The Lovely Carol Marie and I live in a semi-gated community. There is one road that runs through Winnipauk Village, our quaintly/historically-named condo complex. and one end of that road is wide open to all traffic travelling on Aiken Street (our mailing address). Traffic that moves along Linden St., the other end of the complex, find themselves confronted with a “gate” blocking entrance (photo right, above) to the “Village.” Hence, a “semi-“ gated community. Since the road through our “village” is replete with speed bumps and lots of curves, it doesn’t seem the “gate” is placed at one end to prevent hopped-up teenagers in souped-up jalopies from speeding through the neighborhood. Is it, then, a “security” measure, preventing ne’er-do-wells from sneaking into our community under the cover of night --- but only from Linden Street? Does some "element" live on Linden Street that we shoud be aware of? Whatever the case, the entire situation got me to thinking about that whole prefix: “semi.”
Maybe it’s because we recently saw W. Kamau Bell do his latest stand-up comedy tour, titled “Semi-prominent Negro.” Or maybe it’s just because there is such frequent use of “semi” in our day-to-day life that they simply go unnoticed --- semicircle, semicolon, semiskilled --- and are uncared about. Yet, “semi” can carry different weight, depending on its attached suffix. For example, we’re going to Madison Square Garden this evening to the NIT basketball tournament semifinal games. In the NCAA tournament, of course, the semifinal games become The Final Four and the attendant hoopla reflects just how big a deal it is to simply make the semifinals in collegiate basketball.
Some of the “semi’s” we use raise interesting questions. For example, what does it mean to be “semiprofessional?” Do you only get paid half as much? Every other game? I actually played several games (3) in what someone (at the time) told me was the Colonial League back in the early 1980’s --- a semipro baseball league. As it turned out, some of the players were actual minor league players (i.e. “professionals”) whose season had ended (we were playing in September ---after their “short season” NY-Penn League was over) --- making the league “semi”-professional, with some amateur players and some paid professionals.
How about “semi” tractor-trailers --- aka “Semi’s.” That’s a “semi” I was never clear about --- how about you? Here’s what I found out: the phrase is only about the trailer. By definition, it is a trailer without a front axle and requires a tractor to pull it --- hence a “semi” tractor trailer. And, also by definition, the word should be: semitrailer. Share that with your friends.
In doing research for this piece (http://www.morewords.com/starts-with/semi/) I discovered some very interesting “semi” words. For example, have you ever used the term “semiaquatic?” I know I haven’t. It made me think it was some kind of animal, like a toad or frog. But, according to Merriam-Webster, semiaquatic means “growing equally well in or adjacent to water; also: frequenting but not living wholly in water.” (italics, mine) Therefore, homo sapiens might qualify as “semiaquatic,” right? Don’t we grow “equally well adjacent to water?” And don’t humans frequent but not wholly live in water? Just sayin’.
Another curious word on the list was “semipornographic.” Probably not a term you have seen or used. If you’re thinking it means that something is about “half” pornographic (like 50 Shade of Grey, perhaps?), you’re pretty close to Merriam-Webster. They say it means “somewhat pornographic.” Now, as a former teacher, I’m going to say “You can’t use the word being defined in the definition,” meaning “somewhat pornographic” doesn’t give us the best possible definition. But, given the subject (pornography), Merriam-Webster seems to be falling back on former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s definition of “obscenity” and “hard-core pornography: “I know it when I see it.” Semipornographic.
In conclusion, I’m going to take a drive around a semicircular driveway while munching on some semisweet chocolates after reading a semiweekly magazine and cancelling my semiyearly subscription. Ultimately, I’m thankful that I’m more than semiliterate and that I live in a semi-gated community.
All in the Family?
If you’re like me, you may be wondering about how Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump--- now fixtures in the White House and at The Donald’s right hand --- can be allowed to do that. What about that “nepotism” law (I won’t even pursue the ethics and conflicts of interest questions that are raised by all this)? I thought that U.S. Code § 3110 - Employment of relatives; restrictions, a Federal law, prevented this type of appointment. The Code 3110 states the following:
A public official may not appoint, employ, promote, advance, or advocate for appointment, employment, promotion, or advancement, in or to a civilian position in the agency in which he is serving or over which he exercises jurisdiction or control any individual who is a relative of the public official. An individual may not be appointed, employed, promoted, or advanced in or to a civilian position in an agency if such appointment, employment, promotion, or advancement has been advocated by a public official, serving in or exercising jurisdiction or control over the agency, who is a relative of the individual. (from Cornell U. Law School, bold mine)
The code goes on to list all the possible relatives one may not appoint and, yes, it does include “daughter,” and “son-in-law.” How, then, is it okay for Trump to appoint Jared and Ivanka?
Well, Deputy Assistant Attorney General Daniel Koffsky, asked to review the appointments, magically ruled otherwise. Here’s what he claimed:
the law that appropriates funding for White House staff also gives the president special authorities to name his own employees, including family members. He (Koffsky) wrote that past opinions that had said otherwise, including a 1977 finding that the White House could not employ the president’s son as an unpaid assistant, had invoked a flawed reading of the anti-nepotism law’s legislative history and failed to take into account special authorities afforded to the president elsewhere in the law. (Washington Post Jan. 21, 2017)
"A President wanting a relative's advice on governmental matters therefore has a choice: to seek that advice on an unofficial, ad hoc basis without conferring the status and imposing the responsibilities that accompany formal White House positions; or to appoint his relative to the White House under title 3 and subject him to substantial restrictions against conflicts of interest," Koffsky wrote. (NPR)
So, that’s the way the Trumps have dodged United States law to ensure the Grabber-in-Chief is surrounded by family --- by those he knows are loyal to him --- a "flawed reading" of the law. Really? As we have seen in the aftermath of the HealthCare debacle (and Trump’s withering attacks on the Freedom Caucus) loyalty to the Chief is the most valuable attribute in this administration.
