Monday, October 7, 2013

What I Read Today - Monday October 7, 2013

He Beat Us in War but Never in Battle To defeat any adversary, the late North Vietnamese Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap permitted immense casualties and the near total destruction of his country. By JOHN MCCAIN I met Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap—who died on Friday—twice. The first time was in the Vietnamese military hospital where I was taken shortly after my capture in 1967. My father commanded all U.S. forces in the Pacific, which made me an object of curiosity in some quarters of the North Vietnamese government. I remember several high-ranking visitors in addition to the guards and interrogators I saw daily. Giap, North Vietnam's minister of defense, was the only one I recognized. He stayed only a few moments, staring at me, then left without saying a word. Our second meeting was in the early 1990s, during one of many trips I made to Hanoi to discuss the POW/MIA issue and the normalization of relations between our countries. I had asked then-Foreign Minister Nguyen Co Thach and his deputy, Le Mai, to arrange a brief interview with the legendary commander of the People's Army of North Vietnam The next day I was ushered into the grand reception room of the Beaux-Arts presidential palace the French had built for their colonial governors, where the general was waiting. Smiling, diminutive, aged but spry, and dressed in a gray suit and tie, he hardly looked like his wartime reputation as a ruthless fighter with a fierce temper. Giap greeted me warmly beneath an enormous bust of Ho Chi Minh, who had led Vietnam in the wars against the French and the United States. Both of us clasped each other's shoulders as if we were reunited comrades rather than former enemies. I had hoped our discussion would concentrate on his historical role. After I came home from Vietnam in 1973, I read everything I could get my hands on about both the French and American wars there, starting with Bernard Fall's "Hell in a Very Small Place," his classic study of the 1954 siege of Dien Bien Phu, where French colonial rule effectively ended and Giap's genius first became apparent to an astonished world. I wanted to hear Giap describe that nearly two-month long battle, to explain how his forces had shocked the French by managing the impossible feat of bringing artillery across mountains and through the densest jungles. I wanted to talk to him about that other marvel of logistics, the Ho Chi Minh Trail. I knew he was proud of his reputation as the "Red Napoleon," and I presumed he would welcome an opportunity to indulge my curiosity about his triumphs. I wanted us to behave as two retired military officers and former enemies recounting the historical events in which he had played a critical part and I a small one. But he answered most of my questions briefly, adding little to what I already knew, and then waved his hand to indicate disinterest. That is all in the past now, he said. You and I should discuss a future where our countries are not enemies but friends. And so we did, two politicians discussing the business between our countries that had brought me to Vietnam. Giap was a master of logistics, but his reputation rests on more than that. His victories were achieved by a patient strategy that he and Ho Chi Minh were convinced would succeed—an unwavering resolve to suffer immense casualties and the near total destruction of their country to defeat any adversary, no matter how powerful. "You will kill 10 of us, we will kill one of you," Ho said, "but in the end, you will tire of it first." Giap executed that strategy with an unbending will. The French repulsed wave after wave of frontal attacks at Dien Bien Phu. The 1968 Tet offensive against the U.S. was a military disaster that effectively destroyed the Viet Cong. But Giap persisted and prevailed. The U.S. never lost a battle against North Vietnam, but it lost the war. Countries, not just their armies, win wars. Giap understood that. We didn't. Americans tired of the dying and the killing before the Vietnamese did. It's hard to defend the morality of the strategy. But you can't deny its success. Near the end of our meeting, I made another attempt to test Giap's candor. I asked him if it were true that he had opposed Vietnam's invasion of Cambodia. He dismissed that too, with something like, "the party's decisions are always correct." With that, our meeting came to an end. We stood up, shook hands, and as I turned to leave, he grasped my arm, and said softly, "you were an honorable enemy." I don't know if he meant that as a comparison to Vietnam's other adversaries, the Chinese, the Japanese or the French, who had killed his wife, or if it was an implicit recognition we had fought for ideals rather than empire and that our humanity had played a part in our defeat. Maybe he just meant to flatter me. Whatever his meaning, I appreciated the sentiment. Mr. McCain is a Republican senator from Arizona. A version of this article appeared October 6, 2013, on page A15 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: He Beat Us in War but Never in Battle. Copyright 2012 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved This copy is for your personal, non-commercial use only. Distribution and use of this material are governed by our Subscriber Agreement and by copyright law. For non-personal use or to order multiple copies, please contact Dow Jones Reprints at 1-800-843-0008 or visit

