Archive for March, 2005

The Thinker

Metablogging Again

I started metering this site with SiteMeter in early March 2004. As it has been a whole year I thought I’d take a snapshot of my last year of statistics to see how this little blog is going.

I’ve had about 28,000 visits in the last year and about 38,000 page views. Occam’s Razor remains a backwater blog. But as the graphic below shows its traffic has been picking up rather steadily. Recent trends suggest possibly I might be reaching an exponential growth phase. I frankly don’t want to become too popular. I don’t want to pay for the bandwidth. I want my blog to be interesting but not too interesting. Success often breeds enemies. I don’t want that kind of attention.

1 Year of Montly Statistics

Things slowed down after the election but picked up in earnest last month. My stats have only improved since then. I am pretty sure I know the major reason why my hits have gone up: more content. Most of my hits come from search engines, with Google bringing in most of the traffic. But with some exceptions more recent content tends to get more hits. I think it’s because Google thinks more recent content is more interesting, so it is more likely to get featured. That factored with the steady number of entries over two and a half years I suspect may make it a blog of minor note to search engines.

Since I have a free SiteMeter account I only see statistics for the last hundred pages viewed. But I monitor it several times a day and see what people are reading. Yesterday’s entry Leaning Left in Academia somehow got linked by Inside Higher Ed so I’ve seen a real spike today bringing my daily page count over 400 page views for the day.

I continue to discover that entries on sex get attention. Today was an exception but I regularly get at least 5-10 of the last 100 page views for my one entry on porn star Sharon Mitchell. I get nearly as many for discussing my one visit to a porn shop in Orlando about a year ago. Alas, I can’t think of a whole lot to say about the pornography business. I suspect one way to drive up my statistics would be to spend a few weeks hip deep in pornographic magazines and DVDs then post lots of reviews. But I cannot see myself doing it. While pornography is good for occasional titillation it’s simply not interesting enough to discuss very often.

With the release of the What the Bleep Do We Know? DVD I’ve seen regular hits on my review of it. Entries on Wal-Mart are also topical and have pulled in regular readers.

I still don’t know what people think about my blog in general. I don’t know how many regular readers I have other than my brother Tom and my friend Lisa. I can’t write a pithy entry like my wife and get a dozen comments (all from her friends network). I’d like to say my own family is enthusiastic about my blog but for the most part they ignore it.

Comments are still few and far between. I still get a lot of spam comments that never get posted. And I won’t post any remark that I consider abusive, hurtful or in bad taste. I still average one comment for every other entry.

So for a backwater blog I’m feeling pretty good about this place. It really is hard work to keep coming up with fresh content but it is a challenge that I usually enjoy. Sometimes clearly I stretch a bit. Sometimes by posting on so many divergent topics I feel like a jack of all trades, but master of none. (Well, maybe I can’t say that about information technology. On that topic I can speak with genuine authority.) Still, while I hope my entries appear rather eloquent I still feel a tinge of envy over bloggers who are far better writers than I will ever be. I worship Billmon, but I will never be his peer.

I often get more than two hundred page views a day now. When I started metering I was getting about thirty page views per day. I suspect my blog will continue to grow modestly. If it grows at the current rate I can expect perhaps 500 or more page views per day a year or so from now. Come back a year from now and see.

 
The Thinker

Leaning Left in Academia

From yesterday’s Washington Post:

College faculties, long assumed to be a liberal bastion, lean further to the left than even the most conspiratorial conservatives might have imagined, a new study says.

By their own description, 72 percent of those teaching at American universities and colleges are liberal and 15 percent are conservative, says the study being published this week. The imbalance is almost as striking in partisan terms, with 50 percent of the faculty members surveyed identifying themselves as Democrats and 11 percent as Republicans.

The disparity is even more pronounced at the most elite schools, where, according to the study, 87 percent of faculty are liberal and 13 percent are conservative.

Is this a surprise? Not to me it isn’t. Aside from the fact that most college professors and I share a lot in common politically, this is really one of those no duh sort of news stories. Because of course there is a rather natural correlation between education level and liberalism. And as long as our education levels mean something, it’s going to stay that way.

Why? Because you don’t become a learned professor by being a simpleton. You have to look at things from many points of view. You quickly learn that things are not simple at all. Rather the world is a very complex place. That is the perspective you are almost certain to have if you survive the ordeal of completing a PhD. If you want to take your PhD and become a college professor then you are expected to continuously expand your knowledge and research your subject area. If you make it to the ranks of tenured professor without being able to win any debate on its merits something is seriously wrong.

I hate to break it to most conservatives but they are not exactly embracing of the world’s complexity. Rather they see simple solutions as a general panacea to complex problems. Conservatism is not about embracing change, it’s about keeping things simple and ideally identical to the way things were before. (Note: neoconservatives are not conservatives. They sure aren’t liberal but they definitely are okay with the idea of change.) Liberalism is about understanding existing models and either improving them or finding better models that solve a broader set of problems.

If you have a PhD you are not going to arrive there embracing the notion that your area of study requires no further research. Instead you are going to be predisposed to try new things and experiment in new areas of both basic and applied science. If you have a PhD not only are you learned, you are curious by nature. You are not cut from the common mold; you embrace your uniqueness and revel in your intellect. And as a scholar you naturally want to be an agent for change. Liberalism is simply a philosophy of embracing change in ways that advance the quality of life of mankind. It’s really a wonder that only 72 percent of college professors describe themselves as liberal.