Trump, of course, has a “second” family surrounding him in the White House --- the Goldman Sachs crew. The Drainer-in-Chief, in total contradiction of all his campaign rhetoric (there’s a shock right?), has appointed no fewer than SIX (6) Goldman Sachs alums as advisors --- most notably, of course, being the “Steves” – Bannon and Mnuchin, who will now head up the “tax code reform” effort. Aside from the Goldman crew, the Donald has also appointed Morgan Stanley and Black Rock (hedge fund) execs as “advisors.” And yesterday we learned that Carl Icahn, a fellow billionaire (although we believe Icahn actually is a billionaire), has been put in charge of undoing “regulations” --- including a crucial rule about ethanol restriction which, when changed (and Icahn is in the process of doing this right now!) will save Icahn’s CVR Energy investment $205.9 million (CVR stock prices soared after Trump’s election in November). Icahn in charge of dismantling regulatory agencies is a genuine case of putting the wolf in the henhouse and clearly violates all kinds of ethics laws!
Yet the House and Senate Committees in charge of oversight are clearly looking the other way as this President fills the White House with family, appointing corporate shills to important Cabinet and Advisory posts and is already overseeing the fleecing of America. As the Russian-connection investigation proceeds we may get a peek into the surface layer of the corruption that permeates this administration. If Republican members of the Senate (I’m talking to you, McCain, Graham, and Alexander!) have the integrity and true patriotic impulses they claim to believe in, maybe we will see some legitimate investigation into these American Romanovs before they overstuff their own pockets at the expense of all the hard working citizens of this country --- including all those poor suckers who actually voted for Trump.
Growing up you hear about sports being a metaphor for “life.” It teaches you to play by rules, you learn to deal with adversity, you develop the skills of teamwork and cooperation. And then there’s the sheer joy of just playing the game. For me, it invariably involved balls of varying sizes and shapes and, through genetic good fortune and some great early coaching from my Dad, I became pretty adept, a “good athlete.” One of the ways you learn about sports, about how to play, about how a game works, is simply through observation --- watching others do it. Going to Bay Shore High School football and basketball games when I was in Middle School, I pictured myself as Howie Swanson, the quarterback, or gritty little Eddie Parker, the defensive-minded point guard. Television, of course, allowed us to watch the greatest athletes in every sport display their skills --- at first in black and white but later in “living color” --- and on larger screens. Sometimes we’d even get to go to Yankee Stadium or Madison Square Garden (the old one, on West 50th Street) to actually see the stars in person.
The NCAA collegiate men’s basketball championship began to take on meaning for me around 1964, with the emergence of the UCLA dynasty. Prior to that I had been aware of Ohio State (with Jerry Lucas, John Havlicek, Larry Siegfried, and Bob Knight) and Cincinnati (with Oscar Robertson, Paul Hogue, George Wilson, Tom Thacker, and Ron Bonham) and their early 1960’s rivalry but Ohio was somewhere “out there” in the middle of the country. UCLA and its Hollywood sheen, with John Wooden coaching Walt Hazard and Gail Goodrich (a quick little left handed guard --- the perfect role model!) leading their full court zone press --- now that was something to watch! Their incredible seasons (30-0 in ’63-’64 & 28-2 in ’64-’65 and on and on from there) were inspirational, as was the line of All-Americans from Hazard to Walton, as they dominated college basketball from 1964-1975. So that’s when I got hooked on March Madness and I have been ever since. In the 1970’s and 1980’s my friends and I would make regular trips to “the Garden” to see the great college hoops teams like Bob Knight’s undefeated Indiana group in 1976. Watching Darrell Griffith’s 1980 Louisville Cardinals lose to New Rochelle’s Jim Valvano coached Iona (we were all teaching in Westchester County at the time) was one of the great spectacles of college basketball for us. (That Louisville team went 30-3 and won the National Championship that year)
We’re actually going to the Garden Tuesday night to the NIT semifinal, since the NCAA tickets at the Garden this past weekend were prohibitively priced (even the Regional games at Barclay$ in Brooklyn co$t a ridiculous amount). The point is, college basketball is great fun and March Madness is one of the great sports spectacles we have. All that said, how crazy has this year’s tournament been? By the end of the first weekend 41% of those who filled in the Brackets on ESPN’s website (where you can fill out “up to 25”) were busted! While I’m a big “underdog” fan (who isn’t, right?), it was shocking to see the defending national champs, Villanova, leave in the Round of 32. In fact, my “East Regional” bracket was a total disaster, failing to get ONE correct pick for the “Sweet Sixteen.” Thank goodness I’m not a betting man. In the Midwest I didn’t do much better (ONE out of four). In the West bracket I got 2 out of 4 and the South showed 3 out of 4. Six out of sixteen would be a great baseball batting average but, as “bracketology” goes --- that sucks!
Nonetheless, we’re headed into Final Four Madness (which CBS might call “Apesh*t April” if they could get away with it) with Pacific Northwest teams lining up against Carolina teams. The Cinderella South Carolina team, with coach Frank Martin (whose haberdasher is straight out of The Godfather’s Little Italy), are sentimental favorites, no doubt, as they take on the “always a bridesmaid” Gonzaga Bulldogs (from Spokane, WA). The “Zags” have qualified for the tournament every year since 1999 and twice made the Regional Final (Elite Eight) but, like the Gamecocks (yup, that’s South Carolina’s mascot), this is their first trip to the Final Four --- so there’s some sentiment there, too.
The other semifinal is between the Ducks of Oregon --- making their first Final Four appearance since 1939 (when they won the tournament) --- against the University of North Carolina, who lost last year’s championship game at the buzzer to Villanova. In a record 20th Final Four appearance, UNC will be the favorite but the way this tournament has gone, who knows?
