is viable, and there is a special election for a House seat in Florida in March that may provide some clues about which way the electoral winds are blowing.

I think it’s still too early to draw hard and fast conclusions about “Obamacare” and its potential impact on the coming elections, because there are still pieces that have yet to fall into place. The deadline for individual enrollment is March 31, so we don’t know how many of the uninsured at whom the law was aimed will eventually sign up. We also don’t know how many people who have coverage under new health insurance plans purchased on the exchanges will fare as they seek health care at hospitals and with doctors, or whether a significant number of businesses might change their health care plans, or employee contribution requirements, in response to developments with the law.

I do agree with one point made by the National Journal article, however: messaging can only carry politicians so far. I think there is a broad understanding on the part of Americans of all political stripes that the rollout of the law and its website has been less than ideal — but by November 2014 the initial rollout problems will be many months old and the attention of the American electorate will likely be on more recent matters. Americans tend to be practical. If there haven’t been substantial new problems, the website crashes and error messages will seem like old news, and arguments that the President is governing by improper executive orders aren’t likely to gain much traction.

The broad awareness of “Obamacare” problems, however, has created a climate where many people are skeptical of the law and therefore receptive to more news about its problems. If the ultimate enrollment figures are well below what was forecast, if people start reporting that under their new plans they can’t get the health care they got before, and if the broad number of people who are covered by group plans through their employers start to see large increases in their premiums, deductibles, and co-payment obligations, no slick ad campaign is going to cure the sense that the law was a disastrous mistake. Carefully messaged TV commercials just won’t hold up if Americans are hearing about real Obamacare-related problems and costs from worried family members, neighbors, and friends.

Popping A Button

Last night I had a very good Italian meal. Some fine ravioli for an appetizer, a veal entree, a little wine, and a cup of black coffee. In a nod to notions of physical fitness, I even skipped dessert and walked a number of blocks from the restaurant back to my hotel.

IMG_5923Yet, when I returned to my room, I popped a button on my trousers — and all illusions of trim physical fitness vanished.

Let’s face it. Popping a button on your pants is a tangible, irrefutable demonstration that you need to hit the gym, and hit it hard. It tells you that pants that fit properly once really don’t fit any longer.

The humble button will remain comfortably attached to its binding threads, happy to permanently serve its designated function of keeping items of apparel attached. Buttons become uncomfortable and call attention to themselves only when they are put under enormous tensile strain by expanding human girth. They feel their threads loosening with growing trepidation. The final snap and pop is a button’s last, desperate bid to get the pants wearer to pay attention to the truth about his personal circumstances.

Sigh. A button is telling me it’s time to think about a workout regimen.

The Soulless Robocop Zone

IMG_5920I prefer old hotels to new hotels. New hotels offer more plug-ins for our electronic devices and more modern amenities. Old hotels, however, definitely have better lobbies. I’ll take clocks, painted ceilings, and gilding over generic atriums any day.

When I enter some modern hotels — like the one I stayed in most recently, which shall remain nameless — I feel like I’ve been flung into one of those sci-fi movies about a Big Brother future where all concepts of art and beauty have been stripped away, leaving only a soulless, dreary, monochromatic functionality. I half expect to see RoboCop come springing out from behind one of the elevator towers.

Argentina Follows The Familiar Downward Spiral

George Santayana famously observed: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” We’re seeing that wisdom play out, again, in Argentina.

Argentina is an economic basket case. Under the government of its leader, Cristina Fern├índez de Kirchner, Argentina has spent lavishly on social programs and nationalized some industries. Argentina doesn’t have access to global credit markets since it defaulted on its debt obligations in 2001 and 2002. So the government is spending its dwindling reserves and seeking to devalue its currency — and in the meantime the Argentine peso is plummeting in value against the dollar and inflation is raging. The peso lost 19 percent of its value in January alone and inflation is somewhere above 25 percent.

Rather than learning the obvious lesson and ending the policies that are preventing free markets from operating, Argentina has gone in the opposite direction. The government blames supermarkets and oil companies for the inflation, and it placed caps on the prices of certain common goods sold at stores. Not surprisingly, those stores promptly began reporting shortages of the price-controlled items, because manufacturers and other suppliers obviously aren’t going to be pumping out goods that they can’t sell at a profit. Why would any business ship its goods to be sold in a price-controlled hyperinflation zone when it could just as easily send those goods to be sold in countries with rational economic policies? In Argentina, however, the government responded by fining the retailers and blaming their executives for raising prices.

