Archive for May, 2006

The Thinker

A hint of desperation in the Paulson nomination

Yesterday the Bush Administration announced the long expected resignation of Treasury Secretary John Snow. The very same day President Bush nominated Wall Street financier Henry M. Paulson, Jr. as his third Treasury Secretary. Paulson is currently the head of the well-respected (and profitable) Goldman Sachs Group.

Paulson is very well qualified, as well as highly respected on Wall Street. This is good news because next to the chairman of the Federal Reserve, the Treasury Secretary wields the most influence in the financial community on United States fiscal matters. With stocks up, but faltering, the value of the U.S. dollar sinking, and with overseas markets skittish, the Bush Administration clearly needs a Treasury Secretary in which the financial community will have confidence. In this sense, Paulson is an excellent choice.

Generally when the White House comes offering a cabinet level position, you do not say no. Apparently, Paulson had to be courted aggressively by the Bush Administration. He spurned a number of interview requests before finally agreeing to meet with the President. Before accepting the position, Paulson required strict assurances that he would have the operational authority that he needed.

While it is clear that on fiscal matters, Bush and Paulson largely agree, what struck me from news reports is how Paulson vigorously disagreed with Bush on other matters. In addition to his full time work for Goldman Sachs, Paulson was the chairman of the Nature Conservancy. The Nature Conservancy’s mission is to buy land to keep it from ever being developed. I contribute to this charity through payroll deductions, and consider it one of the best uses of my charitable contribution. Paulson may be a wealthy Wall Street financier but he is also an ardent environmentalist. He and his wife also have given nearly a million dollars to a political organization affiliated with the League of Conservation Voters. This organization has regularly taken the Bush Administration to task for its anti environmental efforts. Clearly, Paulson has walked the environmentalist walk, not just talked it.

Perhaps most peculiarly, while the chairman of the Nature Conservancy, the Conservancy came out strongly in favor of the United States adhering to the Kyoto Protocol to cut greenhouse gas emissions:

The Kyoto Protocol is a key first step to help slow the onslaught of global warming and benefit conservation efforts…Until the United States passes its own limits on global warming emissions, innovative companies based here will lose out on opportunities to sell reduced emission credits to companies complying with the Kyoto Protocol overseas. Additionally, without enacting our own emission limits, U.S. companies will lose ground to their competitors in Europe, Canada, Japan, and other countries participating in the Protocol who are developing clean technologies.

Even Goldman Sachs under Paulson took a position on climate change. It promoted an “Environmental Policy Framework” that required governments to take urgent action to address climate change:

[C]limate change is one of the most significant environmental challenges of the 21st century and is linked to other important issues such as economic growth and development… Goldman Sachs is very concerned by the threat to our natural environment, to humans and to the economy presented by climate change and believes that it requires the urgent attention of and action by governments, business, consumers and civil society to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

In his position as Treasury Secretary, at best Paulson will have marginal influence on U.S. environmental policy. Nevertheless, those into reading political tealeaves might want to sit up and take note of this nomination. To date, the Bush Administration has not been accommodating to anyone working for it who is unfriendly to its positions. In fact, Bush’s first Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill was ushered out in 2002 largely for telling the American people some unpleasant fiscal truths: either sharp tax increases or dramatic benefit cuts would be needed to meet to pay out Social Security and Medicare benefits to promised to future retirees. He was eased out the door. Replacing him with John Snow however turned out to be a mixed blessing. While Snow faithfully towed the party line, Wall Street did not buy into growth through unending deficit spending. They wanted a policy maker, not a toady.

Paulson is unlikely to be this politically incorrect on basic Bush fiscal doctrine. However, he does have the savvy to realize that he had to have the authority to set his own policy without being countermanded by the White House. On this matter, for the first time, Bush has relented. Paulson’s sharp disagreements with the Bush Administration on environmental matters suggest that new White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten may be testing the waters of moderation. He may realize that in order for the Bush Administration to have any successes in its last three years, it will be necessary for the Administration to moderate its stances.

Paulson may be an olive leaf to the country that Bush is grudgingly willing to moderate his excessive conservative tendencies and embrace more mainstream behavior. This approach likely will not do much to improve his poll numbers, but it certainly could not hurt. It does suggest perhaps a hint of desperation from an otherwise buttoned down, stiffed lipped administration.

 
The Thinker

The best way to honor our fallen soldiers this Memorial Day

Freedom, we are often told, is not free. Today is Memorial Day: the official day we set aside to remember those who gave their lives for our country. It is not, contrary to modern custom, a day set aside for shopping or to head home from the beach. However, if you did do these things, I hope you took time to contemplate those who died to secure our freedoms.

I am thinking hard today about the meaning of the millions of our soldiers who have died for our country. I am also thinking hard about when we should use military force and when we should not.

Politicians, American Legion members and many old-fashioned patriots still visit cemeteries on Memorial Day. They honor our fallen soldiers by placing wreaths, flowers or American flags on their graves. I confess I have yet to visit a military cemetery on Memorial Day. This is doubly shameful because Arlington National Cemetery is only twenty miles from my house. For me honoring our fallen soldiers amounts to putting out our American flag on our porch.

Memorial Day originally commemorated those who died on both sides of the Civil War. It was meant not just to honor the fallen but also to help with our national healing. Our Civil War was a great national travesty. Memorial Day was meant in part for us to keep this travesty always fresh in our minds, so that our country would never endure a civil war again. Now the holiday embraces all soldiers who died in service to our country.

I am sure I am not the only one that finds it ironic that, in order to be free, we need citizens who will defend our country by killing and maiming other people if necessary. We all hope for the day when the occupation of soldier becomes as obsolete as tinkers and milkmen. Until that day comes (and the liberal in me wants to think it is possible), we need soldiers to do bestial things to other human beings when directed by our Commander in Chief. Granted, killing is not all the military does. More often these days their role is to maintain peace rather than inflict violence. In addition to over a hundred thousand soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is worth noting that we also have troops in places like Kosovo. These soldiers ensure that ethnic Serbs, Croatians and Albanians do not resume slaughtering each other. This too is a supremely noble purpose for a soldier.

Soldiers are a painful necessity because we still live in a world full of regional, religious, ethnic and nationalistic clans. Not all will necessarily agree to behave in a civilized way if they do not get there way. Therefore, in some sense our need for soldiers represents both a failure of our human potential and the political process.

