Welcome to my blog where I will post commentary on issues ranging from fiction to public policy. Tucked away in the Idea Boxes are “how to” tips on a variety of projects that have become part of our family’s culture over the years. I hope you’ll find some useful ideas there. My blog will take you through the fantastic journey of writing and publishing fiction, as well as commentary on politics, cultural trends, book reviews and family.

Thursday, April 2, 2020

Play Bridge While Sheltering-in-Place

How to Host Book Group or Play Bridge Online using Zoom

Now that we’ve figured out how to enjoy bridge with friends while sheltered-in-place, I’m passing along detailed instructions.

Zoom is currently the most popular application for holding online videoconference meetings, whether for work or pleasure.  Go to and sign up for the free app, which includes a quick download of the program.  Unless you upgrade (about $15 per month), these free meetings can be cut off after 40 minutes; however, they seem to forgive that time limit for the first few meetings you host.  And you certainly want to see if it’s going to work for you and your group before buying a subscription.

Zoom meeting hosts and guests can participate using a computer or iPad or iPhone.  You have more screen to work with on a desktop computer, but it must have a camera and microphone (most modern computers do, as do iPads and iPhones); if those are not imbedded in your computer, you can always buy an external one that clips onto the top of your computer.

There is a tab at the top of the homepage called Host a Meeting.  Specify that the meeting should be conducted “with video on.”  A meeting can either be spur-of-the-moment or can have a time and date scheduled ahead of time.  When your own video image appears on the screen (indicating you have successfully started a live meeting), various options are available to you at the bottom of your image. (If you don’t see the bar under your image, let your curser hover over the bottom of the picture to activate the bar.)  Make sure the icon of a video camera is not turned off; click it to turn it back on (remind your guests of the same thing).  Then click on “Invite Guests,” which will take you to a page where you select “Email” rather than “Contacts,” then select “Default Email,” which puts you into your normal email program; from that screen you can send the pre-written invitation email prepared by Zoom to anybody on your contact list.  If you like, you can add a personal note to that email and instruct your invitees to click the link near the top of the email message to get into the meeting.  When your guests get that email from you, clicking onto the link should pop them right into your meeting if they are already signed up at Zoom; if they have not yet signed up, they’ll get a message to download the program on their way into your meeting.  Keep in mind that the link in the invitation email is specific to that particular meeting.  With every new meeting, you’ll need to generate a new email with a new link.

There are lots of features in Zoom which you will discover as you get used to it.  You can always mute your own microphone (and click your space bar to turn it back on when you want to talk).  The host also has the ability to mute everybody under “Manage Participants,”  (Sometimes there’s too much ambient noise with a big group.)  Everybody generally sees the video of the person speaking at any given time, but that can be adjusted individually in your settings.

When you host a Zoom meeting that includes people who haven’t used Zoom much or at all, it’s a good idea for you as host to have a one-on-one “practice session” with each beginner ahead of time, to make sure they are up and running.  (Zoom requires access through Firefox, Safari or Chrome browsers and it sometimes takes a few tries before someone can get it easily, so it’s good to work with this ahead of time without keeping the whole group waiting.)  It’s good to have a phone and a list of numbers nearby in case there are any glitches getting into Zoom or the bridge program.

If you’re using Zoom as a background connection to be able to chat while you play a game of cards, you’ll want to push the “minimize” bar in the upper right hand corner, to turn the video images into small images so you can see the card table.  But the audio will still enable you to visit and comment as you play a game.

There are a number of programs for playing bridge online.  They generally permit individual play against the computer, participation in tournaments, etc.  But they also let you play with selected friends, which is what I’m going to describe here.  Some of them claim to have an audio-visual capability, but our group found that aspect of the bridge program was not robust enough and kept crashing.  So it works well for us to combine a Zoom meeting with a bridge game.  My bridge group has been using BridgeBase, so I’m going to describe that program and how it works with Zoom.  Others prefer Trickster or Bridge Baron and each program has its own strengths and weaknesses.  Generally there is no cost to sign up at any of these bridge sites.

Each of the four people (including yourself) who will participate in your bridge game must go to ahead of time and set up their own account (basically just picking a Username and Password).  After that is done, they must send the host their Username, since that’s how the four participants in the game you are hosting will be identified and brought to your table.  When you get their Usernames, log into your own BridgeBase account and add them as friends (click on “People” on far right, then at bottom “Add People”).

