!חג הנוכה שמח

Wishing everyone a joyous and blessed Hanukkah!

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I asked Delta Airlines a simple question on Twitter. What ensued was tragicomical

I’ve been thinking about what to do on New Year’s eve and today I got the idea to check whether flights to Havana were reasonably priced. I have been to Cuba already, but now with the U.S.-Cuban thaw and direct flights being reinstated, I thought I’d give it a try and see what kind of prices we’re looking at.

Living in the metro Atlanta area, the most obvious choice would be Delta Airlines that, according to news reports, had opened a direct flight from ATL to Havana. And that task proved to be much more time consuming and idiotic than I had anticipated.

First, I tried to check the flights on the Fly Delta app on the phone. Nope. “SORRY… Something went wrong.” All right, maybe the servers were having a bad day.

Later in the night, I went to delta.com and tried to search flights on my desired dates. Unfortunately, though, the only flights that popped up were via Miami, with an eight to nine-hour layover.

So what does a modern consumer do when something doesn’t make sense? He goes on Twitter and asks the company what’s happening.

Like a modern company, Delta replied almost immediately.

Wait, what? I have to call somewhere? No, in the 21st century, that won’t do.

Again, a very quick reply followed.

No, I am not calling anywhere.

Seriously.

But then, they resorted to bullshitting tactics.

Say what? “Government regulations”? Jebus wept.

That one is still waiting for a reply.

Meanwhile, American Airlines tweeted this:

Let’s also bear in mind that American apparently doesn’t have the same “government regulations” Delta has, as they would gladly let me book a flight to Havana online. From Charlotte, NC, though, which is ways away, but hey, customer service, that’s the very image of a company.

Of course, I will not be flying to Havana for New Year’s. Because the return ticket costs about $1,000. Which is insane, even for the holiday season. I mean, Havana is a two-and-a-half-hour flight, and a thousand bucks? Dream on.

But at least I now know which airline to prefer in the future for flying anywhere.

(Also, notice the typos the Delta Twitter representative made throughout their tweets!)

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Review: Sling TV—the future of television, with some of its annoying bugs

Sling TV.

Sling TV.

On Black Friday, I finally got myself an Apple TV. I’ve got to admit, it was long one of my most-desired items and frankly the only Apple gadget we didn’t have in our household (well, I still don’t have Airpods, because Apple hasn’t yet made them available).

The Apple TV is a great gadget, though. Not only can you purchase movies and TV shows from iTunes and watch them on a big screen, but you can stream pretty much anything to the TV from your computer. You have access to tons of TV channels’ on-demand apps; there are even apps that allow you to copy content from your computer to the Apple TV box and store it there; and, of course, there are apps designed to watch live TV that is streamed via the internet. Truly, the future of television.

So, that meant I had to find the service that best covers my live TV needs. At the time I got the Apple TV, there were two—Sling TV (owned by Dish) and Playstation Vue (owned by Sony). A third one—DirecTV Now (owned by AT&T)—appeared a few days later. Each of them offer seven days free at the start, so it was free and easy to compare them all.

Each of those services offer different plans at different prices. The biggest downside to all of them is that one can’t still only pick the channels one wants, even though they sometimes appear to be advertising exactly that. So far, it doesn’t work like that.

Playstation Vue is the only streaming live TV provider that allows you to record shows, and the only one who has CBS. DirecTV Now has said recording will come some time next year, and I don’t know about Sling. But that was pretty much the only upside to Vue.

The main downside to it was that if I select a plan that has all the channels I want, in addition I get a load of useless channels I never watch and never will. Why have so many channels if you don’t need them in the first place? That’s where, again, comes to play the need for a service that lets you pick and choose exactly the channels you need and not have to go through the mess of a TV guide to finally find something I want to watch. Also, the TV guide on Playstation Vue was poorly designed and difficult to maneuver.

DirecTV Now had only just come out and I had to try it out, too. As a brand new service, you can expect it to be buggy—and buggy it was. Even though the service had the best price for the plan that had most of the channels I need, the level of its rawness was the most annoying thing. They should’ve tested it longer and come out with a product that was even remotely ready to presented to a wider audience.

So no, I can’t handle buggy software, and there was no telling of when they would actually fix all their issues, so—disregarded.

And so it happened that I became a paid subscriber of Sling TV. I returned my Xfinity box to Comcast, will save about a 60 dollars a month on my cable bill now, and have access to all the channels I need (apart from CBS, which I buy directly from it via their CBS All Access app), and I am relatively happy.

Why relatively? We’ll get to that.

Most of the time, Sling works like a charm. It, too, has some channels that I never watch, but creating a favorite channels’ list was easy and maneuvering through the TV guide is a pleasure. I get all the channels I need in 1080p resolution, even Sundance TV which, on Xfinity for example, comes in SD. I have HBO; I can add Showtime from its own Showtime Anytime app when Homeland and Ray Donovan start; I have news channels, sports channels, movie channels and regular network TV channels.

The stream is almost always flawless and I experience very few, very minor issues, that usually can be solved by just choosing the channel again from the guide, and everything goes back to normal. It also has TV channels’ on-demand included (but it doesn’t record, so if you miss a show, you depend on when the network decides to put it on on-demand. Also, it has a list of programs you’ve have watched recently and if you stopped watching midway, you can continue just by picking the show from your “most recently watched” list. Extremely convenient.

