Archive for April, 2008

The Thinker

McCain’s health care non-solution

Presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain is in the news today. He unveiled his comprehensive health care proposal: a $2500 tax credit for individuals and a $5000 tax credit for families to allow them to buy the health insurance plan of their choice. He believes that with such an approach that competition and the free market will make health care affordable so we can all be insured.

If men are from Mars and women are from Venus, Republicans like McCain must be from Pluto. It is amazing that reporters do not laugh him off the podium. McCain is not the first Republican to advance such a free market non-solution to our health care crisis. His proposal though is truly worthy of derision.

First, his plan is hazy on what to do with people with pre-existing conditions. He wants states to form insurance pools for these people, but his plan does not require any insurance company to be non-discriminatory. He also allows people to continue with their employer-based health insurance if they want. However, his plan would give employers incentive to ditch their health insurance plans altogether. Why should they pay for health care costs when the government will instead?

So assuming you do not have health insurance and an insurer will agree to sell you a health care plan then after your tax credit you will have to pay all the excess premiums, deductibles and co-pays. Naturally, your premiums will tend to be higher if you are older, have unhealthy habits or have a history of chronic health problems. I did price individual health plans on this web site. I checked plans in my zip code for a hypothetical couple age 40. The only plan I could find without any deductible was a plan with the HMO Kaiser Permanente. It costs $542 a month, limits you to their physicians and comes with a $20 co-pay any time you want to see a doctor. Generic drugs come with a $10 co-pay. Brand name drugs come with a $30 co-pay. So assuming you never see a doctor or take any medicines then after your tax credit you and your spouse will still have to pay $1504 a year. You can expect that as you age your premiums will go up. How much? If the same couple were 50 years old, they would have to cough up $872 a month, or $5464 after their tax credit.

Most likely, you have other bills to pay. You would want to reduce premiums and pay a yearly deductible instead. What is out there? Blue Cross/Blue Shield would be preferred. A 40-year-old couple would pay $259 a month for a plan with a $1000 a year deductible with an Anthem BC/BS plan. Unless you see the same doctor more than three times, co-pays are $30 a visit. If you see someone out of the network, the insurance company will pay 70% of what it considers a reasonable and customary fee. If your out of network doctor charges you $125, you file for reimbursement and your insurer considers $75 reasonable and customary, your costs come to $22.50 plus the amount over $75, or $72.50 a visit. This is of course after you have satisfied your annual deductible. If you see one of their preferred doctors then you just pay the co-pay. However, you may find, as I have, that a family member needs faster or better care than what you can get through a preferred provider. This plan costs $3108 a year if you never get sick or never need a prescription drug. In theory, you and your wife could pocket close to $2000 a year. If you are like most of us and get more than the sniffles once a year, you can probably add on that $1000 deductible, plus other co-pays for prescriptions. It’s hard to imagine that a tax credit will cover your health costs. If you and your spouse are age 50, the price rises to $333 a month.

Who is not paying? If you take the tax credit, your employer is not paying anything. Perhaps the money they might have spent to subsidize your health insurance will go to giving you a higher salary, but I would not hold your breath. Anyhow, I suspect the optimal cases I outlined are not close to your situation and you will need more health care. If I had to guess, I would guess that a typical family would be out $5000 to $10,000 a year on health care costs after their tax credit. I bet this is where most of us are at right now. In short, it will not necessarily improve your bottom line at all. Nor does it do anything to address the problem of rising health insurance. All this free market ideology sounds great but if it is so great why has it not worked so far? The same health insurance companies we have today are going to be offering roughly the same insurance they do now under McCain’s plan. By that time, of course it will be pricier.

Moreover, the older you get the more expensive insurance will become. You can try buying a less expensive health care plan, if you can find one, but health insurance is like sitting on a beanbag chair. If you pay a smaller premium, you get astronomical deductibles or unacceptable conditions and exclusions instead. It could mean, for example, that you cannot get the kind of health care you need when you need it, such as an organ transplant.

McCain’s health care plan also begs the question of how the tax credit will be paid for. He has already ruled out raising any new taxes. In fact, he wants to keep the tax cuts for the wealthy that he once denounced. It would probably help if we got out of Iraq but he has been quoted as saying he would be fine if we stayed there a hundred years. Even if we did get out of Iraq, the government would still be spending hundreds of billions of dollars a year more than it receives in revenues. Consequently, the cost of this health care tax credit would likely come from borrowed money. In some of my earlier blog posts, I pointed out that when the government borrows money from foreigners the effect is inflationary. It explains part of the high cost of commodities like gasoline. McCain talks about finding savings by cutting the size of government. However, every president these days says he will do it and none of them has yet succeeded. In any event, the real cost of government is not in running agencies like HHS or even the Pentagon. That’s pocket change. It is in programs considered largely untouchable, like Medicare, Medicaid and agricultural subsidies. The closest modern president to constrain the size of government was a Democrat: William Jefferson Clinton.

Clearly, this proposal is just more smoke and mirrors, providing the illusion that health care can be made affordable with doing nothing to address the underlying problems causing costs to spiral.

What will work? Many first world countries have nationalized health insurance. They offer universal quality health insurance and are doing it for a fraction of what we pay. If you have the time, you should watch Frontline’s Sick Around the World. You can watch the entire show on your computer. Washington Post Reporter T.R. Reid goes for Frontline to the United Kingdom, Japan, Switzerland, Germany and Taiwan to see how these countries provide universal health insurance. The mechanics of course vary by country, but it is clear that not all solutions require turning all health care professionals into civil servants or under-compensating physicians and health care professionals. I found Japan’s approach the most interesting. We could pick any of these models, have high quality and universal health insurance and pay considerably less per capita than we are currently paying, all without ever worrying about whether we could afford it.

Or we could put yet another Band-Aid on the problem, keep letting costs spiral out of control and believe that we can really cover everyone with tax credits, which is John McCain’s “solution” to our health care problem.

The Thinker

Review: The Forbidden Kingdom

It may not be summer yet, but there is mindless summer-like entertainment in the movie theaters, if you look for it. One movie that definitely qualifies and which I saw over the weekend is The Forbidden Kingdom, yet another martial arts movie but with an American flavor.