We’ve seen this story again and again, in Latin America, in the Soviet Union, and in every other country that has adopted economic policies that interfere with the law of supply and demand and hinder the operation of free markets. Argentina will eventually experience a crash, as inflation spirals out of control and shortages become even more acute. But will it actually learn and take to heart the lesson it should have learned before?

When The Nutdar Kicks In

For the most part, we live our lives in little spheres of sameness — where we live, where we work, where we go to school, where we go out to eat. Occasionally, though, we have to move outside of those spheres, and when we do, it helps to have the nutdar in good working order.

This afternoon I needed to go to the Kroger pharmacy near our house. When I got there, the prescription wasn’t ready, but the pharmacist told me it would only be a few minutes. There was a little waiting area with three chairs next to each other in a row, two of which were already occupied by a young guy with close-cropped hair and an old guy wearing a leather motorcycle jacket who just sat down. My choices were to sit between them, or stand. When I considered the options my nutdar kicked in and told me to stay clear, so I moved a distance away and checked my email without making any eye contact with my fellow pharmacy customers.

Sure enough, a few moments later the young guy and the old guy started an unnervingly loud conversation about drugs and their health problems. The young guy spoke in rapid-fire cadence and seemed wired to the hilt, like a character in a Hunter S. Thompson book. In just a few minutes his booming voice covered why he didn’t trust generic drugs, his fear that he’s had multiple heart attacks, a rumor he heard that the DEA had shut down a local pharmacy for violations of federal drug laws, and some kind of mechanical problem he was having with a motorcycle that he had bought on Craig’s List in a “rip-off” deal. The old guy, not to be outdone, chipped in with ringing declarations about his various ailments, suggestions on drug that the young guy could take to deal with those apparent heart attacks, and a diagnosis of the motorcycle issues. I tried not to listen, but it was impossible to avoid.

I don’t know if these guys were dangerous or harmless, but it was the end of the day and I didn’t want to find out. I’m glad my subconscious kept me away from them. It’s nice to know that my nutdar is still in prime working condition.

Documenting The Axis Of Evil

In his 2002 State of the Union speech, President Bush described Iraq, Iran, and North Korea as parts of an axis of evil in the world. He was criticized by some for not engaging in constructive dialogue with those entities, but now a detailed United Nations report shows just how extraordinarily evil the North Korean regime really is.

The 400-page report was released by a specially appointed UN Commission. It compares the crimes being committed in North Korea to those that occurred in Nazi Germany, and for once the conclusion is apt rather than reckless hyperbole. Through interviews with refugees and victims, the report documents the starvation, torture, discrimination, and repression that are key elements of the North Korean regime. It describes how North Korea operates a system of unspeakably cruel labor camps and prisons, where inmates are starved, murdered, raped, and subjected to forced abortions; escapees described prisoners being forced to drown their own children and dig their own graves before being murdered by guards with hammers.

The atrocities in the labor camps have caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of North Koreans, and hundreds of thousands more have died through starvation as a result of governmental policies that use the supply of food to keep the population under control. The report finds that North Korea also practices discrimination against women and others in a rigid, state-assigned class system, prevents the free exercise of thought, conscience, and religion, and operates a police state in which security forces use violence and cruel punishments to create a climate of fear.

The UN report reminds us of the Holocaust and calls for prompt international action to end the atrocities of an evil government, but that is not likely to happen. North Korea denies all of the allegations of the report. More importantly China, North Korea’s ally and protector, indicates that it will not support any intervention. As awful as the North Korean regime is, and as terrible as the suffering of its people may be, the international community has few options short of invasion — and there does not seem to be much appetite for such a step.

So, we are left with a report that probably will not change the reality in North Korea — but that report nevertheless serves a useful purpose. There truly is evil in the world, and it is important for us to be periodically reminded of that unfortunate fact.

Presidents And Pocket Change

Today is President’s Day. I celebrated by looking at the the change in my pocket — and wondering about the history of placement of Presidents on our nation’s coinage.

Of course, now there are Presidents on every coin we use regularly. (I’m not counting the Sacajawea dollar, the Susan B. Anthony dollar, or some of the other oddball coins that have come into being recently.) Abraham Lincoln is on the penny, Thomas Jefferson on the nickel, Franklin Roosevelt on the dime, George Washington on the quarter, and John F. Kennedy on the half dollar. That’s been the roster on U.S. coins since the 1960s, when President Kennedy replaced Ben Franklin on the 50-cent piece.