Danny Trejo is the official face of Sling TV.

Danny Trejo is the official face of Sling TV.

Now to the downsides.

Occasionally the sound and the picture are out of sync, i.e. the sound comes a second later than the person on the screen moved their lips. This is one of my pet peeves when watching something—I like everything to be in sync. Usually choosing the channel again from the guide helps, but sometimes the problem will reoccur after a while. The other day, I was watching USA Network and the issue kept on for the whole day. Really frustrating.

Also, the picture on some channels sometimes freeze and that makes it impossible to watch. It hasn’t occurred in a while now, maybe they’ve fixed the issue permanently. The good thing with Sling TV is that you can choose your own max bandwidth the stream is allowed to use, so if I set it to “High Quality – 3.2Mb/sec,” it seems to be working without freezing. And I still get 1080p picture, which is nice.

A major downside, however, is that I can’t pause live TV. This day and age, I find the lack of this option outrageous. People’s bladders aren’t programmed to the commercial breaks, unfortunately, and thus I do occasionally need to pause a live program I am watching. And asking for help from Sling TV’s support people in Twitter led me to believe they don’t even understand this is a major flaw in their service. On Xfinity or AT&T you can pause and rewind any live show you’re watching, how can Sling thing it’s normal that you can’t?

I’m not a moron, guys, I understand you can’t fast-forward live TV. But the tone in this tweet seriously implied that you don’t understand how modern TV should work.

Speaking of their support on Twitter, though, at first, I was positively surprised. I got replies to my questions within minutes and the help was great. But right after the seven-day trial ended and I started paying for the service, the quality of customer support went from 100 to 0 on turbo speed. Do they really think that now that they’ve hooked me on their service (let me remind you, I can cancel any time!), they no longer need to pay attention to me?

Or, if they bother to reply, they make snarky remarks that have no place in customer support or marketing. Like this one:

This is what can be called retarded marketing. In what world do you tell your customer who voices a genuine concern that other clients are happy and imply there must be something wrong with me?

Or course, the quality of help from Sling’s support on Twitter depends hugely on who is on duty. At least two of the support people have been tremendously helpful and nice. They should just get rid of the bad apples who know nothing about how client communication works.

So, to recap:

Upsides:

  • Works great most of the time
  • A really easily maneuverable menu and TV guide
  • I get all the channels I want, and can simply hide the ones I don’t watch
  • Cheaper than competitors or cable, depending on the plan you take
  • The ability to resume watching a show even if it’s not live any more

Downsides:

  • The occasional freezing and sound being out of sync
  • The lack of the ability to pause or rewind live TV
  • The lack of recording (but I knew that when I signed up, so that’s on me—hopefully it’ll come soon though)
  • Some customer support people on Twitter who need to find a new career immediately

All in all, for now I’m staying with Sling. But at one point I will check back to DirecTV Now to see if and how they’ve evolved and whether they’ve got rid of all their bugs. Playstation Vue doesn’t interest me anymore. But what does interest me, though, is the rumor that Hulu might be coming out with its own live TV service next year. I’ll be sure to check this out, too.

 

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Trump’s GOP has abandoned everything conservativism stands for—and thus us, conservatives

Imagine if you had to look at that smug face every time "the president" was speaking.

Imagine if you had to look at that smug face every time “the president” was speaking.

Now that the Donald Trump takeover of the Republican Party is complete and the businessman is the GOP’s official nominee for president in the November election, it is abundantly clear that the party that once was of Dwight Eisenhower’s, Ronald Reagan’s and even Abraham Lincoln’s is no more. Ronald Reagan once said that he switched from Democrats to Republicans not because he left the Democratic Party—he did it because the Democratic Party left him. Now, the Republican Party has left us, conservatives; now the Republican Party has left me.

I have always held dear the values of common-sense conservativism, compassionate conservativism, classical-liberal conservativism. I’ve always voted for candidates, wherever I’ve lived, that represent these values to me. I’ve always voted for political parties that represent these values.

The GOP has become a pro-regulation party

Now, after the horrendous travesty that was the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, OH, and the past year of presidential primary campaigns, it is clear, more than ever, that the Republican Party no longer stands for those values I and other conservatives hold dear. The Republican Party, abducted, kidnapped by Donald Trump and his mentality, as saddened as I am to say this, is no longer my Republican Party.

It’s not only the persona of Trump that represents this metamorphosis of the Grand Old Party. It’s also that the party now represents values that are not quintessentially American, not guided by common sense, and have nothing to do with what the party of the Gipper, Ike and Honest Abe should stand for.

The best representation of what today’s GOP stands for is its 2016 platform, a 60-page document that sets the standards of the party for this election cycle and the next four years of government—should it be awarded the presidency and a congressional majority. It’s a document full of statements and clauses that firmly belong in the trash can of history, not in a modern, 21-century political platform.

One of the clearest shifts away from the conservative, center-right ideology is the GOP’s call to revive the 1933 Glass-Steagall Act that draws a strict line between commercial banks and investment security firms. This is straight out of the left-wing playbook, something that Bernie Sanders would advocate (and, I think, in fact, does) for. The party that is supposed to stand against regulations that hurt businesses, free markets and the economy, actually calls for an outrageous regulation of the banking sector that would essentially end fee-free retail banking and put in place strict regulations what banks can and cannot do with their own money. This, for me, is incomprehensible.