I am certainly grateful for my freedom. When I turned 18, I was fortunate not to have the dilemma that many of my slightly older peers faced. By 1975, the Vietnam War was over. While the draft was gone, I still had to register with the Selective Service System. I remember the chill I felt during the Iranian hostage crisis. There was talk in Congress about reinstating the draft. I was out of college and my life was settling down. The last thing I wanted to do was fight in a foreign war. Fortunately, the draft was not reinstated.

Today no one’s arms are twisted to fill our military: only volunteers do our nation’s dirty work. Frankly, I am humbled that so many Americans choose to serve, particularly today when the risk death or permanent disability is more than theoretical. Today, as we honor soldiers who gave their lives for our country, I am also grateful and enormously sympathetic to the families that carried the burden of their loved one’s death. It is certainly honorable to honor our fallen soldiers today. Perhaps the best way to show that we really care is to support the families of our fallen soldiers. For it is they who must somehow carry on despite enormous grief, anguish and loss.

Politicians can honor the fallen too. They can do so not just by placing wreaths and making solemn speeches as our president did today. They can do everything possible to avoid having to send our soldiers into war in the first place. In my mind, even before we invaded, our war in Iraq was wholly unnecessary. It is now clear that the war was a tragic error in judgment of gargantuan proportions. Our politicians and our president failed our soldiers on March 21st, 2003, the day we invaded Iraq. Our president failed to ask the necessary questions and check the quality of the intelligence. Our politicians did not perform their role of properly checking the Executive Branch before sending our soldiers to war. Yet by implication, we cannot escape culpability either. For we voted these people into office. So far, we have not held them accountable for their lapse in judgment. As a result, thousands of our soldiers have died in Iraq, seemingly unnecessarily.

If the War in Iraq continues to devolve, as it seems certain to, then perhaps we best honor those who gave their lives in Iraq by ensuring this kind of tragedy never happens again. We can do it this November by removing from office those who voted for this war, and putting into office those sober enough to fully exercise due diligence. For as much as President Bush might want it otherwise, Congress is a coequal branch of government. It has the sole responsibility to declare war and, by implication, the power to prevent it. I thought we had learned our lesson after Vietnam. It is sad and shameful that on this Memorial Day we honor over two thousand of our soldiers who bravely and heroically served their country, paid the ultimate price, but apparently did so in vain. They were called and they dutifully and honorably served. However, we failed them by sending them to an unnecessary war.

This Memorial Day let us do something meaningful for a change. First, let us support the families of the fallen, as many of us are already doing. Second, let us bring our troops home from Iraq in a gradual but systematic way. But most importantly, let us as a nation take this solemn vow: to never send our soldiers into a needless war again.

 
The Thinker

Review: The Da Vinci Code

Full disclosure: I have not read Dan Brown’s now ultra-famous book The Da Vinci Code. My daughter has read it and greatly enjoyed it. My wife got a few chapters into it before putting it down. She felt the quality of the writing was too poor for her to endure any further. Between the endless publicity, the hype about the movie, and the recent plagiarism case in Great Britain against Dan Brown, reading the book seemed superfluous. Anyone in a first world country who does not know the book’s central thesis is likely living a cloistered life. In that sense, seeing the movie is probably anticlimactic.

However, my 16-year-old daughter saw the movie when it first came out. She said it was a good movie, and volunteered to see it again with me. So partly to have an opportunity to get away with my daughter, we saw the movie together yesterday.

I assume you know the basic key points in the book, so consequently there is little to spoil. However, if you were recently released from cloisters then read no further because I will spill some of its main plot points and dubious assertions.

The Washington Post says the movie may be the first movie that takes longer to watch than to read the book on which it is based. At times, it certainly felt this way. Since my daughter read the book and liked the movie, I strongly suspect your appreciation for the movie will depend on how vested you felt reading the book. As for the rest of us, you may find that the movie to be an over-hyped disappointment.

I do not think that the movie of The Da Vinci Code is bad. Another movie I have seen lately truly qualifies as a bad movie. Instead, it is a mediocre movie. It is a movie that with a different director and cast maybe could have pulled off a satisfying movie. Tom Hanks is an excellent actor. However, that does not mean he is right for every role, even when a movie is formulated to be a blockbuster. He struck me as out of his element as Robert Langdon, an apparently real expert in symbology at Harvard University. In The Da Vinci Code, Hanks seems unable to find a way to express the character, so he wings it and in the process badly misses the mark. Perhaps this is because his character is never well defined by either Brown or Ron Howard, the director. In the movie, Langdon is simply a catalyst to move the movie forward. Hanks though really looks like he wishes he were doing some other movie. Maybe he knew this movie was a waste of his talents, but he could not turn down the millions of dollars he was offered.

However, Hanks is positively brilliant compared with Audrey Tautou. She plays Sophie Nevue, a.k.a the latest direct (and for a while, believed to be the last) living descendent of Jesus Christ. I have to assume she too was stunningly miscast, since this is the same woman who delighted millions with her performance as Amelie in the French made subtitled movie of the same name. Granted in Amelie her role was more of a comedic one. Perhaps she is more suited to comedic roles. Here she comes across as mostly one-dimensional and she is about as interesting as a flat soda. For someone who should be very excited by all the discoveries being unearthed, she seems largely dispassionate.

The movie is supposed to be suspenseful but largely failed to engage me. A few scenes may frighten you a bit. Most of the twists and turns are not hard to anticipate, even if you have only a passing familiarity with the key revelations (as I had). Ian McKellan, as Sir Leigh Teabing, helps to enliven the tedium. Like Robin Williams in the otherwise dreadful movie Cadillac Man, McKellan can help make an otherwise mediocre movie endurable. Paul Bettany is also suitably creepy as the brainwashed masochistic Opus Dei cult henchman Silas. (It was hard to believe this is the same man who played Stephen Maturin in Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. He certainly is a versatile actor!)