This is not a problem that needs to be fixed. Embracing quotas for college professors based on their political ideology would be a stupid idea, unless of course you think promoting incompetence and stifling curiosity are good ideas. One thing is for sure: people married to the past didn’t accomplish mankind’s greatest advances. They believed in the future and they believed in the power of positive change. They learned from experience that tolerance was a virtue and that to seek out different points of view was invigorating. Good ideas, like steel, improved with refinement.

So let’s be thankful that we have so many liberal professors. Without them we would be in an academic dark age.

 
The Thinker

Uppity Pharmacists

From today’s Washington Post:

Some pharmacists across the country are refusing to fill prescriptions for birth control and morning-after pills, saying that dispensing the medications violates their personal moral or religious beliefs.

To that small minority of pharmacists out there incapable of doing their jobs professionally: it’s time to get another profession. You are in the wrong business. Find some profession where your personal and moral beliefs won’t be so challenged. Sunday school teacher perhaps. Maybe Randall Terry will pay you to stand outside abortion clinics and heckle women going in and out all day. One thing is for sure: if you can’t put your convictions aside and do your job you must not be a pharmacist.

News flash: lots of us are called on to do things every day that violate our personal and moral beliefs. I am a federal civil servant. I find the policies of my ultimate boss, President Bush, to be reprehensible. Still, when it comes time to act on one of his dubious and unconstitutional policies like giving tax money to religious charities I follow his instructions. No, it’s not because I like them. Yet I do it anyhow. Why? Not just because I took an oath, but also because it is part of my job. It is my obligation. I cannot pick and choose which parts of my job I will and will not do. Neither can you, Mr. Pharmacist. So either suck up your personal beliefs like the rest of us or get out of the profession. But don’t tell some paying customer that you won’t fill their perfectly legal prescription. And especially don’t confiscate the prescription in the process, as apparently at least some of you have done.

We have a process in this country. It’s called the law. And part of the law delegates to certain professionals what drugs may be prescribed. The doctor who wrote the prescription has already exercised his legal and professional judgment that the medicine is appropriate for the patient. In many cases, like the woman in the article, they can’t spend days running from pharmacy to pharmacy looking for a pharmacist who will fill their prescription. They may need the medicine immediately. You have no way of knowing and it is not your job to make any assumptions. You are not a judge. Your job is to fill the prescription, answer questions the patient may have about the medicine and take their money. It is not your place to impose your moral judgment on others, such as refusing to provide birth control pills to a woman who might be unmarried. That is a decision she makes, not you.

I think all drug store chains need a clear zero tolerance policy prominently displayed at the pharmacy window. For starters I suggest: “All legal prescriptions are welcome here. We will not employ any pharmacist who refuses to fill any prescription.” But apparently we now need laws to require that prescriptions be filled. It used to be you never gave a second thought that any pharmacist would go against a doctor’s judgment. It appears those nostalgic days are behind us.

I guess we are fortunate that at least physicians take their Hippocratic Oath seriously. There needs to be something with similar teeth in it for pharmacology profession. A doctor cannot usually provide the necessary patient care without the prompt cooperation of a neighborhood pharmacist. So renegade pharmacists are really undercutting the ability of the doctor to perform timely treatment. Rather than respecting the dignity of the patient, these renegade pharmacists are trampling on the dignity and human rights of patients by denying them their right to medicine. Sadly at least some of these renegade pharmacists will scold and humiliate these customers them in the process.

My thanks of course to the vast majority of professional pharmacists out there who have faithfully, promptly and professionally provided the drugs my family and I have needed. I hope these errant pharmacists are few and far between.

 
The Thinker

Schiavo: It’s not the Right to Life, it’s the Right to Die

The Right to Lifers in the Schiavo case have it all wrong. It’s not about the right to life. It’s about the right to die.

As much as I love my wife, daughter, parents, siblings and friends they have no say in whether I live or die. They have no say because they are not me. I have autonomy. I decide what I do, what I eat and who my friends will be. I don’t need permission from anyone. Admittedly it would be pretty heartless of me to take my own life since it would likely leave my family devastated. But the bottom line is whether I live or die is my choice. It’s not something that needs to be enshrined in law. It just is a fact of life. Unless, like Terri Schiavo, I cannot speak for myself and am in a persistive vegetative state (PVS) I can choose the timing of my exit. If I have some incurable disease I can refuse treatment. If I am in a hospital or nursing home I can order that my feeding tubes be removed or my oxygen be cut off. And if I want to I can put stick a gun to my head and blow my brains out just like Hunter S. Thompson.

When we cannot speak for ourselves we have rules. A living will, recognized by most states, speaks for my wishes when I cannot. Terri Schiavo did not have one. This is not surprising. She was, after all, only 26 when lack of oxygen (allegedly a result of her mental illness: bulimia) caused her massive brain damage. She was however legally married to Michael Schiavo. It may be inconvenient to the Schindler family but when someone reaches eighteen they can legally make their own decisions. They decide if they want to get married. And if they decide to get married then their spouse, by default, has the legal right to speak for him or her. And Michael Schiavo asserts that Terri told him several times that she would not choose to linger in this world if she were in the state she was in.

And yet for an obscene fifteen years this soap opera has been played out, most of it in the courts. Twenty-three court rulings, all against the Schindler family, have said that Michael Schiavo has the right to act in behalf of Terri. But for some people the law and due process are insufficient. It’s gotten into the theater of the absurd. Woodside Hospital in Pinellas Park, Florida is virtually an armed camp. But Terri is just one of seventy patients there. Now we learn that the three to four minute security delay meant that Jennifer Johnson’s grandfather passed away before she could say a final goodbye to him.

