Archive for October, 2005

The Thinker

Rocky Mountain High

I am sitting in my room at a Hampton Inn in Helena, Montana. Helena is not your typical destination for either business or pleasure, particularly at the end of October. Perhaps this is because Helena (like most of Montana) can be a challenge to even get to, since it seems too remote from most of the rest of the lower forty-eight.

To get to Helena by air usually requires transferring planes in Salt Lake City. Salt Lake City is one of the more spectacular airports to fly into. When flying in from the east it means descending rather sharply over some very craggy and often snowy jagged mountains. The Great Salt Lake is impossible to miss since you usually fly right over it from the north. With so many mountains in the way, pilots must turn one hundred and eighty degrees before landing from the south. Book a window seat.

You reach Helena via Concourse E, a busy hub full of commuter jets. These are the kinds of jets that require most passengers to stoop while standing in the cabin. If you do not you risk head injury. Montana is about an hour from Salt Lake City by air. A night flight to Helena reveals little but an inky blackness outside the window. Then Helena appears like an oasis of light.

I am here until Friday. I expected Helena to be a bit detached from the real world. I expected (shudder) dial up access to the Internet, if that was even available. My fears were unfounded. The Hampton Inn here has high-speed internet access, as do most of the hotels in the city. You will find most of the chains here that appear elsewhere.

Montana is “Big Sky Country”. You certainly get that sense when visiting Helena. For those of us who live on the East Coast, Montana seems almost pristine. If Helena were Northern Virginia, its surrounding real estate would quickly be turned into numerous, ugly and poorly planned subdivisions. For now Helena seems to have achieved some balance between the needs of a growing population and the palpable feeling of wildness that is here.

Montana is a state of big vistas. Its grandeur is impossible to miss. Montana feels limitless. Its relative remoteness, something of a hindrance in the past, is also its biggest asset. For now the growth of cities like Helena, the state capital, seems modest compared to the frenetic growth where I live. Yet it is still worrisome, even if cities like Helena are proactively purchasing land to ensure its most pristine areas are never encroached on by development. Happily, the federal government does its part. Large parts of this part of the state are part of national forests.

My reason for being here on business starts tomorrow. Today was my chance to experience the natural wonder of Montana. Since 2003 when my family and I peeked into Montana from Yellowstone National Park, I have been intrigued by Montana. I remain no less enamored now with a closer exposure. Wendy, a fellow USGS employee, flew in a day early to experience Montana with me. Dave, one of my employees who work out here, acted as our guide to natural wonder. This meant hiking.

I love hiking but I am out of practice. Dave took us up many a winding, steeply ascending gravel road to the end of a trail that begins in a city park eight miles away. For four and a half hours, we hiked over many a meadow, and scaled two peaks, including Mount Helena itself. Hiking in November in Montana can be chancy. Precipitation was expected, but we also had to deal with howling winds that threatened to toss us down the side of the mountain. The temperatures began in the low 30s and gradually ascended into the forties. Precipitation did arrive, first as flurries, which was followed by periods of spattering rain, often mixed with sunshine.

This climb turned out to be a bit too ambitious for me. Even with good hiking shoes, this was a challenging hike, with the descents proving more painful to my legs than the ascents. My legs and feet were up to the challenge, but just barely. Descending Mount Helena was particularly difficult. My right legs felt like gelatin. There was no lack of dangerous gravel, treacherous slopes and large, sharp rocks to make the hiking challenging.

Yet the views were spectacular. There is little that can compare with such a direct experience with nature. While I am now popping ibuprofen to deal with the inflammation in my leg, I do not begrudge the pain. I am just grateful I had the time and the experience to get my own Rocky Mountain High.

The rest of my week will be full of business. It is unlikely that I will get to experience too much more of Montana’s natural side. Nevertheless, I hope for at least one clear night before I leave. I want the opportunity to drive my rental car out of the city to a very dark spot, turn off the lights, and revel in the tapestry of the stars in a way that is impossible out east. In Montana, nature is impossible to wholly escape. It is a shame that in so many other parts of the country, it is hard to feel its majesty.

 
The Thinker

Daylight Savings Time: Too Much of a Good Thing?

It is that time again. It is time to rollback our clocks an hour. Standard time resumes for much of the country at 2 AM tonight. I will do my part by gleefully enjoying my extra hour and setting our clocks back an hour before I retire.

Some entries back I pondered the nature of time. Daylight Savings Time attempts to align our body’s natural clock with the increased daylight hours throughout much of the year.

The desirability of Daylight Saving Time seems to increase as your latitude increases. The closer you are to the equator the less the differences in the durations of day and night throughout the year. Hence, the less need for Daylight Saving Time. This is one of the reasons that Hawaii and most of Arizona stay on standard time all year round. Most of the rest of the country begins Daylight Savings Time on the first Sunday of April. It ends on the last Saturday of October.

It used to be that Daylight Savings Time did not begin until the last Sunday in April. In 1986, the Uniform Time Act of 1966 was amended to start Daylight Savings Time beginning the first Sunday in April. This change seemed reasonable to me because in my part of the country the sun was rising around 5:30 AM by mid April.

I would prefer that standard time actually resume a week or two earlier than permitted by the current law. For a couple weeks now, I have been unable to bike to work. It is just too dark and too dangerous, since I have to cross multiple lanes of traffic. I also find myself yawning at work when I arrive around 7:30 AM. On a clear morning, the sun is just coming up; on a cloudy day, it can be 8:30 AM before you can see reasonably well outside.

However, apparently Congress thinks that we cannot have too much Daylight Savings Time. Starting in March 2007, Daylight Savings Time will be extended another four to five weeks, beginning the second Sunday in March and ending the first Sunday in November.