The book is apparently filled with short chapters. Each chapter end with a cliffhanger. This makes it difficult not to turn the page. The movie tries to emulate this aspect of the book. It certainly does move along at a brisk pace. Unfortunately, in spite of this the movie largely failed to engage me. It is not that I do not find conspiracy theories interesting. I think it is certainly plausible that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married. She could well have been pregnant at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion. Most Protestants take it as given that when the Bible speaks of James as Jesus’ brother, he was his biological brother, not a fraternal one. Naturally, the Catholics would find the notion of Mary Magdalene as Jesus’ wife the most offensive. Since for all but the last 500 years or so they controlled the Christian church, it is plausible that they would want to hide or minimize Jesus’ affection for Mary, since it would go against doctrine.

No, the whole notion of Opus Dei and a plot to keep “the truth” about Jesus obscured for 2000 years is where The Da Vinci Code breaks down for me. It fails my Occam’s Razor test because it is just too far out in left field. Heck, even Jesus’ divinity is more plausible than this preposterous tale of the search for the Holy Grail. At least Monty Python’s movie was funny. This one tries to make you believe the ludicrous. Perhaps as a result the longer the movie went on (and it never seemed to end) and the stranger the plot twists became, the more I started yawning and the less I cared about the conclusion.

If director Ron Howard had at least taken the time to throw in a little romantic tension, perhaps the movie would have been more enjoyable. Yet Hanks and Tautou are not given any opportunities to develop chemistry. Their mutual interests are wholly academic. The closest they come to any sign of affection is a chaste kiss Hanks gives Tautou on her forehead at the very end of the movie. When it finally ends after 149 minutes, I felt mostly relief.

The result is a B movie masquerading as an A movie. It gets 2.7 on my 4.0 scale.

(If anyone wants my take, not necessarily on the movie’s central thesis, but on the meaning of Jesus’ life, read this entry.)

 
The Thinker

Run, Al!

Back in 2000, I voted for Al Gore, but not enthusiastically. His campaign was ineptly run, and he seemed wholly insincere even to those of us who voted for him. He was the victim of putting too much faith in media consultants. Love or hate George W. Bush (and clearly, I am in the latter camp) you had a good idea of what he stood for. He was not going to be appointing any namby pamby liberal judges, that was for sure. In addition, there were going to be tax cuts forever. Most importantly to many Americans, he represented a clean break from Bill Clinton’s well documented (though in retrospect, largely irrelevant) deficiencies.

Despite all the hoopla about how that election finally turned out, I didn’t shed too many tears for Al Gore. Granted, I shed a lot more a few years later when it became clear of the magnitude of our (or should I say our Supreme Court’s) mistake. The United States will be paying the karmic debt for the Bush Presidency for decades. It is not as if 9/11 would have been a cakewalk for any president. One thing is clear in retrospect: Al has the brains and common sense that all but the most diehard Republican fools now admit that Bush lacks. You know that had the CIA presented its information on Iraqi intelligence to President Gore, rather than going to war, Al would have told the CIA, “This is crap. Get me something that is better sourced.” The Iraq debacle simply would not have happened in a Gore Administration.

Instead, Gore withdrew from public life, did some adjunct teaching and tried to figure out what to do with the rest of his life. He got in some trouble for asking Democrats to endorse Howard Dean for president in 2004. (In retrospect, his endorsement was probably smart, because Dean is authentic, whereas Kerry was not.) After the 2004 elections, Gore zeroed in as the most public and passionate advocate for his most important issue: global warming. As you may have read in the news, his film An Inconvenient Truth is now in theaters. It has been well received and has shaken up even many of the most diehard global warming skeptics. By communicating on a subject that he is passionate about, Al seems to have found is mojo at last. Although I have yet to see the film, I have seen the previews. At least in the previews, his performance is stunning. Gone is the Wooden Al that made us cringe in 2000. Finally, we have the real and authentic Al, and I love what I see.

Al says he is not running for president in 2008. However, he does often sound like a candidate. Most noticeably, he has been the major speaker at a number of lectures sponsored in Washington by MoveOn.org. In his speeches, he has delivered devastating critiques of the Bush Administration that were not just coherent, but delivered passionately and convincingly.

Richard Nixon lost the 1960 election to John F. Kennedy. For a while, it appeared that he had gone out to graze permanently in a different pasture. Of course, he reemerged and managed to win the 1968 election. Ironically, he won that election because the Johnson Administration could not find a way out of Vietnam. Nearly forty years later we find ourselves in a similar situation in Iraq. Al is too smart to have a “secret plan” to end this war. Yet one thing is now clear: America needs effective leadership in the war on terrorism. We need someone with a realistic and nuanced plan, not someone whose strategy amounts to slavishly following an ideology.

When I survey the likely 2008 presidential candidates, I am largely uninspired. Howard Dean has ruled out running so that he can tackle the arguably larger problem of bringing Democrats back into the majority. There are likely candidates like Russ Feingold whom I feel passionate about, but who I also know probably leans too far to the left to be elected. Hillary Clinton is the early favorite, yet she claims she is concentrating on her own senatorial reelection this year, not a White House bid. (However, she is raising boatloads of money, far more than she will need to win reelection, which is in the bag anyhow.) I have heard Hillary speak. When her husband was running for president, I even had the opportunity to shake her hand. There is no question that she is an excellent speaker. However, she has a huge percentage of people who will not vote for her under any circumstances. In fact, most of these people totally loathe her. Kerry clearly is positioning himself to run again, but as a well-understood candidate now, he is unlikely to generate new enthusiasm. Of course, others want to try or try again. They include John Edwards, Joe Biden, and even Christopher Dodd (who most Americans do not know). Wesley Clark is my current favorite among these potential candidates, although he too has some passionate enemies.

Clark is no longer my top choice. I want Al. (However, Clark could make an excellent vice president.) I want the Al that I see in An Inconvenient Truth. I want him passionately. This Al Gore is the real deal that he withheld from us in the 2000 campaign. This is the authentic Al, stripped of his masks. He no longer has to worry about triangulating, his poll numbers or following the dubious wisdom of the Beltway insiders. It should feel creepy that old Wooden Al has metamorphosized at last into the Authentic Al. His sincerity, genuineness and passion is now plain for all to see.

It is time to draft Al Gore in 2008. Yeah, I know he says he is not a candidate. I think that he can be persuaded to change his mind if we keep speaking up. Because not only would he be the best Democrat to run for the presidency, I think he is by far the best person to lead our nation at this crucial time in our history. As he goes across the nation speaking and listening, we need to speak to him. We may need to shout. Al, the country needs you. You are being called to service your country. Do not let your country down at this critical time in history.