A proper martial arts movie must have a martial arts star or two in it, and this one comes with Jackie Chan. His selection may be appropriate because Enter the Dragon (1973) was arguably the first American made martial arts movie blockbuster, and Chan starred in it. Here Chan plays two roles. First, he plays a very old man who runs a Boston Chinatown pawnshop specializing in Kung Fu films. A somewhat obsessed American teenager named Jason (Michael Angarano) haunts his shop for obscure Kung Fu DVDs. While Jason would like to be a kung fu phenomenon, in fact he would have trouble mastering the Macarena. He is easily pushed around by bullies, who use his friendship with the pawnshop owner as way to execute a robbery of his store.

The pawnshop owner Old Hop just happens to have a very cool fighting stick in the back room that is seeking a way of getting back to its rightful owner in China. Jason tries to use it to defend himself in a fight. By doing so, he is suddenly transported back to China at some indeterminate time in the past. There he encounters Lu Yan (Jackie Chan), an aging kung fu expert, who just fortunately happens to speak English as a second language. When Lu Yan sees his fighting stick, he realizes it is the fighting stick of the legendary Monkey King, who apparently turned himself into stone some centuries back to avoid losing a fight. Jason does not quite realize it when he first arrives, but he has to bring the stick back to its master so The Monkey King can be resurrected and, coincidentally, he can get back to Boston. Needless to say there are plenty of others along the way who also want his fighting stick and they do not ask nicely for it. Lu Yan has the unfortunate job of trying to turn Jason into the Kung Fu master he always wanted to be. Given his ineptness, it seems an impossible task.

So this movie is yet another heroic quest movie with yet another implausible plot. Nevertheless, for Kung Fu addicts, it delivers plenty of martial arts as well as plenty of fighting moves that seem to defy the laws of gravity and which were doubtless executed with plenty of piano wire. In that sense, it is a bit like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon just of course not nearly as good. It is also a movie that does not take itself very seriously. A Kung Fu movie must come with a fighting chick and potential love interest, and this one includes Yifei Liu as Golden Sparrow who follows Jason and Lu Yan on this improbable adventure.

Sadly, I do not have much of an appreciation for Kung Fu movies but of those that I have seen this one seems average. There are many, many fights in this movie, which is fine because what plot exists is very thin so you might as well fill the time in with fights and special effects. It is all choreographed quite competently. You may find yourself like me and after the first ten minutes or so of fighting find it all rolls right over you. Thus, you may find yourself fighting sleep. I never quite nodded off though because there was enough humor in it to keep me reasonably engaged.

If you are looking to spend about two hours on a movie that will take your mind off more pressing earthbound issues like high gas prices or the skyrocketing cost of food, this movie will probably do the job. If you enjoy watching the martial arts, you will find even more to enjoy in this movie.

For me this movie while it has some humorous moments came across as largely vapid and formulaic. Since it was clear that Jason was going to succeed in overcoming evil, there was nothing resembling suspense. Clearly, you do not expect blockbusters movies in April, and this one does not come close to being in the blockbuster category. For April you could do a lot worse than The Forbidden City. Likely, you could do a lot better too.

2.7 on my 4.0 scale.

The Thinker

Trapped in exurbia

As a part time prognosticator, I sometimes get it wrong. Sometimes I get it right. When I get it right, it is not necessarily a reason for feeling smug. Today, I reread this post that I wrote back in 2005. I wrote it when the oil squeeze was just beginning. I remarked how uncomfortable I felt seeing new exurbias sprouting up in nearby Loudoun County, Virginia because virtually all of them are inaccessible to public transportation. I wondered what would happen to these communities with continued increases in price of oil or its unavailability.

Now we are finding out, and the answer is scary, as this NPR story reports. Ashburn, Virginia is in Loudon County, Virginia and part of the greater Washington D.C. metropolitan area. It is one of those newly built exurbias. What is happening in Ashburn is that home prices are tumbling much faster than the national average.

Realtor Danilo Bogdanovic surveyed two rows of neat, new, brick townhouses on Falkner’s Lane. “These were selling for about $550,000 at the peak, which was about August ’05, and they’re selling right now for about $350,000,” Bogdanovic said. “Fifty percent of this community has been ether foreclosed on or is facing foreclosure.”

Coincidentally, my hair stylist lives in Ashburn. Today while she was cutting my hair, we were chatting about high gas prices. If she and her husband had to do it over again, she said, they would have never moved to Ashburn. Their gas prices are driving a big dent in their budget. Yet, I learned, moving in closer was not an option. They would lose too much money, because their house was worth less than they paid for it. If her house is on Falkner’s Lane, I can understand why she would feel blue, since she might now own a house worth $200,000 less than what she paid for it.

What might turn things around? As I implied back in 2005, some public transportation might help. That is not to say that it doesn’t exist in Loudoun County, but it is very limited and assumes you commute to work in Washington, D.C. A resident of Ashburn could drive or bike to the Dulles North Transportation Center and from there take an express bus into Washington D.C. This bus is not cheap. It costs $6.00 each way with a smart card, or $7.00 if you pay cash.

What would someone in Ashburn do if they needed to commute to some other job center like Tyson’s Corner? Perhaps they could catch another bus at the West Falls Church Metro Station, where the bus stops on its way into Washington. What if they need to take public transportation to go to a doctor’s office in Reston, Virginia? It might be technically possible at certain times of the day, if they can make it work with the commuter bus schedule and make their bus transfers on time. What if they need to take public transportation to go to the grocery store? As best I can tell, there are no such routes. Even if routes were put into place, given that Ashburn is such a sprawled out community they might have to walk a mile or more just to get to a bus stop.

For all practical purposes, residents of Ashburn are stuck. Owning a car is required to live there. Their lifestyle is held hostage by the price of oil. Oil prices may seem astronomical, but they are fortunate that gas is available at any price. Without it, Ashburn would become a gigantic modern ghost town. Combine rising oil prices with a falling dollar and the negative net worth of so many residents of Ashburn and you end up with houses that are worth $200,000 less than they were just three years ago. You have whole communities of people with negative equities in their houses, unable to move and who are one job loss away from financial catastrophe.

