Friday, April 27, 2018

Credit where it's due

Richard Nixon is rightfully remembered as one of the great villains of American democracy.  But he wasn't all bad.  He opened relations with China, appointed four mostly sane Supreme Court justices, and oversaw the establishment of the EPA among many other accomplishments.  Likewise, I believe that Donald Trump will eventually go down in history as one of the worst (if not the worst) president the U.S. has ever had, but I think he deserves some kudos for some of the recent developments in Korea:
The leaders of North and South Korea have pledged to jointly eliminate the risk of war and work together to achieve complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. 
The joint statement Friday, from the border truce village of Panmunjom, concluded a historic one-day bilateral summit aimed at achieving peace between the longtime adversaries for the first time in more than sixty years. The meeting of the Korean leaders was the first in more than a decade.
Whether this actually leads anywhere remains to be seen, but the mere fact that this announcement happened at all is astonishing to me.   I thought a hot war in Korea was much more likely than peace overtures.  Just the change in rhetorical tone from Kim Jong Un is borderline miraculous.  A week ago I'd have given long odds against any of this happening in my lifetime.

I have no idea whether all this is happening because of or despite (or is completely indifferent to) anything Donald Trump has done.  But it happened on his watch.  If war had broken out I surely would have given him the blame, so he deserves some of the credit regardless of what his actual influence might have been.  I have a very hard time believing that the "little rocket man" rhetoric was helpful, but Mike Pompeo's visit certainly seems not to have set things back.

I still want to see Donald Trump go down in screaming flames because he is such an asshole, and I don't like to see assholes win.  But I grudgingly concede that he seems to have made more progress in North Korea than any of his predecessors.

Paul Ryan forces out House chaplain

Just in case there was the slightest ember of hope in your mind that Republicans actually care about religious freedom and are not just odious hypocritical power-grubbing opportunists, this should extinguish it once and for all:
House Chaplain Patrick Conroy’s sudden resignation has sparked a furor on Capitol Hill, with sources in both parties saying he was pushed out by Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.). 
Conroy’s own resignation announcement stated that it was done at Ryan’s request.
And why would Paul Ryan want to force out a chaplain who has been in the post for 11 years?  Because he spoke heresy and suggested that the new tax bill should be "fair to all Americans".  (The idea!)  Oh, and because he invited a "Muslim person" (yes, that is an exact quote -- can you imagine someone on Fox News referring to Pat Robertson as a "Christian person"?) to deliver an opening prayer.

No wonder he had to go.  It's bad enough the Jews are crawling around on the House floor, do we really have to let the Muslims in?

An open letter to Jack Phillips

[Jack Phillips is the owner of the Masterpiece Cake Shop in Lakewood, Colorado.  Mr. Phillips is being sued by the Colorado Civil Rights Commission for refusing to make a wedding cake for a gay couple.  His case is currently before the U.S. Supreme Court.  Yesterday Mr. Phillips published an op-ed in The Washington Post to which this letter is a response.]

Dear Mr. Phillips:

Imagine your child was in a terrible car accident and rushed to the hospital.  There the doctor tells you, "I'm terribly sorry, but she has lost a lot of blood.  She needs a transfusion.  Unfortunately, I can't give her one because I am a Jehovah's Witness and we believe that blood transfusions are against the will of God."  (Don't like that example?  OK, here's another: suppose the doctor was a Muslim and told you that he couldn't operate on your daughter because she is female, and unfortunately there are no female doctors available at the moment.  I can do this all day long.  There is an endless variety of sincerely held religious beliefs out there in the world.)

How would you feel?  Would you fight as hard for the right of doctors to refuse their professional services on religious grounds as you are fighting for your own?  Would you accept delayed medical care for your daughter as the price of religious freedom?

I suspect the answer to that question is "no", but either way you and I have a problem that goes far beyond cakes.  If indeed you want the Supreme Court to uphold your religious freedom but not those of others then you are a hypocrite, and we're done.  I have no respect for hypocrites.  Hypocrisy is the ultimate evil because it justifies anything.  If, on the other hand, your answer is "yes", that you would be able to accept these costs, then we still have a problem, but it's a very different problem, because not only are you willing to accept these costs on your own behalf, but you are insisting that I accept these costs as well.  Because if my daughter ends up in the hospital and needs a transfusion, I want her to fucking get one.  Got it?

I apologize for the crude language, but I really want to emphasize how strongly I feel about this.  You see, my most deeply held belief, my religion if you will, is that decisions ought to be made according to evidence, experiment and reason, and not on faith.  You have the right to believe what you want, but you most emphatically do not have the right to impose your beliefs on me in any way, shape, or form.  That includes passing laws to allow doctors to deprive me and mine of medical care because of their own personal beliefs.

