Archive for July, 2008

The Thinker

The real danger of being liberal

I keep hearing from the right wing that liberal ideology is dangerous. Until Sunday, I did not generally associate liberalism with putting your life in danger. Sadly, that is what it has come to. You probably heard about this news story. A man named Jim D. Adkisson, an out of work truck driver, killed two parishioners at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville. He also wounded six others. This attack occurred in a packed church with over two hundred congregants. The attack occurred while children were performing a scene for the congregation.

Adkisson survived his attack, but left a four-page letter in his SUV, which he expected to be a suicide note. In it, he said he targeted the church because he “hated the liberal movement” and was “upset with liberals in general, as well as gays.” Moreover, according to the Knoxville News-Sentinel:

[The detective] seized three books from Adkisson’s home, including “The O’Reilly Factor,” by television commentator Bill O’Reilly; “Liberalism is a Mental Disorder,” by radio personality Michael Savage; and “Let Freedom Ring,” by political pundit Sean Hannity.

While the shooting appears random, targeting this particular church was probably not entirely due to its denomination, but likely had to do with some rage toward his ex-wife.

While police said Adkisson did not mention his ex-wife in the note, they said she attended the TVUUC years ago. That’s how he selected TVUUC to unleash his frustrations, police said.

I could be wrong, but I have yet to hear any case of a passionate liberal, inspired by ideological books written by the likes of liberal authors like Al Franken, going around killing right wingers for injustices like not supporting gay rights. I doubt that you ever will. Liberals may be wrong, wrong, wrong as noisy pundits like Rush Limbaugh tell us, but we also tend to be nonviolent.

This particular incident strikes close to home because I am a Unitarian Universalist too. It is certainly fair to cast the denomination as liberal. It was in fact one of the major reasons why I joined. More than ten years ago when I started attending services, I simply was not connecting with any liberals in my community. The church gave me a place to be with my own kind and work with others to promote my values. Thankfully, over the last ten years the area where I live has become much more progressive.

Yet, even in the relatively liberal community of Reston, our church has endured some harassment from those who do not share our values. Some years back we were at the forefront of the gay marriage movement. We put out two prominent banners on our property saying simply, “Civil Marriage is a Civil Right”. You would not think that by themselves they would inspire much vitriol. In fact, both were torn down and defaced by those who did not agree with our opinion. The church leadership was concerned enough that they stationed church elders in the foyer during services with their cell phones ready to dial 911.

Unitarians, like Quakers and other denominations, are often at the leading edge of change. Without us, there might still be slavery in the south and women might not have the right to vote. The minister that married my wife and I put his values on the line back in the 1960s when he marched in Selma, Alabama with the late Dr. Martin Luther King. The two congregants who died Sunday are not the only Unitarian martyrs. Among the dozens is the 18th century Unitarian theologian William Hamilton Drummond.

Perhaps incidents like this, as tragic, ugly and thankfully as rare as they are, come with the territory of being a liberal. Jesus was certainly a liberal and you can see what it got him. In general the more liberal you are and the more you express yourself, the more you subject yourself to danger. Yet, while many despise agents of change, without people willing to stand for change it is unlikely that any change would have ever occurred. We progress in part because of liberal denominations like Unitarian Universalism have the moral conviction to stand up peacefully when injustice occurs.

I am convinced that some right wing authors and talk show hosts like Michael Savage are indirectly culpable for these crimes. They pander to our basest prejudices and emotions, which frequently lurk close to the surface. The raw emotions become easier to expose if you are dealing with major life traumas like losing your job, as was true of Adkisson. Some personalities, like Michele Malkin, are clearly fanning the flames of hatred and perhaps help put mentally unstable people like Adkisson over the edge. It is doubtful whether they would be as passionate if their over the edge eloquence did not result in so many listeners and book sales.

In time, Adkisson will be tried. It is quite likely that he will pay for these murders with his life. In this event I already know what the response will be of the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church will be. They will be petitioning the governor for his sentence to be commuted to life in prison. The irony is inescapable. In the event the tables were turned, it is unlikely that members of a right wing church would be so compassionate.