The GOP has definitively abandoned “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”

Another example of moving to the other side of the moon from common-sense conservativism is support for Donald Trump’s wall on the U.S.-Mexican border. The country that once proudly proclaimed, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” is now, indeed, saying, “No vacancies.” This is not what a traditional American conservative party—a party that should firmly uphold the thesis of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”—could in any serious measure even contemplate, let alone put it in its election platform. And yet, there it is…

And, of course, it’s not only Trump’s wall that is standing against this principle. It’s also the GOP’s call to apply “special scrutiny” to refugees and people from countries where Islamic terrorism has set its roots—essentially equating all the people from these countries, these regions with the small minority of those who wish harm upon the free world. Only in 2012, the Republican Party clearly said it affirmed “our country’s historic tradition of welcoming refugees from troubled lands.” Only four years have passed…

The aforementioned motto of “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”—something that are supposed to be the unalienable rights, given to all human beings, according to the very basis of the United States, the Declaration of Independence—has also seemingly been forgotten when the GOP adopted the clause calling for overturning the Supreme Court’s decision to legalize equal marriage. This country has come so far in equal rights and the SCOTUS’s decision to grant every consenting adult the right to marry was welcomed by millions of people who, indeed, are pursuing their happiness—and yet there’s a party that urges the reversal of this decision. Let’s remember the words of another conservative, the former prime minister of the United Kingdom, David Cameron: “I don’t support gay marriage despite being a conservative. I support gay marriage because I’m a conservative.” Isn’t it the time for the Republican Party to realize that “Conservatives believe in the ties that bind us; that society is stronger when we make vows to each other and support each other,” to quote Cameron again.

The platform goes on and on with ideas and principles that the GOP wants to implement—ideas that should have no place in today’s world, and, moreover, principles that have nothing to do with the traditional, common-sense, compassionate conservativism for which the Grand Old Party has stood for decades.

An entitled asshole for the nominee

And then, of course, we have Donald J. Trump. A New York businessman with an orange complexion—something that is called “the worst spray-on tan in history”—who has bankrupted more businesses than most people start in a lifetime. A wannabe politician who describes himself and is described by his supporters as an outsider—maybe there’s a reason he’s an outsider and should remain so—who can’t hold a steady position on anything for more than a few seconds (maybe he has the memory of a goldfish?). A person who wants to hold the highest office not only in America, but the entire free world, and yet can’t go a day without offending—and I’m not talking about political bickering, I’m talking about outright insults—anyone.

The Republican Party’s nominee for president is a man who is admired by dictators and who himself admires them back. He’s a man who has more than questionable relations with the Russian regime—the very regime the previous GOP nominee for president, Mitt Romney, called the greatest geopolitical foe of the United States, and rightly so. He’s a man who doesn’t like anyone but himself—and even worse, he likes to hear himself, and only himself, talking.

Donald Trump, the Republican nominee for president in 2016—a man whose emotional intelligence is an absolute zero. He’s the perfect example of a person who thinks he owns the world and the people in it. He’s the perfect example of a person who thinks he’s too privileged to live by the norms humans usually live by. He’s the perfect example of an entitled asshole—someone who hasn’t worked a day in his life and seriously thinks everything should be given to him, even if it’s the presidency.

Even worse, Donald Trump, the man who could seriously end up running the world’s most powerful country, has more recently proven he doesn’t give a rat’s ass about the treaties and commitments of the United States. A man who actually says he wouldn’t uphold NATO’s Article 5—the collective defense clause—unconditionally. This is a man who should be feared by every single ally of the United States—and is loved by every single enemy. Vladimir Putin is already preparing a feast for January 21, 2017.

We’re talking about a person who’s outright dangerous to the interests and wellbeing of the United States itself. A Manchurian Candidate, as Anne Applebaum put it, who for some reason is not feared, but oddly celebrated in the very country he is preparing to destroy.

Have we seriously lost our fucking minds?

I’m a conservative

Taking all this and all that has happened in the past year into account, I can unfortunately no longer identify myself as a Republican. It’s not because I left the Republican Party; it’s because the Republican Party left me. I have not changed; my views have not changed. I still stand for and believe in the conservative values, the conservative ideas and causes and I still identify myself as conservative. But it’s impossible for me to say I’m a Republican when I don’t agree with the core principles of the party.

I have already declared my support for Gary Johnson, the Libertarian Party candidate for president. He’s not an ideal candidate, but neither is he “the lesser evil” many seem to seek this election cycle. I continue to support principled conservatives with whom I find common ground, wherever they might run, and whichever party they might represent.

I continue to wait for the day I could again identify myself with a political party I agree with on most—or even most important—issues. This would have to be a party that once again stands up for freedom, free economy and markets and less regulations instead of more, individualism and individual rights, human rights, strong defensive foreign policy, outreaching domestic policy, reason and common sense, and the traditional American values and rights. A party that makes America what it is—exceptional.

Because I love this country with all my heart. I only wish for this country to love us as much as we love it.