My own house is about three miles away from Reston. Reston is a major source of employment and has thousands of great jobs for knowledge workers. In the unlikely event that you lose your job at one company in Reston, you can probably pick another one like it somewhere else in Reston. A Fairfax Connector bus serves my neighborhood, but it operates during rush hours only. However, my house is just three to five miles away from thousands of jobs, not ten or fifteen miles away like in Ashburn. Where I live, you can probably get to your job without a car if needed. I bicycle to work, which is three miles away, three or four days a week. Consequently, gas prices affect me much less than most commuters. Yet even if I worked downtown, I still would not be too badly inconvenienced. I could bike to the Herndon Monroe Park and Ride, which is also three miles away, or grab the 929 bus, which runs by a road a few hundred feet from my door. Once at the Herndon Monroe Park and Ride there are plentiful express buses that will take me to the West Falls Church Metro station. From there I can get to any place on the Metro system. If I needed to take a bus to nearby Reston, Herndon, or even some of the local malls, I can transfer at the Herndon Monroe Park and Ride. Obviously, I could get to these places more quickly by car, but it is possible. The same cannot necessarily be said about communities like Ashburn.

My neighborhood is not immune to the real estate slowdown either. Our house has lost about $75,000 in value since its 2005 peak. However, that is $75,000 though, not $200,000. There are plenty of houses for sale on my street, virtually all in excellent condition. We live in a terrific family neighborhood where owners take pride in their houses. I suggested to my stylist that they should move to a house on my street. She would be two miles from work so the cost of gasoline would be insignificant. However, with the negative equity in her house, moving is out of the question. Where would she and her husband find the money to pay off their loan on closing?

I do not think these underlying dynamics are likely to change. We are at the beginning of a fundamental transformation of America. This means our love affair with the automobile is likely to change dramatically. At best, I expect oil prices will stay about where they are now. Therefore, for many homeowners out in exurbia the financial squeeze, already bad, is likely to get much more painful. The long-term trends though are clear. Unless you can work from your home or can find employment close by that pays your bills, do not buy in the exurbia. If you are in the exurbia and can move in close, this is the time to do it.

Housing prices are down substantially in good neighborhoods like mine that are close to jobs and public transportation. Because prices are down and mortgages are very affordable, now is an excellent time to buy in these neighborhoods. It may not be easy to sell your current house, but as I learned in 1993 if you lower the price enough you can sell any house. You can buy a better and closer house at a substantial discount and be primed for appreciation during this seismic realignment of society. In addition, selection is plentiful.

To the many residents of Ashburn and similar far-flung communities who are feeling the squeeze, you have my sympathy. If I lived in Ashburn, I would still move closer in if I could find a way. The long-term housing dynamics for Ashburn and places like it look dismal. You may find yourself inhabiting a modern ghost town.

The Thinker

Taking pleasure in hand

(Warning: This blog entry is rated R.)

We are told that if something is too good to be true, it is. There is no such thing as a calorie free brownie. We wanted to believe we could eat potato chips made with Olestra and never get fat. Even if the fat passes through you, you still absorb the carbohydrate calories. Moreover, this manufactured non-absorbent fat gives many people abdominal cramping and loose stools.

We court our spouses anticipating that they are our perfect mental, emotional and sexual match. Typically we do not discover until sometime after we are married that they have as many faults and foibles as we do. We men want to have sex on demand with them, but quickly learn that except for a freakish few of them and certainly no one you would happen to marry (although during courtship you may be misled), women don’t work that way. Moreover, women have this inconvenient time of the month when they are sexually out of commission. Should our wives or girlfriends turn into sexual ice cubes, we must weigh the potential consequences on being non-monogamous like sexually transmitted diseases and frying pans flying at us from across the kitchen. Use a condom and sex is suddenly 30% as pleasurable as it could be. Regardless of the pitch, we have learned through bitter experience that somewhere in the fine print is a gotcha. If we knew about it going in, we might have avoided the pleasurable activity altogether.

Not any more, I am happy to say, at least if you are a man. There is definitely at least one activity in life where you can truly have your cake and eat it too. This is absolutely true if I am to believe this article and since I found it on Yahoo News then it must be true. This activity that is both exquisitely fun and pleasurable. The more you do it, the healthier you are likely to be. It is not only completely harmless but also is good for your health. One small side effect is that it does have a tendency to be a bit messy. We are talking about that often lifetime habit of men married and single which can be as addictive as cocaine and just as fun: masturbation.

Frequent masturbation may help men cut their risk of contracting prostate cancer, Australian researchers have found. It is believed that carcinogens may build up in the prostate if men do not ejaculate regularly, BBC News reported on Wednesday. The researchers surveyed more than 1,000 men who had developed prostate cancer, and 1,250 men who had not. They found that men who had ejaculated the most between the ages of 20 and 50 were the least likely to get cancer. Men who ejaculated more than five times each week were a third less likely to develop prostate cancer.

This is exciting news for both men and pimply faced boys across the world. No longer do you need to feel that your secret vice is sinful. Now it is healthy. When I was growing up, if you could muster the courage, you would confess your masturbation habit to your local parish priest. I never did, of course, but I strongly suspect saying three Hail Marys would not absolve me of my sin. I am confident that my priest would have prayed to Jesus so that I would avoid the near occurrence of this dreadful sin. Perhaps times have changed in the last forty years. However, I also know that there are few things that the Catholic Church is more obsessed over that the sanctity of life. We are supposed to prolong our lives as much as humanly possible. Since prostate cancer is almost universal in men that reach a certain age, we now have a safe way to significantly lower our risks and it is completely drug free! Yes, it is time to get out the Penthouse, head to the bathroom five or more times a week and beat off. By doing so, we cut our risk of prostate cancer by up to a third.

Our wives might prefer that we make love to them five or more times a week rather than masturbate. That suits me fine, but I confess at age 51 I am not entirely sure I could partake in such an intimately pleasurable act five or more times a week for weeks on end. Actually, I am not sure even that with lots of glossy Playboys, Penthouses and even saucy Penthouse Forum Variations whether I could feel quite that sexual over the course of the week. Yet it sounds like I should try this therapy. If my wife is not in the mood, well, excuse me dear while I head to the bathroom or shut the bedroom door while I get off. Doctor’s orders.

I have no idea how much it costs to treat prostate cancer, but I bet it is expensive and scary as hell. I know prostate cancer is a very slow growing cancer. I know we all have to die of something. I also know one of the frequent side effects of removal of the prostate is impotence, although frequent loss of urinary control that also occurs does not sound appealing either. So why take the chance? Better to find some ready pornography and maybe prevent this cancer from occurring altogether.