You see, in a professional setting, sometimes you have to check your personal beliefs at the door.  As unintuitive as it might seem, that is part and parcel of living in a free country.  Doctors don't get to pick and choose who they treat and how they treat them based on their religion.  Judges don't get to pick and choose what laws they will enforce based on their religious beliefs.  Restaurant proprietors don't get to pick and choose who can sit at the lunch counter based on their religious beliefs.

I know you think your case is different because making wedding cakes is an artistic endeavor, and I don't dispute that.  I'm happy to concede that your cakes are works of art.  But you are not actually arguing for your freedom of expression.  You are not refusing to make cakes with particular content, you are refusing to make cakes for a particular kind of customer.  If you refused to make a cake with, say, an obscene image on it, no one would dispute your right to turn that down.  But what you are asking for is very different.  You want to be able to refuse to make cakes for gay couples regardless of what the cake looks like.  Your criterion for what you are and are not willing to do has nothing to do with the cake and everything to do with the customer.  That is unacceptable.

You wonder "if there will be a place in the community for [you] when the dust settles."  I'm sure there will.  This country is, sadly, chock-full of people who want to discriminate against others because of their sexual orientation.  Should you lose, I have no doubt that you will find friends among them.  And although you will find it hard to believe, you will still be free.  You will be free to believe what you want to believe.  You will be free to shout your odious beliefs from the rooftops.  You will even be free to make cakes for whomever you choose!  The only thing you won't be able to do is to make cakes professionally, because, in this country, we hold professionals to a higher standard.

At least, for the sake of all the people who need blood transfusions, I hope we do.

Sincerely yours,
Ron Garret
Emerald Hills, California

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Support Josh Harder for Congress

I've been quiet lately in part because I'm sinking back into the pit of despair when I think about politics.  The spinelessness and hypocrisy of the Republican party, the insidious and corrosive effects of corporate "free speech" embodied in soulless monsters like Sinclair and Fox News, and the fact that ultimately all this insanity has its foundation in the will of the people (or at least a significant fraction of them) has me struggling at times to see much light at the end of this tunnel.  The outpouring of grass-roots energy in the Democratic party is encouraging, of course, but we really shouldn't have to work this hard do defend the principle that, if the President is a crook, he should be called out for it.

The Washington Post yesterday ran a story headlined "Could Trump bury Mueller’s findings? Yes — if Republicans help him do it."  You should read it.  It's sobering.  I am as staunch a defender of civil liberties and the presumption of innocence as you are likely to find.  But if Donald Trump is, say, beholden to the Russian government, don't you think the American people ought to know?

It is becoming clear that we cannot count on the Republicans to answer this question affirmatively.  They have repeatedly shown that they will put party over principle.  They will gerrymander, lie, cheat, and even abandon their own principles to stay in power (to what end one has to wonder).  Not that the Democrats are necessarily a whole lot better, but there is one thing that is becoming clear: if we want to know the truth about Donald Trump, the only way we can insure that we will find out is to vote the Democrats into power in the House of Representatives this November.  If we fail to do that, it will be game-over.  Robert Mueller will be fired, his report will be buried, and We the People will never know the truth.

Happily, taking the House seems to be a real possibility, and I want to take this opportunity to do something that I very rarely do here on the Ramblings and endorse a Congressional candidate and ask you, my readers, to support him.  His name is Josh Harder, and he is running in California's 10th Congressional district, which includes the central valley town of Modesto.  That district is currently represented by Republican Jeff Denham, who won the 2016 election by only 3 points.  If there was ever a flippable district in the U.S., this is it.

I met Josh the other day and I was very impressed.  He's working incredibly hard, he knows what he's doing, he has great stage presence, and he has terrific command of facts and issues.  But most importantly, he will bring us one step closer to a Democratic majority in the House, which we will need in order to stop the Republicans from burying Donald Trumps sins in a bureaucratic sarcophagus.  Whatever your stand on policy may be, I ask again: if the President of the United States is beholden to a foreign power (or has otherwise broken the law) don't you think we ought to know?

Saturday, April 07, 2018

The taxi ride from hell: A data point for the rideshare debate

One of the arguments made by established taxi companies against ride-sharing companies like Lyft and Uber is that the latter's passengers are taking a greater risk because of the questionable vetting of the drivers.  Real taxi drivers are professionals, the argument goes, with proper training and screening to insure that they safely and efficiently whisk you from A to B.

To which I say: Bollocks.  I just had the worst ride of my entire life, and it was in an officially licensed New York City yellow cab.  It was so extraordinarily bad that I didn't tip the driver.  I have never before in my life not tipped a driver.  I was this close to not paying him at all.

It was not an obscure route: Times Square to Newark airport.  Any NYC taxi driver worth the title should know that route like the back of their hand.  Google Traffic indicated that except for the usual backup at the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel, traffic was light and we should get there in about 30 minutes.

