Saturday, February 26, 2011

Cut, Cut Cut

This past week, Speaker of the House John Boehner gave the House of Representatives all the rope in the world and said, effectively, "hang us." And so as one of its three exclusive powers (the other two being the ability to impeach elected officials, as well as to break an Electoral College deadlock), the 435 members of 112th Congress exercised the power of the purse, and began the process of determining how our tax dollars will be spent. Proposing 583 amendments to the basic revenue raising bill, 153 were brought to the floor, with 67 finally being adopted after 4 days of debate. Like the outcome or not, that's some serious legislatin' action.

The final result shaved some $60 billion off of the proposed federal budget. In theory, all well and good. The devil, though, is in the details. Some trims appear to make sense regardless of what ideology you espouse: Representative Tom Rooney, Republican of Florida, proposed Amendment #2, which eliminates $450 million in funding for F-35 Joint Strike Fighter alternative engine program, a program which Defense Secretary Robert Gates called "an unnecessary and extravagant expense." Others are more partisan in nature, such as #83, #268, #409 and #575, proposed respectively by Republicans Mary Jo Emerson of Missouri, Steve King of Iowa, Tom Price of Georgia and Denny Rehlberg of Montana. Each prohibits funding for various elements of the National Health Care Law. And a few proposals even came from Democrats: Jim Matheson of Utah offered up #38, which prohibits the use of funds for the Department of Agriculture's Community Connect broadband grant program.

Other cuts made one wonder... or maybe not... just what were they thinking. Dan Boren of Oklahoma was behind #566, which bars funds from being used to require manufacturers to report to the Justice Department the sale of multiple guns to one person. If you're of the Mike Bloomberg persuasion it doesn't make a lot of sense, until you find out that Boren is also a member of the Board of the NRA. Randy Forbes of Virginia got agreement on #145, which prohibits the use of any funds in the closure or realignment of the United States Joint Forces Command. Surprise, surprise, the USJFC is headquartered in Norfolk, VA. But there were also some profiles in courage: Anthony Weiner of New York was willing to incur the wrath of the Angora goat lobby with #101, which prohibits the use of funds to provide non-recourse marketing assistance loans for mohair.

In short, there is something for everyone to hate or like. However, while Article 1, Section 7 of the Constitution starts with "All bills for raising Revenue shall originate in the House of Representatives," it ends with, "but the Senate may propose or concur with Amendments as on other Bills." In other words, it's hardly a done deal, and the fun is just beginning.

As for me, I'm just happy that Representative Steve Womack's amendment never made it through the process. Womack, a Republican from Arkansas, was going to introduce an amendment that would prohibit federal funds from being used to buy and maintain teleprompters for President Obama. He said it would save $5 million, but he withdrew the amendment because that estimate never got an official scoring from the Congressional Budget Office. Womack's explanation? "We're asking people to do more with less. And I think the president ought to lead by example. He is already a very gifted speaker. And I think that's one platform he could do without."

As a professional in this area, I might have found my own cause célèbre. I can't speak to withholding aid to Chad (#424), or the whether the Florida Water Quality Standards are onerous (#13). I'll defer to others as to EPA Guidelines on surface coal mining (#109), and whether or not we should continue to pay for the Klamath Dam Removal and Sedimentation Study (#296). In those areas and others, I'll let people with firsthand knowledge guide me.

However, I've seen speakers... gifted, smart, knowledgeable people, with great stage presence and good public speaking skills... try and give a concise message without a prompter, and let me tell you, it's not pretty. Obama is all those things. But if we're going to go to war with somebody or back a new democracy movement, I want him reading from a script. We've got enough problems without a slip of the tongue. Ronald Reagan may be a hero to the right, but remember his, "We begin bombing in five minutes" line? That's what ad libs get you. Five million? For my money, it would be cheap at twice the price.


Marc Wollin of Bedford is waiting to see who in Congress blinks first. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, the Scarsdale Inquirer and online at

Saturday, February 19, 2011

"Groove, Groove and More Groove"

Even if you have a tin ear, can't carry a note in a bucket and have all the rhythm that God gave squirrels, back in elementary school you probably had a chance to play the tambourine. It was that round thing nestled on the music teacher's cart between the wooden sticks, the maracas and the cowbell. A double threat, you could bang on it and get a drum sound, or shake it and have it jingle-jangle. In terms of making noise, it made a lot. That's not the same as making music, but it sure could be heard.

And that's probably where you left it. That is, unless you're Julia Joseph. Julia is a wonderful singer-songwriter, named Best Female Jazz Solo Artist in the 2004 New York International Independent Music festival, while her debut CD "Hush" won the 2008 Independent Music Award's popular vote for Best Folk/Singer-Songwriter. She describes her voice as "an alto that has a little crystal or a little grit on the top end." Others go further: Ty Greenstein of the group Girlyman says, "It contains traces of her heroes – Nina Simone, Phoebe Snow, Janis Joplin – but it's more than that," while M. Neala Byrne writes it's "a voice that could awaken the dead and lull the living to sleep."