Why? Ostensibly, it is about saving energy. Proponents claim that it will save 10,000 barrels of oil per day. Maybe it will and maybe it won’t. The math sure looks dubious. What it does do is artificially provide more evening hours of daylight, and that means more time for people to be out shopping in the evenings. In other words, we must all adjust our body clocks in order to make the economy hum just a bit faster!

Humph! I wish Congress had just left well enough alone. What this will mean is that more children will be shuttling off to school unnecessarily in the dark. It will also mean that people like me, who are very sensitive to nature’s natural cycles, will also be getting up needlessly in the dark. As if many of us living around large metropolitan areas were not already rising at 4 or 5 AM to beat the crushing traffic, now we want to exacerbate the problem! All to perhaps marginally push up the profits of slimy retailers like Wal-Mart.

No thanks. This is one law that should be repealed before it takes effect. It is also one law that I suspect will get changed after a few years, because Congress will hear sufficient clamor from citizens. After all, they will not be much affected. Congress does not start its sessions until 9 or 10 AM. There is no reason to mess needlessly like this with the biological clocks of 300 million Americans. It adds unnatural stress and makes some of us feel a bit like vampires. We no longer live in an agrarian society. There is no reason we should needlessly be up with the cows.

There is also a financial impact to the change. Businesses all over the country must adjust their systems to accommodate the change. I hope that for many of them it requires just a simple change to a configuration file. For others, it is a costly change. While not quite as painful as the year 2000 problem, it is still pretty darn annoying. In my agency, for example, we must go in and change a whole lot of old code. We could be doing something productive with our time. Instead, we are wasting thousands of man-hours to comply with the law. (Our system is an old legacy system written in Fortran. However, as long as we are in there, we plan to make it much easier to deal with future changes.)

What is good for business is not always what is best for America. This is another shining example of a good premise insufficiently thought through.

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The Thinker

Bush’s Biggest Mistake

I know what you are thinking: Bush’s biggest mistake was invading Iraq. After all the war has cost at least $250 billion, the lives of over 2000 American soldiers and likely at least 10,000 Iraqi lives. Even the Bush Administration admits the intelligence it used to justify the war was flawed. What could be a bigger mistake than this?

However, this was not Bush’s biggest mistake. In time, it will be clear that his biggest mistake was choosing Dick Cheney as his vice president. By doing so, he opened a Pandora’s Box. He gave the neoconservatives the power and influence they had worked so hard to acquire, but which saner Republicans had steadfastly denied them.

As the CEO President, Bush was content to let others do the thinking for him. He delegated much of his strategic thinking to Dick Cheney. Cheney has the wile that Bush lacked. Cheney was a well connected Washington insider. In addition, and perhaps most importantly, he was someone his father would not have picked. (Bush’s presidential run was primarily an exercise to prove he could out top his Dad.) Because Cheney ran his 2000 election campaign, he was someone Bush felt he knew intimately and trusted. It is now widely understood that Bush values a personal relationship with someone far more than criteria like intelligence or competence. Consequently, we got the odd choice of Harriet Miers as a nominee for justice of the Supreme Court. Yet she had never argued a case in court. In fact, she spent much her time in the White House acting as Bush’s legal secretary. Since Cheney knew he was trusted and knew Bush’s character weaknesses, Cheney positioned himself to exploit them.

It was Dick Cheney who proposed much of Bush’s cabinet, including many of the choices for the people that would form WHIG: the White House Iraq Group. He ensured that neoconservatives were in charge across the key positions in the federal government. The only major exception was Colin Powell, who was picked as Secretary of State. Donald Rumsfeld as Secretary of Defense and Paul Wolfowitz as his deputy shared Cheney’s belief in a new world controlled by the power of the United States military. Also sharing his vision was Condoleeza Rice, who became Bush’s National Security Adviser. Except for Powell, there were no dissenting voices on the Iraq invasion that had Bush’s inner ear. Moreover, Cheney was clever enough to make sure that Bush’s relationship with Powell remained superficial. He also ensured that Powell was effectively marginalized in his State Department role. In fact, he moved the levers of power so that agencies like Defense took on many traditional State Department functions. After Powell left office, Rice slid into his spot, giving the neoconservatives complete control of all aspects of foreign policy. Also part of WHIG: I. Lewis (Scooter) Libby, indicted today on obstruction of justice, making a false statement and perjury.

If the debacle of the Iraq war were not enough, Cheney (ably assisted by political advisor Karl Rove) quite deliberately and quickly pushed Bush away from the edge of the Republican mainstream into the extreme. Bush’s promise to govern as a compassionate conservative and to consider the opinions of both parties quickly gave way to a different reality: to ruthlessly use the levers of power to reward their friends. The result has been nothing less than the looting of the United States government. All pretense of fiscal responsibility melted away. After all, Dick Cheney reputedly said, “Reagan proved deficits don’t matter”. Therefore, no tax cut was too large, and no spending that promoted Republican interests was off the table.

Neoconservatism has now become an unstoppable force that is likely to destroy what is left of this administration. It will also likely return Democrats to power in both Congress and the White House by 2008. For now, the lunatics are still running the asylum. With no credibility left, his ratings in the toilet and his top officials under suspicion or indictment the vultures are circling George W. Bush. It turns out that Bush himself is irrelevant. In fact, he has now been deliberately marginalized. Bush became a means to an end, just another neoconservative and social conservative fair weather friend. Apparently, Bush did not look into their souls with sufficient clarity. Now when Bush has second thoughts and chooses to nominate someone who could turn out to be reasonably mainstream, like Harriet Miers, he will not succeed. By putting his trust in precisely the wrong people, he has allowed himself to be manipulated and has no real way to assert his own authority. All he can do is react and do what his masters tell him to do. The neoconservatives are now in charge both in the White House, and the social conservatives now rule in the Congress. If Bush were to nominate someone that might appear to be mainstream, he would be marginalized even more.