I sat down in the back of the cab and it was immediately evident that this was not going to be the most comfortable ride of my life.  The seat had a loose spring (or something) that was poking me in my butt, and did the entire trip.

To fully appreciate how utterly incompetent this cabbie was it will be helpful to know that the usual route from Times Square to Newark airport goes something like this: you go west through mid-town Manhattan and take the Lincoln Tunnel under the Hudson river.  From there, you continue on route 495 to Interstate 95, hang a left, cruise for 20 minutes or so, and exit to the airport.  Easy peasy.  If there is heavy traffic on the interstate one might choose to take a different route to bypass the interstate, but as I mentioned, it was early and traffic was light.

The transition through the Lincoln Tunnel went smoothly enough, but when we got to the other side the driver suddenly took an unexpected turn and we ended up on New Jersey surface streets.  With traffic lights.

Now, New York cabs have plexiglass safety dividers between the driver and the back seat.  Some of them have holes or little windows in them so you can talk to the driver, but not this one.  So I had to shout to be heard: "Why didn't you take the interstate?"

It quickly became clear that the driver's command of English, in both transmit and receive modes, left a little room for improvement and communication was going to be a challenge.  At one point, the driver passed his cell phone to me through a little cell-phone-sized man trap in the safety divider.  I saw that he was running some sort of navigation app, but I am not sufficiently wise in the ways of Waze to ascertain exactly what was going on or how to do anything about it.  So I just resigned myself to the fact that this trip was going to take a little longer than I expected, and passed the phone back to the driver.

I pulled up Google Maps on my own phone so I could follow our progress, and it appeared that our plan was to take state route 9.  This was slightly alarming as there were construction warnings along a substantial stretch of that road, but happily it appeared that this was because the road was closed in the opposite direction.  Going North we would be able to get through with minimal fuss.

Or at least we would have done if the driver had actually turned onto route 9.  He didn't.  He sailed right past the on ramp and into the next little enclave of surface streets, from which there was no evident route to the airport at all.

I piped up again and asked if the driver realized that he had just missed a turn.  He allowed that he had, apologized sheepishly, and said he would make a U turn, which, in New Jersey, is no mean feat.  In fact we did not make a U-turn, but rather went around several blocks until we finally found ourselves back at the on-ramp for state route 9.  (During this time I could hear the driver on the phone with someone who was apparently trying to talk him through the situation to get us back on track.)

Now, to be fair, the road design and signage in this particular area were atrocious, almost as if someone had deliberately designed the place to be misleading so that they could hide in a nearby bird blind and snicker at the hapless drivers trying to find their way.  But this is not at all unusual in New Jersey, and if you're going to drive there for a living you really have to be able to take this sort of thing in stride.  Fortunately, by proceeding very, very slowly and deliberately, our driver was finally able to get us onto the correct road.

Alas, our troubles were not over.  By now I was watching carefully what the driver was doing to make sure he wasn't about to miss the exit for the airport, which is exactly what he proceeded to do.  As he started sailing by the off ramp I shouted at him, "You're about to miss the exit!"  But instead of veering to make the off ramp, he slammed on the brakes and stopped!  Right in the middle of the freeway.  A brief negotiation ensued, upon the completion of which we finally turned right and into the airport.

I micromanaged the drive to the terminal, and as I noted earlier, I did not give him a tip.

Because this driver was so off-the-charts atrocious I decided to report him to the NYC taxi authority, the organization that is supposed to be in charge of insuring that yellow cab drivers are more competent than the disreputable scoundrels that drive Lyfts and Ubers.  They have a convenient web page for filing complaints, but upon availing myself of this I discovered to my dismay that in order for any complaint to be acted upon you have to be willing to make yourself available for an in-person hearing.  In Queens.  Well, I live in California, so going to a hearing in Queens is not exactly convenient.  I went ahead and filed my complaint anyway (and condensed this story down to about three sentences so it would fit in the tiny text box provided for you to give the details of your complaint.  A few minutes later I received this helpful response:

Service Request #: C1-1-1546782941
Date Submitted: 04/06/18 3:46:51 PM
Request Type: Taxi Report
Details: Driver Report 
Your Service Request was closed.
Your report has been sent to the Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC). You are not available to participate in a hearing so TLC cannot take any action against the driver or car service company. No further information will be available for your report.

So... no more taxis to the aiport for me.  I'd rather roll the dice with Uber.  At least with them if the ride sucks I don't have to show up for a hearing in order to give the driver a bad review if he deserves one.

Which, now that I come to think of it, not a single Uber driver ever has.

I would like to note for the record that I have taken dozens and dozens of NYC taxis over the years, and they were by and large competent and efficient.  This experience was definitely an outlier.  But it does undermine the taxi company's argument that Uber and Lyft should not be used because their drivers haven't been as well vetted.