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The best burgers—ever

The towering goodness of a self-made hamburger.

The towering goodness of a self-made hamburger.

Here’s my recipe for the best burgers ever. This is the last burger recipe you’ll ever need.

The ingredients:

  • about 1.2 to 1.5 pounds of ground beef (lean, 93:7, for example)
  • 1 egg
  • 1/2 onion, plus then some for garnish
  • 5-10 cloves of garlic (depending on how much you love garlic)
  • 5 branches of thyme
  • a handful of fresh dill
  • 1/2 cup of finely grated cheese (use whatever you like, four-cheese, mozzarella, cheddar, whatever you like)
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • dried oregano and basil to taste
  • 4 hamburger buns
  • 1 beefsteak tomato
  • sliced cheese (again, use whichever cheese you like)
  • lettuce, iceberg or green
  • kosher dill pickles
  • ketchup, if you like it

How to make the burgers:

Finely chop the garlic and the onion. Pick the leaves off the thyme branches and only use the leaves. Finely chop the dill. Put them all into a bowl, and add the egg, salt, pepper, oregano, basil and the grated cheese. The latter is to make the patties spectacularly juicy.

Then add the ground beef and mix it all well together. The best is to use your hands, but if that makes you feel uncomfortable, try a spoon and then at the end, still use your hands.

Once the meat batter is ready, spread it into four equal portions, and form four nice, round, thick patties. If you prefer thinner or smaller patties, I guess you could make six, but this recipe is intended for four burgers.

Heat the barbeque to the max, and put the patties on. Grill them about five minutes each side; once you turn them over, gently press on them to make them a little thinner, but that’s not a must.

Also, put the buns on the grill, the cut side down, for about 30 seconds, definitely not more.

The patties and the buns getting ready.

The patties and the buns getting ready.

Once the patties and the buns are cooked, put the patties on the lower side of the bun, then add a slice of cheese (you can also add the cheese straight on the grill if you prefer it properly melted), some ketchup, a slice of tomato, a slice of onion, a slice of pickle, and a leaf of lettuce. Put the top bun onto the towering goodness in front of you and…

Enjoy!

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My endorsement for president 2016

The presidential campaign this election year is one of the weirdest I can remember. It’s one of the most divisive—albeit not as divisive as 2008—but also one of the most confusing, because, for the first time in my adult life, the (likely) candidates of the two biggest parties are both equally—even though differently—repulsive.

Being a Republican, I was one of the early supporters of Marco Rubio, the Florida senator whose young energy and desire to turn this country and the world around appealed to me a great deal. Unfortunately, he didn’t appeal to a larger Republican audience, and he had to drop out of the campaign. One by one, reasonable candidates—ones I could see myself supporting in case Marco dropped out, like Carly Fiorina, Jeb Bush, John Kasich—left the campaign field to make room for the obvious GOP frontrunner, the New York businessman, Donald J. Trump. By now, it’s all but certain Trump is going to be the Republican nominee for president in November.

And when we look at the Democratic field, the picture is equally ugly. One one hand, we have a junior senator from Vermont, Bernie Sanders, who publicly declares to be a socialist—something that doesn’t happen in the American politics too often, thankfully. Sanders has time and again proven he doesn’t know how the world works; he knows nothing about foreign policy, diplomatic affairs and why or what the U.S. should be representing in the world stage. Moreover, he doesn’t understand how the economy works, making outrageous promises that can only mean he truly believes money grows on trees. But, as the Democratic primaries have shown, even though he does have a considerable following of naïve and idealistic youngsters, the American general public, even the Democratic general public is reluctant to have a borderline communist as president.

How do you choose between a conniving cunt and a shitty, xenophobic businessman?*

The presumptive Democratic candidate, the former SecState and senator, Hillary Clinton, whose greatest accomplishment is being the former first lady, is another example of someone who should only see the White House on a guided tour. A blatant liar; a suspected criminal, under the investigation by the FBI; a person who, as Secretary of State, was responsible for numerous security lapses that endangered American lives in Benghazi and resulted in the death of the U.S. ambassador to Libya, as well as other Americans. And even worse, we’re dealing with a candidate who claims to be a champion of women, but who has been accused of silencing and threatening her husband’s alleged rape victims (and we all know about Bill Clinton’s indiscretions, so it’s not that hard to believe).

And then we come to Donald J. Trump. A person who wants to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexican border and have Mexico pay for it. (You know, the only way this is ever going to happen is when Trump bankrupts America and makes an enemy out of every other nation, then Mexico is going to build the wall to keep out all the Americans who want to leave the United States of Trump.) A person who calls for a ban to keep members of a certain religious group from entering the U.S. A businessman who has bankrupted more businesses—among others a casino!—than most people start in their lifetime. A wannabe politician who changes his positions not only every day, but sometimes in the same sentence—a politician about whom we don’t really know where he stands on any of the issues (“It’s going to be yuge!”—“I know words!”—“I’ve said many things!”). A candidate who is admired by the dictators of the world, and, even worse, admires these dictators himself. A man who picks fights with everyone, including the media (real smart!), who on a regular basis offends women, veterans, Muslims, Mexicans, pretty much everyone who doesn’t agree with him, or whom he doesn’t particularly like at any given moment. A person whose emotional intelligence is a big round zero.