No wonder our email in-boxes are filling up with references to how to create living wills. (I’ve had four emails so far myself.) The Schiavo case should encourage many of us to get off the dime and have our wishes signed, sealed and notarized. Still, while a living will ensures no ambiguity it shouldn’t be necessary. My wife knows how I feel about hanging on when there is no hope of recovery: I want to be let go. Actually, I would not prefer to die the way Terri Schiavo is dying. A week or two of starvation and dehydration is inhumane. Rather I’d like to have a nurse or physician give me a quick shot of something to put me out of my misery, just like vets do routinely to pets of all kinds. Unfortunately our so-called “culture of life” makes this impossible in our country. Even in places like Oregon where physician assisted suicide is legal, Uncle Sam is in court to ensure it doesn’t happen. So in Oregon like in the rest of the country you had best put your thoughts into a living will while you have your wits about you or resign yourself to a slow and potentially painful death. Fortunately, while I cannot know for sure, I suspect I won’t feel a thing. Any “me” in that body will have long departed this earth. I don’t know how to break it to the Schinders, but their Terri has been dead for fifteen years.

My wish for a quick end of my life in these circumstances is not just an expression of my deeply held feelings about my life, but also a kindness to those who love me. I want them to accept my death and move on. That’s the real issue with the Schindlers. The Terri they knew is gone and is never coming back. They need to let her go. They need to move on and to heal. Instead we have a great disturbance in the natural forces as artificial means keep her body alive. But her spirit is dead and long gone.

Of course a lot of the recent posturing has nothing to do with Terri and a lot to do with politics. The Republicans saw an opportunity to use the body of Terri Schiavo for their own purposes: to pump up their political base. What President Bush and the Congress did was horrifying and shameful. If you ask me it was the legislative equivalent of rape. Instead of showing respect for Terri they showed contempt. Rather than showing a love for life they demonstrated contempt for the law and for individual autonomy. No wonder the American public is overwhelmingly against what they did. No wonder Bush’s ratings are at new lows. The last thing any of us want to do is to leave our most private medical decisions to the government.

As for the Right to Life crowd, it’s now clear what is really going on. These people are not right to life. Rather, they are in denial of death. Death is a crossing we all must face someday but they deny it. In reality they have a phobia about death, and their anxiety about their own mortality is leeching out into the public sphere.

So the issue is really about law and individual autonomy. Terri Schiavo’s case will teach us we must be proactive to make sure our end of life wishes are respected. Her death will also teach us that we need to grapple with our own feelings on life and death. That is the only good I see coming out of her sad situation. Like Jesus, she was martyred for our sins. Unlike Jesus though I doubt she chose to become an example. Nonetheless she will teach us an important lesson. Let us hope that we absorb it.

Safe passage, Terri.

 
The Thinker

Thoughts on Musicals

I don’t totally understand why I am drawn to musicals. But there is no question about it: I have the bug.

Part of its allure I think is that musicals deliver stories. Operas deliver singers. With operas stories are often secondary. The point of opera seems to me to usually be to showcase outstanding operatic voices. Occasionally we get wonderful soloists who can act convincingly as well as sing. But mostly when we see operas we have to substitute our imagination for acting. It’s the glorious power of voice or voices doing some difficult duets or arias that gets our goose bumps. But for the most part acting in operas leaves a lot to be desired and consequently many operas seem cartoonish.

Of course there are plenty of fluffy musicals where acting doesn’t matter in the least. But story almost always matters in musicals. Indeed musicals are often tuned and retuned to make for a compelling night of theater. The songs are designed to provide emotional impact to the part of the story being staged. Song and story must be intricately woven together for most musicals to succeed. If each does not support the other, the typical result is a flop.

Operas are usually staged for a couple weeks. Musicals, at least when first released, are designed to entertain us for months or years. Musicals are designed to attract wider audiences. To stay on Broadway for years a show needs to have a story with widespread appeal and catchy music. Consequently in musicals you are likely to hear many more repetitions on a theme than you will in opera. You should leave a musical with a few songs in your head. It’s quite possible to leave an opera with only the glorious remembrances of the voices, but being unable to recall any of the actual music.

In a musical it doesn’t matter too much whether the Jean Valjean of the moment has a good voice or a terrific voice. Terrific voices are always preferred but it is more important to be able to act convincingly than to have a stellar voice. In musicals the singing accentuates the emotional impact of the underlying story. That certainly can be true in opera and is in the best operas. However in operas the story doesn’t matter as much. Typically in operas a half dozen ideas are performed over and over again in different variations. Tragedy and the emotional turmoils of loves found and lost are often the common threads. In opera the overpowering voices tend to make subtlety difficult or impossible.

For millions of musical lovers a compelling story plus good music equals a satisfying night at the theater. In general the better the creators are at handling both aspects the more likely the musical will succeed. For example Les Miserables has a deeply satisfying story. What could be more satisfying that a variation of the Christ died on the Cross meme? However it would have been just another musical had not the music, lyrics and glorious, glorious orchestration been so compelling. While full of repetitious themes, the repetition is not overbearing. Bringing it together of course is the quality of the acting, directing and staging. The qualities of the voices in the role are really just the frosting on the cake.