To host a game, go into “Find your own game” than press “Casual.”  Under the Privacy options (to keep strangers from entering your game), turn off “Allow Kibitzers” and “Allow kibitzers to chat with players.”  Turn on “Permission required to allow kibitzer” and “Permission required to play.”  Now you reserve the four seats at your table by typing in the Usernames.  Push “Start Table,” then "Relaxed game."  All this must be done before your other three players go into Bridgebase on the day of the game.  If it is all set up, when they go into BridgeBase, they will automatically get invited into your game.

So here’s the sequence of events.  Let’s assume you have agreed to play at 2 pm and have previously given the other three players the info they need.  They have signed up for Bridgebase and you have entered all their Usernames into your Bridgebase account as friends.

1:50 pm:  Go to Bridgebase and follow the directions above to start a game, entering the Usernames of the four players.  [Keep that window open while you go to Zoom.]

1:55 pm:  Go to Zoom and start a meeting, sending an Invitation to Join a Meeting in Progress to your three friends.

2:00 pm:  Your three friends get the Zoom email, click on the link and join you in your Zoom meeting.  You should all be able to see and hear each other.

2:05 pm:  Your three friends now go into BridgeBase (you’re already there), mimimizing Zoom if need be, where an invitation to your game should be waiting for them.  You’ll be able to see each friend’s name pop up at their seat as they enter the game.  Once everybody is at the table, the first deal will be made automatically.

Features of BridgeBase:  Each player sees her own hand and then sees the dummy when it is laid out.  (The dummy can see partner’s hand as she plays it.)  On your left, you’ll see who is dealer, who is vulnerable, current trick count for EW and NS, etc.  The blue box in upper left lets you choose to Undo bids and various other things.  They keep a running score of IMPs on the left, grading teams by how their play compared to others not currently in this game.  At the four seats, the host has a crown.  When it’s your turn to bid, you see a rectangular box and click on a number before the suit choices open to you.  At the end of each hand, you get a quick look at the outcomes and all four hands; if you want to take more time and discuss, click on “History” on the right and you can talk about the hand.   

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Stop Political Hatred in America

As we begin this week of the transition of political power, our country has never been so divided.  And while I’m not happy about the outcome of the November election, my biggest concern is not how the country will fare under a Trump presidency.  My biggest concern is whether our democratic political system is sustainable in today’s America.

As many have pointed out, the divide, distrust and downright hatred between our two major political parties is more extreme than anything we have previously witnessed in U.S. history. Based on recent studies by respected academics, members of opposing political parties are having less and less to do with each other, believe the other party is ruining the country, oppose any idea (no matter how rational) that is associated with the other party and earnestly believe politicians from the other party, and those who support them, are evil.  Apparently this new political distrust is stronger even than racial or ethnic bias.

There are a number of reasons that explain this deep distrust.  People are increasingly living in communities with similar political and moral values, in part through choice and in part because of educational and socio-economic barriers.  The 24-hour news cycle, driven by profit motive to cater to sensationalism and often to a particular base, has been outdone by the Internet, where unfiltered opinion is disguised as information, sometimes intentionally false and easily spread through social media.  And Congress has set a poor example for the rest of us, as our elected representatives deem it a badge of honor to demean the opposition, refuse to compromise and cater to a gerrymandered base.

Presidents are going to come and go, but the disintegrating tribe that we call America holds the future for our children and grandchildren.  I think our most important political mission in the years ahead is to try to rebuild trust and to improve communication between the two ends of the political spectrum.

Stopping political hatred does not mean ambivalence or withdrawal from political commitment.  There are many causes which claim to uphold the country’s deepest values, giving all our citizens the best shot at leading the best lives possible.  And it is part of our civic responsibility to discern, to the best of our ability, what those causes are and to work towards the common good.

In the meantime, can you take a few personal steps to help mend the political divide?  This is generally easier to do if your party is in power.  But it’s perhaps more meaningful when the opposition is in power.  At a minimum, a “loyal opposition” that is respectful, even when actively pursuing its own priorities, will be more likely to bring moderates to its side in the next election.