It is a shame Adkisson did not sit in the pews and listen for a few services. He might have heard this UU hymn and taken heed:

Come, Come whoever you are;
Wanderer, worshipper, lover of leaving;
Ours is no caravan of despair;
Come yet again come.

 
The Thinker

My fantasy run for president

It will not surprise you to learn that I am not running for president this year. There are many reasons for this.

• I am a virtual nobody, just some guy who runs a blog
• My closest brush with political office was being vice president of the condominium association, hardly the sort of qualifications most voters are looking for
• As you will find out, my positions would make me unelectable
• I tend toward introversion. Shaking hands, kissing babies and making speeches are all things that I do not enjoy.
• I hate telephone soliciting. Yet if you are serious about running for any office, unless you are independently wealthy your first act is to call everyone you know and schmooze them for dollars. Where’s the fun in that?
• I am a federal employee. There is this inconvenient law called The Hatch Act, which means if I want to run for any political office, I must first quit my job. I am quite attached to my pension and do not want to diminish it.

Still, if dumpy middle-aged guys can give tens of thousands of dollars to attend fantasy sports camps, I can run a fantasy presidential campaign. I thought that since this is a fantasy I would give you my positions on the issues so you can cast your fantasy vote for or against me. You will quickly see that I am unelectable. In my defense, I will say that if my positions could be enacted into law, the world would be a much better place. Unfortunately, my positions while they probably would be effective would also be politically unacceptable.

While my run for the presidency is fantasy, I am quite serious that these are my real positions on what should be done on some of the important issues of the day.

Civil Rights. I believe that not only are we all created equal but also we all must be treated equally by the law. I would require that all trial attorneys spend a court specified percentage of their time to ensure that the poor and indigent get the same quality of legal representation as the rest of us. All lawyers would be reimbursed for their services, but all at the same rate based on the local cost of living. Citizen review committees would assess the quality of a lawyer’s legal representation for those who cannot afford a lawyer. If a trial lawyer failed to provide roughly equal representation for his poor clients compared with his paid clients, he would be disbarred.

Defense. I think our defense budget is vastly bloated with much of it going toward weapons systems that attempt to solve military problems with 20th century solutions. I would work to chop it by at least a third and invest some small amount of the savings into greatly expanding the State Department and our foreign aid. Let’s turn at least some swords into plowshares! The Peace Corps would be dramatically expanded. We would typically operate as part of multinational forces based on broad international consensus. Our defense budget would go principally toward dealing with 21st century threats, including deterring nuclear proliferation, securing existing nuclear sites, securing our borders and expanded intelligence gathering operations.

Economy. Future growth must be environmentally sustainable. The key to smart growth is not just to invest in clean technologies, but for the government to get its fiscal house in order too. This means a government that is on a financially sound footing, which does not spend beyond its means and is not afraid to raise taxes to avoid deficit financing.

Education. We need to pay teachers commensurate with the future value we expect from their pupils, which means a pay increase of roughly twice what they currently get. This would make teaching much more competitive resulting in better teachers. Yet, we cannot raise test scores in a vacuum. We must also address the socioeconomic problems that result in so many students doing poorly academically. If a parent cannot provide the nurturing and stable environment needed for a child to succeed in school, courts should have the power to remove children from these homes and place them into social environments that will nurture them personally and academically.

Energy and the Environment. We all have to learn pollute less and consume less energy. We should embrace Al Gore’s challenge to have all our electricity come from non-carbon producing sources by 2020. We should not allow another tract of undeveloped land to be developed until all existing tracts of land that are no longer used are developed first. I would massively increase our public transportation and fund initiatives to build bike trails in our communities.

Ethics. Politicians should adhere to the same ethics laws as federal employees. This would effectively mean public financing of campaigns, because no outside source is allowed to give this civil servant anything worth more than $25 in value.

Faith. Your faith or lack thereof is your own business and not the government’s business, but your faith must be practiced openly and must not harm children. Faiths that raise their children in isolated compounds and make them marry older men while they are not of legal age would not be a protected religion. Public money should never be given, directly or indirectly, to religions or faith based groups.