So, indeed. How do you make a choice between two different, but equally shitty candidates of whom neither should ever step in the Oval Office in any capacity?

Well, one option is, you don’t.

And that’s why…

I’m endorsing Gary Johnson for president

Gary Johnson for president

I don’t identify myself as a libertarian. I am a conservative when it comes to the economy, foreign policy and defense. I’m a liberal when it comes to social issues. I believe in the American exceptionalism, and I believe in interventionist diplomacy when it comes to guarding the free world and its values. I identify myself as a modern, common-sense Republican.

But this election, it has come to me breaking the party line and endorsing the presidential candidate of the Libertarian Party.

I think the former governor of New Mexico is a viable choice for president for everyone who can’t see themselves supporting either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, Republicans and Democrats alike. It might very well be he’s the only viable choice.

I agree with Gary Johnson on most issues.

  • Limited government and defending of personal, individual freedoms, including the freedom of marriage between consenting adults—check.
  • Balanced budgets and cutting down government spending—check.
  • Creating an economic environment for job growth without manipulating the market—check.
  • A simplified, but secure immigration and work visa system—check.
  • Deregulating the internet and communications market and stopping government interference of innovation—check.
  • Deregulating the energy market and stopping government interference of environmental issues—check.

In fact, the only main issue I don’t agree with Governor Johnson is foreign policy. As I said, I believe in interventionist diplomacy when it comes to defending the free world, and I think the best defender of the free world is the United States. The world’s history has shown it needs a global policeman, and who is better to take on this chore than the land of the free and the home of the brave? If the U.S. stopped acting as the world’s policeman, we would see the emergence of Russia or China as such and that would mean a definite end to the free world as we know it, and the liberties and values we hold dear.

Gary Johnson.

Gary Johnson.

But, this election I am willing to compromise on this issue, because in the current field, Gary Johnson is the best candidate for the highest office in the country, considering the other candidates’ profound shortcomings. I also believe that if the governor would take the office of president (which, I admit, is a long shot), he would soon be faced with the reality of today’s world and at least to a certain extent, change his non-interventionist stance.

I believe Gary Johnson is also the most sensible option this election. We know very clearly where he stands; his economic policies are reasonable and support the free market and his social policies stand by individual freedoms. And even though I don’t agree with his foreign policy, at least we all know where he stands, which can’t be said of the prospective GOP nominee.

We should all come together

The thing, of course, is, that Gary Johnson doesn’t stand much of a chance winning the election in November. The most recent three-way polling puts his support at 10%, while Hillary Clinton has 38% and Donald Trump 35%. Even if the remaining voters came to support Johnson, he’d only have 27% of support.

But there is plenty of time until the election. I believe that if all of us who are displeased with the main parties’ candidates would stand behind Governor Johnson, he would actually have a chance to win the White House. Believe it or not, among those 38% and 35% who would vote for Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, respectively, are people who would only vote for them because they’re their party’s candidates, and would otherwise have picked a different person as their nominee. If those discontent people would look into Gary Johnson and what he represents, I believe they could be persuaded to support him in general election, too.

The summer of discontent 2016 could have a happier ending than having to say the words, “President Donald Trump” or “President Hillary Clinton.” We could end up saying, “President Gary Johnson,” and I’d be OK with that.

* I borrowed that phrase from a Canadian friend. Nobody else has described this race more accurately.

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Alaska, the great land—which it, indeed, is

Back in the 1990ies there was a TV-show on CBS, called “Northern Exposure.” Although filmed almost entirely in Washington state, in a small town called Roslyn (if you’ve seen the show, you might remember a mural saying, “Roslyn’s Café,” which in reality marks the location of the “Roslyn Café”—the mural itself is still there), the show takes place in a fictional Alaskan town called Cicely, located somewhere in the wilderness of Alaska, at least a two-hour flight from the state’s largest city, Anchorage.

Even though Cicely doesn’t really exist and the show’s producers never really explained their source of inspiration, according to some websites, it could be a mixture of many real Alaskan towns and cities. For example, Talkeetna, an old mining town 100 miles north of Anchorage, a real all-American small town with charming little houses, cafes and restaurants lined up on Main Street, and the place where many flightseeing tours to the Denali National Park and Preserve take off.

Or Seward, 127 miles south from Anchorage, that can be truly called “the Alaskan Riviera,” a characterization used for Cicely on the show’s pilot episode, located right next to the Kenai Fjords National Park and offering beautiful views to the nearby snow-topped mountains, itself having a charming old fishing village feel and look, especially in the historic downtown area.

Alaska is huge

Or it could be some other smaller or a bigger cities (let’s face it, Alaska doesn’t really have big cities; Anchorage has the population of 300,000 and the entire population of Alaska is about 738,000 with the density of 1.26 people per square mile), but that is really not that important. What’s important is, to experience the real Alaska, places like Talkeetna and Seward, and national parks like Denali and Kenai Fjords, are exactly the places you need to visit.

The thing with Alaska is, it looks quite reasonably small on the map, but if you’d hypothetically put the state onto the map of the lower 48, it would cover most of Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Missouri, Iowa and Kansas, and considerable parts of Nebraska and the Dakotas. The fact is, it’s huge. So don’t let the tiny population thrown you off—if you want to experience everything in the Great Land, you will need weeks and weeks of time.