Mission accomplished. Unfortunately, it was not Bush’s mission that was accomplished, it was the neoconservatives desire to control the government and the social conservatives desire to stack the courts with known conservative commodities. Bush was their means to an end. No one will accuse the neoconservatives with not being focused on their ultimate goals. They are myopic about them and ruthless in getting them accomplished. Similarly, social conservatives are also fair weather friends. They are with you as long as you are with them on their issues, otherwise they will lash out and cut you off in a heartbeat.

The neoconservatives’ Achilles Heel is that they have a hard time seeing outside their own jaundiced view of the world. It is supremely ironic that of all the people to bring them down it will be Patrick Fitzgerald, the special counsel who issued today’s indictment against Scooter Libby. He is likely to issue more indictments in the days and weeks ahead. Appointing a partisan prosecutor, the Democratic equivalent of Ken Starr, simply would not have worked. However, Fitzgerald is a prosecutor without peer: dogged, incredibly intelligent, apolitical yet obsessively fair minded. His part may seem small in the larger picture, but he is to this administration what Eliot Ness was to Al Capone. Interested only in the truth, Fitzgerald is the primary and unintended change agent that will return our government to its people.

It is no wonder that Republicans so fear him. Fitzgerald will give exposure to their cover-ups and their lies. Through him America will finally understand just how egregiously corrupt this administration is and how their pockets have been so thoroughly picked. By exposing the WHIG’s poorly executed and politically naïve attempt to discredit Joe Wilson, he also exposes their whole deceptive network where the ends always justify the means.

As for Bush, his presidency is over. He still has three more years until he leaves office, but he might as well put the “Vacancy” sign on the White House door. So why not spend the rest of his time in office at his Prairie Ranch in Crawford, Texas? For the ultimate irony is that while he permitted those under him to rape our country, he was raped as well. He has been used and abused. He is like the good but naïve wife who refuses to believe that her husband is a wife beater. Nothing remains but the hollow shell of a man with no real friends and no influence. He is a chump, a mere leapfrog.

If there were any real spine in George W. Bush now would be the time for him to instigate a purge. He should purge every neoconservative from his government and appoint mainstream Republicans like Christine Todd Whitman in their place. By doing so, he might yet redeem himself in the eyes of history. However, this will not happen. For Bush has always been an empty shell. He has always been someone’s puppet. He has always been bravado. He clings to his pseudo friends. With no experience in real leadership, there is nothing to do but play the neoconservative game and pretend that he is not being controlled. Yet at least while he is being controlled, he maintains the illusion that what he says still matters. And for Bush, that matters the most.

We can hope that Fitzgerald will eventually fully expose this hydra. In time, Cheney will be exposed as its biggest head and hopefully be shamed into resignation. (Since he holds a constitutional office, the only other way to remove him is through impeachment.) Today’s indictment of Scooter Libby is the first step.

 
The Thinker

Needed: Better condoms

(Warning: Some adult content. Reader discretion is advised.)

Salon ran an interesting article yesterday about a legal brouhaha over a new type of condom. These condoms, all created by the enterprising Indian inventor Dr. Alla Venkata Krishna Reddy, claim to give the male a much more pleasurable experience than using ordinary condoms. They are marketed under the brand names Pleasure Plus, Twisted Pleasure and Inspiral. All, unfortunately, are subjects of tedious lawsuits that limit their availability.

As you can imagine as a married man I do not often need to use a condom. Pregnancy prevention is no longer a concern. However, like most men I went through times when I had to use condoms regularly. Ask any man who has used one and the verdict is unanimous: condoms suck compared to the real deal.

They suck so bad that by itself just knowing I would probably have to use a condom with another partner is powerful incentive to stay monogamous. Yeah, I know. Many condoms feature bumps and the like which are supposed to increase sensation for both the man and the woman. They lie. They do not do a darn thing for this man. Although the stable of women I have known in the biblical sense is fairly small, not one of them has demanded ribbed condoms for her increased sexual satisfaction.

The only advantage to condoms (to put it delicately) is that wearing one a man can feel like superman. Assuming he can maintain an erection with the darn thing on, he can probably satisfy a woman endlessly. So if your partner is the “keep pounding and don’t stop” type and you are normally the “five minutes or less and I’m ready to pop” type, a condom is definitely the way for a considerate male to go. Your partner will be very grateful. With luck, sweat and a lot of muscular tension you may actually have an orgasm with the condom on too. The male’s odds improve with the tightness of the woman and his current testosterone level. I wonder how many 50-something men who partner with someone their own age and who use a condom ever have an orgasm with it. For myself, I would hope the woman would consider oral sex to be safe sex because I would probably want to avoid intercourse altogether using a condom. If oral sex too were out of the question too, I would prefer to couple with my right hand.

The good news from condom manufacturers is that they have succeeded in creating a product that is very unlikely to break or come off during intercourse, when used as directed. There are exceptions of course. Fortunately, I have not personally had this misfortune. The bad news, as the makers of these new condoms understand, is that they dull male sensation markedly. When you wear condoms, it is as if your penis is vacuum locked in Saran Wrap. However, orgasm is only achieved through friction. A well-lubed condom will not create much friction if the condom is not designed to move across the surface of the penis during intercourse. Making the condom thinner marginally improves sensation. Ask any man who has tried unprotected sex vs. sex with a condom. Unprotected sex, providing you don’t get anyone pregnant or pick up a STD rates an A. At best, sex using a condom rates C. As a middle-aged man, I can say for us it is closer to a D or an F.