Family. We must work toward a stable population in this country or future generations will not be able to live in a sustainable world. To achieve this as benignly as possible, we should allow tax exemptions for the first two children in each family only, unless the children are adopted. We should encourage single-family households by doubling tax exemptions for these families. We should end all discrimination against gay and lesbian couples as parents. Parents should be required to take parenting classes before the birth or adoption of their child. Parents should get tax credits for taking continuing parental education courses.

Fiscal. The government should live within its means and only deficit finance for true national emergencies such as unprovoked wars or national catastrophes.

Foreign Policy. The United States needs to stop being an arrogant nation and to project a humble foreign policy instead. We should work quietly with other nations working for the greater world good, not just our own parochial interests. We should become much more invested in and supportive of multinational organizations, and work to reinvigorate the United Nations. I would decrease aid to Israel by ten percent each year until a comprehensive peace has been negotiated with its neighbors.

Healthcare. We need universal health insurance now. There are plenty of successful examples out there among developed countries. Let’s pick one example that looks like it would work best in our culture and implement it, adjusting based on lessons learned as we go.

Iraq. Our troops would be out by the end of 2010 except for military personnel needed to train Iraqi troops and secure our embassy.

Poverty. It is time to narrow rather than widen the gap between the have and have-nots. This means the rich need to pay much more in the way of taxes. In the long term, poverty is addressed by investing in our children’s education and addressing the socioeconomic conditions that cause poverty.

Signing statements. Signing statements would not be allowed. Attempts by the president to execute the law other than faithfully would be impeachable offenses.

Social Security. Mend it, don’t break it. Make it fiscally sound even if it means higher payroll taxes or waiting longer for retirement.

So, it’s clear: don’t vote for me!

 
The Thinker

Caught in the Quicken web

I have often joked to my wife that Microsoft’s greatest invention was its random behavior generator. If you run the exact same software, using the exact same data on the exact same computer day after day you should get exactly the same results. Except that, this does not happen in the world of Microsoft Windows. I believe this thanks to their secret random behavior generator. Some days you can be lulled into a sense of complacency. You think that things are finally predictable, only to discover later that either something surreptitious is going on under the hood, or some sort of bizarre behavior that never manifested itself the last hundred times has occurred.

Because of its secret random behavior generator, Microsoft has ingeniously generated hundreds of billions of dollars in revenue. This has forced us to upgrade, buy new versions of their software, reformat our hard drives and reinstall Windows, and even buy entirely new computers. We also pay money to call their technical support lines to maybe solve these mysterious problems. What is the definition of insanity? Doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results? By buying an iMac, I have demonstrated that I am now sane. Release me from the rubber room, please. I now have a computer, which while not perfect, works predictably with me instead of against me.

As I documented, it is not a trivial process to move from Windows to a Mac. There is a lot to learn and a lot to unlearn. There are some inevitable compromises. You may not find precisely the same software for the Mac as you will for Windows, but you can come close. As in the case of Quicken, you can expect to pay more money for the privilege of having it work on a Mac. What you get in return is consistency and reliability.

Quicken may be the exception. I found that moving from Quicken for Windows to Quicken for the Mac was a hugely frustrating experience. Quicken is not some fly by night company. It has been around for more than twenty years and owns the lion’s share of the personal finance market. It has expanded into the business market with its Quickbooks line. It also offers an array of online services. You would think that such a large and well-financed company would offer a version of Quicken for the Mac that is consistent with Quicken for Windows. You would think that you could simply move over your data files and use them transparently.

Sorry, no. Moving from Quicken for Windows to Quicken for the Mac feels very much like trying to solve some bizarre and distressing Microsoft Windows problem. I mean the real irksome kind, where you are reduced to hacking Windows registry entries and upgrading drivers in the wan hope that maybe you will return to some level of consistency and reliability. Quicken blew it big time with Quicken for the Mac. For some bizarre reason it is largely a different product than Quicken for Windows that also looks and behaves quite differently than it Windows version.