Alaska compared to the lower 48.

Alaska compared to the lower 48.

That all is to say, the week we spent in the second-remotest state of the U.S. wasn’t clearly enough. And that’s why we did the most essential things we could—Anchorage, where you’d normally land; Talkeetna, where you take a flightseeing tour to Denali; the Denali National Park and Preserve itself; Seward in the south; and Homer on the other side of the Kenai Peninsula.

Alaska is expensive

Also, it’s important to note there are no freeways in Alaska. Most of the time you have two-lane roads (and by two-lane I mean one lane goes your way, and the other one the opposite way) and in places quite heavy traffic (I mean, there aren’t that many people in Alaska, where do they all come from?), and even though the distances between the cities aren’t that remarkable, the above-mentioned factors tend to make your drive times frustratingly long. Imagine, the 127-mile journey from Anchorage to Seward takes close to three hours; longer if you stop on the way. The Denali village is 240 miles from the state’s largest city—be prepared for a four to five-hour journey; more if you have traffic (fortunately, in the north the traffic is quite scarce). Homer, 221 miles south, is also four to five hours away from Anchorage. And if you’re crazy enough to drive from Denali to Seward in one go (365 miles), it’s going to take you the best part of the day.

Another noteworthy thing to mention about Alaska is, it’s relatively expensive. Be prepared to pay $150+ for a night of lodging (albeit, if you plan and book ahead, it may be cheaper), $15 for breakfast and $45 for steak dinner. Gas is cheaper in Anchorage (at the time we went, about $2.40 per gallon), but more expensive in the remote areas ($2.80 per gallon or so in Homer).

Alaska is totally worth it

But here’s the thing. If you want to experience exceptional beauty, great northern charm, friendly bearded people (I swear, all Alaskan males have beards!), cool weather (that, of course, is relative; in May, the temperatures in Anchorage ranged from 50…75°F; in Talkeetna and Denali they can get as low as 34°F in the morning, but as high as 75°F during the day), snowy mountains and reindeer burgers (or meat loaf, or pretty much any other meat dish), then you will go to Alaska and enjoy every bit of it.

Reindeer burger at Humpy's in Anchorage.

Reindeer burger at Humpy’s in Anchorage.

So what if you have to drive five hours to get somewhere. So what if you have to wear a warmer jacket in what most Alaskans would call “summer.” Because when you get there, you will enjoy gorgeous views over a beautiful lake with mountain reflections; or see the highest peak in North America from an airplane; see moose, bears and whales up close in the wilderness; enjoy good food and, quite surprisingly for me, really good beer (Alaskan white and blonde ales are really, really good, even APAs brewed there are real tasty and I am saying this as someone who has never liked ales!); and see the sun at 12 o’clock in the night (and the further north you go, the more chance you have to see the sun throughout the night—that is in the summer, of course).

Midnight sun near Talkeetna.

Midnight sun near Talkeetna.

Yes, Alaska is totally worth it.

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Flightseeing tour to Mount McKinley (Denali)

Last week during our trip to Alaska, my wife and I took a flightseeing tour to the Denali National Park and Preserve, to the vicinity of the highest peak in North America, Mt. McKinley (with a summit elevation of 20,310 feet). Here’s a short video.

At some 18,000 feet, the base-to-peak rise of Mt. McKinley is the largest of any mountain situated entirely above sea level, basically meaning that while it’s not the highest mountain in the world, it’s the tallest.

McKinley was named after William McKinley, the 25th president of the United States, albeit the mountain was named in 1896, when he was still a candidate. As the U.S. law dictates, landmarks can’t be named after living people; hence the U.S. government only recognized the name in 1917, 16 years after McKinley’s death.

In 2015, the Department of the Interior changed the mountain’s name to Denali, its old native name.

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Non-smoking airports—the reason for thousands of grumpy travelers

Ever since cities and countries started banning smoking in workplaces, pubs and restaurants, and, most recently, in most outside public places (like New York and Chicago, for example, have done in city parks), airports have followed—whether on their own or being forced by governments—suit. But what the legislators, campaigners and activists can’t possibly comprehend is that smoking bans at airports is the biggest contributor to grumpy, miserable air travelers.

There are hundreds of airports in the world that have banned smoking completely inside terminals. Moreover, most of those airports don’t even allow smoking outside in most places, having designated smaller areas away from everything that matters for those with the habit. So, the moment you walk through security, you’re pretty much fucked. The only way to enjoy a cigarette in these airports is exiting the secure area and then putting yourself through the misery of going through security again.

On the other hand, there are a few airports in the world still allowing enjoyment for those of us addicted to nicotine. Atlanta, for example, has smoking lounges all over the airport—apart from concourse D, for some peculiar reason, but even there is a bar where you can get a refreshing drink and enjoy a refreshing cigarette. Frankfurt, Germany, is also one of those out-of-this-world airports that has smoking lounges. Tallinn, Estonia, too. Or, in the U.S., apart from Atlanta come to mind Tampa, Florida, and Washington’s Dulles. Even New York’s LaGuardia airport allows smoking after security.