 
The Thinker

The Internet needs your help

What would you think if you picked up your phone, dialed a number and got this message?

“I’m sorry, but this phone company does not allow you to call this number. Have a good day.”

To suggest that you would be irate would probably be putting it mildly. You would probably say something like, “Don’t I pay the phone company $35 a month so I can access anyone in the telephone network? How dare they charge me $35 a month, yet will not let me call the number of my choice! What do they think this is, a totalitarian state?”

No, it is not totalitarianism. It is called capitalism in its latest and ugly modern manifestation. Because in case you have not noticed, except for the phone wires inside your house, you do not own the telephone line. You pay that $35 a month to rent the phone company’s lines. They own it. You do not. If you do not like the situation, you are free to create your own telephone company, or if you are lucky, contract with another company.

Long ago, the government recognized that certain companies perform a public service. That is why they are regulated. The government ensures that your local phone company offers service on a non-discriminatory basis and that the phone company will put every call through.

Suppose you use your phone regularly for phone sex. You like to spend $3.99 a minute to dial 1-800-HOT-MAMA and get your rocks off. Suppose your phone company looked at all its customer records and noticed that 10% of all its calls were going to 1-800-HOT-MAMA. Then suppose it told the owners of Hot Mama Inc. that unless they rebated back to the phone company fifty cents a minute, every word that was spoken by either party would be delayed by one second. Would you also be irate?

Perhaps, but in this case you probably would not make your dissatisfaction public. Yet it is likely that after a few more calls to 1-800-HOT-MAMA, the programmed voice delays will take all the thrill out of calling them. However, one day you notice a circular in your phone bill. “Tired of the poor service with your phone sex company? Try 1-888-BIG-TITS. Only $3.99 a minute and no voice delay!” It would probably not take too long before you have changed phone sex companies. You probably would have no idea that the Big Tits Phone Sex Company sent your Baby Bell fifty cents for every minute you spent connected to it doing some heavy breathing.

At this point you are probably saying, “Yeah, so what? This is all hypothetical and I don’t do phone sex.” Yes, it is hypothetical in the case of our telephone service. However, it is not hypothetical in the case of your internet service. Because it turns out that if you have an internet service provider, there is a good chance that they want more profit than what they can make charging you $39.95 a month. After all, they have spent billions digging up lawns so you can have a high-speed internet service, and the profits have not quite been what they anticipated. Hmm, but maybe Yahoo Search, anxious for more customers of its own, will send your ISP one cent every time a user on your ISP’s network uses Yahoo Search instead of Google Search. Perhaps that is why responses from Google.com to your search queries have been getting so slow lately, but responses from Yahoo appear like lightning. It is too bad that you cannot hear those cash registers going ka ching every time you use Yahoo Search. That does not mean those registers are not ringing up sales.

Welcome to the Brave New Internet, which may soon resemble the opening to that sixties ABC TV show, The Outer Limits:

“There is nothing wrong with your television set. Do not attempt to adjust the picture. We are controlling the transmission. We control the horizontal. We control the vertical. For the next hour, sit quietly and we will control all you see and hear.”

In the case of America Online, it has already been there. Last month they prohibited their subscribers from going to dearaol.com. Apparently, someone set up a web site opposing AOL’s plan for guaranteed junk mail delivery. For a fee, AOL wants to allow junk emailers to put their spam directly into your inbox, whether you want it there or not. (With enlightened attitudes like this, it is no wonder AOL is bleeding customers.)

Other profit hungry ISPs are not quite so brazen. Verizon Communications, a high speed ISP in my neighborhood, recently knocked on my door to try to sell me its high-speed FiOS service, says its intentions are more benign. They want to offer services like movies on demand. They are worried that other internet content providers will also want to offer movies on demand, and will insist on the same quality of service as Verizon provides its customers.

I have no problem with Verizon or other companies offering movies on demand. I do have a problem though if their dedicated Internet bandwidth gives preference to their packets over preference to packets from unaffiliated providers. There are solutions to their so-called problem. One solution is to have two lines coming into your house, one for Internet content, and one for their own content. However, even that is not necessary. Since Verizon’s FiOS service works on an optical network, it is easy for network routers to allocate part of the spectrum exclusively for its own use, and part for Internet traffic. There is so much bandwidth on a fiber optic cable that no true high-speed internet service should be impacted. In this case though the portion of the bandwidth dedicated to their movies on demand could be for their unique content only. Yet if they are advertising three megabits per second of download speed to their internet service customers, those three megabits should be open to any lawful content available on the Internet on a nondiscriminatory basis.

I am sad to say that, not surprisingly, Congress so far has been bending over backwards to accommodate ISPs who want to establish quality of service preferences on their networks. This is simply wrong. Just as it is wrong for the phone company to take your money, yet not let you access a phone number you want, it is wrong for them to prohibit you from visiting sites you want to visit, or for them to deliberately discriminate against one provider for the benefit of their own preferred content providers.

While Occam’s Razor is probably not your favorite site, it is quite possible that this site, or even your favorite site, could suddenly be banned by your ISP and there would be nothing you or I could do to change it. I know I probably spend an hour a day reading the website Daily Kos. Right now, there is nothing to prevent my ISP, Cox Communications, from keeping me from accessing this website. (Lord, I hope Fox News does not buy them out!)

This fight is for network neutrality, and it is one we must win. The founder of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee, said this just today:

“It’s better and more efficient for us all if we have a separate market where we get our connectivity, and a separate market where we get our content. Information is what I use to make all my decisions. Not just what to buy, but how to vote.”

You are reading this now because you value the Internet. It is in your interest to speak up now. You can start by taking a few minutes to contact your senators and congressional representatives. Perhaps your ISP will let your email go through, but they do not have to. For greatest impact though, it might be better and more effective to use the Plain Old Telephone System. It at least still lets you connect with anyone in the world. Let Congress know how you feel. Let your congressional representative know that you oppose H.R. 5252, the laughingly titled “Communications Opportunity, Promotion and Enhancement Act of 2006″. Tell them the watered down so-called “Net Neutrality” provisions are meaningless. Also, call your senator and ask them to support Senator Ron Wyden’s bill, the “Internet Nondiscrimination Act of 2006″.