Ironically, Microsoft did a better job of porting its Microsoft Office Suite to the Mac than Quicken did with its flagship product. I installed Microsoft Word and Excel for the Mac and there is almost no inconsistent behavior with the Windows version. Yes, you get feature windows that sit outside the main window. That is standard Mac stuff. In addition, you have to use the CMD key where you would normally use the CTRL key. That is about it.

With Quicken for the Mac, not only are the features I took for granted missing, but also all sorts of things both subtle and overt are markedly different. For example, you might want to have your register show the date column first and then the check number column so it looks like your paper register. There is no way to do this with the Mac version, which markedly slows down the process of entering transactions into Quicken. Moreover, why is the category field now on the left and the memo field on the right? It would have been just as easy to keep it consistent with the Windows version.

All these sorts of annoying inconsistencies though pale compared to the hassle of actually moving your data from Windows to the Mac. First, according to their own knowledge base, you must go through the hassle of exporting each type of data (accounts, categories, etc.) to a QIF file, which is painful. It also tells you to do things like shorten your account and category names and to move over data in a stepwise manner, which is also painful. Yet despite all this, I was not successful moving over my Quicken data. Instead, I got repeated “Transaction File Full” messages while importing. I was reduced to calling their technical support line and waiting for a call back. Their technician was anxious to end the call early because their support closed at 5 PM. However, he did give me some useful advice. He told me to create a new QIF file with all my data in it and import just that. The good news was that it appeared to worked.

However, there were some problems. The import program ignored many transactions, making the account balances incorrect in many cases. As I had taken care to trim my account and category names as instructed, I expected no problems. The problems were occurring in transactions with category names I could not change on Windows, those “automatic” categories like _401KEmployerContribution.

Searching the Quicken support forums I found a number of people with similar problems but no one who had a solution. A number of people like me though were frustrated and tearing their hair out. With 18 years of Quicken data, going through probably one hundred thousand transactions and fixing those ones did not import or imported incorrectly was not a viable option. Why could Quicken not at least provide an error log? What to do?

I figured that as a last resort I could just create a balance adjustment so that at least the account balances would be accurate. Except that in most of my accounts, the option was disabled. Naturally, I sent an inquiry to Quicken. Their customer relationship management software just automatically pointed me to articles I had already read. Of course, no human was actually going to bother to read my email. That, like, costs money! Instead, just have a computer parse it for keywords, send an email with likely matches and hope the customer goes away!

In desperation, I was reduced to changing my opening balances. That was the only thing that Quicken for the Mac would allow me to do. So now, my account and share balances are correct, but I have no idea whether it is calculating my stock portfolio values correctly, because I am not certain that all buy and sell transactions were recorded correctly. Nor am I confident that any income or expense reports will be accurate. All this for the privilege of paying $69.99 for a Mac version, which you can get for about half this price and which has about 10% less functionality than the Windows version!

Quicken though keeps sending me emails that it is still vitally concerned about my problem. I cannot be bothered to respond because it is clear even they do not know what to do. If I had to guess, I suspect their advice would be to stick with the Windows version. However, I will not shell out $80 or so for Parallels or install Boot Camp to run Windows on my Mac. My whole goal of moving to a Mac was to put Windows behind me.

There is hope. Reputedly, Quicken is rewriting Quicken for the Mac from the ground up for a future version. Maybe then, it will have the same features as in its Windows version. Maybe then, moving over your data will be simple. Maybe then, future customers will not have to troubleshoot this bizarre accounting stuff largely by themselves. As for me, I feel justifiably disgruntled and used. This is no way to treat a loyal customer.

 
The Thinker

Gunsmoke

In my next life, perhaps I will be a sociologist. Unlike philosophers who deal largely in the hypothetical, sociologists dwell in the here and now. Rather than look at life as it might be, they examine life as it actually is and try to understand its hidden catalysts. Sadly, the press tends to largely ignore their research.

Thankfully, we readers of The Washington Post are blessed with a weekly glimpse into the world of sociology, thanks to Washington Post reporter Shankar Vedantam. Every Monday, I turn the front page and there is Vedantam’s interesting sociology article of the week on page A-2. Today’s article deals with the bias many of us have toward people with baby faces. For some reason humans have a strong predisposition to trust these people more than others. It is too bad Richard Nixon was not born with a baby face. He might have gotten away with Watergate. (Karl Rove has a baby face. This might explain his luck to date.)

