Friday, December 19, 2014

A Few Thoughts on 2014 and Beyond

Pessimistic thoughts

This has been a year of war, pestilence, famine, terrorism, religious zealotry, as well as startling and gruesome examples of man's inhumanity to man. 

The Arab world, convulsing in paroxysms of unspeakable religious sangfroid, hatred and brutality, provokes undue existential anxieties in the West. Our drones fly around and kill people without trial or jury, assuaging our fears, but not our consciences.   We have been at war for thirteen years with no end in sight.  The government snoops in our personal business and belongings and runs us through scanners to see if we are weaponized. Explosives become more sophisticated.   Airliners are shot down by a kleptocratic, self-absorbed, homophobic, egomaniacal, murdering ex KGB officer who wishes to destabilize Europe to preserve his notions of being the next Czar and possibly forging a new Soviet Union.  It will not happen;  Russia is now a second rate power  with a sputtering economy.

Google, Amazon, and other Internet giants invade our privacy, foretelling a dystopian, Orwellian denouement. The top 1% of the American public controls 90% of the wealth and the middle class is caught in a technology vice displacing their jobs, their security, and their self-esteem.    Robots threaten to replace almost all human tasks within a hundred years.   Many scientists, including Stephen Hawking say that we are engineering our own demise, and that evolution is about to take a quantum leap with the frail, imperfectly designed human  about to be discarded on the slag heap of history.  Either we will be slaves of the machines or their masters, probably the former, he says.

Climate change threatens to inundate coastal cities in a slew of super storms, melting glaciers and drowning polar bears.

Some light

Despite all that, in the short term, there is reason to hope that the world is getting better.   Religious fervor is diminishing in most nations, the younger generation yielding to social pressures and the new religion of the Internet, technological innovation and scientific skepticism about age-old myths.

The Obama administration, empowered by its freedom from voter approval is set upon a course of leaving a transformational legacy, despite what promises to be a more ossified congress.  The great recession is over, the doomsayers have been proven wrong about the economy, unemployment is at a new low, the US Auto industry is on the upswing, the stock market is at new highs, medical science is on the verge of curing a host of intractable diseases including many cancers and other maladies, corporate profits are roaring, the US is now energy independent, and Petro nations including Vladimir Putin's Russia are reeling from one trick pony economies that are in free fall. People have health care and cannot be dumped by their insurance companies for pre-existing conditions.


Here in Miami, some old-line Cubans are decrying the new move toward relations with Cuba, long overdue.
Fifty years of a failed policy, despite Marco Rubio's disingenuous bloviating, are correctly to be jettisoned along with an immigration policy that has failed miserably.    On the other hand, the younger generation of Cuban-Americans, born here and with no intention of returning to Cuba to become sugar farmers, cigar rollers, or nightclub impresarios, are mostly happy with the new direction of US policy.

The Cuban government fears that its chief oil supplier, Venezuela, will be a failed government.  Nicholas Maduro, the successor to Hugo Chavez, is running into increasing problems running his economy, because his oil revenues are down 60% and his social programs are not sufficiently funded, which could lead to riots in the street, not a good image for his socialist paradise.  Watch out for this in 2015.

Some of us remember the Cuban missile crisis, the Bay of Pigs, the bungled CIA attempts to assassinate Fidel with an exploding cigar and a number of other intelligence fiascos involving Cuba.  We have always conducted diplomacy with a host of dictatorships---Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the Soviet Union, East Germany, etc.  Why not Cuba?  The arguments for punitive disengagement in the case of Cuba, a small nation just off our shores, and embargo is so 20th century. It has failed miserably.  Nations follow their interests and do not always do well on a diet of morality, even be it the ultimate ideal.

Opposition lies in a small cadre of Cubans who have controlled Florida swing-state voting.   Clearly that is why a moderate like Bill Nelson has voiced opposition to a movement he would normally favor, since he is ordinarily quite progressive.

National polls in other states mostly favor trade with Cuba, or at least diplomatic relations, and just think of it, those who still smoke Cuban cigars will no longer have to smuggle contraband through Canada.   What is next for Florida? Humm, let me think.   Legalized weed in Cuban cigars and Gay marriage?