Monday, September 30, 2013

What I Read Today - Monday September 30, 2013

From: The New York Times Our Outlaw President? By HENRY J. AARON WASHINGTON — THE United States government is likely to shut down nonessential services tomorrow, after House Republicans voted before dawn yesterday to attach a one-year delay of President Obama’s health care law (and a repeal of a tax to pay for it) to legislation to keep the government running. The Democratic-led Senate is expected to refuse. House Republicans also said last week that they would not agree to lift the debt ceiling unless implementation of the health law was delayed by one year. So the government is also headed toward a mid-October default on its debts — and a full-blown constitutional crisis. Failure to raise the debt will force the president to break a law — the only question is which one. The Constitution requires the president to spend what Congress has instructed him to spend, to raise only those taxes Congress has authorized him to impose and to borrow no more than Congress authorizes. If President Obama spends what the law orders him to spend and collects the taxes Congress has authorized him to collect, then he must borrow more than Congress has authorized him to borrow. If the debt ceiling is not raised, he will have to violate one of these constitutional imperatives. Which should he choose? In 2011, when Congress last flirted with not raising the debt ceiling, lawyers disagreed. Some argued that the president must honor the debt ceiling, thereby violating budget laws. Others held that he must honor budget legislation. No one argued that he should unilaterally raise taxes. Professors Neil H. Buchanan and Michael C. Dorf, who parsed the arguments in the Columbia Law Review in 2012, concluded that all options were bad, but that disregarding the debt ceiling was least bad from a legal standpoint. I agree. Lawyers tend to play down policy considerations as a basis for interpreting law. In this case, the consequences are so overwhelmingly on one side that they cannot be ignored by the president and should not be ignored by the courts. If the debt ceiling is not increased, the president should disregard it, and honor spending and tax legislation. A decision to cut spending enough to avoid borrowing would instantaneously slash outlays by approximately $600 billion a year. Cutting payments to veterans, Social Security benefits and interest on the national debt by half would just about do the job. But such cuts would not only illegally betray promises to veterans, the elderly and disabled and bondholders; they would destroy the credit standing of the United States and boost borrowing costs on the nation’s $12 trillion publicly held debt. There is no clear legal basis for deciding what programs to cut. Defense contractors, or Medicare payments to doctors? Education grants, or the F.B.I.? Endless litigation would follow. No matter how the cuts might be distributed, they would, if sustained for more than a very brief period, kill the economic recovery and cause unemployment to return quickly to double digits. Nor is it reasonable to expect the president to collect more in taxes than is authorized by law. For him to do so would infringe on Congress’s most fundamental powers and the principles on which the nation was founded. The only defensible option for the president if the debt ceiling is not raised is to disregard the debt ceiling. The action would be unconstitutional because it would be illegal. Financial markets might react negatively, but not nearly so negatively as if the United States failed to redeem bonds or to pay interest on its debt. The president would be attacked. He might even be impeached by the House. But maybe not: the House would then be saying that the president should have illegally failed to pay F.B.I. agents, or school districts, or Medicare doctors. In any case, he would not be convicted by the Senate. And he would have saved the nation from much agony. Disregarding the debt ceiling would have one additional, thoroughly benign effect. It would end the capacity of Congressional minorities to precipitate crises in order to accomplish goals for which they lacked the votes. Today, a minority is holding hostage all federal programs in an attempt to eviscerate a law that Congress passed, the president signed and the Supreme Court upheld — the Affordable Care Act. In the future, an imaginative and irresponsible minority could use the threat not to raise the debt ceiling for any purpose — to shape tax policy, or foreign policy, or civil rights policy. The debt ceiling is the fiscal equivalent of the human appendix — a law with no discoverable purpose. It is one law too many. Once Congress has set tax rates and spending levels, it has effectively said what it wants the debt to be. If Congress leaves the debt ceiling at a level inconsistent with duly enacted spending and tax laws, the president has no choice but to ignore it. Henry J. Aaron is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Monday, August 26, 2013

What I Read Today - Monday August 26, 2013

Threatened by the Armageddon Caucus By E.J. Dionne Jr., Published: August 25 From the Washington Post Are you ready for the Big Magilla of American politics? This fall, every important domestic issue could crash into every other: health-care reform, autopilot budget cuts, a government shutdown, even a default on the national debt. If I were betting, I’d wager that we will somehow avoid a total meltdown. House Speaker John Boehner seems desperate to get around his party’s Armageddon Caucus. But after three years of congressional dysfunction brought on by the rise of a radicalized brand of conservatism, it’s time to call the core questions: Will our ability to govern ourselves be held perpetually hostage to an ideology that casts government as little more than dead weight in American life? And will a small minority in Congress be allowed to grind decision-making to a halt? Congress is supposed to be the venue in which we Americans work our way past divisions that are inevitable in a large and diverse democracy. Yet for some time, Republican congressional leaders have given the most right-wing members of the House and Senate a veto power that impedes compromise, and thus governing itself. On the few occasions when the far-right veto was lifted, Congress got things done, courtesy of a middle-ground majority that included most Democrats and the more moderately conservative Republicans. That’s how Congress passed the modest tax increases on the well-off that have helped reduce the deficit, as well as the Violence Against Women Act and assistance for the victims of Hurricane Sandy. All these actions had something in common: They were premised on the belief that government can take practical steps to make American life better. This idea is dismissed by those ready to shut down the government or to use the debt ceiling as a way of forcing the repeal or delay of the Affordable Care Act and passing more draconian spending reductions. It needs to be made very clear that these radical Republicans are operating well outside their party’s own constructive traditions. Before their 2010 election victory, Republicans had never been willing to use the threat of default to achieve their goals. The GOP tried a government shutdown back in the mid-1990s, but it was a political disaster. Experienced Republicans are trying to steer their party away from the brink, the very place where politicians such as Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.) and a group of fourscore or so House members want it to go. Particularly instructive is the effort to repeal health-care reform. The very fact that everyone now accepts the term “Obamacare” to refer to a measure designed to get health insurance to many more Americans is a sign of how stupidly partisan we have become. We never described Medicare as “Johnsoncare.” We didn’t label Social Security “FDRsecurity.” Tying the whole thing to Obama disguises the fact that most of the major provisions of the law he fought for had their origins among conservatives and Republicans. The health-care exchanges to facilitate the purchase of private insurance were based on a Heritage Foundation proposal, first brought to fruition in Massachusetts by a Republican governor named Mitt Romney. Subsidizing private premiums was always a Republican alternative to extending Medicare to cover everyone, the remedy preferred by many liberals. Conservatives even once favored the individual mandate to buy insurance, as MSNBC columnist Tim Noah pointed out. “Many states now require passengers in automobiles to wear seatbelts for their own protection,” the Heritage Foundation’s Stuart Butler said back in 1989. “Many others require anybody driving a car to have liability insurance.” Since all of us will use health care at some point, Butler argued reasonably, it makes sense to have us all in the insurance pool. But that was then. The right wing’s recent rejection of a significant government role in ending the scandal of “a health-care system that does not even come close to being comprehensive and fails to reach far too many” — the words were spoken 24 years ago by the late Sen. John Chafee, a Rhode Island Republican — tells us why Congress no longer works. The GOP has gone from endorsing market-based government solutions to problems the private sector can’t solve — i.e, Obamacare — to believing that no solution involving expanded government can possibly be good for the country. Ask yourself: If conservatives still believed in what both left and right once saw as a normal approach to government, would they speak so cavalierly about shutting it down or risking its credit? This is what’s at stake in the Big Magilla. Read more from E.J. Dionne’s archive, follow him on Twitter or subscribe to his updates on Facebook. Read more on this issue: Greg Sargent: Ted Cruz is right about Obamacare Jennifer Rubin: The ‘dumbest idea’ is threatening to defund Obamacare Eugene Robinson: The GOP in Fantasyland Dana Milbank: Republicans’ Obamacare search-and-destroy mission © The Washington Post Company

