August 6th, 2013

8 Animals That Are Dog-Tired of Waiting for Entitlement Reform

A version of this blog post appeared on BuzzFeed on August 2, 2013 and on August 5.

As Congress kicks the can on reforming the country’s entitlement programs, America’s future hangs in the balance. Since we’ve addressed the issue in the usual ways—speechvideoblog postinfographicanimated gifFacebook post—we thought it was time for a listicle. With animals. BuzzFeed-style.

Thanks to the NRCCHeritage Foundation, Mercatus Center, and Woodrow Wilson Center for paving the political ground for this newfangled approach.

1I walk my human every day. Don’t tell me entitlement reform is too much work!

2I have nine lives to plan for—can’t you tackle Social Security before my whiskers turn gray?

3Listen, I’m the only one who should be playing dead when it comes to fixing Medicare.

4I’m practicing for when the debt becomes so big, they start rationing the fish.

5My kids deserve better.

6Wake me when we stop pretending Simpson-Bowles never existed.

7Oh, honey, I spend more time with a hair brush than Congress spends thinking about the future.

8I’m not going to be this cute forever. Reform entitlements now!

September 6th, 2011

Calling Linguists and Lexicographers: Do You Love Grammar? Then Remember: Good Writing Is Good Writing—Even if You Capitalize “TIME” Magazine and Say “Most Importantly”

Grammar Cafe

A few recent posts from my language blog, Sprachgefuhl:

June 6th, 2011


SprachgefuhlIn high school, I developed a deep-seated passion for words. I studied the dictionary. I made word-of-the-day notecards. I employed highfalutin, esoteric language in essays. And I e-mailed a lot of questions to Merriam-Webster, the Modern Language Association, and the Chicago Manual of Style.

Publishing this correspondence has long been on my to-do list. Today, I’m delighted to report that I’m now in the process of crossing this task off the list. Here are a few posts I recently published on my other blog, Sprachgefuhl:

January 20th, 2011

Why Abs Are More Than Just Abs

Six-Pack Abs

With a title like The Abs Diet: The Six-Week Plan to Flatten Your Stomach and Keep You Lean, you’d think this book would be an infomercial, dreamed up by a biz-dev-happy marketer. Since I haven’t actually read the book, I can’t confirm or deny this. Yet the below excerpt makes a surprisingly reflective statement about the importance of your midsection.

“Take the person with a six-pack. He’s the icon of strength and good health. He’s lean; he’s strong; he looks good in clothes; he looks good without clothes. Defined abs, in many ways, have defined fitness. But they define something else: They’re the hallmark of a person who’s in control of his body and, as such, in control of his health. . . . When you have abs, you’re telling the world that you’re a disciplined, motivated, confident, and healthy person.”

By the same token, if you let your body sag, the message you’re broadcasting is one of apathy and laziness. If you can make time to read this post, make time to do a few crunches.

Addendum (6/13/2011): A fitting poscript: The day before I published this post, the New York Times nailed the legacy of Jack LaLanna:

“What he left behind when he died last week, at the toned old age of 96, was not only a sweaty culture of relentless crunching and spinning but also the notion that fitness equals character, and that self-actualization begins with the self-discipline to get and stay in shape. In the post-LaLanne landscape, it’s not the eyes but the abdominals that are windows to the soul …

“Perspiration is a gateway to, and reflection of, higher virtues … A ‘new you’ usually means a trimmer, tauter version, not someone who has learned to speak Mandarin or picked up woodworking skills …

“Steadiness of exercise signals sturdiness of temperament, and physical leanness connotes mental toughness …

“Listen to the way doughy contestants are introduced (and how they talk about themselves) on TV weight-loss shows, which promise redemption through rigorous calisthenics. Saddlebag thighs and love handles are woven together with career frustrations and domestic strife—all of them the wages of sloppy living. Moving past these humiliations and rejoining polite society are contingent on serious gym time.

Addendum (6/19/2011): On the other hand,  Julian Michael points out that fat “implies zero about your value as a person in this world.”