If you have a choice in Internet providers, find out how they stand on Network Neutrality. I asked my ISP, Cox Communications. One of their Customer Care Supervisors responded when I wrote with (emphasis mine):

In response to your question about Cox Communications’ position on network neutrality, we currently do not have any plans to implement any type of tiered internet or filtering of content. Cox Communications wants what is best for our subscribers. Our customers can visit any legal web site they wish on our open network. We want to ensure that we are in a position to continue to provide our high speed internet service in the future. Cox Communications does maintain the right to manage our network as necessary. Per our subscriber agreement, we reserve the right to manage our network for the benefit of our customers. We will continue to manage our network in a way that benefits the vast majority of our customers and their growing need for bandwidth. We feel that Government regulation of Internet services would stifle innovation. It’s not in anyone’s best interest to stifle further innovation and investment – and government regulation of an industry typically does. Please do not hesitate to let me know if you have any further questions. Thank you.

This response is not exactly reassuring. While they have no current plans, they did not rule out any future plans. And by being against more government regulation, they also give themselves the freedom to restrict or tier content in the future. Let your ISP know you will put your money with ISPs that adhere to strict network neutrality.

For an easy way to find the names, addresses and phone number of your representatives in Congress, visit the Save the Internet website.

Please, take prompt action. What meaning does liberty really have if you cannot use it?

 
The Thinker

Fear of the French

What am I to make of this news article?

The French were voted the world’s most unfriendly nation by a landslide in a British poll published on Saturday. They were also voted the most boring and most ungenerous.

A decisive 46% of the 6,000 people surveyed by travelers’ website Where Are You Now said the French were the most unfriendly nation people on the planet, British newspapers reported.

Until now, I thought I liked the French. Of course, I have not yet actually been to France to verify these opinions. (That will change this summer.) Still, who could object to all those lovely French wines? Their renown French culinary skills? However, their food is just one of the reasons I should feel a kinship with the French. To use a French expression, they seem to get more joie de vie than the rest of the world combined. They get to take extended summer vacations. Most of the country goes on holiday after Bastille Day. Citizens are required to work no more than 35 hours a week. They have nationalized health insurance. You need a special exemption to work on Sundays. Retirement starts at age 60. Labor unions are not just a good idea; they are required. It is such a good system for French citizens (or from what I read native French citizens; immigrants tend to get a raw deal) that it is no wonder that young adults in France took to the streets recently to protest. A proposed law would have taken away certain of their rights, including the right to a secure job. The French get it: life is more than slaving away for an employer who can cut you off at any moment. Life should be more relaxed and less burdensome. Gosh, in France, it is even okay to have extramarital affairs. Everyone understands. Love and marriage do not necessarily serve similar purposes. No wonder my daughter wants to live in France.

If the French are as rude as alleged, perhaps it is from all that easy living. Maybe it gives you more time to look at everything critically. So perhaps that explains this British news report that the French are the world’s most unfriendly people. (This makes me wonder: haven’t they ever been in a New York City taxicab?)

Yes, I had rumors that French waiters were a bit on the rude side. Perhaps that is the problem: tourists are more likely to encounter waiters than perhaps any other class of French citizen. Likely, passing a class on customer service was not required for their position. Since French waiters have a job for life, there seems to be little reason to be courteous. Since rude waiters in America are not likely to get much of a tip, I have to assume that in France the tips are included in the cost of the meal.

Whatever. Now I am preparing for a rude French experience. I have been warned. I will not be in Kansas anymore. I can expect brazen prostitutes on the subways and outside the hotels. I will need to be mindful of the professional pickpockets. I shall be tactful. I shall not retort to the insults I receive by suggesting that the French should take a bath more than once a week. I shall expect the stores to close early and for many businesses to take a long lunch hour. I shall studious look both ways several times before crossing the street. As for Paris itself, although the word I keep hearing repeatedly again from those who have been there is “filthy”, I shall be mindful of its beautiful aspects.

I am glad we have our daughter to translate. Perhaps if they are cursing at me I will not be able to tell. Yes, I am sure I am a bad American, even though I did not vote for George Bush. (I need to get the t-shirt that says this, written in French, of course.) They will think that I expect everyone to speak English. Sorry, no, I will not take the time to learn French if I will only be there for nine days. You know, it is hard for me to feel offended where I live if someone is not speaking English. Heck, it feels like half the people I meet in everyday commerce are speaking in some other language, usually Spanish. It has gotten to the point where a number of the stores I go into have job applications in both English and Spanish. The managers tend to know Spanish; otherwise, they would not be able to talk with their own employees. It sure would be convenient if all the immigrants in my community spoke fluent English, but many of them cannot get out a simple sentence. Yet I shall not start cursing at them for their inability to speak my language.

So I imagine the French are a bit of a dichotomy. You will doubtless hear more about the reality of France after I return. Considering how much money it will cost us just to have a vacation in France (close to $3000 just for three airline tickets), and how dramatically I have now reduced my expectations of the French, I do hope all those tourists are wrong.

 
The Thinker

Welcome to the New Middle Age

Okay so I am 49 and I will turn 50 next February. It will not be long before I get that first AARP solicitation. I do not know how, but I am sure I am in their database somehow. AARP used to be an acronym, “American Association of Retired Persons”. Now it is just AARP. Nevertheless, we all know what it is, since you must be age 50 or over to join. However, you do not have to be retired.

I have no idea if I will join AARP. I do know one thing. 50 is way too young to retire. Few of us can afford to retire at 50 anyhow, although increasing numbers of 50 something Americans may have no choice. At 49 though, I feel I am in my prime. I know middle age is supposed to start in your 30s. Yet for those of us living in first world countries, and who are fortunate to have a certain income level, our 30s and even our 40s are not so much middle age, as a kind of extended period somewhere between adolescence and the onset of middle age. With so many of us living into our eighties and nineties these days, maybe 50 is where middle age begins.