Thursday, August 8, 2013

What I Read Today - August 8, 2013

The Bible's case for immigration reform From the LA Times Showing compassion to foreigners and strangers is central to biblical morality, and evangelical Christians have joined the fight to pass commonsense reform. By Jim Wallis August 8, 2013 Some say it will take a miracle for Congress to pass common-sense immigration reform. That miracle may be in the making, helped along by Christians who want to put their faith into action. On July 25, 300 evangelical Christians from 27 states had 110 meetings with their mostly Republican representatives on Capitol Hill to ask them to let personal faith replace political fear. Republican leaders told us we represented a "new factor" in the debate on immigration, a grass-roots constituency for reform that can influence the political right. We offered a clear message to every member of the House, but especially those who consider themselves people of faith. Christians, including millions of evangelicals, believe fixing our broken immigration system is long overdue. We aren't primarily motivated by political considerations or even by the clear economic benefits immigration reform would bring. It is the biblical call to "welcome the stranger" and Jesus' concern for "the least of these" that inspires us. Congress needs to pass immigration reform because it is the morally right thing to do. Of course, God never ordains or endorses particular pieces of legislation — bills are always the product of compromises and limitations. But the principles contained in the common-sense immigration bill put forward by both Republicans and Democrats in the Senate are the right ones. The proposal could bring 11 million people out of the shadows, reunite families, provide an earned, achievable pathway to citizenship, respect the rule of law and secure the border — all goals that are broadly consistent with biblical values. When three of the largest Republican constituencies — evangelicals, law enforcement officials and business leaders — are in favor of an immigration overhaul, it's hard to fathom the arguments against it. Those whose position on reform is based on political fear, unacknowledged racial prejudice or worries about losing primaries to far-right ideologues are too often the same people who trumpet their religious convictions as guiding their decisions in public life. Our claim to them is simple: Politicians who are professing Christians need to consider what their faith has to say about immigration. If they oppose reform and refuse to offer compassion to our immigrant brothers and sisters, they should justify their positions on moral grounds. We join with other faith communities in asking for a moral and religious conversation about immigration reform — not just a political one. We don't think a faith-based argument exists against immigration reform, at least if you're reading the Bible closely. God's passionate, abiding concern for immigrants and foreigners, strangers and travelers — and for our neighbors — is obvious to anyone reading through Scripture. In the Old Testament, the Lord commands: "When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself … " (Leviticus 19:33-34). The biblical word "ger" for the foreigners in our midst occurs an astounding 92 times in the Hebrew scriptures, with the consistent instruction to protect them. In the New Testament, the stranger, and all who are vulnerable, are at the very heart of the Gospel. In the book of Matthew, Jesus offers a vision in which caring for them is the defining mark of God's kingdom: "For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me" (Matthew 25:35-36). That evangelical Christians would finally act to reform the immigration system should surprise no one, and not just for theological reasons. Undocumented immigrants have joined our congregations; we understand the problem firsthand. They are our brothers and sisters in the body of Christ. And we know that by reforming our immigration laws, we can create a system that also reflects the best values of our nation and the highest ideals of our faith. We act because, as the book of James reminds us, "faith without works is dead." Conservative Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida has connected his faith with his vote: "I think the biggest change hasn't been in the pulpit; it's been in the pews.... It's one thing when 11 million is a statistic. The other thing is when one of those 11 million is your friend, a human being who you now know … as a father, as a husband, as a mother, as a worker, as a worshiper.... Our faith has always been about compassion and it compels you to do something. If you took compassion or the principle of compassion out of the Bible, it would be in tatters because it's all over the place." Compassion is indeed all over the Bible. I pray it will also be found in the House of Representatives. It's time for Christians in the House to stand up in support of immigration reform, or to explain why they won't — as Christians. If they follow their faith, we will see the miracle we need. Jim Wallis is president of the Washington-based Christian organization Sojourners. His new book is "On God's Side: What Religion Forgets and Politics Hasn't Learned About Serving the Common Good." Copyright © 2013, Los Angeles Times