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Flying Misery Class 2014

I fondly remember flying Eastern Airlines from Miami to New York when I was a child.  My dad made me put on a sport coat and tie, we rode to the airport, left our car in the small parking lot off Northwest 36th St., handed our bags to the clerk and boarded the DC 6 and were on our way.  While on the plane, we were served with real food, on a linen tablecloth, and Eastern Airlines cutlery that included glassware and a hot entree.  Dad had a complimentary Scotch and Soda, his drink of choice. The seats were spacious and comfortable and the flight attendants cheerful and buoyant. And that was not first class.

Last Sunday, November 30th my wife and I, after a family reunion, were to return home on an Air France flight from Paris to Miami.

Arriving at Charles de Gaulle Airport three hours early to enable us to do some leisurely duty-free shopping and relax before the flight, we were greeted by a throng of perhaps 1000 people checking in to various flights, and only two ticket agents at the counter.  (There were places for at least 10 agents.) The lines were totally gridlocked.  The sight was horrifying.  People, all in the same queue, resembled an assemblage of chickens in an industrial coop on a Perdue chicken farm (at which animal rights activists are concerned mightily about cruelty to animals)   But I digress. 

After fuming in the lines for about a half an hour and going nowhere, I proceeded to the counter to complain to the station manager.  He apologized, but had advised my wife "he had no personnel."  Enraged, I told him he should be sacked straight away.

A few feet away were some Air France people who were standing around doing nothing at the First Class check in area.  When I remarked that they should go over and help the others check the passengers in he said, "That's not my job."

Advised that the flight would be delayed because of the overly lengthy check in times, we thought we would have time to shop and catch the plane.   The check in process consisted of going to a bank of boarding pass machines, some of which were out of order or concealed by the throng, and no one to direct on using them or guide us through the process, then standing in another line to deposit one's bags.

By this time, 2 1/2 hours had passed and the information supplied by the check in agent that the flight would be delayed because of the length of check in turned out to be deceptive misinformation deliberately calculated to assuage an angry slew of passengers.   The few check in agents were overwhelmed by total managerial incompetence, and disdainful of angry customers.   "I am just one person," was the contemptuous response from one of the clerks.

After this passage through a depressing medieval  Star Chamber clearly designed for religious heretics, we had to race down the one mile walkway, and then catch a train to the terminal.  Along the way. we walked at break neck pace past shops we wanted to visit, but barely had time to make our plane, before they closed the doors.  Chock full of people most of whom had already boarded from connecting flights, the overhead racks were full and we had to struggle to find a place for our carry-on bags. As we had passed through business and first class seating, we envied the priced-out-of-reach wide seats, some of which could be beds during the ten hour flight to Miami and the condescension of the first class passengers, who clearly felt superior.  But they were not, they just had paid an unconscionable amount of money simply to be treated as human beings.

One cannot not justify the multi thousand-dollar price difference between the classes.  After all this was not a two-week cruise where some semblance of a rationale for the price could be made.  And being over 70 years old and wanting to have enough money to retire without living in the street is a reasonable argument for pragmatism.

As we struggled to our seats, they narrowed to the extent that anyone over the size of a Hobbit could fit. In addition, I suffer from a bad back, a result of back surgery that limits my sitting time.   The armrests squeezed my hips and I knew that for ten hours, I would be crushed in an orthopedic vice, not to mention my knees colliding with the seat in front.  Fortunately there was a nice young man in front of me who did not recline after I had knocked the wine off my tray table (if you want to call it that), spilling it on the passenger next to me, a pleasant German fellow who said he would not send me the cleaning bill.

My wife wrote a letter of complaint to the Air France and their apology consisted of an offer of a $50 gift certificate for her inconvenience.  Thanks a lot.  Two first class tickets would be an apology.  A $50 gift certificate is an insult, and further evidence of the contempt with which the airlines regard their customers.
This is not a unique story and I know that I hate air travel more and more.

Update December 9:  Since I wrote this rant, I received a slew of emails from readers who shared experiences not dissimilar to mine.