·        Do not accuse a person or a political party of evil intent.  You can’t get inside another person’s heart.  Try to limit your criticism to the idea and its impact.

·        Find a way to dialog with someone from another political perspective, at least occasionally.  Find at least one point on which you can agree that the other party has raised a legitimate concern.  Learn to be a better listener.

·        Reject news coverage that encourages conflict or is excessively biased, either way.  If your television news features a broadcaster or guest pundit who is hostile or excessively biased (even if there is a headshot of another pundit equally biased on the other side), turn off the television.   And better yet, send a note to the producer as to why you turned them off.

·        Pay more attention to the contrarians.  When an elected Republican agrees with some specific Democratic proposal, or when a Democrat votes against the party line on one proposal, send them a note of appreciation for willingness to cross the aisle.

·        Encourage our schools to teach civics.  Support school efforts to teach critical thinking, discernment of accuracy over the Internet and the importance of civic involvement.

·        Reward news commentators and politicians who admit that certain problems are hard, without easy answers, and that it’s not all that clear whether we should pursue one path or another.  When you run across any politician or pundit who will admit to shades of gray, reward him or her with a letter of support.

·        Accept the fact that there are legitimate theories of improving our society from both political parties.  After all, the persistent problems that plague us have not been changed much by changes in controlling political parties.  Everyone would agree, for example, that poverty is undesirable, particularly of course from the perspective of those living in it but also in terms of the well-being of society as a whole.  If there were an easy answer to this, someone would have already found it.

·        Support organizations that work around the country towards more balanced political discussion.  Explore whether there is some equivalent of the foreign policy discussions, “Great Decisions,” pertaining to politics.  Support political forums that are non-political, such as the League of Women Voters, and grapple with how to become a better democracy.

Hard arguments in support of your view of the world turn out to be very ineffective in changing someone else’s mind.  Respect, openness to alternative points of view and courtesy are more effective political tools than argument.  Let’s start with the assumption that most Americans have good intentions and want to do what’s right to create a better world for their children and grandchildren.  If we can agree to that much, we have a chance to do a better job in running our democracy.       

Monday, September 12, 2016

If Mother Teresa Ran against Hitler for Congress...

I am deeply disappointed in the way the media is covering the U.S. presidential election and in their abdication of responsibility to instill critical thinking into the political process.

There are two problems at the root of our media’s role in the deterioration of the electoral process and ultimately of democracy itself.  The first rests at the foot of the colleges and graduate schools who teach ethics in journalism.  The second is a by-product of a capitalistic economy run amok.

Today’s newspaper reporters and television producers have been indoctrinated with an odd theory relating to a journalist’s responsibility to present news without personal bias.  The method being taught directs the journalist to give equal time and credibility to each side of every issue and to every political candidate.  And since the media apparently cannot afford their own research on complicated issues, they meet this requirement by bringing in two partisans representing each extreme side of the issue and letting them go at it, each making full-throated arguments for their particular self-interested view of the world, without any kind of screening by the anchor or producer.

If Mother Teresa were running against Adolf Hitler for Congress, for example, you’d bring in a Catholic nun (who, in addition to her seminary credentials, holds a law degree from Harvard), on one side, to argue against, say, Joseph Goebbels on the other.  They would each get equal time and equal respect and nobody would try to interpret what they said.

Whoever thought this up, what on earth made you think anything useful to public understanding of complicated issues could come out of it?

The second cause of the pathetic state of critical thinking among the American electorate is the single-minded profit-driven focus of television news (and, to a lesser degree, every other source of political news) to make everything a controversy, blowing up every molehill into a mountain, keeping viewers glued to the channel no matter how ridiculous the overplay of conflict and chaos.  I first figured this out when I would check the weather channel before going somewhere, packing in anticipation of hurricane and tidal wave, only to find sunshine when I arrived.  You may think one channel or another is excessively biased, and while it’s true most of them are trying to attract a particular base, the truth is they all want to see a close race.   The only loyalty these guys have is to their quarterly profit. 

Is anybody surprised that so many of our citizens are conspiracy-theorists who believe anything they hear on talk radio?

These two candidates for president are nowhere near comparable in their capability to serve the nation and it just makes me heart-sick that the citizens of this once-great democracy no longer have access to the necessary education or to a public-interested news source to help them understand what’s going on.