There may even be some taxable benefits. If the dirty magazines weren’t cutting it, maybe my doctor would prescribe the Real Doll™. According to their web site, I can select from ten bodies, my choice of eye color and even select my doll’s preferred pubic hair style. Moreover, I can guarantee you that I never knew a woman in the biblical sense who came anywhere close to being attractive as these dolls. If I get sick of the same face, well apparently you can order extra faces with your Real Doll™. The standard female is only $6,499 plus shipping and handling, but at least it would be tax deductible. It has to be less costly than prostate surgery.

Somehow, I suspect the Catholic Church would find something sinful in my suggestions. By blogging about this I am probably sinning because I am inspiring lust. Perhaps if I saved my lust for marriage rather than masturbated during my teenage years like every other boy with hands was doing it would have made my wife that much hornier for my body. Consequently, we could procreate more children and bring more souls to God. Even my priest might have to concede the validity of this latest medical research.

No matter. While I was raised a Catholic, that was then. Now I am a free agent spiritually. I am generally cautious by nature but if my doctor tells me that masturbation is safe and news reports like this one tell me it is not only safe, but healthy, I’m in.

Now excuse me, I need a little privacy.

The Thinker

The scourge of faux patriotism

Apparently, the latest thing in political correctness, at least among politicians on Capitol Hill, is to wear an American flag pin attached to the left lapel of your suit.

Yep, it seems like all you have to do is pierce that flag pin through your lapel and your patriotism will never be questioned. Go ahead. Spend your weekends funneling money to terrorist organizations or building explosive suicide belts in your basement. It doesn’t matter you see because by wearing the pin that proves you are a true patriot. It’s Washington’s version of a “Get out of Jail Free” card. It’s like having Uncle Sam behind you with a hand on your left shoulder and Betsy Ross with a hand on your right shoulder. Don’t you dare question my patriotism, boy! Can’t you see I’m wearing an American flag pin?

Most of us with brain matter realize flag pins say zero about your patriotism. Astoundingly, a sizeable number of people, particularly on Capitol Hill and in the right wing media actually think that the absence of a flag suggests that you are unpatriotic. Sadly, this says volumes about the state of patriotism in our country. Many can no longer detect the real thing when they see it. Really, it’s time to give these people some emergency oxygen because they are starting to hallucinate. I always thought that saying you are patriotic and actually being patriotic were two different things. But I guess I must have been raised by godless, left wing commies.

Really, I could care less whether a politician wears a flag pin since it means nothing, nothing! However, I am interested in knowing what actions during the course of a politician’s life they can point to that demonstrates their patriotism.

To me the most patriotic thing anyone can do is fight for our country. John McCain fought for our country as part of what turned out to be a wholly misguided war in Vietnam. He was held as a prisoner of war by the North Vietnamese, who abused and tortured him over many years. While I did not agree with the war, I honor and respect John McCain’s patriotism. Unquestionably, John McCain is a patriot. The same is true with John Kerry. Granted not all soldiers put their lives in danger but those that do unequivocally demonstrate their patriotism, even if sometimes they do not feel particularly patriotic for having done so. Anyone who would criticize John McCain or John Kerry’s patriotism because they do not wear an American flag lapel pin is a damned fool.

Clearly, there are ways to demonstrate patriotism other than becoming a soldier. Our government’s efforts in the wake of Hurricane Katrina may have been half-hearted, but ordinary citizens by the thousands showed their patriotism. They spent time, effort and money going to the Gulf Coast to help in its rebuilding, a process that is still underway nearly three years later. I gave money for rebuilding, which did not feel particularly patriotic but was expeditious. My friend Renee’s son spent a year working for Americorps including some months in and around New Orleans rebuilding housing. He invested a year of his life helping his fellow citizens. He is a patriot.

In the recent ABC News debate, Barack Obama pointed to his work in the Senate on legislation for veterans as one way that he demonstrated patriotism. No, Obama never served in the armed forces. However, after graduating from law school he did make the choice to foreswear a more lucrative and moneyed life in favor of community organizing. He certainly had the talent to be a six-figure lawyer. Instead, he chose civic engagement, initially through community organizing and later by spending eight years in the Illinois Senate and subsequently the U.S. Senate. He and his wife carried the burden of their student loans into their forties. He might still be paying off his student loans had he not written a few best selling and not so best selling books.

To me Obama’s patriotism is beyond dispute. So why are some, including many in the press, obsessed that he only sporadically wears an American flag lapel pin? It beats the hell out of me. Frankly, it says much more about their character than it does about Obama’s. It’s like, “What was all that other stuff he was doing since he graduated if not an expression of patriotism?” Community organizing to better the lives of the working poor is no more patriotic than shuffling papers for well moneyed clients at expensive Manhattan law firms?

As I once noted, beliefs are irrelevant. I could believe I am a patriot, but if I do not demonstrate my beliefs in time, effort and money then patriotism simply amount to beliefs. Actions however matter very much because through action we change the course of events. How you choose to spend your time provides all the insight you need into someone’s character.

It appears to some that unless your actions conform to some strange right-winger’s idea of patriotism then you are not really a patriot. It is curious that many of those criticizing Senator Obama and others for not wearing an American flag lapel pin have done little to nothing to demonstrate their patriotism other than wave the flag. Few of the people who led us into an unnecessary war with Iraq served in our armed forces. President Bush served in the Texas Air National Guard but it was widely understood that he did so in order to avoid being drafted. He ended up in the Texas Air National Guard only because of his father’s influence. Vice President Cheney had “other priorities” during the Vietnam War. He successfully dodged five draft attempts using educational deferments. Condoleeza Rice never came close to serving in the military. Richard Perle, who served on the Defense Advisory Board, which advocated the war, never served in the military. Nor did his special assistant Douglas Feith, who ran the Defense Department’s controversial Office of Special Plans, which advocated for the war. Most of those who shrilly promoted the war for the media did not serve either. Rush Limbaugh managed to attain 4-F draft status based on a football knee injury. Many of those who had, such John Kerry and Colin Powell, were at least grounded in the magnitude of these actions, and worked to prevent them.

While I find much to admire about the United States, I also find much about it that appalls and disgusts me. These include our bloated defense budget and our tendency to use guns instead of diplomacy to solve our international problems. I certainly feel like a stakeholder of my country, as I was born here and will probably die here. While I have and will keep working to make this country a better place, I am also concerned about the world as a whole. I see little value in xenophobic patriotism.