While her singing and songwriting certainly deserve top billing, Julia also puts her talents to use for others. She works as a session vocalist and back-up singer, and you can hear her on several musical pieces from NBC's hit comedy, "30 Rock." More recently, she has become a permanent support player for fellow singer-songwriter Milton. In each of those roles she brings her voice and her musicality, but also something else: in her own words, she's a "kick-ass tambourine player."

If you see her play, you'd have to agree. Her leads and harmonies certainly add to any performance, but you can't help but notice her tambourine playing. Steady to be sure, it adds to the sound without overpowering it, while also accenting the whole. It's hard to imagine that that little noisemaker can make such a difference. But like many things, in the hands of a skilled practitioner, the ordinary can become extraordinary.

It wasn't always that way. "I took drum lessons a long time ago," she says, "and am happiest when grooving to some kind of rhythm. But for some reason I felt obligated to stick to the ‘singer-songwriter' thing." And so guitar became her instrument. But then Milton asked her to join his backup group, and she noticed how integral tambourine and shaker were to many of the tracks. "So I lied and told him I could handle all that stuff in the live shows and that I was a ‘real' player." But then she had to pony up: "At our first rehearsal, I was a little late because I had to run and buy a tambourine. I threw the packaging away outside the rehearsal room, walked in and winged it. No one was the wiser." She eventually came clean, but a "player" was born.

Now the owner of 6 different varieties, she approaches her playing as would any other musician. "You need to be very good at dividing beats evenly and with good dynamic emphasis. That's how you make it groove! When a rhythm section is locked in and tight, the music lives." Put another way, "It's an instrument. It makes sound. A LOT of sound. If you're going to play one, play it for real, or every drummer you work with is just really going to hate you."

I asked her if there are tambourine players she admires. "Jack Ashford... is the guy responsible for the back-beat in the ‘Motown Sound.' He played tambourine on everything, and if you really listen you can hear how much that tambourine is making the sound. Rosalie "Lady Tambourine" Washington is also truly something to behold. She is legendary for sitting in with the big acts who perform at the New Orleans Jazz Festival." Julia gets the possibilities: "Do not be fooled by how simple it looks or seems! There's all kinds of craziness a master can do. I mean, imagine a truly gripping tambourine solo? They do exist! I can't do one yet, no way... but it sure is a satisfying idea."

Just how important is her playing as opposed to her singing? "To me it's just a different part of the music. It's part of what's driving the rhythm. I guess if anything I was doing wasn't important, it would be nixed." Decide for yourself. Catch her live, and hear her singing and writing ability. Catch her with Milton, and watch her mastery of the tambourine. Or in her words, watch her add, "Dynamic, dimension, groove, groove and more groove."


Marc Wollin of Bedford caught Julia Joseph and Milton at the Common Grounds Community Coffee House. You can both performers locally or on iTunes. You can find this column regularly in The Record-Review, the Scarsdale Inquirer and online at

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Just Turn It Off

Save a single semester of "Intro to Solid-State Electronics" in college, I have no formal training in engineering. Likewise, my knowledge of computer programming is based on one class in Ten Statement Fortran. From the first I vaguely recall how a transistor works, though I can't say I would any idea how to fix our TV should it stop working. And unless someone came to me and needed a set of punch cards in order to code blackjack on a mainframe, I probably wouldn't be of much use in designing a game for your smart phone.

That being said, in spite of this cursory training in the technical arts most would say that I come down on the geekier side of the ledger. When I was a kid my dad taught me to use tools and do basic household repairs, and I'm embarrassed to say that for years I dreamed of having my own socket set. Later, when I started to get interested in electronics, I took things apart, and got the basic idea of how a telephone or radio was constructed. I confess it was a big picture view at best, as I wasn't always successful in putting the same items back together again.

Even in the high tech arena, I was an early adopter if not always an early understander. When I started my own business in 1981, I ran out and ordered a Kaypro computer. This early Personal PC, considered portable because it had a handle, weighed in at about 30 pounds, and had 2 five-inch floppy drives, a 9" green screen and a whopping 64K of memory. When it arrived I ripped open the box and plugged it in, to be met by a blinking screen and nothing else. Long before iAnything, you had to be at least part geek to get things like that to work. And so from trial and error if nothing else, I learned the basics behind hardware and software.

Not so fast forward, and some 30 years later I still have at least a modicum of street smarts when it comes to troubleshooting a problem. Whether it's the car or the dishwasher, the TV or a computer, I may not have all the technical expertise to get it up and running, but I can usually identify and isolate the problem. Likewise, I can usually suss out if it's time to call in the experts, or alternatively stop someone from trying to fix it themselves before someone gets hurt, which usually results in the same thing plus a lot of swearing.

More and more, however, I'm finding this knowledge is a case of too much too late. I hate to admit it, but the ability to analyze a problem, sort through the myriad of potential issues and then formulate an action plan has been rendered somewhat obsolete by one particular piece of circuitry: the on-off switch.