And then there are the ones that don’t have any smoking facilities inside the terminal buildings. Chicago’s O’Hare, for example, one of the biggest airports in the world. None of the airports in the Greater London area in the UK have any, either. Berlin’s Schönefeld airport is another notorious example, especially because Frankfurt, which is located in the same country, does have smoking lounges.

My latest experience of a non-smoking airport is Anchorage, Alaska. What makes this airport’s approach especially ironic, is that on its website it says, “We want to make your travel experience at the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport a pleasant one. For this reason, we have a wide range of services and facilities to best serve you.” And on the same page, the website adds, quite casually, “Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport is a non-smoking facility, as such, smoking is not permitted anywhere inside the terminal buildings.”

So how exactly are you making my travel experience a pleasant one when you deny me something I desperately crave for?

Now I understand non-smokers’ despise for us. I understand non-smokers’ desire to have a smoke-free environment. I do my best not to smoke in the vicinity of people who detest the smell. I don’t want to poison other people who don’t want to be poisoned.

Yes, I understand.

But I also think that if you’re accommodating the needs of some, you’re not really accommodating the needs of all. And, by creating hundreds, if not thousands of people who are miserable, irritable, even angry during their flights (which can by themselves be insanely long these days) you contribute to the unpleasantness of other travelers who have to put up with nervous and angry people on their flights. Why do this? Why make the non-smokers miserable by making the smokers miserable? Where exactly is the logic?

However, here’s the thing. The international conspiracy—for the lack of a better characterization—against smokers is exactly what it is. It’s not about public health, it’s not about making the lives of non-smokers better, it’s not about protecting people from the dangers of second-hand smoking.

It’s about one thing and one thing only—making the lives of smokers miserable. Which is outrageously idiotic, because if we’d all quit, where would you get all the tax dollars that we pay as tobacco excise? Wouldn’t that eventually result in raising other taxes, and potentially the taxes of viceless people?

There is a very simple solution to accommodating both smokers and non-smokers in airports. Interestingly, the first place I encountered this was in Auckland, New Zealand—one of the first countries in the world that introduced an overall ban on smoking in public places, and yet a country that doesn’t think smokers are some sort of lower life forms that don’t have any rights or needs. What the folks at Auckland airport did was—they built a smoking area outside.

So, you’re inside the terminal building. You’re past security, just a few steps away from your gate. And yet, you can step outside for a cigarette. Amazing, isn’t it?

A similar concept was adapted by Tampa airport in Florida. There’s a door right next to a bar inside the secure area, and you can sit down and enjoy a nice puff before your longer or shorter flight.

Tampa airport's smoking area.

Tampa airport’s smoking area.

You’re not on the tarmac, you’re a fair distance away from aircraft and fuel fumes. You’re on a balcony or a patio that is fenced off, so crazy people wouldn’t run amok on the runway. You’re outside, so there’s no need to build glass boxes and expensive low-pressure air-conditioning systems. You’re outside, just like in your back yard.

If it’s raining, it doesn’t matter. If it’s snowing, it doesn’t matter. If there’s a hurricane outside, you might not be able to light your cigarette, but it doesn’t matter. We, smokers, are sub-human anyway in today’s world. But, at least, with smoking areas like this, we wouldn’t he treated as not human at all.

The only reason such outside smoking areas don’t exist in every non-smoking airport in the world is the constant, outrageous, and dangerously prevalent attitude against smoking and smokers in general. It’s the anti-smoking activists’ and governments’ blatant campaign to wipe out every earthly pleasure people might take up. Soon it’s going to be alcohol (it’s already on the way); chocolate; fat; sex (remember Demolition Man?)…

Yes, smoking is a nasty habit. Yes, it’s harmful for you. But it’s the smokers’ choice to smoke. And it’s still legal. And, an outside smoking area does not, I repeat, does not hurt any non-smokers (the same thing goes for outside open spaces, by the way; take note, New York and Chicago). What it does, though, is considerably reduce the amount of otherwise nice people turned into miserable and angry assholes on aircraft because they couldn’t enjoy their last puff before their 12-hour flight; or get some relief during a four-hour layover in Seattle after a three-hour flight and before a six-hour one.

Airports—build outside smoking areas in the terminals near the gates. You will have a lot more happy travelers and none of the non-smokers will be unhappy. Unless they’re natural pricks, but then they just are that way and should walk to places instead of flying in the first place.

(Ah, yes. I did claim in a blog post last year I had quit smoking. Well, that lasted for three and a half months. Hey, I’m an addict. So sue me. I still have rights.)

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The wealthy benevolence of Donald Trump

Back in the day when the prospect of Donald Trump becoming the Republican nominee for president sounded like—in fact, was—a bad joke, there already were people who supported the New York businessman’s presidential bid. Interestingly enough, the first person who wholeheartedly supported the man I met in California, a state where Republicans in general are about as scarce as non-hybrid taxicabs, for the lack of a better comparison.

The Trump supporter—let’s call him Dave, which may or may not have been his real name (I really don’t remember)—was my next-door neighbor, a native Hawaiian who had lived in California for a considerable amount of time. And one time I found us chatting in the parking lot about the prospective GOP nominees when he expressed his support for The Donald.

What came next was probably the most surreal argument for supporting any candidate in a democratic republic: Dave liked Trump because Trump, apparently, was benevolent.