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

What I Read Today - August 6, 2013

From the New York Times - Monday August 6, 2013 The A-Rod Problem By DAVID BROOKS I started writing a column for The Times about a decade ago, and I endured a tough first few months. That was, in part, because, like anybody starting a new job, I wasn’t sure I could pull it off. So, especially in the first few months, I had a self-preoccupied question on my mind: How am I doing? There was no noncrazy-making answer to that question. I was always looking for some ultimate validation, which, of course, can never come. But, after a little while, I settled into a routine and my focus shifted from my own performance to the actual subjects I was writing about. This shift from performance to subject may not have made the columns any better, but it sure did improve my psychic equilibrium. That period was a lesson in the perils of self-preoccupation. I think of this because of the news on Monday about Alex Rodriguez’s suspension from baseball through the 2014 season. Judging from the outside, the rest of us are pikers of self-preoccupation next to A-Rod. When you see him standing on deck or running off the field at the end of an inning, you see a man who seems to be manufacturing his own persona, disingenuously crafting a series of behaviors designed to look right. When he gives a press conference, he doesn’t look like a man giving a press conference. He looks like a man giving a performance of giving a press conference. Even his off-the-field life — dating Madonna, partaking in soft-core kabbalah, dragging along his publicists and entourage — leaves the impression that he is always observing himself, and measuring to see if he lives up to the image of a superstar. Rodriguez was a baseball prodigy from his earliest years. He batted an insane .505 his senior year in high school and had up to 100 scouts at every game. When he was drafted first over all by the Seattle Mariners, he hired the superagent Scott Boras, who damaged whatever chances Rodriguez had of become a normal human being. Boras turned him into a corporate entity. In her book “A-Rod,” Selena Roberts reported that, in the middle of his first contract negotiations, Boras had Rodriguez read a statement accusing the Mariners of being “low class.” In other words, he was told to attack his first organization in order to squeeze a few dollars out of them. From the beginning, Rodriguez’s preoccupation was not with team, it was with self. Rodriguez then retained a guru named Jim Fannin, who further isolated him from his teammates and who molded him according to a self-conscious, prefab self-help formula. By the time Rodriguez became a free agent, he was the marketing facade of A-Rod Inc. When negotiating with the Mets, Rodriguez’s handlers asked for the use of a private jet, a special hotel suite when on the road and a personal marketing staff. By the time he reached the Texas Rangers, according to Roberts, a clubhouse attendant was required to put a dab of toothpaste on his toothbrush after every game. Of course, this sort of egomaniacal behavior alienated him from his teammates, isolating him in the zone of his own self-concern. He was always the most talented player on the field but never a leader. He developed a reputation for caring more about personal stats than team wins. Even when he tried to be a good teammate, that was little naturalness or spontaneity. Self-preoccupied people hit the right notes, but often so hard that they sound tinny. Self-preoccupation creates an ego that is at once overinflated, insatiable and overly sensitive. Self-preoccupation also seems to make it hard for supremely talented people like A-Rod to deal with their own talents. One of the mysteries around Rodriguez is why the most supremely talented baseball player on the planet would risk his career to allegedly take performance-enhancing drugs? My theory would be that self-preoccupied people have trouble seeing that their natural abilities come from outside themselves and can only be developed when directed toward something else outside themselves. Enclosed in self, they come to believe that their talents come from self, are the self. They have no outside criteria that tells them what their talents are for or when they are sufficient. Locked in a cycle of insecurity and attempted self-validation, their talents are never enough, and they end up devouring what they have been given. As Rodriguez’s former manager, Joe Torre, once wrote, the really good hitter has to “concern himself with getting the job done, instead of how it looks. ... There’s a certain free-fall you have to go through when you commit yourself without a guarantee that it’s always gong to be good. ... Allow yourself to be embarrassed. Allow yourself to be vulnerable.” At every step along the way, Rodriguez chased self-maximization, which ended up leading to his self-destruction.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