If you’re not a basketball fan, you probably stopped reading this a while ago --- and that’s fine. My love for the “college game” (I’m not much of an NBA fan simply because the players are too good and there are few surprises) helps make this one of those times of year --- like the World Series, the US Open in tennis, the Super Bowl --- that brings pleasure in the moment and with a history. It’s not just watching superb athletes and great coaches execute a sport that one used to play, hoping to achieve their level. It’s remembering Gail Goodrich and Bill Walton, Quinn Buckner and Darrell Griffith, Isiah Thomas, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird competing on this exact same stage over the years. It’s Michael Jordan’s shot and Grant Hill’s pass to Laettner, it’s Kris Jenkins launching that jumper as the clock runs out and the Walton Gang losing to David Thompson in a Final Four semifinal in 1974. All of those memories, all of that history, is wound into this tournament every year.
Remembering what it was like to watch these spectacular athletes in the flower of their youth fulfilling the dream every ballplayer has about winning a championship is its own little Fountain of Youth for the spectator who used to play Saturday morning one-on-one games with his best friend, narrating a play-by-play in his head: “And the clock is running down. Johnson is backing Schaeffer down into the low post. There’s only a few seconds left. He turns and shoots the jumper and . . .”
Saturday night, 6:09 p.m. CBS. The Final Four.
What We Can Do
Bill Maher’s Real Time Friday night (March 24th) featured Yale professor Timothy Snyder, who has a book coming out entitled On Tyranny. In it he provides a list of 20 items he believes responsible citizens need to pay attention to now that we are in the Age of Trump. There are several I would like to share. A second item that needs discussion is, despite the HealthCare “victory” on Friday, citizens must stay even more alert and active lest Trump sabotages ObamaCare through executive maneuvering, as noted below. But first, Professor Snyder (and thanks to Yvette Nachmias-Baeu & Jay Bryan who both wrote to me about Professor Snyder, whose work was on the BLAST's radar)
On Real Time, Snyder shared three or four items from his “tyranny” watch list for Bill Maher’s viewers. Having reviewed the 20 items myself, there are five I want to note here (and they are not the same as those Snyder mentioned --- you can see the show if you have HBO or HBOGo).
1. Do not obey in advance. Anticipatory obedience teaches authorities what is possible and accelerates unfreedom.
We cannot allow “Executive Orders” or bad laws to take hold without being contested. We have already seen how protests and judicial action have halted the “travel ban” (twice), so we must remain vigilant and make our voices heard.
2. When listening to politicians, distinguish certain words. Look out for the expansive use of “terrorism” and “extremism.” Be alive to the fatal notions of “exception” and “emergency.” Be angry about the treacherous use of patriotic vocabulary.
This, as we know, is Trump’s stock in trade. His harping on “extremist” Islamic “terrorism” is the red meat of his rallies and the “Make America Great Again”slogan is an appeal to “American exceptionalism” that fires up the white supremacist base that wants the 1950's back.
3. Be calm when the unthinkable arrives. When the terrorist attack comes, remember that all authoritarians at all times either await or plan such events in order to consolidate power. Think of the Reichstag fire.
While we have managed to avoid another 9/11, let’s not forget how that tragedy opened the door to the “Patriot Act” and led to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Anything that this administration can use as a rallying point to slide an authoritarian foot in the door will be used, with Steve Bannon smiling about it.
4. Believe in truth. To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis upon which to do so.
We already know how Trump creates his separate reality with “alternative facts” and “truthful hyperbole.” If you haven’t read this week’s Time magazine (with its “Is Truth Dead?” cover) with Michael Sherer’s Can Trump Handle the Truth? featured story, you should. It basically explains that Trump’s use of Twitter and his “Big Lie” strategy works to a frightening degree! And this is why those of us who believe in facts and “the truth” need to not only remain vigilant but also active --- writing and calling media outlets as well as our elected representatives insures that truth carries the day, despite the Liar-in-Chief.
5. Take responsibility for the face of the world. Notice the swastikas and the other signs of hate. Do not look away and do not get used to them. Remove them yourself and set an example for others to do so.
This includes what I just mentioned and that is actively protesting, writing, calling, and doing whatever else is necessary to combat this wave of narrow-minded fear that has been given license as a result of the election of a small-minded, ignorant bigot. (You can find all 20 items in Professor Snyder’s list at:
As regards doing something in the immediate future, take note: the HealthCare fight is far from over. Because the Obama administration faced continual assault from the “Party of No,” it developed a number of strategies that allowed the Executive to implement measures to move the legislation to help those in need of insurance. Those same tools can now be used by Trump to sabotage ObamaCare in a number of states, essentially making insurers hike their rates or leave the marketplace. As noted in a March 24th NY Times story by Margot Sanger-Katz, “The administration will also have enormous power to allow states to reshape their Medicaid programs — and even their local insurance markets — through waivers to existing law.” Those who care about protecting people most in need of this insurance have to be mindful of this possibility. Even more crucial is a court case that can keep ObamaCare viable or ensure it will “implode,” as Trump keeps trumpeting. According to Sanger-Katz:
The biggest immediate decision concerns a court dispute between the House and the administration over subsidies to help low-income insurance buyers pay their deductibles and co-payments. The House has argued that the money for those subsidies was not properly authorized. The Obama White House fought the case. It is not clear whether Mr. Trump’s lawyers will do the same. The availability of those subsidies, used by a majority of Obamacare customers, is critical for insurers in the markets.