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August 18th, 2010

The Importance of Tipping


The subject of tipping is a touchy one. No one wants to be called “cheap,” yet people can disagree reasonably about what that means. As someone who eats at or takes out from gratuity-based restaurants (as opposed to McDonalds) three to four times times a week, here’s my two cents.

20% is the new 15%. Assuming your bill is less than $100, the difference between 15% and 20% is less than $5. That’s the price of a desert, or a side dish—before tax—which I suspect most people wouldn’t think twice about ordering because of price

Yet when it comes to a tip, suddenly every dollar takes on great importance. We look at the final tab, which can be higher than we thought, and are reluctant to reach deeper into our pocket. Instead, we rationalize that $10 may only constitute a 15% gratuity, but it’s still a healthy gratuity.

Of course, to the waiter, 15% is 15%. So, why haggle over a few bucks when their effect on your wallet is so little and their effect on hers is so much? As one commentator on Andrew Sullivan’s blog noted, “If I can’t afford to tip and tip well, I can’t afford to eat out.”

Tip for tat. Assuming you frequent the given establishment, you want to be known as a good tipper. Good tippers get good service. Aren’t a few extra bucks worth the extra attention they engender—whether additional roles or chips and salsa, or never having an empty glass? While a waiter can’t turn a dry cut of meat into something zesty, she can make sure that your dining experience (temperature, noise, delays, etc.) is as enjoyable as possible.

Of the all the things to cut corners on, tipping shouldn’t be one of them—for the waiter’s sake and for yours.

August 17th, 2010

Where I’ve Been


As some of you know, I maintain another blog, Sprachgefuhl, which chronicles my pet peeves about the English language. Since I haven’t blogged at No Straw Men in such a long time, here are links to my most recent posts at Sprachgefuhl:

1. Do “High-Quality” and “Quality” Mean the Same Thing?

2. Is “News Media” Redundant?

3. Don’t Spell-Out What You Can Abbreviate

* Lest you think I’m ignoring my own advice, I keep Sprachgefuhl separate from No Straw Men because their readerships are so different.

August 16th, 2010

Omit Needless Words

“Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.”

—William Strunk Jr., The Elements of Style

Related: “A Little History of the Little Book.”

December 21st, 2009

What to Do if Your Company’s Holiday Party Lacks Alcohol

What happens when you let your communications department throw your holiday party? Why, the boss gets roasted, of course.

Which is exactly what happened, three years ago, in the Science and Technology Directorate of the Homeland Security Department (where I work). The boss, Undersecretary Jay Cohen, has since left S&T, but his alter ego, Paul Stregevsky, remains.

The song, “Sovereign of S&T,” parodies “When I Was a Lad” from the Gilbert and Sullivan opera, H.M.S. Pinafore.

October 26th, 2009

No Wonder Obama Fired Rick Wagoner

General Motor's Renaissance Center headquarters

In an article for Fortune recounting his time leading the auto task force, Steve Rattner drops this nugget about the (mis)management of General Motors:

At GM’s Renaissance Center headquarters, the top brass were sequestered on the uppermost floor, behind locked and guarded glass doors. Executives housed on that floor had elevator cards that allowed them to descend to their private garage without stopping at any of the intervening floors (no mixing with the drones).

Contrast this with the milieu at Bloomberg LP:

The central fact about Bloomberg’s new headquarters in midtown Manhattan is that it is nonhierarchical, having no private offices; all employees, from the brass on down, sit in long rows of terminal-laden desks.

Similarly, of Mayor Bloomberg, the New Yorker observed that he “works in a cubicle no bigger than his secretary’s.” Tim Gray, of TMCnet, elaborates:

When … [Michael] Bloomberg took office back in 2002, he ripped out City Hall’s traditional “office” setup and went about constructing a “bullpen” with a series of office cubicles, where he set up shop square in the middle.

The boss … placed himself in the center cubicle right next to new hires and middle rung employees of the country’s biggest city?

You bet he did …

“Walls are barriers, and my job is to remove them,” the billionaire businessman told the New York Times at the time …

The cubicles idea, Bloomberg has said, is to create an atmosphere of openness with the boss out front without anything hidden.