What I Read Today - Tuesday June 4, 2013

From: Flying Magazine This Isn't America Secret program to stop pilots with no probable cause needs to stop. By Robert Goyer / Published: Jun 04, 2013 You’ve probably read reports about innocent pilots arriving at their destinations after long cross-country flights only to be greeted by squadrons of police agents — from local cops to Homeland Security and who knows what other agencies — to search and question them as though they were under arrest. Reports we have heard of this program are that the agents do not answer questions about why they made the traffic stop. The story has been reported by AOPA and in The Atlantic by fellow pilot James Fallows. As the story comes out, we’re getting more reports of pilots being similarly detained and searched. The program has had the curious effect of uniting pilots on very different sides of the political coin, from civil libertarian ACLU types to libertarians and tea party types. I’ve been the subject of two unsettling incidents in the past three years myself. The first was as a result of my turning around on an IFR flight plan (after making the proper calls and getting a clearance to do so) about 100 miles into the flight after the engine appeared to be running a bit rough and started producing slightly less power. After learning of the subsequent emergency vehicle response upon my landing back at KAUS (a response I specifically told ATC I did not need or want), an inspector at the local FSDO saw fit to open “a federal investigation” of me for what he saw as possible reckless pilot actions. The inspector closed the investigation a few days later after learning I was a journalist, but only after having threatened me with tough enforcement because I was unwilling to answer his questions, as was my right. Then two months ago I was flying a leased-back airplane and had landed at an airport along my way to refuel — I am purposely leaving out details here — and was asked by the folks at the FBO to call an FAA number. After failing to figure out what I might have done on my routine IFR flight to deserve attention from the feds, I called. It turned out that my airplane had never been re-registered by its owner (a relatively new FAA requirement), so even though the registration card in the airplane looked up to date, it was not in fact a registered airplane. The feds were right to call me out on that, and the guy from Atlanta I spoke with — whose name I did not write down and do not remember — could not have been nicer. I left the airplane there, found alternate lift, and went on my way. But the thing that got my attention through all of this was that the system apparently automatically spotted the unregistered airplane and alerted an FAA employee who then made the calls. I don’t know about you, but I find this kind of electronic monitoring to be more than a bit creepy. As far as the pseudo detention program is concerned — nobody at TSA or Homeland Security will even confirm the existence of any such program — my best guess is that there’s some kind of flight profile that triggers a response, similar to what happened to me in my unregistered, leased airplane. The only common threads so far seem to be that most of the pilots stopped were traveling west to east and all of them so far were male — no surprise considering the overwhelmingly male pilot population. Some were on IFR flight plans, some were on VFR plans, and others were just legally flying VFR without a plan. They have all been questioned about what they were doing and why, where they were going, what they had in the airplane and why they were headed to the destination they landed at. For the record, none of this is any of their business. In the United States we can legally hop in an airplane (so long as we’re licensed to do so and the airplane is legal) and go fly wherever the heck we want to so long as we stay outside of the various and sundry kinds of special use airspace along the way. It’s not that hard to do. I have flown across the country doing just this. It’s a part of America’s heritage of freedom, and not an informal part of it either. When the police stop us, they need to have probable cause to do so. That we might look like a criminal or wind up being somewhere that criminals are known to hang out doesn’t mean the police can have their way with us. Unless they have a real reason to suspect that we are doing something illegal, they need to presume that we are not. These principles of probable cause, freedom of movement and presumption of innocence are not only a big part of our legal heritage, but I’d argue that they are the backbone of America. Take them away and you are left with a big chunk of land and a flag, not a country that has stood for the principals of freedom for going on 250 years. Whatever program is prompting the stopping of pilots who apparently just happen to fit a profile of flight needs to stop. If the purpose is to interdict drug traffic, it’s not worth it. If the purpose is to stop terrorists flying small airplanes across the country (a laughable premise), it’s not worth it. If the purpose is to just see if the feds can catch some random bad guys with a software filter and a swat team, it’s not worth it. If we’ve learned anything about freedom in this grand experiment we’ve all been engaged in, it’s that there is no perfect security in a free state. Indeed, we need to tolerate a certain level of uncertainty in order to be free. That means the government needs to get their noses out of our flight plans — unless they have a really good reason to do otherwise. Read more at

Friday, March 29, 2013

What I Read Today - Friday March 29, 2013

On Keeping a Notebook in the Digital Age

By Elizabeth Spiers in Architecting a Life

A few days ago I had a moment of sheer panic because I couldn’t find a pen. I went through the Elisabeth Kübler-Ross stages of penlessness (Denial: Maybe I don’t need a pen? I don’t need a pen! Anger: Where is my goddamned pen?! Bargaining: If you give me your pen, O nice, accommodating waiter, I’ll leave you a bigger tip) and finally got to the final stage, Acceptance: Alternatives to Pen.

I desperately needed a pen because I had an idea. And I feared that it would slip away from me before I could write it down. My ideas are very slippery and they disappear quickly, easily abetted by distraction. And so I’ve developed a routine of pulling out a notebook and writing them down before they escape, and this process is so much a part of my innate behavior at this point that missing either the pen or the notebook creates an intolerable amount of anxiety about idea loss.

In this case, I resorted to my smartphone and emailed myself the note with a category heading in the subject line. And all was technically fine. But it’s not my preferred method.

My preferred method for idea capture is something akin to Steven Berlin Johnson’s idea of keeping a “spark file” which he’s written about on Medium. (Johnson is a prolific and versatile writer who has covered a wide range of subjects. I would particularly recommend his book The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic — and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World. It’s rare that “I couldn’t put it down” can be said of a book on disease and city planning, but it’s true in this case.)

He notes, “...Most good ideas (whether they’re ideas for narrative structure, a particular twist in the argument, or a broader topic) come into our minds as hunches: small fragments of a larger idea, hints and intimations. Many of these ideas sit around for months or years before they coalesce into something useful.”

In order to exploit this particular quality of idea formation, he keeps what he calls a “spark file”: “A single document where I keep all my hunches: ideas for articles, speeches, software features, startups, ways of framing a chapter I know I’m going to write, even whole books.” He doesn’t try to organize them. The randomness is intentional. He reads them over every few months and finds themes emerging — connections between fragments that wouldn’t seem apparent if those fragments were presented in isolation.