Without the subsidies, all the insurers will lose some money, and many smaller carriers will face bankruptcy. If Mr. Trump does not fight the court case, the Obamacare markets in most states will unravel quickly, leaving millions without insurance options on his watch. Many of the beneficiaries are Trump voters.(bold, mine)
It is crucial for the media and concerned citizens to make sure that everyone, and particularly those Trump voters, know what they might lose if the administration does not fight for those subsidies. We all need to contact not only our own representatives, but also those members (both Republicans & Democrats) who need to make it clear to the White House that these subsidies need to continue. You can find and contact anyone in the House of Representatives by simply going to http://www.house.gov/representatives/find/. In keeping with Professor Snyder’s list of ways to prevent tyranny, we would all be wise to continue our campaign in support of the current HealthCare system. It is only day 66 of the Trump presidency --- not a time to take the foot off the gas.
That Was the Week That Was #2
(TW 3 - #2)
If you’re not familiar with the old TW3 show, scroll down and read the introduction to Blast #167 (March 24th). I’m not sure if it’s going to become a weekly feature but, given the week we just had, it’s certainly appropriate to bring it back again this weekend. The week started with the House Intelligence Committee “hosting” FBI Director Comey, followed by the “great Healthcare debate.” We watched the silliness of how we now confirm Supreme Court Justices and we may have learned something about the Tweeter-in-Chief/Big Dealer. So, let’s take a look at The Week That Was.
#1: The House Intelligence Committee
Well, we learned that there is a serious criminal investigation being pursued by the FBI into the Trump campaign. The FBI is also looking into whether the Russian government interfered with the United States’s electoral process. The Republicans on the Committee only asked questions about whether Director Comey was pursuing “leaks” and “leakers,” trying to distract the narrative away from the potential criminal nightmare that may erupt. There was also the bizarre action of the Committee Chair, short-bus rider Devin Nunes (who always has a “What, me?” expression), giving a “press conference” in the White House driveway after inappropriately sharing non-evidence with the President. In his attempt to give credence (?) to the “Obama wiretapped me” Trump hallucination, Representative Nunes gave several versions of a non-story about some kind of “incidental” surveillance that, by Friday, had disappeared. What a dunce!
#2. The Health Care Debacle
Thursday was the 7th anniversary of President Obama’s signing of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). Trump and the Republicans were determined to “repeal and replace” it on that exact day, creating some kind of warped “poetic justice” (in their minds). We saw the chaos that ensued and also observed that the Artist-of-the-Deal couldn’t get his own party to line up and pass the legislation. After all the campaign promises (“it'll be great health care for much less money. So it'll be better health care, much better, for less money. Not a bad combination.”) Trump, when he actually had to work on the legislation discovered it was not so easy (“nobody knew that health care could be so complicated”). The larger question --- which none of our media outlets seemed to point out with any vigor --- was this: what have the Paul Ryan led Republicans been doing for SEVEN YEARS??? While they voted on repealing Obamacare over 60 times in 7 years (when Obama was President) they apparently never worked on creating the “replace” ideas within their “conference.” Since 2010 the Republicans have had the majority in the House of Representatives. Neither John Boehner nor Paul Ryan has been able to tame the “Freedom Caucus” (Tea Baggers) from sabotaging their “conservative” agenda (theTea Baggers are more radically extreme in their conservatism). The bottom line: Trump lost. Ryan lost. The Republicans lost --- and it will be interesting to see where they go from here.
#3. The Gorsuch Snorefest
Despite the best efforts by Democratic Senators like Al Franken to highlight some of the questionable decisions of Neil Gorsuch (the “freezing trucker” story), much of the 40 hours of the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings this week was devoted to discussing fishing holes, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and Ted Cruz’s flirting with the Judge with the Father Knows Best good looks and Neil making out with his wife. Let’s face it, the Republicans kidnapped this seat on the Court and, unless there are Anthony Weiner level Snap Chat fotos of Gorsuch out there, he will be confirmed. I’m not sure why Chuck Schumer is threatening a filibuster but if that’s how the Democrats want to vent their frustration and pay their respects to Merrick Garland, so be it. If nothing else, this kept the Trump/Russia story on a backburner for a day or two.
#4. The Toddler-in-Chief
Am I the only one who thinks that Donald Trump doesn’t really like being President? And that he’s never really had to work a day in his life? (Hence, every weekend off to Mar-a-Lago!) Not only that, but the man’s short attention span and clear reading disability lead to him acting like a cranky Toddler. Incapable of taking responsibility or admitting he is wrong, Trump sets up one stooge after another (Devin Nunes was this week’s model) to pay for his foibles. The whole Russia Connection may actually lead to us seeing his tax returns --- so get that fan whirring because if those returns go public, you know what’s going to hit it. Friday’s claim that he “didn’t really want to go after Health Care first” is simply another evasion of responsibility and fits perfectly in the Trump narrative learned from his dad: Never use your own money. Steal a good idea and say it’s your own. Do anything to get publicity. Remember that everyone can be bought. (from Jimmy Breslin, 1990) We’re not even three quarters of the way through the first 100 days and all three rings of this circus are humming.
You may have heard the reports yesterday and today about the assassination of Denis Voronenkov in Kiev. He was shot and killed outside a hotel. Mr. Voronenkov, a former member of the Russian Parliament, was a critic of Vladimir Putin who had fled to the Ukraine with his wife (a former Bolshoi opera singer) to escape Putin’s “political prosecution” for his willingness to serve as a witness (in European and U.S. cases) to Russian corruption and the illegal invasion of the Ukraine. Needless to say, Mr. Voronenkov will not be testifying. What is most distressing about this assassination is that it occurs only days after another Russian, Nikolai Gorokhov, also died under “questionable” circumstances. As reported by The World Post on March 21, 2017:
A Moscow lawyer who represents the family of a now-deceased Russian whistleblower was severely injured Tuesday after falling several stories, just one day before he was scheduled to appear in court.
The lawyer, Nikolai Gorokhov, represents the family of Sergei Magnitsky, another Russian attorney who mysteriously died in custody in Moscow in 2009 after accusing law enforcement and tax officials of a massive fraud worth $230 million. Magnitsky’s death sparked international outrage and led to U.S. legislation in 2012 imposing sanctions on several Russian officials.