September 30th, 2009

The Washington Virus: Partisanship

Washington, DC

The other day, a friend who I haven’t talked to in a while asked if I am still active in politics. The answer—no—came easily, but the reason necessitated some introspection. Why, after spending four years in college and two years afterward immersed in the field—professionally and personally—have I soured on the subject?

Obviously, that I’ve changed professions accounts for a lot. Yet I think my disenchancement runs deeper. Here’s why.

1. Hyperbole is more common than thoughtfulness. I first commented on this trend in 2007, when I questioned three things: (1) the historically ignorant use of the words “totalitarian” and “authoritarian,” (2) the title of a new blog, TechRepublican, as opposed to TechConservative, and (3) Ronald Reagan’s 11th Commandant.

A year later, I lamented that, literally and figuratively, the pugilistic partisan, Grover Norquist, had replaced the courteous intellectual, William F. Buckley.

Finally, on a prominent ListServ of conservative bloggers to which I belong, few seem to mind when the e-mailer calls a politician with whom he disagrees a “douchebag” or “scumbag.” Never mind that the issue is usually trivial, or that the pol is usually a Republican; the rancor toward one’s own party is palpable.

As one who prides himself on no straw men, I find such discourse repugnant.

2. Winning has become more important than doing what’s right. An excerpt from Taylor Branch’s new book, The Clinton Tapes, illustrates this point:

[President Clinton] treated posturing as a natural element. He remarked, for instance, that he had no idea what Senate Republican leader Bob Dole of Kansas thought about the merits of gays in the military. “He may genuinely be for it or against it,” said Clinton. “All our discussions have been about the politics.” He said Dole advised him quite candidly that he intended to keep the issue alive as long as he could to trap Clinton on weak ground, where he would “take a pretty good beating.” Similarly, the president said Dole consistently advised that budgets were the most partisan matters between Congress and the White House, and that Clinton could expect to get few if any Republican votes for his omnibus bill on taxes and spending. Clinton said Dole spoke of the opposition’s job not as making deals but rather making the president fail, so he could be replaced as quickly as possible.

Indeed, as a recent article in the New York Times suggests, the advocacy group, Americans for Limited Government, seems more interested in thwarting Obama than thwarting big government. The subtitle of the blog of the libertarian scholar, David Boaz, “Independent thinking in a red-blue town,” makes more sense to me every day I’m here.

In his book, Politics Lost, Joe Klein deplores “the insulting welter of sterilized speechifying, insipid photo ops, and idiotic advertising that passes for public discourse these days.” Wise words. What a shame they’re so true.

Addendum (10/6/2009): In a recent op-ed, Steven Hayward, of the American Enterprise Institute, elaborates on my point:

During the glory days of the conservative movement, from its ascent in the 1960s and ’70s to its success in Ronald Reagan’s era, there was a balance between the intellectuals, such as Buckley and Milton Friedman, and the activists, such as Phyllis Schlafly and Paul Weyrich, the leader of the New Right. The conservative political movement, for all its infighting, has always drawn deeply from the conservative intellectual movement, and this mix of populism and elitism troubled neither side.

Today, however, the conservative movement has been thrown off balance, with the populists dominating and the intellectuals retreating and struggling to come up with new ideas. The leading conservative figures of our time are now drawn from mass media, from talk radio and cable news. We’ve traded in Buckley for Beck, Kristol for Coulter, and conservatism has been reduced to sound bites.

September 29th, 2009

Watch Me Swim

A few months ago, I observed, “To watch me swim is to understand who I am.”

A high school valedictory I delivered provides the explanation, in words, of this declaration. Now, 10 years later, comes the videotape, filmed this past summer in Alexandria, Va.

August 6th, 2009

The Speciousness of “Strategic”

I work in the field of “strategic communications.” In my past job, I worked on “strategic partnerships,” among other things. Both terms are well-established, yet both are 50% meaningless.

After all, aren’t all communications “strategic”? Do nonstrategic partnerships even exist?

The truth is, these are differences without a distinction. As any semanticist will tell you, if you can remove the adjective without changing the meaning of the noun, chuck the adjective. It’s a buzzword, “an important-sounding, usually technical word or phrase, often of little meaning, used chiefly to impress laymen.”