Nonetheless, I do occasionally feel patriotic. I do not wear an American flag lapel pin, but I feel fine putting our flag out on major national holidays. I can get misty when I hear the nation anthem played even though, frankly, it is poor choice for a national anthem. (Why not “America the Beautiful”?) I do take pride in our military, which is the best trained and equipped in the world. I am grateful for competence and professionalism of our military and deeply respect those who serve for our country. I am not naïve. I realize that it is due to our military that our homeland has remained at peace since the Civil War. I am not naïve enough to think we do not need a military. I certainly do not ascribe to the slogan, “My country, right or wrong”. My patriotism informs me that when my country is wrong, I have the duty to make it right.

Which brings up something else that annoys me about these lapel pins. The real statement is that unless patriotism is reflexive, it is not real. If you are not a mouth organ for the state, particularly at a time of national crisis, you are not patriotic. Capitol Hill was awash with faux patriots in the days after 9/11. Politicians overwhelmingly marched in goosestep with the President when he said we had to invade Iraq. I did not. I worked like hell to prevent this war.

A few politicians at the time bravely said no, this is a war we should not start. He was just a state senator at the time, but Barack Obama stood and spoke at a public antiwar rally and spoke out against this war. In doing so, he demonstrated that he is a true patriot.

The Thinker

Review: Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)

As regular readers know, I am definitely not the sort who likes bloody and gross movies. That was one reason I avoided seeing Sweeney Todd in the theater, despite its rave reviews. Somehow all that blood didn’t seem in the holiday spirit. Sometimes though you have to grit your teeth (or in my case, fuzz my eyes during the worst parts) and watch a movie that otherwise obviously has plenty of merit. With renowned actor Johnny Depp playing the role of Sweeney Todd, plus a host of first rate familiar and not so familiar actors (including Alan Rickman as Judge Turpin and Sacha Baron Cohen as Pirelli), it was a movie unlikely to disappoint. It also helped that my 18-year-old daughter Rosie was a big fan of both Depp and the movie and had recently purchased the DVD.

Also providing impetus to view the movie was the reputation of its director: Tim Burton. Burton and Depp are quite a duo. It seems that Burton wants to cast Depp into all of his movies. Their relationship is now at least eighteen years old, when Burton first cast Depp in his breakout role of Edward Scissorhands. I correctly suspected I would need more than a few Rolaids to make it through Sweeney Todd.

Some of the violence is definitely cartoonish while others were too explicit for either my taste or my stomach. Fortunately, this is the kind of movie where you have a good idea when someone is about to die, since they have to be sitting in Sweeney Todd’s barbershop chair. Todd’s shop is conveniently located on the floor above Mrs. Lovett’s meat pie shop where she markets third class meat pies. I suspect you already know the gist of the plot. There is no point in filling up those pies with meat from dead cats when the psycho barber upstairs can provide a convenient fresh set of corpses, all for ready butchering.

The story of the demon barber of Fleet Street goes back to 1846 when this gruesome story was first published in serial form. It was likely written by the English author James Malcolm Rymer. Most Americans learned of Sweeney Todd from its musical adoption. Stephen Sondheim composed the lyrics and music to the highly successful Broadway musical, where it first arrived in 1979. Tim Burton’s task was to translate this successful and often performed musical to the big screen.

While I have yet to see Sweeney Todd in the theater, I can confidently say that I would be more comfortable with the musical on stage. On the stage, any depicted violence would be much less realistic and I would be much further removed from the action. Of course, in a movie the camera gives you an intimacy you cannot get in a theater. When necessary, which is too often for my tastes, Tim Burton is quite willing to let you see the gore first hand. This includes graphic shots of corpses in oversized meat grinders. The movie definitely deserved its R rating. There is no way I would have let any child of mine sees this movie until they were an adult, despite its obvious artistic merits.

In short, the movie, like its corpses, is a bloody well done, providing you can avoid retching. The movie is perfectly cast, led of course by the phenomenal Depp, but ably assisted by Helena Bonham Carter as Mrs. Lovett. You will not need Smell-o-vision to smell the stench of London in the mid 19th century. Burton nails the time with uncanny authenticity, which is enhanced by the ever present London chimneys bellowing black smoke, which are seen out the grimy windows of Sweeney Todd’s barber shop. With the omnipresent rats, roaches and blood running in the sewers you feel the need to disinfect yourself when the movie is over. Of course, part of the magic of Sweeney Todd is how it mixes touches of macabre humor in its music and lyrics. Only there is nothing really to laugh over in the sick and diseased world around Fleet Street in London.

Sweeney Todd is a pseudonym for a barber who was pressed into being sailor. In the process, he lost his wife and daughter at the whim of an evil judge, spent fifteen years at sea and then finally made it back to London to wreak his revenge. Depp portrays Todd as a man obsessed with lashing out, not just at those who inflicted this injustice upon him but at all sorts of people in London he feels would be better dead than alive. Despite the measured attempts at a macabre humor throughout, Sweeney Todd is really a sick tragedy. As rendered by Burton, Sweeney Todd takes on Shakespearean dimensions. One can imagine William Shakespeare wistfully wishing he had the opportunity to write something as spectacular as the tragic tale of Sweeney Todd. Having seen many of Shakespeare’s tragedies, including likely his bloodiest, Richard III, Sweeney Todd still somehow seems bloodier.

In short, aided by Sondheim’s original interpretation, Burton does an outstanding job of bringing this story to the screen. Part of the problem is that he does too good a job. In fact, this is such a good movie that I really would like to see it again. The problem is I think I am too squeamish. So instead, I will wait to see it in on stage, and enjoy listening to the music from this wonderful musical. I am grateful for having seen this film once, and I will probably rue my own squeamishness that I cannot find the stomach to enjoy it a few more times.

In my humble opinion, this was a far worthier candidate for Best Picture than what actually won, No Country for Old Men. I really think it is a landmark film of some type. It is one of the few films I have ever rated at 3.5 or above.

I give Sweeney Todd 3.5 out of 4 stars.

The Thinker

The pope pays a visit

Count me as one of those not lining the streets of Connecticut Avenue in Washington, D.C. trying to get a glimpse of the pope. This may have something to do with me not being a Catholic.

Of course, I understand Pope Benedict heads the Roman Catholic Church. To those vested in the faith I am sure his visit is a big deal. Even if I were inclined, it would be devilishly hard to even get a glimpse of the man. Getting a ticket to the mass he held today at the new Washington Nationals Stadium was challenging even for devout local Catholics. Most area Catholics will have to be contented watching him on TV. The good news for Pope Benedict XVI is that he picked a wonderful time to pay a visit to Washington. You could arguable that the weather was heavenly inspired: clear blue skies, abundant sunshine, mild winds with flowering trees everywhere.