Magnitsky died in a Russian prison, denied medical care for organ failure, with evidence that he had been tortured. Gorokhov was supposedly using a pulley to raise a bathtub up to the fourth floor when he “accidentally” fell. It should be noted that Mr. Gorokhov was on a witness list drawn up by Preet Bharara involving a Cyprus money-laundering scheme (which may also name Paul Manafort). This is how Vladimir Putin deals with his “problems.” He runs Russia the way Tony Soprano ran his “crew.”
On the surface this is disturbing, to say the least, but it is all the more horrifying if you consider our President’s recent interview with Bill O’Reilly.
President Donald Trump waved off Bill O’Reilly’s description of Russian President Vladimir Putin as a "killer" in a recently taped interview, telling the Fox News host that "there are a lot of killers.
We’ve got a lot of killers. What do you think? Our country’s so innocent?
He’s a leader of his country. I say it’s better to get along with Russia than not. “
In Trump’s world, which is a reality television show (where he can “send in the feds”) it’s no big deal if Putin kills some of his own people --- apparently the President believes the U.S. does that, too. Yet it would be hard to provide a list of U.S. victims of “unsolved” murders that even comes close to the one Putin has racked up over his years as the “leader of his country.”
We know, of course, that Putin became a KGB agent in 1975, at the age of 23 and in 1999, under Boris Yeltsin’s leadership, was appointed “Director of the Federal Security Service (FSB), the primary intelligence and security organization of the Russian Federation and successor of the KGB.” (Wikipedia) It would be naïve to believe that “President” Putin has not kept tight control over the FSB in his years as President and Prime Minister of Russia --- and political dissenters have borne the brunt of his wrath.
In 2006 Anna Politkovskaya, a journalist critical of Russia’s involvement in Chechnya and a human rights activist was the victim of a contract killing. While five men were convicted in 2014, none divulged who put the contract out on Polikovskaya. She is just one in a list leading up to this week’s two killings. Boris Nemtsov, a physicist and statesman credited as one of the prime movers to bring capitalism to Russia, was an extremely vocal public critic of Putin. On February 27, 2015 he was shot four times in the back on a bridge near the Kremlin and Red Square. No one has been charged in his murder. Sergei Yushenko was another former Russian Parliament member who, in 2003, registered a political party to run in opposition to Putin. He was behind an inquiry into the FSB for some apartment building bombings that supposedly were perpetrated by “Chechens.” He also investigated the Moscow Theatre “hostage crisis, “ hoping to prove the FSB was also behind that (again, laid at the feet of the Chechens). Hours after registering his opposition party for the Parliamentary elections, he was gunned down in front of his home. No one has been charged in the murder. An ally of Nemtsov, Boris Berezovsky, a businessman (oligarch) fled Russia that same year and received asylum in the U.K., which refused to extradite him to Russia. He was found hanged in his home in March of 2013 --- a coroner’s inquiry would not rule it suicide but, rather, an “open verdict.”
The list goes on. In 2004, Paul Klebinov, the American editor of the Russian version of Forbes, had been doing investigative reporting in Moscow (exposing Berezovsky as a crooked businessman and pursuing stories about Chechnya) when he was gunned down leaving his Forbes office. He was shot “by unknown assailants who fired at him from a slowly moving car.” (Wikipedia) Those charged in the murder were acquitted. One of the most incredible Putin era stories, though, involves Mikhail Lesin, a close advisor to the Russian President who, in 2015, was coming under intense scrutiny by the U.S. government under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and the Anti-Money Laundering Statutes. On November 15, 2015 Lesin was found dead in his Washington, D.C. hotel room --- initially declared a “heart attack,” but we later learned he died from “blunt force trauma.”
Our last two cases involve Alexander Litvinenko and Vladimir Kara-Murza because of the similarities between the two, even though they are a decade apart. Litvinenko was a former FSB officer who became a whistleblower, accusing his FSB superiors of planning an assassination of Berezovsky, as well as also accusing the Putin-led FSB of the apartment bombings and other terrorist acts. On November 1, 2006, Litvinenko was suddenly struck ill, diagnosed with radioactive polonium-210 poisoning. He died on November 23rd. Regarding Kara-Murza, on February 6, 2016, The New York Times reported:
A leader of the Russian opposition who has been a vocal critic of what he calls a Kremlin policy of assassinating political enemies has fallen into a life-threatening coma caused by an unknown poison, his wife said on Monday.
The diagnosis of what ailed Vladimir Kara-Murza came at a delicate political moment for the United States and Russia, as President Trump had just brushed aside criticism of the Russian president, Vladimir V. Putin, as a “killer.”
Kara-Murza had been hospitalized in 2015 for poisoning, too --- by a “mystery toxin.” (NY Times) Presently, the journalist had been traveling to Russian provincial cities screening a documentary about the Nemtsov killing. “Last month, Mr. Kara-Murza submitted a letter critical of Mr. Putin’s government to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during cabinet confirmation hearings for Rex W. Tillerson, the Secretary of State. ‘There are higher risks than slander or imprisonment for those who oppose the regime.” (NY Times) Whether Mr. Kara-Murza survives or not remains to be seen but he is yet another on the list of Putin critics (or too-close advisors under investigation) who has clearly been targeted.
One last note about Mr.Voronenkov, the man who was gunned down in Kiev two days ago: he was helping prosecutors in the Ukraine build a case against former Ukrainian President and Vladimir Putin ally, Victor Yanukovich. If that name strikes you as familiar, it may be because it has been in the U.S. news quite a bit this week. Yanukovich is the person who, starting in 2006, hired Paul Manafort, as a $10 million per year lobbyist to promote Putin’s Russia to U.S. businesspeople. Yes, indeed, that Tony Soprano’s got nothing on Vladimir Putin.