Condom manufacturers can and should do better for the male. We are no more anxious to catch or spread a sexually transmitted disease than our partner is. So help us out. We want condoms that really do improve sensation. So give us our Twisted Pleasures condoms!

According to the Salon article, there are some concerns that these new condoms are not safe enough. There are claims that they are easier to fall off or break. I say, if we can put men on the moon, we can solve these problem, that is if they are problems, which seems debatable. Latex is latex after all, and most condoms provide a death-like grip to the base of the penis. I am sure we can engineer a solution. I am confident manufacturers would find a ready set of male volunteers to, er, put these condoms through their paces.

It strikes me as win-win for everyone. Condom manufacturers can probably charge premium prices for these condoms. Men could take a lot more pleasure from intercourse with a condom. Partners will have the satisfaction that their sex is much safer. Of course, there will be fewer unplanned babies. In addition, society benefits because these condoms should reduce the transmission of STDs.

For the benefit of science, my wife and I will be glad to test them. Manufacturers: contact me.

 
The Thinker

New Thinking Needed on Child Support

A comment left on my Red vs. Blue: Myth vs. Reality entry a couple weeks ago got me thinking. Our child support laws and procedures need a major overhaul. They are not working very well.

Scofflaws aside, pretty much all of us would agree that those who choose to have sex that results in a birth should pay for the child’s expenses until their child reaches adulthood. Unfortunately, as the commenter pointed out, things in the child rearing business are rarely simple. It is as easy for a woman to get pregnant through a one-night stand with a man whose name she might not even know as it is to become pregnant by her husband. For some men, thirty seconds between a woman’s thighs may be all it takes to cause another human being to come into existence. In some cases (gang rapes come to mind) it may be impossible to identify the father.

It is very clear that a child should do better on two parents’ income than on one. No question about it: in these United States, it takes a heap of money to raise a child to be a productive member of society. I have one daughter, now age 16. For most of her life, I have been tracking her expenses. Anything I spend on her directly goes into a “Childcare” category in Quicken. To date the total of her expenses is about $50,000. This does not include a variety of investments for her college education. By the time college is finally behind her, the total of her expenses is likely to exceed $150,000. Moreover, these are just the direct costs. I did not include food, shelter, movies, transportation and hosts of other miscellaneous costs.

Luckily, my wife and I are solidly in the upper middle class. I am not sure how I would have provided for her if, say, I had been a minimum wage worker trying to eke out a living working at a Wal-Mart. The current minimum wage of $5.15 an hour is clearly far below the poverty line. (For reasons wholly ideological, Congress does not seem inclined to increase it.) Mere subsistence, let alone child support payments, is problematical for parents earning these wages. The situation is likely not much better at $10 or $15 an hour.

Undoubtedly, there are enormous numbers of deadbeat dads out there. (Likely, there are deadbeat moms too, but they are probably the exception.) Some, like my wife’s father, simply disappeared after the divorce. He never sent my mother in law any child support payments. She effectively raised my wife by herself, which was daunting since she scraped by from one poorly paid job to the next. My wife’s childhood was full of the unwelcome memories of moving frequently from one rented place to another.

Had there been regular child support coming in then her situation should have been quite different. It is hard to say how it would be different, but it is likely she would have had more continuity in her life. She might have had access to some of enriching experiences that were beyond their means, like piano lessons. Fortunately, her mother was resourceful and made the best of a bad situation. She should have done much worse than she did. Needless to say her mother had no money saved for her to go to college. While she was bright enough to get a college scholarship, she never learned the discipline needed to succeed in a real collegiate environment. I am proud to say that she eventually succeeded, just many years later. She was a working adult and mother when, at age 39, she proudly received her bachelor’s degree.

The government does recognize the seriousness of the problem. In my last job, I worked tangentially with the Office of Child Support Enforcement, part of the U.S. Administration for Children and Families. OCSE had the job to assist the states with tracking down deadbeat parents. By comparing withholding forms submitted by employers with the social security database there was the expectation that the government could find these people and get them to pay up.

Despite this, for a scofflaw parent, the odds are only one in five (in 1996) that they will be tracked down and pony up the money. If they are tracked down, it is easy enough for the deadbeat parent move to another state. A national ID card would certainly help, but the idea is anathema to many civil libertarians. Even a national ID card is no guarantee, as many jobs (such as day laborers) pay cash wages.

Fortunately, there are still social programs out there that provide basic aid to needy children. However, since welfare reform became law, assistance has become limited in both amount and duration. The CHIPS program helps children who get the health care that they need. All this government aid, while helpful, still does not address the larger needs of children. Subsidized housing is difficult to acquire and seems to be something that Republicans want to abolish. Day care costs shouldered by working mothers make it difficult for them to also pay the rent, let alone put food on their tables. Our assumption is that working mothers, with some temporary help, will develop the wherewithal to provide for their children. The burden is on them to pressure child support enforcement agencies to find deadbeat fathers.

What more can be done? While everyone seems to want taxes to be as low as possible, I do not think it should be at the expense of our children. If deadbeat parents cannot be found or cannot pay child support, then the government needs to step in and make the payments in lieu of the deadbeat parent. That is not to say that the deadbeat parent should get off the hook. It does mean that no child should be put at a financial disadvantage because of an absentee parent. The government should keep ledger under the deadbeat parent’s name for these payments. The government, when it finds these absentee parents, should press for the collection of back due child support. Tax refunds are already garnished for child support, and wages are garnished too if the parent can be identified. However, other sources of income for the deadbeat parent should also be fair game.