I do something similar myself — making disjointed notes in a notebook, entering them into a master file, and reviewing after long stretches.

I’ll do it anywhere but I definitely have venues and times that are more productive than others. Modes of transportation are particularly fertile — subways, airplanes, trains. Areas where I can be alone while sitting in a room full of people — coffee shops, dinner solo at a bar, jury duty — are ripe for observation. The evening works better than the morning, but mostly because I’m more alert at the end of the day than the beginning.

But for me, the note-taking works primarily because I have learned to separate my putative spark file from my task list. If I feel the impulse to make a note to myself about something that needs to be done, I put it somewhere else — my actual to-do list or a list of potential projects.

In Scott Belsky’s book, Making Ideas Happen (also recommended, especially if you manage people in a creative industry), he distinguishes between ideas and “action steps” — separating your notes, sketches, etc., from things that need to be done.

This may not be true of everyone, but I find that I’m the most creatively fruitful when I approach pure creative work and execution separately. If I start with the execution, I’m much more limited in how I think about what I want to accomplish. I won’t pursue a story idea further because I think it’s going to take more time than I have. I won’t explore an article topic because I don’t have all the research at hand. I don’t want potential action steps to make pursuing a new idea seem too intimidating or insurmountable. So I keep separate files for those — mostly task lists associated with specific projects and a master list for overall prioritization.

I also have something called a “backburner file ” — also a Belsky invention — a task list for pie-in-the-sky projects that are interesting but not high priority. (One such backburner project that I can say with 99% confidence I will never do: No Comment Magazine, a monthly publication consisting exclusively of write-arounds on famous people who won’t talk to the press.)

For those of us comfortable with the digital age, the plethora of note-taking apps makes idea capture fingertip-convenient. I’ve used Evernote for work purposes and keep most of my idea files in Google Docs. But that said, my first medium for idea capture is still pen and paper — usually in a highly disposable three-by-five paper notebook that I carry everywhere and fill up at a rate of about one a month. This is partly a function of immediacy (I don’t have to open an app and find a file) and partly a function of the fact that I’m terrible at typing on a smartphone and it takes me longer to get the words down if I try to do it digitally. But I also like the romance of physical handwriting, even though my atrocious penmanship falls somewhere between “five-year-old” and “average medical professional” and this sometimes means I’m unable to decipher pieces of what I wrote. I concentrate less when I’m typing and my first drafts often have missing phrases because my fingers have failed to catch up with my thoughts. Writing things down enforces slowness, and by extension, thoughtfulness.

Notes from a random page of my notebook:

news ticker on a story about Newtown shootings: “Experts say that it is okay to tell your children that you don’t know why it happened.”

fish on antidepressants swim away from the pack

Short story about twins named Elemental and Ephemeral

From Solomon: “The biggest stress is humiliation; the second is loss. The best defense, for people with a biological vulnerability, is a ‘good enough’ marriage, which absorbs external humiliations and minimizes them.”

Everything is an idea for something, something that touches the imagination, a fact that seems relevant or maybe just a statement I find interesting — either because it resonates or because I disagree. All of it is fodder for continued work or thinking on the topics. It’s also important to me to record the ideas that my instincts tell me are bad. (Elemental and Ephemeral? I definitely scribbled that one at a bar.)

Sometimes they contain a germ of something good. Sometimes they serve as contrast, existing simply to remind me that there are better ideas worth pursuing.

One model for me is Georg Christoph Lichtenberg’s Waste Books. Lichtenberg was an eighteenth century German physicist whose scientific accomplishments have become somewhat overshadowed by the popularity of notes he took on English transactional ledgers (informally called “waste books”) that were later published by his sons. His waste books are a collection of short personal reflections and quotations covering a wide range of topics and infused with wit. He is the master of the aphorism (“We have the often thoughtless respect accorded ancient laws, ancient usages and ancient religion to thank for all the evil in the world”) but peppers the notebooks with whimsical observations (“They sneezed, wheezed, coughed and made two other kinds of sound for which we have no words in German”). They are idea rich, and not always rich with good ideas. And I like to imagine they probably went a long way in shaping the rest of his professional life.

That’s certainly the case with Joan Didion, who writes in her classic essay, “On Keeping a Notebook” (which you can find in her essay collection, Slouching Towards Bethlehem), that she keeps a notebook not to record what happened (she has no interest in keeping a diary), but to record details as they felt to her. “We are not talking here about the kind of notebook that is patently for public consumption, a structural conceit for binding together a series of graceful pensées,” she writes. “We are talking about something private, about bits of the mind’s string too short to use, an indiscriminate and erratic assemblage with meaning only for its maker.”

If I go back through my ersatz spark file now, each note triggers the memory of something I was thinking at the time, but the fragments look disjointed and nonsensical. It’s a text that is, per Didion, meaningful only to me.

Friday, March 1, 2013

What I Read Today - Friday March 1, 2013

From:  The Wall Street Journal
Friday 03/01/2013

Noonan: Obama Is Playing a New Game He seems to think the way to win is by trying not to make a deal.


Larger Everyone has been wondering how the public will react when the sequester kicks in. The American people are in the position of hostages who'll have to decide who the hostage-taker is. People will get mad at either the president or the Republicans in Congress. That anger will force one side to rethink or back down. Or maybe the public will get mad at both.