Think of this speciousness the next time you’re tempted to employ such jargon.

July 28th, 2009

Harvard’s Comeuppance

The university campus, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with Lowell House, center, and the Charles River beyond. Not pictured: the looming $220 million budget deficit at the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Harvard’s largest division (Steve Dunwell/Getty Images).

Some editors balk at publishing details of their reporters’ fruitless attempts to interview a source. So as to let the story speak for itself, not appear whiny, and/or not burn a bridge, they prefer to summarize such sausage making through boilerplate. “Repeated phone calls and e-mails were not returned,” is a line I often read.

But when the subject of a major story in a major magazine continually stonewalls and reneges, the publication does its readers a diservice by omitting these salient details. Thankfully, in its current issue, Vanity Fair bucks this trend, and allows its contributor, Nina Munk, to divulge her stymied efforts to report on Harvard’s shrinking endowment.

As you may have guessed by now, Harvard refused to cooperate when I was reporting this story. At first, the university’s public-relations apparatus ignored me. Week after week, e-mail after e-mail, I’d be assured that someone or someone else was unavailable—in meetings, or on vacation, or away from his desk, or out of the office, ill. When I did manage to track someone down, I was thrown a sop of evasive prose. (“I don’t feel we’ve made a decision about how to best engage for your piece,” the vice president for public affairs told me in an e-mail.) A formally scheduled interview with the dean of the business school was canceled at the very last minute. (“Glitch” was the subject heading of an e-mail informing me that the meeting was off.) Even requests for basic, public financial information were bungled. When I asked him a simple question about Harvard’s debt, one of the university’s many communications directors stonewalled: “I’m not a numbers person at all,” he said, wide-eyed.

No doubt, most reporters will empathize. As readers, we should too.

July 19th, 2009

What’s Missing from Our Debates About Energy and Health Care

Scott Young checks the air-conditioner for the required energy efficiency in a home

As legislation to reform our energy use and health insurance winds its way through Congress, it’s worth pausing to ask if we should tweak the system before overhauling it?

To be sure, there’s no reason why an overhaul can’t include these reforms. And there’s no reason why an overhaul can’t be incremental. Yet as two recent articles point out, there’s no reason why we can’t carry out these reforms now.

1. Strengthen energy requirements in building codes. Today’s energy requirements in building codes remain weak across half the country, and at least seven states have virtually no rules. That means that in many places, particularly the nation’s heartland, almost every new home, store and factory that goes up locks the country into unnecessary energy use for years to come.

No new technology needs to be invented to make major gains in saving energy. Products already available permit the construction of homes at least 30 percent more efficient than the national average. With enough political will, a new law can be put in place anywhere with the stroke of a pen, and made even more potent if it is coupled with tough oversight, as in Austin, Texas.

2. Eliminate hospital-acquired infections. Scrupulous adherence to simple but profoundly important practices like hand-washing, proper preparation of surgical sites, and assiduous care and maintenance of central lines and urinary catheters would save tens of billions of dollars every year.

July 18th, 2009

Why Go to the Moon?

Last moonwalk Apollo 17

John Gillespie Magee Jr.:

[To] slip[] the surly bonds of Earth … [and] touch[] the face of God.

Aaron Sorkin:

‘Cause it’s next. ‘Cause we came out of the cave. And we looked over the hill and we saw fire. And we crossed the ocean. And we pioneered the West. And we took to the sky. The history of man is hung on a timeline of exploration, and this is what’s next.

Charles Krauthammer:

We go for the wonder and glory of it. Or, to put it less grandly, for its immense possibilities. We choose to do such things, said JFK, “not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” And when you do such magnificently hard things—send sailing a Ferdinand Magellan or a Neil Armstrong—you open new human possibility in ways utterly unpredictable.

Addendum (7/19/2015): Krauthammer again:

Here we are, upright bipeds with opposable thumbs, barely down from the trees, until yesterday unable to fly, to communicate at a distance, to reproduce a sound or motion or even an image—and even today barely able to manage the elementary decencies of civilization—taking close-up pictures and chemical readings of a mysterious world 9½ years away.