Worth a Few Hundred Words?
Having spent over two hours in the dentist's chair this morning (the first phase of a new bridge installation --- part of the President's infrastructure program) I missed my usual writing time. By the time I finally sat down at the computer I found that I was bereft of anything clever, amusing, or even reasonably intelligent to say. Never one to be stopped by that, however, I thought I'd share some cartoons I've "whipped out" over the last few weeks, as I'm pretty sure The New Yorker is not going to find them suitable for their austere and hallowed pages (which, once you see them, is simply an exercise in good, fair judgment). So, here are four cartoons, with little explanations. Enjoy them and write a comment if you're so inclined --- I'd love to hear from people.
The first one was drawn after watching a History Channel program about all the Gospels that were never published as part of the New Testament. As we watch the news and hear about "leaks" I thought that maybe a conflation of those two concepts (unpublished Gospels/"leaks") might be a funny cartoon. You be the judge.
Another History Channel inspired cartoon has to do with the notion that we live in the greatest time ever! The idea that whatever period of history you exist in is the best "it's ever been" is one that writers and philosophers have debated ad naseum ("It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..."). With that in mind, the scrawl you see below was my take on that notion.
(The characters are: a cave man, Gutenberg, Edison, Ford, Buzz Aldrin, Steve Jobs, and 45)
The third "entry" for your perusal has to do with my low tolerance for all this "Gluten-free" b#llsh@t that permeates our current society (I won't even go the GMO route!). Having recently started a fitness class (good luck with that, right?) I was introduced to a "leg thrust & hold" exercise that is designed to tone one's gluteus maximus muscles. That, combined with some tv reference (a Big Bang Theory rerun, I believe) to "ass-less chaps" led to the masterpiece below.
Finally, the Tweeter-in-Chief inspired the last (political?) cartoon --- hardly subtle and pretty rough/crude in its execution, but you get the idea.
So, that's today's BLAST and I'm stickin' to it. Thanks for reading and, again, leave a comment or two!
Almost a Century
There was no BLAST this morning because the Lovely Carol Marie and I drove out to Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania to visit my Mom --- who will be 90 years old in August. Because of the passing of Chuck Berry and Jimmy Breslin over the weekend, who were 90 and 88, respectively, I (quite naturally?) reflected on how long a time this group has/had spent on this mortal coil. They were born when Calvin Coolidge was President. Calvin (f*$#in’) Coolidge! The man best remembered (presciently, it seems, in 2017) for saying, “America’s business is business.” Consider this: Coolidge, Hoover, Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush, Obama, Trump. 16 presidents. 35% of the Presidents who have ever been. Not just that: it’s also a Great Depression, the Second World War, the Cold War, Korea, Vietnam, the Moonwalk, Watergate, the Gulf War, 9/11, the first Black President --- just as “highlights.” I wrote about Chuck Berry yesterday and I want to write about Jimmy Breslin who, in his own way, was a pioneer in much the way Chuck was.
Breslin was part of a wave of new writing that emerged in the 1960s that became known as “The New Journalism.” New York Magazine’s February 14, 1972 cover story featured: The Birth of 'The New Journalism'; Eyewitness Report by Tom Wolfe and it not only coined a new term but also rewrote journalism’s style from that point on. One of the pioneers of the New Journalism was Jimmy Breslin (another, of course, was my hero, Hunter S. Thompson) and Wolfe had this to say about the born and bred New Yorker:
Not long after that Jimmy Breslin started writing an extraordinary local column for my own paper, the Herald Tribune. Breslin came to the Herald Tribune in 1963 from out of nowhere, which is to say he had written a hundred or so articles for magazines like True, Life, and Sports Illustrated. Naturally he was virtually unknown. At that time knocking your brains out as a free-lance writer for popular magazines was a guaranteed way to stay anonymous. Breslin caught the attention of the Herald Tribune's publisher, Jock Whitney, through his book about the New York Mets called Can't Anybody Here Play This Game? The Herald Tribune hired Breslin to do a "bright" local column to help offset some of the heavy lumber on the editorial page, paralyzing snoremongers like Walter Lippmann and Joseph Alsop. Newspaper columns had become a classic illustration of the theory that organizations tend to promote people up to their levels of incompetence.
In any case, Breslin made a revolutionary discovery. He made the discovery that it was feasible for a columnist to leave the building, go outside and do reporting on his own, actual legwork. Breslin would go up to the city editor and ask what stories and assignments were coming up, choose one, go out, leave the building, cover the story as a reporter, and write about it in his column. If the story were big enough, his column would start on page one instead of inside. As obvious as this system may sound, it was unheard of among newspaper columnists, whether local or national.
If you caught any of the eulogies in the press or on the television news programs you heard about Breslin’s famous columns about JFK’s gravedigger, about the surgeon in Dallas who operated on the assassinated President, the Son of Sam letter (sent by David Berkowitz to Breslin before the killer’s capture), and his column about the first police on the scene at John Lennon’s murder (“A part of a cop’s past lies dead”). Breslin won the Pulitzer in 1986 and he was a tireless defender of the little guy --- and was always, always a “Noo Yawka.” After he moved to New York Newsday in the late 1980s he wrote a number of scathing columns about Donald Trump, clearly seeing through the Queens con artist long before he ascended to the Presidency. In June of 1990 Breslin wrote this about Donald Trump:
Trump survives by Corum's Law. Bill Corum was asked to become the head of the Kentucky Derby. He was a round little guy who was the youngest Army major in World War I . . . He read Balzac at the bar, often wrote exciting English, drank a ton of whiskey and lost as much money as he could find at the racetrack. He was a tough guy who understood weakness and “ this is the rule. A sucker has to get screwed." Today, Corum's Law runs all of Donald Trump's situation. But instead of horseplayers, the suckers who must get screwed are a combination of news reporters and financial people. All Trump has to do is stick to the rules on which he was raised by his father in the County of Queens: Never use your own money. Steal a good idea and say it's your own. Do anything to get publicity. Remember that everybody can be bought.