Just as modern movies substitute computer-generated imagery for scenery, many modern musicals fall into the false belief that impressive sets and staging are also needed for a musical to succeed. Falling chandeliers and helicopters dropping from above stage give a certain flash in the pan, but don’t always succeed if the story is also not deeply engaging.

Making successful musicals though is a tricky business. There is a fine line between ideas that work and those that flop. When musicals flop it is usually because the story does not have broad enough appeal. The talent that gave us Les Miserables and Miss Saigon, for example, learned to take existing artistic works with compelling stories and wrap music around them. But they failed with Martin Guerre. The story was simply not compelling enough. The story of a man unable to consummate an arranged marriage simply does not engage us.

Some musicals have songs that are so wonderful you would think they would be enough to carry the plot through. Chess (1984) is such a musical. Brought to us by some of the same folks from Abba it is a wonderful mixture of a traditional and rock musical songs. But a story about chess champions is just not engaging. The timing didn’t work either. It came out just as the Cold War was ending. The Cold War was yesterday’s new. For any musical snob though Chess is one to buy and listen to over and over again. It’s too bad it failed on Broadway. (Some suggested if they had kept the London version it would have done well in America, since it did fine overseas.)

Musicals are a very long topic that I will have to revisit. But I would like to highlight three of my favorite musicals and encourage you to see them if they come by. Most musical aficionados have see Les Miserables. It’s my favorite musical. I have seen it three times. After nearly twenty years though even the touring companies can’t quite keep up its primal energy. But anyone who claims to like musicals must see it: it sets a standard I’m not sure any other modern musical has quite matched.

Ragtime is probably no longer on tour, but may be available in local productions. I hope it gets revived, even though it is fairly new as musicals go. How it lost the Tony to The Lion King is beyond me because it had all the elements that should have won it best musical except for the flashiness of The Lion King. With a good story you shouldn’t need flashiness.

If I had to pick a musical for best music I would pick a sleeper, the 1991 production of The Secret Garden. I have yet to see it staged and until I do I cannot give it an honest assessment. But I am looking forward to it since it is staged regularly. Most musicals rely on a lot of repetition, but it is nearly absent from The Secret Garden. With one or two exceptions each song is stellar and memorable.

Although I am sure I will get a lot of grief, I think Andrew Lloyd Weber’s post Evita musicals should be avoided. In particular I found both Phantom of the Opera and Cats grating. It’s okay to have a lovely theme, but it doesn’t have to be pounded into our heads ad naseum, as happens in Phantom of the Opera. Twenty years on Broadway suggests that I must be wrong, but to me it’s a perfect example of a musical high on infectious but extremely repetitious music but empty of content. I found the Phantom loathsome, and I found Christine both shallow and annoying. In short it is a musical full of stereotypes and special effects. Rather than being satisfying it fizzes like soda. My advice: just say no.

 
The Thinker

Guns Don’t Kill People, But They Do Make It Easier

Maybe there was something to be said for the swashbucklers. It’s true that to do their job properly they had to kill other people. But at least when they did the dirty deed they were in their opponents’ faces. They got to see their victims die up close and personal. There was no escape from the intimacy of the act.

And at least as portrayed by Errol Flynn the victim usually had a fighting chance. They’d grab their own swords and engage their opponent. The better fighter usually won. The dying person at least could die with some dignity: they honorably defended their own life.

How quaint. How old fashioned, this up close and personal means of killing people. Thanks to firearms we can do the dirty business from a distance. And we can do it so much quicker. Often one well-placed shot will do it. But for insurance purposes get yourself a revolver, or one of the plethoras of multiple shot and semiautomatic weapons out there. But don’t worry, Mr. Criminal. You still can do from across the room! With the right equipment you can do it from across the street. Your victims will be just as dead but hopefully you won’t hear their cries of anguish. You can high tail it out of there while they are just beginning their death throes.

Some of you are likely thinking, “Why are you taking on this topic? Don’t you know what a hopeless cause gun control is in 21st Century America? Didn’t Congress recently gleefully allow the Brady Bill to walk into the sunset? Don’t you realize that many gun owners in America will part with their spouse or first-born before they part with their gun? Why talk about this issue when you know a hundred years from now guns will still be as plentiful in America as popcorn?”

You are right. Gun control is probably a hopeless cause in this country. We are addicted to our firearms. About 30,000 people a year in America die from firearms. While many of us root for the body of Terri Schiavo to survive another year connected to a feeding tube because Oh Lord, we must respect life at all costs, we are inured to the 17,000 or so suicides last year that were accomplished rather quickly with a gun, or the 12,000 or so murdered with a firearm. Yep, of course we’re all angry enough that these people died. We’re particularly angry with the murderers, so much so that a majority of us want these killers put to death. But apparently we’re not angry enough to do something practical to dramatically reduce the problem, like get the guns out of our houses and our communities.

I realize of course that “Outlawing guns will mean only outlaws will have guns.” But I also realize that your odds of dying from a gun rise dramatically if you actually have firearms in your house. It’s likely not going to be some burglar coming through the window that will want to kill you with a firearm. Sad to say it’s more likely to be your spouse, or your child, your estranged lover or someone you know intimately. And most likely when they murder you they can make the case that it wasn’t premeditated. Rather it will likely be done during a moment of heat when their common sense will scoot out the backdoor.