Although Presidents have been on all of the American coins in common circulation for most of my adult lifetime, it wasn’t always that way. In fact, no American President appeared on a circulating coin for the first 140 years of our history. Most American coins featured depictions of Liberty, or native Americans, or native animals, or a combination of the same.

The first President to appear on a coin was Lincoln, who knocked a native American off the penny in 1909. He was joined by the Father of our Country in 1932, when George Washington replaced a Liberty figure on the quarter, by Thomas Jefferson in 1938, when the Sage of Monticello took his place on the five-cent piece and the classic buffalo nickel was discontinued, and then by Franklin Roosevelt, whose visage replaced the Mercury dime in 1945.

I’m not opposed to honoring Presidents, but I’d like to see American coins go back to recognizing themes rather than individuals. Coins like the liberty penny, the buffalo nickel, and the walking Liberty half dollar were beautiful, and aspirational. Our current coins are pretty boring by comparison.

When College Graduates Move Back With Their Parents

Last week Gallup released some survey data that deserved more attention than it actually received. The survey indicated that, in the United States, 14 percent of adults aged 24 to 34 live with their parents. What’s more, 51 percent of young adults aged 18 to 23 live with their parents. Put them together, and almost one-third of American adults under the age of 35 live with their parents.

As the Gallup report linked above indicates, there are many potential causes for this phenomenon. Some young adults, for example, may be helping to care for their aging or infirm parents. But deep down, we all know what the real cause is — the job market for young people is terrible, and many college graduates have obtained their diplomas at the price of a huge amount of debt. If you can’t get a job that covers the cost of housing, allows you to service your student loans, and leaves a little money left for living expenses, you don’t really have a choice. Inexorable financial necessity drives the decision.

The reality exposed by the Gallup survey is why so many of us have difficulty accepting the gradual decline in the unemployment rate as real evidence of an improving economy. We all know too many smart, capable, motivated college graduates who have had to move back in with their parents to try to make ends meet while they look for a job. It’s not what they — or their parents — envisioned when then went off to college.

The Gallup piece ends with a paragraph that begins: “A key question is to what extent those living at home are better off or worse off than their contemporaries who are out on their own, and what implications that has for society in general and the economy in particular.” Gallup promises to explore this question in a future report, but I think I can predict the findings — young adults who live with their parents probably eat better but are less satisfied than their friends who have found a job and are living on their own. People want to be independent, and the surest indication of independence is maintaining your own place. Mom’s home-cooked meals are nice and the comforts of home are pleasant, but young people who have to move back into their old rooms to make ends meet have to be frustrated and worried about their careers and their futures.

The Last Frigid Morning

IMG_1786Today it was 9 degrees when I went out for my morning walk. The mounds of plowed snow were crystallized in the cold air and glittering under the light of street lamps and the distant glimmer of the Moon.

But according to the weather app on my iPhone, we are in for some relief. Today the high temperature is supposed to inch above freezing, tomorrow the low temperature will be in the balmy 30s, and Thursday . . . well, on Thursday we’re supposed to get rain and the temperature is supposed to reach the 50s. (Rain, for those of you who had forgotten, is like liquid snow.)

The 50s! We’ll have massive snow melt, of course, but we’ll trade it gladly for reaching such sultry heights.

Soliciting Game App Recommendations

I’ve been doing some business travel recently, and more is on the horizon. Typically I prefer to read, but it’s hard to enjoy a book when you are reading it in the ten-minute increments that exist between, say, getting to the gate and having to board your flight. Those little snippets of time seem much more suited to game playing on an iPhone or tablet.

IMG_5914I’ve got only a few games on my iPhone and tablet: solitaire, spider solitaire, Sudoku, and Tetris. As those choices reflect, I’m not much for games where I have to rescue adorable animals or fight barbarians or outwit wizards. I’m more of a puzzle person. I feel they help to keep me mentally sharp, and they also appeal to my stubborn vanity. Give me a spider solitaire deal that seems impossible, and I’ll try again and again until I figure it out.

I feel overwhelmed and hopeless when I go to the app store and try to sift through the thousands of game app options that are there, which is why I’ve stuck with old, tried-and-true selections. Hence, my question — are there good apps out there that I should add to my phone and tablet? Any good crossword or Scrabble apps, or other puzzle options that I haven’t found? So far, I’ve stuck to free games and endured the ads, but I’d be willing to pay for a few good games that would help pass the time while I’m cooling my heels at Gate B 31. Any suggestions would be most welcome.