Jimmy Breslin’s direct yet lyrical prose summed it all up and he cut a wide swath in New York and nationally as a writer and voice of the common man --- far more so than the “Blue Collar Billionaire.”
Like Chuck Berry, Jimmy Breslin left us this weekend but like Chuck and his records & YouTube videos, Jimmy left a huge legacy for us to “Google” and read so they are gone but never forgotten. My Mom was not a rock and roll pioneer (beyond being a huge supporter of the genre and her sons guitar playing). Nor is she a crusading journalist (though she certainly supported any cause Breslin championed). But she is someone who, by her own account, has had “a good life” and has very astutely witnessed the almost one century of history that she has lived through. She’s still a feisty and funny and proud woman who goes outside on chilly days and smokes a cigarette. Unlike Chuck Berry and Jimmy Breslin, she won’t get a front page obituary on the New York Times when she finally leaves us, but Jimmy Breslin would be the first to tell you that people like “Gracie” were the heart and soul of New York and what always made it a great city --- people who keep their heads down and worked their asses off, people who will tell you, quite directly, what they think, and people who appreciate the warp and woof of this crazy place that’s unlike anywhere else. We all leave a footprint behind and as I saw the imprints left by Chuck and Jimmy this weekend I was reminded to pay attention to the one that Mom has also made and appreciate it for what it is.
Like Ringin’ a Bell
Muddy Waters, the famed bluesman, on his Hard Again album, sang a song entitled “The Blues had a Baby and They called it Rock and Roll.” Indeed. And the father of that baby was Chuck Berry, the singing/songwriting genius who passed away this weekend at age 90. That “singer/songwriter” label is extremely significant because many people will claim Elvis or Jerry Lee Lewis were the progenitors of rock and roll, yet Elvis never wrote his own music and, while Lewis wrote some of his songs, he “covered” many other artists (including Berry). Also, when one thinks of rock and roll the instrument that first comes to mind is not the piano, is it? No, guitar slinging Chuck Berry was the father of rock and roll and, while we mourn his passing, there is far more to celebrate about his life.
Like jazz, rock and roll is distinctively American. Its roots are the melding of African-American blues and southern country/western music, generated by those segments of our society that were denied, ignored, disenfranchised, and neglected. Many of Hank Williams’s brilliant songs are only a stone’s throw away from what Chuck Berry presented us with starting in the mid 1950s. While many see the early/mid 1960s as a “turning point” in rock and roll, because the Beatles and Stones and Dylan are composers/performers, we can clearly see that Chuck Berry had been in that game long before the British invasion or Dylan’s “electrification.” There’s no doubt that Berry (and Bo Diddley, who appeared on Ed Sullivan in 1955 but was banned forever because he performed “Bo Diddley” instead of covering Ernie Ford’s “16 Tons,” as Sullivan wanted) introduced the world to the guitar-slinging, songwriting, hips-wagging rock and roller that every guy who bought a guitar aspired to be from the mid-Fifties on.
Was race a factor? Hmmm, let’s see: a Black man arrives on the scene in what is still apartheid America with a new sound, creating guitar licks never heard before and writing energetic songs about teen age angst --- with a hint of humor and sly double-entendre yet, somehow, isn’t recognized and doesn’t achieve stardom. When those cute white boys from England “covered” his songs (the very first song the Rolling Stones played in their initial appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show was Berry’s “Around and Around”) that was rock and roll! I remember hearing Johnny Rivers’s hit tune “Memphis, Tennessee” in 1964 and thinking, “I’ve heard a better version of this somewhere” before connecting it to Chuck’s version --- which was released back in 1959 as the B-side to “Back in the U.S.A.” Rivers hit #2 on the charts --- Berry’s “Back In the USA” topped out at #37. Of course, when Linda Ronstadt covered that tune in 1979 it reached #11 on CashBox and #16 on BillBoard. But I’m probably just rolling out that “Black Lives Matter” issue again, right?
At any rate, Chuck Berry was a national treasure, which the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame recognized, inducting him and Bo Diddley in their first “class” in 1986. For anyone not familiar with just how great (and cool) Chuck Berry was, check out this YouTube video of him doing “Johnny B. Goode” in 1958. (A final note on that: Berry changed his lyric “Where lived a colored boy named Johnny B. Goode” to “country boy,” recognizing it would appeal to a larger audience and wouldn’t “offend”)
As Seen On TV
As regular readers of the BLAST may know, this blog is occasionally turned over to a “guest writer” and this penultimate March Sunday, that’s exactly what’s happening. As luck would have it, the former technical advisor for Tim Allen’s long-running Home Improvement program, R. Hamilton “Handy” Mann, an old friend of the BLAST, happened to be in town and was talking about his fascination with the many “As Seen on TV” products now available to the public. Because of “Handy’s” enthusiasm for the products, and their pitchmen, we asked him to share his observations with BLAST readers. So, without further ado, here's Mr. Mann's BLAST.
If you’re like me, and find yourself up late at night mindlessly watching commercial television, you are probably very familiar with Phil Swift and FlexSeal, the “liquid rubber sealant coating” product which can, apparently, turn your screen door into a perfectly suitable fishing boat. Phil has been on late night tv for a number of years now, pitching FlexSeal and, while I find the product extremely appealing, I have yet to find the “1,000 and one” uses for it that Phil and his friends have. Nonetheless, I thoroughly enjoy his sale pitch and am definitely hooked on all the “As Seen on TV” products (whether “official” or not --- there is actually an “As Seen on TV “ Store website!). There are three particular products that have caught my eye lately and I want to share that with you after quickly paying homage to the great tv pitchmen you know --- as well as some of their fabulous products.