Take the iPad, perhaps one of the most elegant and complex pieces of technology out there today. Mine was acting funky. I walked through all the settings, checked and renewed the IP addresses and cleared the cache. No matter if none of that makes sense to you; I did all the geeky things I could think of to no avail. Then my wife, whose technical prowess is... well, I want to stay married, so we'll just say "limited..." said, "Try turning it off and on." Ha, I scoffed, that's not going to fix it. She shrugged. But when she wasn't looking, I did just that. And before you could say Steve Jobs, all was working. Sorry, honey, you were right.

Likewise the next day at work when a particular piece of high end equipment was malfunctioning. I tried a few things: no dice. So I called over the chief engineer, a gentleman with 30 years of experience including stints with the BBC and a host of other major companies. He fiddled with it a bit, then suggested we try a "complete register cleardown." Sounded impressive, I noted aloud, but what did that entail? He smiled. "We'll turn it off, then turn it back on, and see what happens." Indeed, it powered up successfully, and we were good to go. Amazing what they teach in London.

They say a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. However, more and more these days, it's a lot of knowledge that can get you in trouble, or at least make it harder to fix the problem. Power cycle, reboot, implementing a temporary air gap... call it what you will. But if you can find the damn switch, nine times out of ten, you look like a genius. Now, if I could just figure out which symbol is for "on" and which is for "off," I might be home free.


Marc Wollin of Bedford is noticing a lot of his "knowledge" is getting somewhat dated. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, the Scarsdale Inquirer and online at

Saturday, February 05, 2011

News from All Over

Thank goodness Egypt is blowing up. Not from the standpoint of stability in the region, the diplomatic and security minefield that a new regime represents, nor what it has done and will do to the price of oil and the stock market. Rather, it gives us a chance to feel superior to yet another autocratic state that is grappling with societal upheaval that can only be placated by mobs in the street. More to the point, we needed a little bucking up on the heels of the state visit by our personal banker, President Jintao of China (Best line of the week: Dennis Miller's observation that President Jintao and House Speaker John Boehner used to tour together under the title of "Hu and Cry.")

As color commentary to the play-by-play of the president's visit, the press has been filled with stories this past week enumerating how China is eating our lunch, and will continue to do so in the coming century. Much of the cold hard statistical data is indeed worrying: a Chinese work force of 813.5 million vs. 154 million here, Chinese exports to the US of $296.4 billion vs. our exports to them of $69.5 billion, and estimated Chinese GDP growth of 9.6% in 2011 vs. 2.3% on these shores. These, of course, are offset by a governmental system called "Chinese Capitalism" which is dictatorial in design and communist in form. The bottom line, however is that whatever you call it, it is economically formidable.

But it wasn't just at the geopolitical level that we were getting smacked around by the most populous nation on earth. It was also the week that Amy Chua became the publishing sensation of the season with the release of "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom." In a neat bit of tightrope walking, she alternately validated the stereotype of the "success at all costs" Asian parent while simultaneously saying the book is about backing away from that model. No matter: she's become a lightning rod around parenting styles. In fact, while she was invited to Davos to the World Economic Forum to talk about her academic work on globalization, she wound up sparring on stage with Larry Summers about child rearing strategies. While not a billed as a proxy for the US vs. China debate, it was hard not to read some of that into the discussion. Or as noted by Gerry Baker in the Wall Street Journal, "The engaging Ms. Chua has captured in perfect synthesis the two things middle-age Americans now fear most - China, and their own children."

For boomers everywhere, it's a double whammy. At both the geopolitical and personal levels it's easy to see them as the villains and us as the good guys. Never mind the outcome: we can say that we are morally superior, even if we lose in energy produced or violin contests won. We are happier, more innovative, more flexible than they are or ever will be. Or as Summers pointed out in Davos, "Which two freshmen at Harvard have arguably been most transformative of the world in the last 25 years? You can make a reasonable case for Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, neither of whom graduated." If they had been the product of a Tiger Mom upbringing, he added, their mothers would not have been so happy. So there.

But then the Chinese go and do something that makes us aging baby boomers take pause. Not that we want to mandate personal behavior or anything, but in the immortal words of rock and roll, what about me? And that's why another piece of news from the across the Pacific muddies the waters. Under a proposal submitted by the Civil Affairs Ministry to China's State Council, adult children would be required by law to regularly visit elderly parents. If they do not, parents can sue them. Note that it doesn't require economic support, just visitation. And there is some clarification needed, such as what constitutes "regular" and how it would be monitored. While it does give new meaning to the term "nanny state," for those of us who defined our lives by our connection to our kids and now see a future without that, it doesn't seem like such a bad idea.

All that in one week from just one country. The Egyptians better get moving if they want to stay above the fold. Sure, we're all captivated by the pictures coming out of Cairo. But if all they got is a popular uprising, we're going to lose interest fast. Odds are we'll be on to the next Twitter revolution before you can say Tiger Mom.


Marc Wollin of Bedford is getting whiplash by all that is happening around the world. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, the Scarsdale Inquirer and online at