Many of us have gotten the message. While you cannot stop aging, you can prolong optimal health. If you work at it, you can also prolong the illusion of youth. I do not think of myself as middle aged. When I look in the mirror, I do not see a middle-aged face. Perhaps it is vanity, perhaps it is delusion, or perhaps it is a combination of good genetics and prevention. I got the message in my early twenties that if I wanted a good quality of life, it would not come free. Therefore, I started running at 24, and have been running or engaging in some form of regular aerobic exercise ever since. In addition to popping the vitamins, I have been regularly applying the sunscreen. I have not always eaten right, but I have never had a bad diet. Throughout my adult years, vegetables, fruits and fiber have been a regular part of my diet.

Unlike my turbulent twenties and challenging thirties, life in my forties is pretty darn good. I am finally where I always wanted to be in my career. It just took twenty-five years of working hard and a bit of the luck of the Irish to get here, but here I am. My only child is nearing adulthood and hopefully will be soon on her way toward a successful young adulthood of her own. Retirement is on my distant horizon now. If my stars align correctly, it will begin in my late 50s. That certainly does not mean I will be ready for the old folk’s home, or even really retire. Instead, it is more likely I will begin a second career.

I do not remember it being this way. When I was a mere teen, 49 was old. I suspect I am as perceived to be just as ancient to today’s teens. Yet I simply do not feel like I look my age. I am by no means alone. I work in a building populated by forty and fifty somethings. We look good. Our skin may not be quite as tight as it was in our twenties, but for the most part, we are free of all but minor wrinkles on our faces. These midlife ladies breasts may sag a bit, but just a bit. In any event, there is always the wonder of the Wonderbra.

To some extent, we baby boomers succeed in masking many aspects of aging. Many women in my age group dye their hair or, just as importantly, pay top dollar for a top hair stylist. Others are liberal in their use of makeup; it hides their more prominent age spots. We dress (when we can) as we did in our early twenties. When I was a child, older men wore felt hats, pleated pants, shoes and suits around town, even when they were at leisure. Lounge around the house in blue jeans and sneakers? They would have none of it. Well, we will have none of their kind of middle age. Perhaps the time will come when we wear knee-high white socks, baggy shorts and garish tropical shirts, but not yet. Maybe at age 50 we will start playing out the idea in our minds. Not yet though.

Admittedly, there are signs that we are not immortal. Perhaps the most depressing of them is that our eyes do not have the flexibility and acuity of our youths. I have worn bifocals for most of my forties. I also have a set of reading glasses. Nevertheless, even there we have new options. Many of us choose progressive lenses. Others of us choose laser vision correction, which allow us to see even better than when they were youths. We live in something of a magic age where science and technology provides the illusion we need that, if we are not immortal, we have dramatically slowed down our entropic nature.

Though I would like to think of myself as in my prime, I am not. I hit the Gold’s Gym several times a week too. While there, I use a number of weight machines. I feel good about the weight lifting, even though it is hard work and often leaves my joints tender for a day or two. Then I have incidents that make me realize that although I am in good shape, I am cannot begin to compete with a teenager. For example, about a year ago, we brought home a used office-sized desk. It felt like it weighed a ton. Between my wife and me, we could barely get in into our house. Its destination was our loft. Try as we might between the two of us we could not move it more than a couple of stairs.

Enter Stephen, the teenager from two doors down. He is 17 and he is on the wrestling team at school. Lifting a desk? No problemo. While I lifted the bottom of the desk using all of my force, he pulled the upper part of the desk up the stairs and into our loft. He did not even work up a sweat. I sat there panting from the exertion. I was also a bit staggered by how strong the human body can be in its prime. I am in good shape for a 49-year-old dude, but he has twice my strength and agility, at least.

Fortunately, on most days I can still pretend and actually believe I have the strength, agility and good looks of my youth. It may be a necessarily illusion for me to successfully navigate through my forties. However, it does not matter. All that matters is how I feel. And I feel great.

Like waiting for the other shoe to drop, I keep waiting for real middle age to show itself. Perhaps with sufficiently positive thinking and self-brainwashing it never arrives.

I hope this illusion continues.

 
The Thinker

Don’t kill FEMA

A bipartisan Senate panel thinks that the only way to save the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is to kill it. That is right; put a stake through its heart. Senator Susan Collins (R-ME), chair of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee has been quoted as saying that FEMA is in shambles, beyond repair, and it needs to be abolished.

Over in the House of Representatives, House Transportation and Infrastructure chair Don Young (R-AK) has a completely different tack. He introduced a bill on May 9th to remove FEMA from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) entirely. Under his bill, FEMA would become a cabinet level government agency again. Not everyone in the House agrees, of course. A bill introduced by Dave Reichert (R-WA), chair of the House Homeland Security Emergency Preparedness Subcommittee, would keep FEMA where it is inside of DHS, but strengthen it.

There is no question that in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina last year, FEMA performed miserably. Here is it, nine months later, and it is hard to see much tangible progress rebuilding New Orleans. (Fortunately, other parts of the Gulf Coast are doing better.) New Orleans is a fraction of its former population. Most of those who left are unlikely to come back. The future Chocolate City, if it recovers, is more likely to resemble an Oreo Cookie.

Meanwhile, the 2006 hurricane season is almost upon us. I hope that during this season that there will not be so many hurricanes that we have to resort to the Greek alphabet again. Nonetheless, the upward trend in hurricanes (as well as other natural disasters) is worrisome. Our government needs to be much better prepared this year. It is hard to see how abolishing FEMA is going to improve the situation. Even a bad response to a major hurricane beats no response.

It is clear what went wrong with FEMA. First, against its wishes, it was absorbed into the new Department of Homeland Security. Second, its disaster preparedness budget was dramatically cut. Third, President Bush picked Michael Brown to run the agency. He came with the sterling qualifications of running the Arabian Horse Association. Fourth, FEMA was forced to take on new missions in national security for which it had no expertise.

Not surprisingly, FEMA quickly moved from one our most effective federal agencies to one of our most dysfunctional agencies. Knowing these major changes were no way to do disaster management, senior employees and critical knowledge workers grew disgusted and left. Among those who remained, morale plummeted. Meanwhile, at the nascent Department of Homeland Security, when they were not scurrying around trying to get a dozen agencies to dance together, they saw the threat of international terrorism as their top priority. FEMA’s natural disaster preparedness program got table scraps. Moreover, now it had to petition for the president’s ear through Michael Chertoff, the secretary of DHS.