It’s time to take down our crosses and crucifixes. Let’s pay homage to what we truly worship: our firearms. They mean so much to us that, here in Virginia for example, guns can be worn openly in public and we explicitly allow adults to bring guns into teenage recreation centers. Mind you we can’t give our daughters a Midol to take to school if they get cramps. And of course we must teach abstinence in sex education class but give short shrift (or skip entirely) the section on contraception. But it’s perfectly okay for an adult to bring their gun into a youth recreation center. Any wonder why our children grow into dysfunctional adults? Talk about mixed up messages!

So I know it’s pointless but apparently people like me must still point out the obvious connections now and then: firearms make it much, much easier to kill people. As a result there are doubtless lots more dead people than there would otherwise be. Yesterday, while America wrung its collective hands over the brain dead Terri Schiavo, a 16-year old boy killed himself and nine other people on an Indian Reservation in Minnesota. He also left seven others wounded. If it made the front page at all it was way below the fold. This teen self identified himself as a “NativeNazi” and an “Angel of Death”. Yep, he sure killed these people all right. It was his fault. But those nine other people might not have died if our cultural values were not so wrapped around our phallic shaped guns. Rather than give up our guns we instead chose to inculcate a pro gun culture that made it very easy for this messed up boy to get a gun and quickly murder nine wholly innocent people.

Yes, yes I know: if we had gun control only criminals would have guns! But if we gave up the gun culture there would be no demand for guns. Do you think drug traffickers would be rushing across the border if we didn’t demand our narcotics? The same is true with guns. It can be done.

As John Donne wrote:

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less…any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind…

We are all connected. We can celebrate freedom in our country, but freedom in this case has the obvious consequence that lots of others will have their lives cut short through the simple and expeditious use of a firearm. I say that if you think that your choice to own guns affects no one but yourself then you are in denial. I say that if you believe in and promote a pro-gun gun culture then your values rubbing off on others of less sound minds will result in a lot of those guns being used to kill people. I say even though you are not to blame for these crimes that you did not commit, you should be troubled by the message your behavior sends.

But you can take a stand. You can say: I will not own a gun. You can say: even though I would never use my gun to harm an innocent person or myself, I care about myself, my family, my neighbors, my country and my world. So I will not own a gun. You can send a message that your love for your fellow human beings transcends your interest in firearms. Of course it’s not easy, but it is the right thing to do.

 
The Thinker

Pretty Good Password Management

I hate passwords. And yet my electronic life is full of them. I don’t understand why in 2005 I still have to use such an annoying means as passwords to authenticate myself. You would think that there would be a better authentication solution like digital certificates that industry would universally embrace. But that would require, like, work, coordination and money! So for now and likely for the indefinite future systems designers will continue to play in the safety of their own sandboxes and throw yet more passwords and password management schemes at us. Someone hand me some aspirin!

So we are stuck with those damned and annoying passwords. Every year I have more passwords to maintain. Each site seems to have varying policies on if or how often I must change my password, and how complex my password must be. I had to change my Lotus Notes Internet Password today. I have been avoiding it for weeks because it is such a hassle. My agency requires a password of at least eight characters, one of which must be a special character such as the # sign and one of which must be a number. But the first character must not be an alphabetical character. It made my head hurt just trying to think up a password I’d remember with these bizarre rules.

Pretty much every day I struggle to recall my passwords. And of course I am constantly forced to change them. When I change them many systems won’t let me reuse old passwords, or use any variant of a password that looks like another password I used. Some won’t allow me to use any word that is in the dictionary. All this complexity means that many of us just write the darn things on pieces of paper, which defeats the purpose of creating complex passwords in the first place. The reality is that password schemes are so complicated these days that we can’t put them all into our memory.

Browsers are much better at remembering passwords. This does help but opens up another vulnerability: anyone who can sit down at your computer can potentially get into systems accessed over the Internet. Internet Explorer encrypts passwords. The browser I use, Mozilla Firefox, does not encrypt passwords by default. Over time though our numerous Internet passwords become important. I really need to carry them around with me but they are tied to my machine. Neither browser is smart enough yet to read passwords by default from portable devices like Flash drives. Clever people can move passwords managed by browsers from machine to machine but it is not intuitive and it’s a hassle. So mostly we don’t do it.

But today I tried out a free solution that, while not perfect, is a step in the right direction. It’s probably too much of a hassle to use if most of the systems you access are over the Internet. But if you are like me and you have to authenticate yourself to your computer, the network, the email system, the payroll system, the training system, the travel system and any other number of systems scattered here and there then Keepass may be a solution to check out.

First of all it’s free. I always prefer free if I have the option. Second, it’s open source so it is not proprietary. Third, it keeps a doubly encrypted password database. Using highly secure encryption algorithms it is unlikely anyone but the NSA would be able to decrypt it. And fourth, it’s reasonably portable. I created a password database on my Flash drive. I can also put the Keepass application on my Flash drive. It doesn’t need to be installed! And I can use it on any Windows computer from Windows 95 to Windows XP. Perhaps some day they will have versions that work on a Mac or on a Linux desktop. But right now it only does Windows.

You can authenticate yourself to Keepass with a master password or pass phrase of your choosing. Once activated you can use it to get to any of your passwords. You select the password you want from your Keepass database and press a button that places it in the Windows clipboard. Then you just paste it (quickly) where you need it. Although the password lives in the clipboard, it doesn’t stay there for long. (The default is ten seconds.) Minimize Keepass and it requires that you reenter the master password or pass phrase if you need to use it again.

It would be better if it filled in the password for you automatically. But it does have a nice feature for Internet passwords where you can put the URL into the database. Click on it and it takes you to the password page for that system. That saves some time.