Of course, you cannot get blood out of a stone. If the father simply does not have the money to pay his child support, then the amount may need to eventually be excused. Another possibility is that the government should weigh the costs of helping the parent acquire better paying job skills. If the deadbeat parents had better job skills, perhaps the child support payments could eventually be collected.

Mothers also need to understand that they too bear responsibility. While most assume the parenting duties, which are quite burdensome, they also have a responsibility to behave responsibly in their sex lives. It may sound impractical, but they should have the names and address of anyone they have sex with, not just in case of pregnancy, but in case they contract a sexually transmitted disease. Women who habitually do not do these things must understand the consequences. Perhaps they should be required to use Norplant birth control until they are legally married, or can prove they can financially take care of an additional child.

The bottom line is that the child must be financially insulated from the reality of a deadbeat parent. Society needs to rewrite its rules so that the needs of the child come first. We owe our children nothing less.

 
The Thinker

Review: Othello

We should probably become season subscribers of the Washington Shakespeare Theater. I am starting to lose count of the number of Shakespearean plays we have seen in its theater on 7th Street NW in Washington, D.C. (A new theater is under construction nearby.) Their theatrical productions easily outclasses those at the nearby Folger Shakespeare Theater, D.C.’s other Shakespearean theater. By many accounts, The Washington Shakespeare Theater is best Shakespearean theater in the United States.

While most of their shows, if they have not been excellent, have at least been uniformly very good, there have been some less than stellar performances. I was quite disenchanted with the last performance we saw there, The Tempest. In fact, I was so disenchanted that I was a bit leery to return to the theater any time soon.

Happily, the current production of Othello is the best of their productions that I have seen. If you live in the area and can snag a ticket before the show closes on October 30th, buy it and worry about how to pay for it later. This production should not be missed.

However, it does not plow much new ground for Avery Brooks, who plays Othello, a Moor general sent to fight the Turks on Cyprus. For those of you who do not inhabit the Star Trek universe, Brooks is probably best know as Commander (and later Captain) Benjamin Sisko of the space station Deep Space Nine. That series ended in 1999 after a six-year run, but Brooks’s performances of Othello date back to at least 1990. Speaking of Star Trek captains, Patrick Stewart (Captain Jean Luc Picard) also played Othello at the Shakespeare Theater in 1997-1998. (What is that? Stewart didn’t have the right skin tone? Not a problem, he was cast with an otherwise all African American cast. Let us hope though that William Shatner is never asked to perform the role.)

There is no question that Brooks plays a stellar Othello. He is clearly comfortable in the complex and demanding role. Othello though is not the primary character in this play. As those who have read or seen the play performed know, Iago gets most of the stage time. The evil and nefarious Iago sets into motion a complex plot where he plays the weaknesses and desires of the characters against each other, culminating in a plot to have Othello believe that his new wife Desdemona (Colleen Delany) is being unfaithful to him. As is true of most of Shakespeare’s tragedies, you can expect many dead people by the end of the performance. Iago is clearly one of Shakespeare’s most loathsome, yet fascinating characters. In this production, Patrick Page plays Iago. We frequent Shakespeare Theater attendees have seen him before, most recently in the title role of Macbeth. While he was good in that role, he reaches an acting zenith performing the role of Iago. Page seems to have a gift for playing complex and evil characters. While I am sure he has a long and successful career ahead of him, it is hard to imagine that he will be able to top his performance in this production.

In fact, there is not a fault in the entire casting. Brooks and Page play off each other perfectly, and Brooks’s performance is riveting. Nevertheless, make no mistake: it is Page who is center stage throughout most of the play. He brings an oozy creepiness to the role of Iago that I found spellbinding. Yet I was equally fascinated by the performance of some of the minor characters: Emilia (Lise Bruneau) as Iago’s suffering wife, and Bianca (Andrea Cirie) as the smoldering but suffering courtesan who falls in love with Cassio, Othello’s lieutenant.

Listening to the Old English in any of Shakespeare’s plays can be challenging to our modern ears. It is easy to miss important plot points. This is one reason why it is so critical that the actors in Shakespearean productions be excellent. The emotions and tone of voice that the actors convey must make up for the odd choices of words yet communicate the same meaning. I often feel like I miss 5-10% of any Shakespeare production because of language translation difficulties. However, I missed nothing in this production.

In fact, I sat enrapt throughout the entire performance. I felt mesmerized through much of it. A cell phone went off during the first half of the performance that annoyed me. Apparently, cell phones went off twice during the second half. I did not hear them at all. Indeed, there were times during the performance that I breathed in sharply. This was not from fright but simply because I was so drawn into the story that I was not getting sufficient oxygen!

The director Michael Kahn’s intimacy with the play over so many years is probably why this production works so well. It may be more convenient to watch thrillers at your local cinemaplex. Nevertheless, if you live in the Washington area, you will find this Shakespeare classic far better than any thriller you will find in at the cinema. When I think of all the Shakespearean plays that I have seen in my 48 years, this is the best production of them all.

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The Thinker

No time for reflection

Life is keeping me very busy this week. My team is in town. That means long days in a conference room. It also means that my routine is disrupted. I have almost no time to read the news, or pick up a book, or even surf the web. Even finding time to take a shower is challenging!

Perhaps this is the way life is supposed to be. Perhaps we are not meant to have time for regular reflection. All I know is that while I am fortunate to lead such a terrific team of people, I will still be glad for the meetings to be over tomorrow. I need a breather!

When I recover my breath in a day or so I will be back.