This was not a palatable recipe for an agency that needed to be agile. Consequently, FEMA became a shadow of its former self. When Hurricane Katrina barreled into the Gulf Coast, it demonstrated that it no longer had the right resources to respond to major natural disasters.

From its formation in 1978 until it was absorbed into DHS, FEMA excelled at dealing with natural disasters. This is not to say they did not make their share of mistakes over the years. Any major disaster requires recovery time. Nevertheless, typically FEMA could be a major presence in a disaster zone within days of the natural disaster. They had food and bottled water distribution and the emergency shelter business down to a science. Living in disaster zones was not grand, but thanks to FEMA, it was bearable.

Killing FEMA makes no sense. Rather FEMA needs a little disaster help of its own. It needs funding and the right kind of leadership to regain its moorings. A former FEMA director would be a good transitionary choice for the agency. Instead of having to perform new missions, it needs to focus on being the agency that coordinates and provides initial relief for medium and large-scale natural disasters. Muddying its mission has proven disastrous.

In addition, since the president solemnly swears to protect the United States of America, FEMA needs cabinet level status again. Millions of people at risk from a natural disaster should not have to wait while an intermediary bureaucracy decides whether an event warrants presidential attention.

If FEMA is killed, something resembling it will doubtlessly be rebuilt. Since the number of disaster preparedness officials is a finite number, any new agency will probably have most of the same people who are already work for FEMA. It is likely though that as a new organization and chain of command is put in place, this new agency will in the short term become more ineffectual. Consequently, killing FEMA is likely to reduce our ability to respond to natural disasters. It seems unlikely that a new FEMA would perform better than the FEMA we knew and respected prior to its inclusion in DHS.

So do not kill it. The recipe is simple: put FEMA back the way it was in the 1990s. Pull it out of DHS. Put it back in the cabinet. Keep its mission focused on natural disaster readiness. Moreover, provide it with adequate funds to ensure it can respond to natural disasters that seem to be growing in size and complexity.

 
The Thinker

The honor never ends

There was no need to buy a Mother’s Day card this year. There was no mother to call on the phone today either. I am feeling a bit like Opus the penguin today. Maybe I should be spending $1.99 a minute on a Dial-a-Mom service. Nah, it would not be the same. Just as there is no place like home, there is no mother like your mother. One thing is for sure: my mother will not be opening any mother’s day cards this year. She passed away last November.

I do still have a mother in law, for which I am grateful. I am sure she is a terrific mother (although my wife might quibble) but she was of course not my mother. She came with the marriage and in the unlikely event that my marriage dissolves, she goes out with the marriage too. Moreover, unless I elect to travel 2500 miles to Phoenix, it is unlikely that I will see her. Nevertheless, I call her Mom. She seems to like it and it is an easy thing to do. I signed the card my wife picked out for her. As mothers in law go, she is better than most. Nevertheless, she is not my mother.

I do honor my wife on Mother’s Day, since she is the mother to our fabulous daughter. I usually buy my wife a card for Mother’s Day, and do her chores. Yet this year it skipped my mind, probably because I did not need to buy one for my mother. What my wife really wants for Mother’s Day is downtime and a foot rub at bedtime. That is easy enough to accommodate.

That is not to say that I did not honor my mother at all. Mother’s Day weekend is an appropriate time to pay a visit to her grave. My father and I contributed plenty of fresh flowers for the cistern on her grave. With luck, they may look good for a week or so. We actually did our duty a day early. The Saturday before Mother’s Day is a popular day at the cemetery, yet I suspect it will be even more jammed today. For a while there I felt we needed to take a number. My mother will have to forgive our flower arrangement. There were no women present to artfully arrange them. We did the best that two heterosexual men with engineering mentalities could do. I brought yellow tulips; yellow was my mother’s favorite color.

It is entirely possible that with my mother dead that she will “see” more of me now that when she was alive. When she was alive, she was hundreds of miles away, and not easily accessible by either airplane or car. At best, I visited her annually. Now her cremains are interred in the Gate of Heaven Catholic Cemetery in Aspen Hill, Maryland. Visiting her grave means crossing the Potomac River, not the Appalachian Mountains. The cemetery is not too much out of my way when I go that way, so I suspect I should be able to pay my respects at least once a quarter. I will be one of many people helping to keep the floral industry in business.

In her last year of life, she seemed to want rest more than anything else, for her disease meant that sleep often alluded her. There is no doubt that her cremains will remain at rest. Yesterday was the exception. It was almost lively with all the visitors at the cemetery. Peace is one of the cemetery’s key attributes. If you like meditation, a cemetery seems an appropriate place to visit. It is a good place not only to pay your respects to loved ones, but also to contemplate your own mortality. It does not take too many minutes of contemplation though before further contemplation becomes challenging. When surrounded by death on all sides, all one can really say about death is that it is. It is beyond argument or dispute. Rather than be the creepy place imagined in horror movies, cemeteries are spots of utter tranquility in an otherwise restless world. If I craved tranquility in order to get some sleep, I suspect sleeping in a cemetery would have me sleeping like a baby.

Some part of me though does wonder why I go and pay my respects. Exactly who and what am I respecting? What is left of my mother is a box of ash a few feet underground. I am too secular to believe that her spirit hovers above my shoulders when I visit. Thus far visiting my mother’s grave has neither made me mourn nor feel wistful. However, I do feel a certain sense of the sacred with each visit. While my mother’s spirit may well still be around, it cannot be geographically located. Her grave though is a physical place where what is left of her physical body remains.

The meaning of my mother’s life, like birth and death, is shrouded in mystery. Like most mothers, my mother was a nurturer. She provided a foundation and an infrastructure that I took for granted growing up. With an adult perspective, I understand just how much her commitment to her children really meant. It meant giving up her future so we could have a future. It meant millions of carefully prepared meals, thousands of diaper changes, and hundreds of visits to the pediatrician and emergency room. It meant a clean house, laundered sheets, picnics, recitals, science fairs, movies and watching bad family television together on Friday nights. It also of course meant hugs, kisses and caresses. I gave her lots of “go power”. For twenty-five years or so, we largely consumed her life.

All this so many of us could raise similarly talented children with good values, so we could have interesting jobs, enriched lives and make our marks on the world. For all that to happen though she first had to be there for us. It was a Herculean effort, but one at which she met the challenge, not just for me, but also for my seven other siblings. She did it without so much as getting to put one contribution into her 401-K. Her rewards were to be intangible.