The White House is, as always, confident of its strategy: Scare people as much as possible and let the media take care of the rest. Maybe there will be a lot to report, maybe not, but either way the sobbing child wanting to go to Head Start and the anxious FAA bureaucrat worried about airplane maintenance will be found. This will surely have power.

And in truth, the sequester's impact may be bad. Rep. Maxine Waters of California, a 22-year House veteran and ranking Democrat on the Financial Services Committee, this week warned of "over 170 million jobs that could be lost." That's actually more jobs than America has, and it's little comfort to say, "But she's a famous idiot," because Washington is full of famous idiots who are making serious decisions about how the sequester cuts are to be applied.

If the sequester brings chaos and discomfort, it's certainly possible the Republicans will be blamed. But it's just as possible President Obama will be. Not because the sequester idea came from his White House—that probably doesn't interest anybody outside Washington—but because a) he's the president, and presidents are expected to take care of things and work out agreements, not "force the moment to its crisis," and b) he's the chief executive of the federal government, and therefore capable of directing agencies to make sure all cuts are in wholly nonessential offices. I was thinking the other day of the General Services Administration scandal—the red-carpet retreat in Vegas, the toasts, the shows, all paid for by taxpayers. Maybe the president could start there.


How's the president's game going? What's new is that almost everyone does seem to understand he's playing games. He used to get more credit. His threats of coming mayhem and his lack of interest in easing it have dimmed his luster.

Certainly in the past few weeks he's become more aggressive and gameful. A crisis is coming—a series of crises actually, with more ceilings and the threat of a government shutdown—and he is not engaging or taking ownership. The "We're not speaking" thing with Congress is more amazing and historic than we appreciate. Only a president can stop that kind of thing, and he doesn't. He doesn't even seem to think he owes the speaker of the House—the highest elected official of a party representing roughly half the country—even the appearance of laying down his arms for a moment and holding serious talks. He journeys into America making speeches, he goes on TV but only for interviews the White House is confident will be soft.

He doesn't have time for Congress, but he has time to go on Al Sharpton's radio show and say Republicans care only about protecting the rich from taxes. Which is the kind of thing that embitters, that makes foes dig in more deeply.

But here's what seems really new. Past presidents, certainly since Ronald Reagan, went over the heads of the media to win over the people, to get them to contact Congress and push Congress to deal. Fine, and fair enough. But Mr. Obama goes to the people to get them to enhance his position by hating Republicans. He's playing only to the polls, not to Congress, not to get the other side to the bargaining table. He doesn't even like the bargaining table. He doesn't like bargaining.

Where does that get us? We are in new territory. There is a strange kind of nihilism in the president's approach, it's a closed, self-referential loop. And it's guaranteed to keep agreement from happening.

Meanwhile, the president has been receiving some raps on the knuckles from journalists and thinkers who've been sympathetic in the past. There's a lot of coolness toward what the president is doing, to his threats of coming disaster. Howard Fineman in the Huffington Post, in a piece called "The Celebrity President," noted that Mr. Obama "doesn't hide his disdain for Congress," for the "folkways of traditional Washington" or for Congress and the media. The president in the next few months should avoid "cheap theatrics," Mr. Fineman added: "Somebody has to be an adult in this situation, and it falls to the president."

Bob Woodward famously slammed the president after he suggested, at the Newport News shipyard in Virginia, that maintenance of the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln would be delayed. Before that he'd warned work might have to be slowed or stopped on the USS Truman. Mr. Woodward, on MSNBC: "So we now have the president going out [saying] 'Because of this piece of paper and this agreement, I can't do what I need to do to protect the country.' That's a kind of madness that I haven't seen in a long time."


While the president is bringing a partisan edge and soft-voiced pugilism to the drama, the first lady is becoming . . . let's call it culturally dominant, and in a way that seems politically related, that seems fully networked and wired. Michele Obama is omnipresent—dancing with Jimmy Fallon, chatting with Rachael Ray, on "Good Morning America" talking about the kids and another show talking about the bangs. On ABC she accidentally said something factually incorrect, and they thoughtfully edited it out. Mrs. Obama's presence reached its zenith, one hopes, Sunday night at the Academy Awards when she came on, goofily star-struck military personnel arrayed in dress uniforms behind her, to announce the Best Picture award. It was startling and, as she gave her benediction—the movies "lift our spirits, broaden our minds, transport us to places we can never imagine"—even in a way disquieting.

This would not be an accidental assertion of jolly partisan advantage. It seemed to me an expression of this White House's lack of hesitation to insert itself into any cultural event anywhere. And this in a 50-50 nation, a divided nation that in its entertainments seeks safety from the encroachments of politics, and the political.

I miss Michelle Obama's early years, when she was beautiful, a little awkward, maybe a little ambivalent about her new role, as a sane person would be. Now she is glamorous, a star, and like all stars assumes our fascination.

It can be hard to imagine after four years in the White House, whichever party you're in, that people might do all right for a few minutes if they're free of your presence. There's a tendency to assume you enliven with that presence, as opposed to deaden with your political overlay.

All of this—the president's disdain for Congress and for Republicans, the threats of damage unless he gets his way, the first lady's forays—is part of the permanent campaign, and the immediate sequester campaign.

But they push it too far. It feels uncalibrated, over some invisible line.

It looks like what critics have long accused this White House of being—imperious, full of overreach, full of itself.