 
The Thinker

Seize the day

For those of you wondering about my dying mother, she is still alive and unfortunately she is not improving. I do my best to visit her once a week. I try to visit on Saturdays around lunchtime. This usually works best for my schedule. I arrive about forty-five minutes before lunch. By this time, her long morning nap is over and she is often reasonably coherent. This gives me a chance to talk to her for a bit before lunch. Lunch is served promptly at noon in the dining room, so I make a point to have her there on time. She can no longer feed herself, so I feed her. I can tell she resents my help but she also accepts that this is the way things are. As miserable as she feels she is not yet ready to check out of this life.

I have to check myself when I feed her. I find myself unconsciously opening my mouth, as I did with my daughter as an infant when I fed her. It would be insulting to say, “Open up the barn door and let the horsies in.” Yet the words want to form on my lips. Forkfuls of food go lackadaisically into her mouth. She chews but swallowing is increasingly difficult. It can lead to coughing fits. This is just one of the effects of her disease, Progressive Supranuclear Palsy. There is this, along with her difficulty in moving her eyes from straight ahead. Focusing is also difficult for her. At this point, her muscles are atrophied. A couple months ago, she could usually sit up on the side of the bed by herself. Now this is beyond her. Her one remaining act of self-care was to brush her teeth. Now this is becoming impossible for her too. I gave her an electric toothbrush and had to turn it on for her; she does not have the agility to press its on button. She can no longer seem to reach beyond her front teeth. Therefore, I do most of the work. She may be dying, but I will not let my mother suffer the indignity of dirty teeth and bad breath. She would not want this either.

Now she must be carried to and from her bed, dragging a catheter bag with her. She can still move her arms and legs a bit. Nevertheless, you can tell she is still overwhelmingly frustrated. The only good part of her dying process is that she spends much of her life asleep or dozing. I woke her up last Saturday about 11:15 a.m. I put her to bed for her nap at 1:15 p.m. She was more than ready for sleep.

I do not know how typical her dying process is. I get the feeling that hers is a lot more benign than most. She can still think clearly. Her speech is often soft or garbled but she can tell us how she feels. She is not like the sixty something woman with Alzheimer’s endlessly walking up and down the halls calling out, “Mother? Where are you mother?” Nor is she like the woman who sits next to her in the dining room, who had a stroke, who grunts instead of talks, and can only use the left side of her body. Nor as best I can tell, is she in any pain, other than perhaps mental anguish. My father visits her twice a day but this is not enough for her. She hates it when he leaves. She feels abandoned and unloved. She does not understand why she cannot go and live in their apartment. She believes we could take care of her there. If she cannot have full use of her limbs, she at least wants the dignity of dying in her own bed in her own home. Why can we not give her at least this?

Maybe at the very end of life that will be possible. If we were certain she had a week or two left perhaps nurses or loved ones could be there with her around the clock. Not yet. Perhaps in time she could go to a hospice. At least in a hospice she could get more of the focused attention that she wants. For she can no longer play card games. She cannot focus on the television. She cannot read a book. There is just the frustration of an active mind trapped in a body that mostly refuses to respond.

When I can pull myself away from her situation, I can observe the dying process as it actually is rather than in the abstract. It is not quite what I expected. Although she has only been in the nursing home about four months, it seems inordinately long to me. I do not know how much longer she has. Typically, it takes one to two years before this disease kills. Her kind of dying seems to be like death from a thousand small cuts. Each time I see her she is slightly for the worse. It is hard to know which one will cause the final collapse of her fragile system. Nevertheless, with certainty one of them will cause her death.

Last week I brought pictures of my wedding to share with her. It did help cheer her up a bit. She liked looking at pictures of herself when she was still so young and vigorous. She was 65 when I was married but looked closer to 45. With each picture was a story and a memory. One picture was of my wife’s grandmother. She passed away about five years after our wedding. “Everyone dies in time,” my mother said sadly, yet in a matter of fact way.

To the dying and to those who love the dying, death is not fair. Dying is a slow motion horror movie that is not make believe. Its certainty and finality are both inescapable and crushing. It is also, at some point, simply accepted. I think that is where my mother is now. That is also to some degree where I am too. There are few things in life that are absolutely certain. Death is one of them. Death will consume us all in time. Whether we devolve into nothingness or, like chrysalides, are transformed into another form of being, no one can say with certainty. Nevertheless, death is final. No matter what divides us from each other, dying is our one common experience.

Through much of my twenties, thirties, and even into my forties my mortality stalked me. I had no answer for it other than to try to ignore it. That was futile. It was like trying to ignore an axe murderer you know is outside your door. However, through observing my mother’s dying process I now find an odd sort of catharsis. Seeing the reality of what will happen to me in time (although my exact experience will likely be different), I am no longer quite so afraid of age, dying and death as I used to be. Now, for some reason, I feel an odd sort of peace with my mortality.

In a way, though I still in midlife, I feel almost reborn. It took neither a savior nor a holy book to make me feel this way. I just had to grapple first hand with my fear. Now dying is not so mysterious. I do not like to see my mother this way, of course. I feel sad and frustrated for her too. I feel more than a bit helpless that I cannot do more for her. Now dying is not an unknown. It is tangible. It feels like silly putty. I can shape somewhat to my own ends, though it always remains the same stuff.

Death is hard to look at but is no longer quite the horror movie of my worst imagination. It was not Freddy Kruger outside my door. It is more like an old, miserable, hungry and abandoned dog wailing out its misery. It turns out, for me, that the way toward acceptance is to open the door and pet the dog. While I cannot make the dog happy, I can give it some comfort. I can hold it to my bosom and I can experience its pain. Moreover, maybe if I shed a tear then my sympathy will turn into empathy. Then maybe I have brought some form of solace to the dying during this distressing time, and some comfort for myself too.