That is why I still honor her. For I was launched into this world on her mighty shoulders. I could now be miserable. I could now be impoverished. I could now be dysfunctional. Heck, I could now be dead too. That none of these things have happened I can largely attribute to my mother. That is why although she is not around she is still a daily presence in my life. No gift that I could give her could come close to what she gave me.

Thanks Mom. Rest assured that as long as I am alive, you will never be forgotten. There is no card for you this year, but I still honor you on Mother’s Day, and will every Mother’s Day for the rest of my life.

 
The Thinker

Idling our Male Engines

(Warning: adult content. Reader discretion is advised, whatever that means.)

When you read the Washington Post Style section, you learn to take what you read with a grain of salt. If I am to take the article Cupid’s Broken Arrow by Laura Sessions Stepp in Sunday’s Washington Post at face value, male impotence is an emerging problem on college campuses. I must say the article certainly got my attention, as well as the attention of I am sure every male Washington Post reader out there. It is almost enough to have us rush to our doctors for an emergency prescription of Viagra. After all, if young men cannot get their wood up, what does that mean to us middle age guys at age 49? Is it time to have a penile implant installed?

Okay, on closer examination the article discusses just a few brave men who are having this problem on campus. In other words, it is anecdotal, not a based on any scientific study. This is probably just as well. Still, I remember being nineteen and on a college campus. My hormone levels could not have been any higher. Even ugly women were looking good. Any available woman would have done. There were of course a few problems. I was shy. In addition, the women were not putting out. That is not to say that no women were putting out. However, those that were did not seem to want to have anything to do with me. I was not enough of an alpha male for their tastes. I still had pimples and even worse, braces. If I had a problem in that department at that tender age, it would have been premature ejaculation.

That was then. While I had hoped the women of my generation were all sexually liberated, the reality was quite different on my campus. The women I wanted in the worst way were of course the most inaccessible. There were two cute single and blondish foxes across the street from me who were getting education degrees. They went to their Methodists church on Sundays and stayed to teach Sunday school. Therefore, it was up to my roommate Howard to show me a good time. This meant taking me into Orlando to a placed called “The Booby Trap”. There attractive but nonetheless dispassionate topless dancers performed lap dances and rubbed their breasts on my chests while I tried to drink the world’s most watered down wine spritzers.

If I am to take Ms. Stepp at her word though, most women on campus today are sexually aggressive. They do not need a Sadie Hawkins Dance in order to take the initiative with a man. If they like you, they are not afraid to show it. If they want to make love to you, they will be doing the unbuttoning. This is apparently a problem for many college men these days. Maybe their resulting impotence comes from all those lectures in high school about the necessity of abstinence before marriage. On the other hand, maybe they are just not that into the women who are pursing them, but have not learned how to say no. For whatever reason, the erotic connection fails them and suddenly they are half the man they thought they were.

The article speculates that men may need to be the pursuers in order for the mind-body connection to manifest itself in an erection. For sex to work, it may be necessary for the woman to play hard to get. For men, the real turn on may not be sliding into that lubricated home plate, but running the bases. It may be that for men to function below the belt, sex has to be hard to get.

Now if you had told me that at age nineteen, I would have been on the floor laughing. However, as I am middle aged now, I am of a more accommodating frame of mind. Because one of the sad passages during middle age for most men are bouts of impotence. Few of us get through middle age without at least one experience with it. Billions have been made selling us erectile dysfunction drugs so that we can still perform with the stamina we felt in our pimply faced youth. (In truth though, just the idea of Bob Dole getting it on at his age leaves us feeling a bit nauseous. So we are thinking maybe at age eighty permanent impotence is a blessing, rather than a curse.)

Still, there is something deeply unnatural about a young man, his blood still pumped up with testosterone, being unable to make the grade in the bedroom for whatever reason. For at that age, as much as we might hesitate to admit it later, being a stud comes more naturally to us than being a human being with these, well, feelings. So naturally other culprits are suspected. Booze. Drugs. Too much late night partying. What else could it possibly be? At age nineteen, had I had the nerve, I would have been a big lady pleaser at Plato’s Retreat.

Now in my extremely late forties, I am finding that sexually I have more in common with young women of nineteen then young men of nineteen. It used to be that sex was like drinking water, and you could not live without water. Now I am more discriminating. Do I feel like having sex today? Maybe and maybe not. The latter can become a problem, since women tend to peak sexually in their early forties. It is likely that this role reversal that has us nervously running to our doctors for Viagra prescriptions. Yet, even erectile dysfunction drugs will not work if the man is not aroused. Increasingly, we men are asking what’s in it for me? Oh yeah, there is the sex part. Moreover, it sure feels good. However, it is not as if we have not slid into home plate many, many times before. It is not as if sex is necessarily a need anymore. It may be a want. We may want to watch Monday Night Football instead.

Maybe that is the part of the problem with older men and sexual dysfunction. If what turns us on is the chase, and we are in a long term, committed and monogamous marriage, there is not much chasing to do. Our wives might have a headache, or be going through an interminable change of life, or have other issues putting them out of commission. However, most of the time they are reasonably available. Since we are experts at pressing their buttons, it is easy for the chase to become perfunctory. Running around the bases is often not necessary and if we do, it can feel perfunctory too. Eventually, unless you and your spouse are quite creative, sex can become both enjoyable yet a bit boring.

Perhaps that is why at some point married couples just give sex up altogether. I would hope I would not do this, but the older I get the easier it is to imagine. Sex is, after all, both pleasurable and complicated at the same time. When you are nineteen, having sex is like being in a car with eight cylinders and an accelerator with a hair trigger. At 49, the car has a few dents, and the engine needs a tune up. If stepping on the accelerator eventually moves the car forward, you feel grateful. If from time to time the engine stalls, well, you have to expect that from an older car.

Therefore, more and more of us pass the Viagra. It is like slipping some STP into the gas tank. We often wonder though if what would really please our midlife engines would be to take our engine for a test drive on some different roads. We are not entirely sure though whether our engines would take us down that road even if we want them too. So maybe it is better to keep idling the engine. Or, since the needle is starting to point to E, maybe it makes sense to just turn off the engine until there is a need drive somewhere.

 

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