There are additional security features you can enable if you want. In addition to a master password or pass phrase you can create a key disk, which is a file that will open the database. With this option you have to point it to the file containing the key disk. Since the computer’s hard disk typically has hundreds of thousands of files on it, it is pretty unlikely that someone will accidentally choose the right file. Used with a master password or pass phrase and you have two forms of authentication, which is doubly secure.

There are some downsides. If you lose the master password you are generally stuck. There is no password recovery method. But most of us can remember the one master password or pass phrase. So it’s usually not a problem. You will probably want to back up your password databases periodically to other media like a Flash drive to protect yourself from catastrophic password failure.

For now Keepass works for me. It’s easier than thinking and a heck of a lot less aggravating!

 
The Thinker

The Game of Generations

Most of what happens in any generation is just noise. Events that seem monumental in our time, such as September 11, 2001 will be but a few sentences in our history books in just a couple hundred years. We’ll have moved on. You will be dead. Your children will be dead. Your great great great grandchildren will be grappling with their own problems, small and large. The players will have changed but human drama will continue in its macro and micro levels as long as our species survives.

What endures? What truly survives from generation to generation? After all for the most part we are an impatient race. Tearing down and rebuilding is something we do almost by default. If life doesn’t seem to suit us then we will reconfigure it until it does suit us.

Our myopia on the present makes it difficult to predict what will matter about the past to future generations. But we understand innately that the values we teach the next generation probably has the most enduring effect on future generations. After all, ideas and knowledge will change but guiding principles in life successfully handed down from generation to generation have a sense of true immortality. So for many of us the ultimate meaning in life simply comes down to successfully transmitting our values to the next generation.

As I pointed out elsewhere, it is unlikely that billions of people would choose a particular religion of their own free will. It is comparatively simple to instill our values and faith in our children. As proselytizers discover, it is much harder job of selling beliefs to those outside the faith. That’s a lot trickier, since the supply of people who are open to a change in belief today is pretty small. Given the reality that when the current supply of savages is so low, market share is gained by religions that emphasize the virtue of larger families. Since both Catholics and Mormons have no qualms about large families it is reasonable to expect that they will gain more influence and mind share in the future. Most likely religions like mine (Unitarian Universalism) will continue to be marginal. (I’m not sure I am acquainted with any UU family where there are more than two children in the family.) So beliefs like Christianity and Islam will pick up steam while those with little traction like Zorasterism disappear altogether. The Shakers believe sexual intercourse is sinful. Not surprisingly their religion is almost extinct.

So the game is about faith, but really it’s about faith minus the mysticism: values. In reality faith is irrelevant. This may be news to many of the devout. There may or may not be an afterlife, but the true purpose of a faith is not to prepare people for the hereafter, but to instill guiding principles in the current generation that make life endurable at worse, and inspiring at best. Values are these guiding principles. Values are the energy that does the work of controlling human behavior at macro level.

That is why values discussions permeate our politics. While even the most conservative Christian in Congress would love it if all Americans shared his religious beliefs, what matters more is that they share his values. So he affiliates with people with similar but not identical values. Over time these values are manifest in what we call political parties. And inside each political party are subfactions that agree on the larger goals but are anxious to promote their particular values inside a receptive community. And sometimes it works. Twenty years ago libertarian principles were almost unknown in the Republican Party. Today we have a Republican president promoting libertarian values like private social security accounts.

So in a sense modern politics has become tribalism at the macro level: it’s my sets of beliefs against your sets of beliefs. Every generation in every country fights the battle on many levels. It takes many generations to see who the winner is. At least in America we don’t usually resort to violence to get others to agree with us. The current war in Iraq is, of course, the obvious current and dangerous exception.

What I find interesting is that the process of transmitting the values really says nothing about the correctness of the underlying beliefs and values. Instead the process only demonstrates the efficacy of the process itself: how well it moves a set of values from generation to generation. If a hundred years from now America is the neo-conservative paradise people like Don Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz are promoting, all it really says is that their sales strategy worked better than the others. Their values may not be empirically correct but they are correct in the sense that they have thrived while others have withered. Value Darwinism succeeded. (One way to possibly get values to thrive is to force them on people through law. Not surprisingly that’s why issues like abortion rights become flashpoints.)

The game continues like a game of tennis where each set lasts a generation. Most people don’t even see it happening at all because it generally happens only a glacial generational pace. Occasionally though monumental changes can happen very rapidly. Communism is an example of such a radical change. The old rules of the social order (serf vs. nobility, worker vs. capitalist) broke down rather abruptly and the serfs took command. Social structures that facilitated the old system, like the Russian Greek Orthodox Church, disappeared, or at least seem to disappear. As the Communists learned, religion is a meme that, if it can be erased at all, requires many generations. After all we all have the same sense of foreboding that is inherent in our mortality. Religion provides a natural solace to the angst of death.

Perhaps then it is our mortality and the certainty of death that makes the promotion of values so terribly important for each generation. Knowing that, as the Catholics say at the Sacrament of Confirmation, “You are made of dust and to dust we shall return”, it behooves us to get off the dime and actively push our values. So we tend to respect those who are forceful in pushing their beliefs, even if we don’t always like the beliefs they are promoting. While some of us might like to have had parents that emphasized the value of kicking back and living a life of leisure, it doesn’t feel a natural fit. Because we are mortal we feel life as fleeting and precious. The older we get the more fleeting it feels and the more important values become to us. While I don’t consider myself old at 48, I have heard from many people far my senior that leaving a legacy becomes a driving goal as they age. Otherwise our lives often feel meaningless.