Yet I find nothing particularly holy about Pope Benedict or the institution he heads. Like most large institutional religions, Catholicism has had big ups and downs. Unless you measure success in souls saved, it is hard to make the case that Catholicism’s pluses have outweighed its minuses. As much as the Catholic Church would like to pretend otherwise, I see it as an institution of men, not of God. It suffers from being guided by men whose lives are so warped from reality they have lost perspective. As a result, they needlessly lead billions down treacherous spiritual paths. It may be true that God’s agenda is very different from that of mans’. However, it appears to this observer that there is a causal relationship between priestly celibacy and priest abuse scandals here in America. It is easy to applaud Pope Benedict’s 25 minutes spent today with victims of priestly pedophilia. Nonetheless, I would feel the contrition were more genuine if the pope required that all priests were bonded by insurance companies. That way if there are any future victims they at least will not have to wait decades and file lawsuits to be reimbursed for the mental health expenses.

I suspect that for every indigent person helped by Catholic Charities there is another soul who was one of its victims. I count myself among its victims. Thankfully, I was never abused by a priest. However, I was abused and witnessed regular physical and emotional abuse from its sisters during nine years of parochial school. I have spent thousands of dollars on therapy over the years in part trying to come to terms with the abuse I witnessed. Somehow, I doubt the Vatican will be cutting me any checks.

Catholicism is hardly unique for instilling its values in the young, but few religions are so aggressive cementing a faith. You are baptized as a baby before you can babble a word and without your consent. You are typically confirmed when you are just entering adolescence, and sometimes a little before. This typically occurs at your parents’ prodding and long before you have an adult perspective of whether Catholicism is really a lifelong calling. You learn that even you, a sweet and innocent baby, was born with the stain of original sin. You learn that Jesus is forgiving, but except for a few asterisks, you must depend on your parish priest to act as your intercessor. God may be full of grace, but grace is largely earned by jumping through the hoops of its various sacraments. Your head is filled with beliefs that amount to nonsense, such as the consecrated host is the real body of Jesus and that Mary was immaculately conceived.

It is no wonder then that a church full of such cognitive dissonance is capable of soaring to great heights and falling to such great depths, sometimes at the same time. In many ways, the Vatican embodies humanity in all its highs and lows. For relatively benign and holy popes like John Paul II, there are execrable popes, like Pope Gregory XIII. When French Catholics in 1572 killed somewhere between ten and a hundred thousand French Protestants (Huguenots) on Saint Bartholomew’s Day, Pope Gregory was giddy in joy. He took it as proof that God was wreaking vengeance on what he saw as the apostasy of Protestantism. In his glee, he ordered a special Thanksgiving where a Te Deum was sung. To this day, the Catholic Church has not fully apologized for inciting this massacre, although some claim that Pope John Paul II’s 1997 statement amounted to an apology.

I realize my own religion, Unitarian Universalism, is figuratively an ant next to the institution called the Catholic Church. It too has suffered its share of sins. One of our interim ministers some years ago scandalized the denomination by faking some references so he could get a permanent ministry. I heard that some UU youth groups decades ago amounted to free love communities. However, our denomination never caused any wars, or tried to exterminate people who did not share their beliefs. On the contrary, the Unitarians experienced oppression by the early Christian church, which would not tolerate the Unitarian belief that there was no trinity. It is unlikely any of our heroes would qualify as Catholic saints, but had she bothered to twiddle a rosary Clara Barton could give Mother Teresa a run for the money. At least our denomination, rather than indoctrinate someone into a faith, is creedless. Our salvation may feel more ephemeral than eternal, but at least we make no claim to understand the mind of God. We realize that beliefs evolve just as people evolve because beliefs are a human manifestation. Consequently, what suits us today may not suit the changing world of tomorrow.

Pope Benedict of course sees truth like Prudential Insurance sees the Rock of Gibraltar. The same ideas that Jesus preached 2000 years ago remain wholly applicable today. The splintering of religion, and indeed the splintering of Christianity into innumerable denominations, is proof that Pope Benedict should take to heart: that no religion, not even Catholicism, can fit all souls.

The Catholic Church will always appeal to those who value constancy. Increasingly though constancy no longer works in a world that seems to reinvent itself with every generation. The sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church is proof that the square peg of Catholicism no longer fits into the round hole that is modern man. I find it hard to believe there would have been a sex abuse scandal at all had Catholic priests had the privilege of marriage, as they in fact had until about five hundred years ago.

It is a good thing I am not the President of the United States. I would not pander to Pope Benedict the way our president is doing. I would treat him as an honored guest of our country. I would never assert that he is any holier than any of us, only that he is holy to most of the Catholics in our country.

Instead, I might be tempted to preach to the pope. I would preach that the diversity and tolerance, which is built into the fabric of our country is a blessing. I would point out that the diversity of faiths in our country makes us a stronger country and a stronger people. I would celebrate our separation of church and state, one of the most enlightened and brilliant ideas ever practiced by a country, and the secret of our two hundred plus year union. I would show him our version of holy writ, the Constitution of the United States and the Declaration of Independence. These too are solid moorings on how people can be happy and live in harmony. Our political faith is a pragmatic one that works with our natural weaknesses, rather than against them.

I have no doubt that the Pope would be unmoved. He spent too many years learning that the reason the Catholic Church survives today is because of its constancy. Constancy though is actually the faith’s Achilles heel. Because of the constant pruning by its clerics, the faith has become surreal and moribund. It is like a bonsai, always alive, but constantly pruned and propped up so that it can never grow naturally. In the end, it makes it weird and surreal, giving the illusion of wonder but leaving it nonetheless ultimately spiritually bereft.

The Thinker

Some pragmatic ways you can help save the planet

It is one thing to say you are pro-environmental. It is another to change your life to minimize your impact on the planet. It is especially hard today because modern living tacitly requires you to be anti-environmental.

For example, most of us recognize that the cars we drive are major contributors to the global warming as well as foul the air. As a practical matter, we cannot give up our cars because to do so life becomes incredibly inconvenient. To give up a car you generally need to live in the city where the cost of living is typically higher. Even if you can settle in the city and live carless, lugging your groceries weekly by bus, often from supermarkets far away from where you live, gets tiresome rather quickly.