Dave’s argument was that since Donald Trump was filthy rich, and since he grew up being filthy rich, and since he inherited all that wealth (i.e. didn’t have to work for it), he, for some reason, was benevolent in the sense of a king or a czar or an emperor, and would thus rule with a “benevolent” iron fist—probably as opposed to a malevolent one.

This is not a direct quote, but it went something like this: “All the other candidates are not rich or did not grown up being rich, so where does their benevolence come from?” As faulty as this entire argument is—as I said, America is a republic, not a kingdom—the one question I didn’t get an answer to was (if we toss aside all the absurdities in that claim), why on earth would a president even need to be benevolent? The U.S. president, an elected head of government, needs to be smart, efficient, diplomatic, charismatic, etc., etc.—but he sure as hell doesn’t need to be benevolent, whatever that might in today’s context even mean.

For some reason I remembered this discussion today when I was reading an article in today’s New York Times that had a very deep and profound look into the campaign of Donald Trump.

Here’s an excerpt:

On the more conventional presidential campaigns I have covered — George W. Bush, John McCain, Mitt Romney — the candidate’s mobile inner sanctum was a hive of activity, the advisers hovering constantly over their boss, rattling off the latest polling data or words of unsolicited advice from a big donor. On Trump’s plane, the aides spoke when spoken to and otherwise kept to their labors on their laptops.

Yes. Aides speaking when spoken to is, indeed, very king-like. But is it benevolent? Only when we think of Donald Trump as a pharaoh, the all-knowing deity who you just don’t address unless he addresses you.

Donald Trump speaking at a rally. Photo: Gage Skidmore/Wikipedia

Donald Trump speaking at a rally. Photo: Gage Skidmore/Wikipedia

Or, what about your campaign manager addressing you as “sir”? The campaign manager is, basically, the closest person to the candidate in any campaign—he’s pretty close to being your best friend. If in a private conversation you’re not Donald (or even Don), but sir, then there is either something substantially wrong with your relationship, or you seriously think of yourself as a pharaoh. No wonder Corey Lewandowski is so angry at his life that he needs to get into physical fights with random people on campaign trail—his life sucks big time; and he knows perfectly well that after being Donald Trump’s campaign manager, his future is either very rosy in the White House, or, a lot more probably, a grumpy old former political advisor nobody in the world would ever hire.

And here’s another thing—if Donald Trump is “benevolent” because he’s filthy rich, then what if he really isn’t? Rich, I mean. He says he is. He says he’s worth over ten billion dollars. But the New Yorker magazine, partly quoting the Wall Street Journal’s recent analysis, begs to differ:

Take the Journal’s estimate of Trump’s pre-tax income in 2016: $160 million. Applying a federal tax rate of twenty per cent to this figure—and that’s a pretty low rate—would bring it down to $128 million. Grant and Mullins didn’t put a figure on Trump’s over-all wealth, but one simple way to value any business is to capitalize the income that it generates using an earnings multiple. If you take a multiple of twenty (which is high) and apply it to $128 million, you get a figure of $2.56 billion. Obviously, that’s a long way from ten billion dollars.

Again, from the New Yorker:

Forbes concluded that Trump was worth about $4.5 billion, while Bloomberg estimated $2.9 billion. The Forbes figure was high enough to put Trump in a tie at No. 324 on the magazine’s global ranking of billionaires. But far from thanking the magazine for this designation, which placed him alongside people like George Lucas, the creator of “Star Wars,” and Leon Black, the private-equity investor, Trump was furious that his own estimate had been contradicted. “I think you’re trying to make me as poor as possible,” he told Forbes in October.

Naturally, these are just the analysts’ guestimates. But Donald Trump’s constant refusal to publish his tax returns leave ample ground to do exactly that—guess. And besides, if he actually were as rich as he claims to be, and as effective business leader as he says he is, then there would be no reason to hide his returns. In fact, the only reason to hide his returns is because he knows he’s either a lot poorer than he claims to be, or he has other aspects of his finances to hide.

Admitted, even if he’s worth 2.9 billion dollars, he’s still filthy rich. But why, then, lie about it? Is “benevolence” also in making oneself seem bigger and better than one really is? Or is this yet again a pharaoh-like behavior that is all about the ego and has nothing to do with actual benevolence?

The bottom line, of course, is that Donald Trump’s wealth doesn’t really matter in what he’s trying to accomplish for himself—and only himself (he doesn’t give a rat’s ass for America, or for its people; becoming president is only about him proving himself). One can be a kind person when one’s rich or poor; and one can be a profound asshole when one’s wealthy or penniless. Since the United States of America isn’t electing a king, one’s wealth-related benevolence or malevolence doesn’t matter one tiny bit.

But what matters is people’s belief in values that should not have a place in a democratic country, in a republic where the persons in power are elected the people who hold the ultimate say, the ultimate power. Whether Donald Trump is benevolent because he’s wealthy, or malevolent because he’s not as wealthy as he says—or, as common sense dictates, neither—what matters is what he does. And so far, what he does has been as repulsive as a dog owner refusing to pick up their dog’s feces from the street because they think they’re too privileged to live by the norms we the people have adopted for everyone’s better accommodation.

That’s not benevolence, that’s just being an asshole.

(Cross-posted on Medium.com)

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