Now I feel what I heard in so many words but could not emotionally grasp. Life is finite. So squeeze. Squeeze every drop of vitality out of this limited mystery we call life. Live life fully so you can leave it with as few regrets as possible. As Gandalf (the wizard from The Lord of the Rings books and movies) put it, “All we have to do is decide what to do with the time that is given us.”

Seize the day.

 
The Thinker

Red vs. Blue: Myth vs. Reality

This diary on DailyKos got me thinking, and then it sent me Googling. It posits a number of theses, but the general thrust of the arguments is that things are better overall in blue states. It also suggests that the family values so espoused in red states are not as widely practiced in blue states.

Before the 2000 election, no one spoke of red states vs. blue states. For whatever reason during that election the networks showed states that voted for Bush as red on their maps, and states that voted for Gore as blue. Because of the 2004 election, a couple states flipped colors but the map looked largely the same. Blue states covered the northeast, Great Lakes and the West Coast. Red states largely covered the rest of the country. Red state vs. blue state stuck as a national metaphor. Both sides claimed that the values were significantly different between blue and red states. Aside from red states being more likely to be controlled by Republicans, such states emphasize low taxes, religion, individual responsibility and entrepreneurial behavior. Blue states are more likely to be Democratic, tolerant of diversity, secular and progressive in nature.

I decided to spend a couple hours doing some research. I did not have time to do an exhaustive analysis of all the claims made in the diary, but I did find the Alan Guttmacher Institute, which has a variety of social statistics and a convenient engine for generating these statistics by state. I picked statistics that gave me percentages. With states varying in population it made no sense to compare the number of abortions in, say, Nevada with California. By using percentages though, I was able to smooth out the differences between states. Consequently, the statistics I present show all states equally. I believe that a state-by-state comparison, grouped by red and blue states, can be useful for inferring the real values and characteristics of red and blue states.

The engine gave me a nice HTML report, but HTML was not convenient for analysis. I managed to copy the data into a spreadsheet. My analysis was done using MS Excel.

You should know that I am not a statistician. I took a basic course in college where I learned about things like average, mean, medium and standard deviation. I am also aware that one should not read too much into any set of statistics. For example, in the south there are disproportionately more Hispanics and African Americans. Historically they have not done as well in certain fields, like academics, as non-Hispanic whites. I also realize that certain states like Ohio, which were counted as red, split right down the middle in the last election and are more accurately “purple” states. Therefore, it is probably a mistake to read too much into my analysis. Still some of my results were interesting.

Here is a HTML version of my analysis. You are welcome to download the spreadsheet and check my logic. Based on the data and the approach I chose, here are some of the results.

Abortion: In blue states, 22.3% of women aborted their pregnancies. In red states, it was 14.32%. Analysis: Since abortion services are more readily available in blue states I was not surprised to find that more pregnancies were aborted in blue states. So if making abortion difficult is supporting the right to life then red states truly are more “pro life”, or at least more pro the new life.

Out of wedlock births: Women in red states are 1% more likely to have out of wedlock births. Red states have a 4.4% higher pregnancy rate for women age 15-19 than blue states. Analysis: some would infer that teenage women are somewhat “sluttier” in red states. Other reasons that could explain the difference include that teens in red states are less inclined to use birth control, or have a harder time getting a hold of it.

Marriage: If you are a man 20-49 then you are 4.1% more likely to be single in a blue state. Analysis: This is not very surprising; although I doubt gays, flocking to blue states explains the gap. I am surprised that nationally 46% of these men are single.

Education: Men 25-49 in red states are 1.5% more likely not to have earned a high school diploma than in blue states. Analysis: I do not think this margin is statistically significant.

Child Support: Blue states do a better job of collecting child support. (25.2% in blue states vs. 21.1% in red states.) Analysis: Blue states seem to give the problem more focus. What is shocking here is that nationally only about 20% of child support is collected. This is scandalous. I am amazed single mothers are not staging massive protests in Washington. No civilized society should tolerate this.

Poverty: 5.6% more men ages 20-49 live at less than 200% of the national poverty level in red states. For women, the gap is 6.4%. 2.7% more of the women in red states live in poverty in red states than blue states. Analysis: This is probably largely due to socioeconomic factors, but all things being equal it does suggest living in a blue state means you are less likely to be impoverished, perhaps because there is more of a social safety net.

Insurance: Men 15-49 living in red states are 3.5% more likely to be uninsured than in blue states. Women 15-44 in red states are 5% more likely to be uninsured in red states.1.8% more women age 15-44 are covered by Medicaid or SCHIP in blue states than in red. Analysis: This may be cultural. Red states are more likely to embrace a “self reliant” culture.

Sexually transmitted disease: About 3 more men per 100,000 (ages 10 and older) acquire Chlamydia in red states. About 7 more men acquire Gonorrhea. As for syphilis, the difference is about 1.4 men. Analysis: probably statistically irrelevant. There may be a slight cultural bias in red states not to use protection during sex, or more ignorance of the effects of unprotected sex.

If my statistics are meaningful, which they may well not be, then perhaps the following tentative conclusions can be drawn:

  • While “family values” are embraced more in red states, younger people are more inclined to get pregnant out of wedlock in these states. This suggests more “talking the talk” than “walking the walk”.
  • You are less likely to be impoverished and more likely to be insured in blue states.

If I have more time and the inclination, I will look at other sets of statistics.

 
The Thinker

Bird Flu Fever

If Occam’s Razor ceases to exist a year from now, it will not be because I will have lost interest. It will be because I am dead. Dead of avian flu, the bird flu that is wreaking havoc in Southeast Asia, has already infected humans and now has migrated to Turkey.