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Thursday, February 21, 2013

What I read Today - Thursday February 21, 2013

From: The National Journal (as tweeted by Matthew Dowd @matthewjdowd)
Published 02/20/2013
By Ron Fournier

You May Be Right, Mr. President, But This Is Crazy

As the nation's chief executive, Obama is ultimately accountable for the budget fiasco, even if he is right on the merits and politics.

Your federal government is almost certain to blow past the March 1 deadline for averting $1.2 trillion in haphazard budget cuts that could cost 700,000 jobs. Don’t worry. We know whom to blame. President Obama makes a credible case that he has reached farther toward compromise than House Republicans.

But knowing who’s at fault doesn’t fix the problem. To loosely quote Billy Joel: You may be right, Mr. President, but this is crazy.

Is this fiscal standoff (the fifth since Republicans took control of the House in 2011) just about scoring political points, or is it about governing?

If it’s all about politics, bully for Obama. A majority of voters will likely side with the president over Republicans in a budget dispute because of his popularity and the GOP’s pathetic approval ratings.

If it’s about governing, the story changes: In any enterprise, the chief executive is ultimately accountable for success and failure. Sure, blame Congress — castigate all 535 lawmakers, or the roughly half you hate. But there is only one president. Even if he’s right on the merits, Obama may be on the wrong side of history.

Fair or not, the president owns this mess. What can he do about it? For starters, he could read this op-ed piece published two months ago in a Midwestern newspaper. With a few tweaks, Obama could make it a presidential address. The author, whose identity I will disclose later, laid out a case for the then-looming “fiscal cliff.” It is still applicable, even powerful. (The op-ed excerpts are in italics.)

Americans are fed up with the jousting.… There is a lot of public posturing but apparently not much genuine conversation.

White House officials and liberal commentators will push back: They say it is naïve if not outright stupid to think that Republicans want to talk to Obama, or that conversations would do any good. I contend it’s not any smarter to believe that the president’s agenda will be passed without breaking gridlock, or that Washington is the only place where two wrongs make you right. Somebody has to be the grownup here. Let it be the president.

Here’s the reality: When facing a $16 trillion debt and spending 32 percent more money each year than we take in, revenue must go up and spending must go down. There are no other choices. So the debate is centered on how to collect more revenue and where to cut spending.

It has suddenly become fashionable for Obama’s liberal allies to deny the existential threat posed by suffocating U.S. debt. They should read the president’s old speeches. Debt dismissing is irrational.

Neither party is without fault. Republicans must confront their own conventional wisdom that says, “The only way to shrink government is to starve it of resources.” Government has consistently grown in size and interfered with the private sector … during periods of both high and low tax rates. Spending has become completely decoupled from revenue and that’s a dangerous policy. What, in fact, has actually happened under this strategy is that both the debt and the size of government have grown and all debt is simply a future tax on the next generation … someone, someday will have to pay the bill for the debt driven spending today.

In the last week, three senior members of the Republican Party have told me that the House GOP is making a dire mistake to think voters will consider this “the president’s sequester.” Yes, the White House proposed the gimmick, but only as a way to avert a GOP-backed debt crisis, and the House Republican leadership supported sequestration. More broadly, there is no way to seriously reduce the U.S. debt without more revenue, which means raising taxes.

Democrats must challenge their orthodoxy as well. While annual revenues are roughly what they were in 2006 — just a few years ago — spending has increased by $1 trillion every year since 2008.… We must recognize that even though raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans makes good politics, it does little to solve our nation’s financial crisis…. All of us receive the benefits so all of us must share the sacrifice — either in the form of higher taxes or lower government benefits.

The biggest lie in politics today is that the debt can be tamed without hurting the middle class via tax hikes and entitlement cuts. Obama and his allies know better, or should, but there is no stomach in Washington for honesty.

Democrats have to demonstrate their willingness to put serious spending reductions on the table and Republicans need to offer a pro-growth, pro-job agenda that includes revenue. Most importantly both sides need to lay down their swords and act like the problem solvers the American people deserve and expect.

The op-ed was published in the Green Bay Press-Gazette and was written by Rep. Reid Ribble, a Republican from Wisconsin. Ribble represents one of the few House districts still divided almost equally between Republican and Democratic voters. Many of the rest are gerrymandered, drawn to easily elect a hyper-partisan conservative or liberal. It is one cause of gridlock, what voters loathe about Washington.

I wonder what would happen if Obama were to deliver such an address. Would voters reward him for the honesty of the argument and the courage of challenging his liberal base? Would he change the tone of the debate from mindless sniping to an environment in which leaders are publicly shamed if they offer no solutions?

I may be wrong. I may be crazy. But I suspect we’ll never know.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

What I Read Today - Saturday January 12, 2013

From: Seth Godin's Blog

The cost of neutral

If you come to my brainstorming meeting and say nothing, it would have been better if you hadn't come at all.

If you go to work and do what you're told, you're not being negative, certainly, but the lack of initiative you demonstrate (which, alas, you were trained not to demonstrate) costs us all, because you're using a slot that could have been filled by someone who would have added more value.

It's tempting to sit quietly, take notes and comply, rationalizing that at least you're not doing anything negative. But the opportunity cost your newly lean, highly leveraged organization faces is significant.

Not adding value is the same as taking it away.