So of course, we tend toward pragmatism, which often means our environmental actions are half hearted. Nonetheless, short of living on a street corner there are things that you can do that will dramatically reduce your environmental impact. Here are some choices to ponder. I will broadly group these into long term, medium term, and short term.

On the macro level, the two biggest things you can do are to have fewer children and to become a vegetarian. By having fewer children, I mean you should strive to do what they do in China: have one child, not two or three. The planet needs fewer people. The maximum the planet can sustain and live comfortably with nature is about a billion humans. My wife and I made a choice to have just one child. I confess our reasons were only partially environmental. They were also selfish. One child is easier to manage than two. Whereas providing a college education for two children would be challenging, providing it for one is much easier. Family life in general is simpler in smaller families because there are fewer people who need care.

There is no question that vegetarianism is great for the planet. It is also very good for your health and longevity. I confess that I am not a vegetarian, however neither am I a rabid meat eater. I eat red meat rather infrequently and the meat I do consume tends to be 70% or more chicken. My friend Wendy is anxious to induct me into what she refers to as “The Church of Vegetarianism”. I suspect in my case a full conversion would require divorce, which in itself would not necessarily help the environment since two people living together is the more environmentally benign. Nonetheless, in part thanks to Wendy, I am more mindful of the meat that I do eat.

Morningstar Farms, for example, is getting much better at creating vegetarian products for those used to meat. While they do not quite taste like meat, they are an acceptable substitute. Their Grillers imitation hamburgers, for example, are at least 50% of the way toward tasting like meat and have a similar texture. Particularly when I do not want to fuss with dinner and I am eating alone, a veggie burger makes for a reasonably tasty entrée. It takes huge amounts of plant food to fatten any animal so you can consume it. To say the least it is an inefficient process. Most farm animals also generate huge amounts of animal waste. Vegetarians will also rightly point out that there is no humane way to slaughter an animal.

In the medium term, we need to factor the environment into all our choices. Understandably, many people would not choose to live in the city if they have a choice. However, living in cities tends to be a good way for humans to minimally impact the environment. Living in denser communities means that there is less reason to develop new tracts of land. This leaves more open space for the many species that are already threatened by our population growth. If you can live in a city without a car, you are making perhaps the most significant contribution possible toward reducing your impact on the planet in a first world country.

Perhaps the most useful thing we can do as citizens is to relentlessly petition our legislators to vote for the environment. The League of Conservation Voters, for example, allows you to rate your legislators on how “green” they are. Grinning Planet maintains a site with links to organizations that keep environmental scorecards at the state level. If you are having problems determining the true environmentalist candidates from the faux environmentalists, many such organizations provide endorsements. Besides voting and lobbying your representatives to pass greener legislation, if you have extra time and or money these organizations also need your help.

Other things you can do: get permission to work from home one or more days a week. That takes one commuter off the roads and lets you sleep in later. When commuting, take public transportation if possible. If you happen to live close enough to work where driving is optional, do what I do and bike to work when the weather is seasonable. Likely, you need more exercise anyhow.

When choosing jobs, prefer jobs that are easily accessible to public transportation. Often commuting using public transportation is not practical. Consider a carpool or vanpool instead. I spent most of my career working in and around Washington D.C. while commuting from the suburbs. I took the Metro for a number of years. Mostly I commuted by carpool or by vanpool. Not only did I save time and money, but also my employer was generous enough to subsidize my vanpool expenses.

If you own your own home, there are many things that you can do. You can be environmentally friendly and save energy with new energy efficient windows or better insulation while reaping nice tax credits. Last year we replaced our windows and earned a $200 tax credit. Solar energy may seem so seventies, but tax credits are available if you install either solar panels or solar water heating, and it is unlikely your homeowner’s association can prohibit your from doing so. Many of these things are not just good for the environment, but good for your wallet. Another simple way to be kinder to the environment and your wallet is to install a programmable thermostat. Why heat or cool your house when you will not be there? In our house, we are aggressive in our use of ceiling fans. This allows us to keep the thermostat a bit higher in the summer without noticing the higher room temperature. While many people loathe heat pumps, in moderate climates they tend to be the most efficient way to heat or cool your home. A heat pump that extracts heat from your soil is better and more efficient than one that pulls it from the air. Of course, choose natural fertilizers and weed control techniques when possible. If your lawn is not too large, an electric mower is much more environmentally benign than a gas mower.

If you have not tried some short-term strategies, here are a few obvious ones. Replace your incandescent and halogen lamps with compact fluorescent lights. LED (light emitting diode) lights are even more energy efficient, but are just coming on to the market. Whenever you replace an appliance, look for the most energy efficient appliance. For example, front loading washers and dryers are more energy efficient than top loading models.

Consider buying used, even if you can afford new. Thrift stores have an unearned bad reputation. By buying used clothes there, you are being good to the environment. Of course where possible recycle and donate items you no longer use. It is particularly important to keep electronic items out of landfills. If you look for them, you can find places in your community that will recycle these items, often for a fee.

Perhaps the best way to help the planet is just to be environmentally mindful every day. In addition to trying to persuade your legislators to vote green, word of mouth can be often useful too. Make sure your friends and neighbors know about your environmental leanings and encourage (but don’t nag) them toward making better environmental choices.

Americans have been adept at ignoring the interdependent web of life. That time has passed. The effects of our reckless selfishness are now very clear. Like it or not, any action you take has a reaction. I hope you will join me and millions of others by making your actions better for the environment. In doing so, you are truly giving the gift of life.

The Thinker

Not oil’s well at the pump

You would think that we are enduring enough agony by paying record high gasoline prices. According to the Associated Press, the average cost of a gallon of gasoline is now $3.365 a gallon. That tracks correctly with gas prices here in Northern Virginia. Recently it cost me more than $40 to fill the 12 gallon tank of my fuel efficient Honda Civic Hybrid. Ouch!

Apparently, all those press reports about oil companies making record profits does not mean that oil companies are beyond inventing new ways to make us feel even more screwed. To help their bottom line, most gas stations offer a convenience store that tends to excel at providing convenient fattening and sugary foods. Some gas stations will still change your oil or fix your car, but they are becoming fewer and further between. Finding a gas station that has a compressed air pump for your tires is also getting problematical. Those stations that have them generally want you to insert quarters into their machine for the privilege. Thus far, gas stations have not figured out a way to charge you for wiping down your own windshields, but I suspect that is coming.