Until today, I was concerned but not really on edge. I can read terrible stories about massive death and destruction but still feel relatively safe in my cocoon. Hurricanes happen to people along the coast. At most, those of us who live here in Northern Virginia have to worry about flooding from a hurricane. Earthquakes like those in Kashmir that killed tens of thousands of people? It could happen here, but it is not very likely. I am far away from major fault lines. Could I become a victim of terrorism? Possibly, but it is not very likely. I do not work in Washington D.C. anymore. I do not take the Metro. I either hop in my car or bike the three miles to work. As gruesome as it sounds, if suitcase nuclear bombs were to go off downtown, at least I am outside of the likely blast zone.

Yes, I could contract cancer, have a stroke, die suddenly in a car crash, or develop some other terrible disease that could fell me early. While I would not wish an early death on myself (or anyone), I would feel better about dying from something conventional like a deadly heart attack than from contracting a virulent form of the avian bird flu.

The Washington Post, perhaps American’s scariest newspaper, printed this article on page A-2 of today’s newspaper. Many of us have heard about the 1918 flu that killed millions of people in this country. As awful as that was, this avian flu could be much, much worse. How much worse?

“This is a nation-busting event!” warned Tara O’Toole, CEO of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s Center for Biosecurity. Speculating that 40 million Americans could die — that’s about one in eight — she warned: “We must act now.”

“We and the entire world remain unprepared for what could arguably be the most horrific disaster in modern history,” inveighed Gregory A. Poland of the Mayo Clinic and the Infectious Diseases Society of America. Somebody in the audience sneezed, and Poland added: “The clock is ticking. We’ve been warned.”

It was hard to top that, but Constance Hanna, an occupational health specialist, tried. “Let me paint you a little picture,” she began. “Twenty to 30 percent of your employees don’t show up to work . . . schools are closed . . . transportation systems are curtailed or shut down . . . Critical infrastructure will or may fail: food, water, power, gas, electricity.”

If that is not enough to get your heart to skip a beat while sipping that café latte, it only gets worse:

“Suppose the pandemic comes next year,” she said, and “a year and a half from now, next winter, you’re thinking about today. You were one of the lucky ones: You got sick but you recovered and now you have immunity against the pandemic strain. But one out of four Americans was infected, one of four people sitting here today, and half of them died.” Some people looked around: There were about 200 in the room, so about 50 would get the bug, and 25 would die.

“Death rates approaching this order of magnitude are unprecedented for any epidemic disease,” contributed O’Toole.

This was difficult to top, but Poland tried. “I want to emphasize the certainty that a pandemic will occur,” he began. “When this happens, time will be described, for those left living, as before and after the pandemic.”

Humans have already caught the Avian Flu. Of those who caught the Avian Flu, the mortality rate has been over fifty percent. What has kept it from turning into a pandemic is that the virus has not mutated into a virulent form that easily infects humans. However, this virus has already mutated into many deadly forms. It would not be surprising if it did mutate into a form that kill millions or billions of us.

What to do? Clearly we need to develop a vaccine, produce it in mass quantities and give it to every man, woman and child in the country. There is one big problem. The vaccine we develop for today’s version of the flu, if we can make it at all, may be ineffective on a newer, mutated, virulent form of the flu. In addition, there is another problem. The cost of the vaccine would be $5-$16 billion. That is not exactly pocket change.

Our president thinks he is on top of the situation. He is pondering using the military to quarantine parts of the country that might pick up the disease, an option that is probably illegal under current law and probably impossible to enforce. Moreover, he has our public health officials talking with international health officials to come up with strategies for dealing with the threat. These are necessary steps, but they should have been done years ago. Instead, as usual, we largely ignored the problem.

What we have not seen so far is much understanding from our public officials acknowledging the seriousness of the threat. Imagine what life would be like if we lost ten percent of our population. Imagine if one in eight Americans died from this pandemic. Imagine if you survive at all, whether your spouse or children would survive. Imagine trying to get them to a hospital to find that they are overwhelmed with flu cases. Just like in New Orleans, when you need help there may be none available.

For the survivors, the world would be changed dramatically. Not only would millions of people die, it is not even clear if survivors could maintain their current lifestyle. A flu of this magnitude would effect everyone. Would there be enough doctors and nurses left to care for the living? Would food be able to get to market? Would there be enough people to keep refineries working? Would civilization as we know it collapse? Would we devolve into a brutish anarchy?

I am no public health expert but it is long past time to blow the claxons. We need to sober up our elected officials very quickly, and we need them to act intelligently. We should be developing a vaccine to protect against the current form of the disease. It may or may not work against a virulent form of the flu, but it is better than doing nothing. It might cut the mortality rate. In addition, of course we need to monitor the spread of the disease carefully and its mutations.

Even if we had perfect knowledge, there are no guarantees. The virus will likely be able mutate faster than we can develop strategies to deal with it. We cannot trust to luck, but we may have to. There may be no place on earth untouched by this pandemic. If we do not know how the citizens of New Orleans or Kashmir feel then we may all soon have similarly profound experiences.

Up next, Isaac Weisfuse, the New York City deputy health commissioner, provided some logistical fears to add to the medical ones. “We’ll be inundated,” he said. “We have no [antiviral] Tamiflu. We have no vaccine. . . . There is no cache of respirators.”

There was little left unsaid for speakers lower in the program. Jeffrey Levi of George Washington University prophesied a panic of “millions and millions of people” trying to get antiviral prescriptions filled. Hanna struggled for superlatives: “We haven’t even begun to conceive of, to understand, to comprehend what that may mean for our workplace.”

That was ominous, but it did not approach O’Toole’s apocalyptic fervor: “uniquely virulent . . . hospitals will be quickly overwhelmed . . . this time of peril . . . quarantine is not going to work.”

 

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