So we are all caught in a whirlwind of values that I believe have their roots in our inherent mortality and the impermanence of all things in general. But perhaps if we were wiser we’d take the time to examine our own values and determine if they truly ennoble our species. Do our values offer a true solution, or are they simply a response to the angst that comes from our mortality? Perhaps instead of growing up as a species, value transmission becomes a form of societal thumb sucking that is passed from generation to generation. If so will we ever grow up?

 
The Thinker

To Win, Democrats need to be Inclusive

I have a friend, a good Democrat, who is more than a little upset with Howard Dean at the moment. Dean is the former presidential candidate and new chairman of the Democratic National Committee. What raised her ire? It was this statement that Dean made to Democrats in Mississippi:

We are going to embrace pro-life Democrats because pro-life Democrats care about kids after they’re born, not just before they’re born.

Her concern is that the future Democratic Party will tilt away from supporting abortion rights. In a quest to win at any cost the party might not stand for its principles. She sees a future Democratic platform sounding more like a Republican platform, at least when it comes to abortion rights. To her anyone would try to legislate what a woman could do to her own body should not be part of the Democratic Party.

While I agree with her pro-choice position I disagree with her contention that only those who are pro-choice belong in the Democratic Party. As unpalatable as it may be for many Democrats, to regain power we need to be more inclusive. By acting insular we essentially isolate ourselves as a party. The Republicans are using it to great effect. They peel off single issue voters right and left. Pro-gun? The Republicans are not wishy washy on the issue: no gun control ever. Against gay marriage? They always will be too. Pro life? No Republican will make it into the White House anymore without being strongly opposed to abortion, including repealing Roe v. Wade.

But there are plenty of voters out there with strong feelings about issues like abortion who would otherwise be very accommodating to Democratic positions. We need to bring these people in, not turn them away at the gate. In other words Democrats need to be inclusive as we traditionally have been. If we value diversity then it is okay to be a party where we won’t see eye to eye on everything. That same pro-life voter might also be very environmental for largely the same reasons. Do we turn these citizens away because they want to take away a freedom that women have taken for granted? Or should we invite them in and be grateful that they are accommodating on many of our other issues?

I say bring them in. If they are against 8 out of 10 of the primary positions of the Democratic Party then perhaps we should encourage them to stay with the Republican Party. But if we can find a fair amount of common ground with these voters then we need to work on what we have in common rather than getting all upset about what divides us. As much as I hate the idea of overturning Roe v. Wade, I sure don’t like the idea of our environment being increasingly fouled either. If we wait until we all share mostly the same ideology then the Democratic Party will be increasingly marginalized. We need a better strategy, which is why I favor inclusiveness and I like Howard Dean’s approach.

Our Democratic governor Mark Warner here in Virginia would probably appall many Democrats. Virginia is a conservative state that is getting only more conservative and more Republican. It was amazing that Warner got elected at all with our legislature in firm Republican hands now. How did Warner do it? I can assure you it was not by coming out in favor of gay marriage. To many Democrats, Warner looks and smells like a Republican. He is also for the death penalty, against gun control and has backed some new restrictions on abortion in the state. He connects with the NASCAR crowd. In spite of his success in the technology field he persuaded Virginians that he was a good ol’ boy. His campaign preached fiscal conservatism and pragmatic approaches to our problems as a Commonwealth. In short he reached across traditional party lines and brought in a lot of people who typically would lean Republican. These voters can be persuaded by a moderate Democratic candidate in touch with Virginia’s traditional conservative and some would say anal retentive values.

Had Warner run as a pro gay rights, pro-choice, vegetarian, anti-gun San Francisco liberal he would have lost decisively. But because he won things are much improved here in the Commonwealth. He exercised leadership where it was sorely lacking. Instead of tax cuts that the state could not afford in lean times he succeeded in getting a half-cent increase in the sales tax. We desperately needed the revenue. Our schools were dying from a thousand cuts. Our roads were not being maintained adequately and new road construction largely wasn’t happening. In short we needed someone to look out for the state instead of yet another ideologue in the governor’s office cutting taxes and services right and left. And Warner delivered. It’s true that on his tenure we now have yet another defense of marriage act that is truly reprehensible. But sadly that would have happened even if he had not been elected governor. But we also moved forward in a progressive fashion on many other things that mattered. And that does count for something.

Democrats need to wake up and smell the coffee. Inclusiveness will bring us power. Bill Clinton was not the ideal Democratic president. He was pro NAFTA and pro death penalty. But in hindsight he was far better than his successor. If someone like Mark Warner runs for the presidency in 2008 and wins we will have a sensible, moderate, middle of the road man in the White House. This beats the heck out of another right wing extreme conservative in the George W. Bush mold. And while someone like President Warner would likely appoint moderates to the courts, at least they wouldn’t be wacko right wing conservative judges.

So Dean is right. We need to be inclusive even if it hurts and scares us a bit. The game is to regain power. If we are not a whole lot more inclusive we can look forward to decades more of the Republican rule we are experiencing now. Democrats need to avoid their own ideological biases and be unafraid to embrace pragmatic, middle of the road candidates and solutions. Most people will vote for common sense candidates over extremes at either end.