No matter, gas stations have found a new way to make money that is far more annoying than anything they have done so far, which says a lot. It started with many stations making you listen to audio advertising while you pump. As long as you are at the pump, they figured you had to learn about all the great things they were offering. Now it is not enough to assault you with audio advertising. Now you get your own commercial spouting TV right at the pump!

Sunoco, curse them, is the latest oil company to install these obnoxious devices at the pump. Naturally, there is no off button that you can press to escape these advertisements. Nor is there any way to adjust the volume. It is at near ear splitting volume. Moreover, since pretty much all of us have to get gas regularly, we become involuntary captives of this advertising.

Sadly, Sunoco is everywhere in my neighborhood, which means if I want to patronize a different chain I really have to go out of my way. I am going to go out of my way anyhow, because of this latest egregious indignity. It is also needless noise pollution. You can hear these talking pumps hundreds of feet away.

Sunoco seems to be partnering with ESPN. In between long advertisements, you get brief sports updates and something reputing to be the local weather. I guess this is how they justify their assault. All I know is that I cringe. I move as far away from the pump as possible while my car fills up. Yet even if I had my MP3 player in my ears, I could not begin to tune out the noise from these pumps. You are essentially captive.

Perhaps to add a few more nickels to their profits they will adjust the pumps to pump gas more slowly. This way instead of two to three minutes of listening to advertising, it could be extended to five minutes. This will be good for their bottom line. Perhaps in an effort to escape the noise we will be driven inside to their convenience store. I hope they sell 80db earplugs.

Alas, gas stations are hardly the only offenders. I remarked before about mobile advertising, which I still think should be outlawed. I have mentioned movie theaters that are putting advertising in restroom stalls and in front of urinals. Even my local BJ’s Wholesale Club has decided I need to hear commercials while I shop. Along with the piped in music we now get about 30% commercials. It is enough to make me join Costco.

Certain things in life, like shopping, eating and going to the bathroom are unavoidable. Where these unavoidable activities intersect with profit, wise companies should be going the extra mile to make us want to shop there, not drive us away. Going to these places should to the largest extent possible be pleasant, not aggravating. This should not be rocket science. I have to wonder what sort of public relation morons thought up these latest ideas. It is as if they want their customers to loathe their products.

I’d say they are doing a great job. Oil companies though have no place to go but up in the public’s opinion. Given this sad fact of life, I have to wonder why oil companies want us to have an even more aggravating experience at the pump then they already provide.

The Thinker

Terminal Insecurity

While on the subject of airports, as a semi-frequent traveler I have noticed that our airport security still leaves much to be desired. This is ironic when you consider how much money we are spending to protect our airports.

I am not talking just about the well-reported and gaping gap in screening aircraft cargo. I am talking about the gap securing our airport terminals. I hesitate to give terrorists ideas, but the costs to benefits ratio of striking the Great Satan America using airplanes no longer makes sense, not economically, not even to some whacked out deity. Airport terminals are much more vulnerable targets.

Perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps airports secretly have dozens of operatives running around terminals looking for suspicious passengers. Perhaps terminals are rife with micro-sensors sniffing the air for the faintest whiff of explosives. I sure hope we are doing these things. The only obvious terminal security seems to be at Arrivals and Departures where, at least at Washington Dulles International Airport, there are plenty of security men watching your car and making sure that you don’t tarry too long dropping off or picking up passengers. I strongly suspect though that their motive has more to do with keeping traffic moving than with airport security.

Because if they are trying to improve security, how exactly does this help? I mean, let us suppose a terrorist has a van full of fertilizer and a hair trigger. Do you think he is going to pay any attention to a security guy at Departures asking him to hustle along? No, he is going to shout, “God is Great!” in Arabic and ignite that sucker, killing hundreds of people and taking down much of the terminal with it.

Moreover, shouldn’t we be screening passengers and their bags before they get into the terminal? Of course, people are hauling all sorts of luggage and backpacks into the terminal and queuing up in front of airline ticket counters. None of it has been screened. Also inside the terminal are hundreds of other passengers, none of whom is anxious to be martyred to facilitate the spread of Islam. Aside from the casualties that could easily be inflicted by a rouge terrorist inside a terminal, these structures themselves are critical pieces of infrastructure, in many cases costing hundreds of millions of dollars. Damaging a terminal arguably would inflict as much in the way of death and casualties as an Oklahoma City type bombing. It would shut down most commercial transportation at the airport for weeks or months. It would also disrupt a good portion of the airline economy.

Instead, we are trying to protect aircraft which are obviously expensive pieces of equipment but which typically have 100 to 150 people aboard. Assuming they can be hijacked, which is becoming much harder to do, then they could possibly fly into the Sears Tower or some other structure and repeat the events of 9/11. Most likely, the extent of their carnage would be the destruction of one jet and a few hundred deaths. All of this would be regrettable, of course, but it would hardly inflict much damage to our transportation system.

If we were serious about protecting airline passengers, you would not be allowed into the terminal at all unless you and your luggage had been pre-screened. I can only think of one viable way this would work. It would be to require passengers to check in at smaller screening stations scattered across metropolitan areas or at least several hundred yards from the terminal. After passing screening at a local screening station, the passengers and their luggage would be shuttled to the airport aboard an approved security bus. This would probably add half an hour to an outbound commute. On the other hand, there would be no need to check in at the airport. In effect, you would move most TSA personnel out of the airport and put them in local communities.

These screening stations would have to be numerous so that small numbers of people would be arriving at a station at any given time. You would probably have to go online and book an arrival time at a local screening station. I imagine you would have to electronically send the station your eTicket, credentials and the license plate of the car that would be dropping you off. These would need to be verified before you were let into the station.

Of course, air cargo needs better screening too, and Congress is reputedly working on that goal. It seems unthinkable that Americans will give up commuting by air. I once wondered if the price of oil went up to $150 a barrel whether we would even have an airline industry. With prices now around $110 a barrel the answer is clear: yes, and we will happily pay whatever additional money it costs for the convenience of traveling long distances quickly by air.

Given the criticality of our airports, it is time to do more than the half measures we are currently doing to protect passengers and airport property. At best, you can only breathe a sigh of relief now once you are past the security checkpoint. If you are like me, you feel very vulnerable while inside the terminal itself.

It does not have to be this way.


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