What makes a television pitchman effective and memorable, of course, is that he is, at the very least, borderline obnoxious. The King of the pitchmen was Billy Mays, who shouted and cajoled you to buy OxiClean to the point where you felt like “Okay, okay, I’ll buy it --- will you just shut the f*&k up?!” Now that’s a pitchman! Almost as good as Billy is “Vince” Schlomi, better known as the “ShamWow” Guy. Vince (whose real name, believe it or not, is “Offer”) has been a staple on late night, pitching his chamois cleaning cloth, along with items like the “SlapChop” and “Schticky” lint roller. Vince, to his credit, almost matches Billy on the obnoxious-meter. Less grating but just as intrusive is Billy’s old partner, Anthony Sullivan, the Brit who now sells us OxiClean as well as a few other questionable products. Billy and Anthony actually had a short-lived reality tv show entitled Pitchmen, starring --- who else but Billy and Anthony! For those of us older citizens, the greatest pitchman of all time, of course, is Ron Popeil. A tireless inventor, Popeil even invented the infomercial in the 1950’s, selling his “Chop-o-matic” to the viewing audience. Over the years (according to ronpopeil.com):
Ron’s products included: The Chop-O-Matic, Mr. Microphone (the first Karaoke machine), the Popeil Pocket Fisherman, the Veg-o-Matic, the Buttoneer, the Smokeless Ashtray, Popeil’s Electric Food Dehydrator, the Inside-the-Egg Scrambler, GLH-9 (Great Looking Hair Formula #9) Hair in a Can Spray, Rhinestone stud setter (Later called the Bedazzler), the Cap Snaffler, the Popeil Automatic Pasta Maker, the Ronco Electric Food Dehydrator, the Ronco 6 Star Plus Knives, and the Showtime Rotisserie and BBQ.
AND older folks may also remember Ronco Records, the first purveyor of compilation LP’s --- also sold on infomercials, usually on late-night tv. If there’s ever a Pitchman Hall of Fame, Ron Popeil will have to be the first inductee. There really should be some way to immortalize the man who not only invented the infomerical but also gave us the Bedazzler and Hair in a Can! In honor of Ron’s tireless promotion of products sold only on late night television, I am going to nominate three items I have recently seen advertised for what I am going to call “The Ronnie,” in honor of Mr. Popeil’s contribution to late night tv advertising.
As soon as I get this year’s U.S. tax return I know exactly what 800 numbers I’ll call or which websites I’ll immediately Google: the BetterBrella, the AirHawk Pro, and the SCOTTeVEST. If you’re not familiar with these products, let me briefly share why I find them to be “must-buys.”
The BetterBrella is on of those items you see and think, “Why didn’t someone think of this a long time ago?” Simply put, this is an umbrella that folds up in exactly the opposite fashion traditional umbrellas do. As they say on their website:
BetterBrella keeps you dry wherever you go! There's no easier way to get in or out of the rain. Turning the traditional umbrella upside down and inside out, it's much easier to use and much more practical. No longer will you have to sacrifice staying dry to go outside so your umbrella can be opened. The reversible nature of the BetterBrella allows it to be easily opened from small spaces, like getting out of the car, which reduces time spent getting wet. Boasting a wind proof design, the BetterBrella is a great alternative to old, cheap umbrellas that never seem to last through heavy rain and winds, which is where you need em' most. When closed, the BetterBrella creates a waterproof cone, so that all wetness stays on the inside and not on the floor. This also makes it much easier to drain all the collected water at once, instead of getting walls and furniture wet from constant splashing.
If you haven’t seen the BetterBrella in action, check it out on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mZ44Jt-2BB8. Like me, you’ll be sold on it.
Next up is the AirHawk Pro, a handheld compressed air inflator which runs by battery and has a number of uses, not the least of which is inflating your automobile tires. According to the AirHawk website:
The Air Hawk Pro is an automatic cordless tire inflator. It is lightweight (1.9 pounds), handheld, powerful, cordless and rechargeable. The set includes pin attachments for all valves, rechargeable battery & charger, a 12 volt car adapter and a convenient storage case. It can be charged on-the-go in your car! It includes a digital pressure gauge that automatically shuts off at the desired pressure. Great for inflatable toys, air mattresses, sports equipment and bike tires.
As someone who is tired of paying for “air” at gas stations every time I need to inflate my tires --- or who struggles to fill pool rafts and air mattresses, the AirHawk Pro is the answer to my inflation prayers. (You can see it at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nA8i05kmW1o)
Finally, saving the best for last, is the SCOTTeVEST, invented and sold by Scott Jordan (who is no Ron Popeil, btw). This is an item that is irresistible to a gadget freak like myself --- or anyone else who tends to “need” to carry a lot of junk with them wherever they go. (You can “meet” Scott and the product at https://www.youtube.com/user/scottevest). The company makes a wide variety of clothing, for men and women, totally based on the notion that people need to have someplace to put all their “stuff” when they leave their homes. (Which reminds me of George Carlin’s classic “stuff” routine: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MvgN5gCuLac) At any rate, if you haven’t seen SCOTTeVEST advertised, here’s what they say about it:
RFID Travel Vest for Men: You'll be lost without it! This 26 pocket vest features an RFID-blocking pocket to protect your passport and credit cards from high-tech skimmers that can steal your identity. Ideal for travel, running errands around town or on your next outdoor adventure, the RFID Travel Vest will keep you safe, organized and connected. The lightweight, breathable poly fabric is Teflon® treated for water and stain-resistance, and is machine washable.
The description isn’t quite the level of “J.Peterman” prose but you get the idea and, really, how can you live without those 26 pockets! I know I can’t --- and won’t.
Come April 16th you’ll find me inflating my tires with an AirHawk Pro while I fend off those April showers with a BetterBrella, wearing my SCOTTeVEST --- “as seen on tv.”
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