 
The Thinker

The End of Life

My mother turned 85 on Thursday. Those of us who live in the area got around to actually celebrating it with my mother yesterday (Saturday). The only one who didn’t seem happy about it was my mother. “I shouldn’t be alive,” she kept telling us. I pointed out that she had beaten the odds. The average life expectancy for a woman in the United States is 80. She’s had a five-year bonus. But from her perspective there is not much to celebrate about having five more years. The last five years have been hard on her physically and mentally. And we are all realistic that it’s not going to get much better. She is alive thanks to a dedicated husband, family and generous social benefits. But from her perspective she is existing, not living.

She had periods when she improved remarkably. Her last stay in the nursing home was not a happy one. She had plenty of incentive after she was freed to work on her physical therapy. For a while she was able to get around in her walker unescorted. For a while she was able to ascend into her walker and drop back down to a chair safely. Those days are gone again. If they return they will not return for long. She requires help to do pretty much anything. She can still do a few things for herself. She can brush her hair and teeth and once in her walker she can usually use the bathroom by herself. Since she had part of her large intestine removed she is not always aware when she needs to use the bathroom. As a result she wears Depends all the time.

She is fortunate not to be in a nursing home. Every month though it seems like it takes more and more heroics to keep her out of a nursing home. My father fills in as her 24×7 nursemaid. My father, who is six years younger than her, is in reasonably good health. But it is a wearisome time for him to be constantly on call. His sleep is usually broken several times during the night by requests from my mother to shuffle off to the bathroom. That my Dad can still manage this is nothing short of heroic.

But it is not easy. Naturally Dad goes squirrelly after a while. It’s the nature of us guys not to complain about life’s burdens. And arguably my mother has been doing most of the care giving in their marriage all these years. So there is some karmic justice in my Dad’s heroic efforts now. He cleans up lots of accidents. He helps her with her showers. He drives her to many doctor’s appointments. He shuffles her off to dinner in the dining hall. He keeps their apartment clean. He doles out her medicines. Occasionally though the cracks begin to show. He needs a respite. But there are not a whole lot of volunteers to give him time off. Unless one of my siblings fly in there are three of us. There is my sister Mary in Columbia, who had been doing most of the care taking. Then there is me. And there is my wife, who is unemployed at the moment. I have been all but ruled out as anything other than a momentary caretaker. I am, after all, a male. She had a hard enough time letting her daughters help her out with intimate acts. Although I could certainly do the job competently enough there is too much of an embarrassment factor for her to let me help. So sister Mary occasionally burns some days of her leave and sends my father out to visit his sister, son or daughter.

My wife and I live thirty miles away. But many days it might as well be a hundred. Because we live in the Washington metropolitan area there is this unfortunate fact of life called traffic. To visit them we must cross the Potomac. There is really only one bridge across and it is often a bottleneck. For much of the week the Capital Beltway is in gridlock. A thirty-five minute trip can easily turn into an hour or two each way. Unless visits can be arranged to fit our schedules it is difficult to drop in as needed.

So what is left is a woman near the end of her life simply tired by life. Much of what she says about dying is her depression talking. It would be difficult for anyone not to be depressed in her circumstances. She wants to die and not be a burden on my father. She doesn’t want to be a burden on us either. When family visits she can turn her thoughts away from herself and her problems for a while. But when she talks about her feelings most of the time it is just a cry of anguish from being so immobile, layered on with guilt feelings for being a burden on all of us.

It’s like she thinks we are all hoping she will die. Nothing could be further from the truth, of course. What we want is for her to take some pleasure in life, despite her condition. What we want is for her to enjoy the moments she has left, not to obsess about the end of her life. But at 85 the end of life is no longer an abstraction. It is very real. The freight train is about to run her over. She feels its rumbling. She sees its headlight.

Arguably we her offspring are caught up in a cycle ourselves. We cannot help but love the woman who gave us birth and nurtured us through life. But we too feel some guilt that no matter how much we try to make things good for her that we cannot change her slowly crumbling body. We may perhaps delude ourselves. Does the time we spend keeping her spirits up say more about our impending separation anxiety from our mother than it does say about how we feel about our mother? Are we all playing a complex game of “let’s pretend” that my Mother sees through? Perhaps it would be simpler and she would be more relieved if instead of saying hopeful things we acknowledged the truth. She is a hurting and guilt ridden woman. Maybe it would mean more to say that we understand how sad and hurting she is feeling. Maybe it would be better to say we understand that coming to grips with the end of life is very hard. Maybe it would be better to admit that we too are scared, for we get a preview of our own old age watching her go through it. And it is not pretty.

Perhaps some honesty on her situation would improve things. But we are all playing our assigned roles. And to some extent that includes my mother. How much of the “I don’t want to be alive” is her or some guilt-ridden persona whose script she has read from much of her life is hard to tell. But we too are perhaps acting our scripts: caring son or daughter. I don’t particularly see my mother’s decline as a burden on me. But at the same time there should be no shame in admitting that my life was a lot less complex when they lived 600 miles away instead of 30.

If we live long enough we will doubtless go through what my mother is going through now. We will all have similar feelings of depression, anguish, regret and just being scared about the whole dying process. Even if we are blessed with excellent health until death happens, dying is a fact of life none of us can escape. How do we want to die? I know I don’t want to spend that much time thinking about it right now. But with my mother in her declining years I still have to think about it at midlife anyhow. I do hope when my turn comes that I can find a way to accept that time of life gracefully. I hope I can take pleasure in the day in spite of infirmities. I don’t know if a happy death is possible, but it is perhaps a final goal for which to strive.

 

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