Two weeks ago, Vedantam reported on the work of sociologists Colin Loftin and David McDowall of University of Albany. They studied the homicide statistics in Washington D.C. between the years 1968 and 1987. Gun control did not begin in Washington D.C. until 1976, so the researchers had nine years of statistics before gun control and nine years after gun control.

One finding will cheer gun proponents: despite arguably the nation’s strictest gun control law, the law had no effect in reducing homicides in the city compared with statistics in neighboring Maryland and Virginia. (My suspicion is that this is because guns are so easy to acquire simply by stepping across the D.C. line.) However, the law did have one surprising effect: it cut the rate of suicides in the District by 25%. The neighboring states of Maryland and Virginia, which had no gun bans, recorded no similar reduction in their suicide rates during those years.

In short, owning a gun increases by 200 to 1000 percent the risk that you or someone in your household will use it to kill themselves. It appears that having such an expeditious way of killing yourself dramatically raises the likelihood that you will kill yourself. However, if you do not own a gun you are more likely to ride them out rather then follow through on our impulse.

If I had a gun, would I use it to kill myself? I just cannot see myself ever doing something like that. Nevertheless, the statistics are compelling. Having the ready means (a gun), raises the likelihood that I might. You cannot argue with the statistics. Until I read this article, that possibility had never occurred to me. It did occur to me that if I owned one, some member of my family might use its convenient location and ready lethality to kill herself.

I might rethink my decision to not own a gun if I lived in the Trinidad section of Northeast D.C. In the space of ninety minutes last Saturday, seven people were shot and one was knifed. One of those shot subsequently died. After all, if most of my neighbors were packing heat, I probably would feel the need for a little protection too. While that seems entirely rational, the number of people who actually use a gun to protect their lives and property are relatively small. In fact, many of the people who are the biggest advocates of gun rights live in generally safe communities. The likelihood that their guns will ever be used for self-defense is so remote as to be astronomical. Within Washington D.C., packing heat appears to provide only the illusion of self-defense. In fact, there is no correlation I could find between whether you own a gun and whether it actually improves your ability to defend yourself. This does not surprise me. Guns have the attribute of being both fast and lethal. I hope that I could pull a gun out of my pocket quickly enough, but most likely, the assailant would have shot me before I had the opportunity.

Consequently, if you want to reduce the likelihood of being a victim of gun violence your action plan is clear: move to neighborhoods where you are statistically less likely to be a victim of gun violence. Spend those five hundred dollars on a U-Haul instead of a gun.

If I owned a gun, it would constantly prey on my mind, the same way a stick of dynamite would if I kept one in the basement. The difference is that owning dynamite is illegal, and owning a gun is not. I would like to believe that I would never use a gun to kill myself, but who knows? I might get depressed, or lose my job, or have other major crises thrown at me at a vulnerable moment. I would like to think that no one in my family would kill themselves with a gun either. However, I cannot read their minds. Perhaps during a blue period they would elect to do so. The statistics are clear: having a gun available can make someone up to ten times more likely to commit suicide.

The article points out that last year there were 51,175 homicides nationwide. Of these, 32,637 of them were suicides. Of these suicides, 52 percent were a result of someone shooting himself or herself with a gun. Therefore, while gun control laws appear to have no effect by themselves in reducing the overall homicide rate, the D.C. study suggest they do dramatically reduce the number of suicides. Isn’t this by itself a compelling enough reason for gun control laws? Are we not a country that at least claims above all it wants to inculcate respect for life? Whose life is more important than our own?

Therefore, just as I know that wearing a seat belt improves the odds that I will survive a car crash, I also can now confidently state that by not owning a gun I may be saving my own life. If you value the your life and the life of anyone in your household, you should not own a gun.

 
The Thinker

Review: I Am Legend (2007)

Every few years an “end of the world as we know it” flick or two shows up. We have had more than our share of these films recently including The Day After Tomorrow (2004), Children of Men (2006) and more recently I Am Legend (2007) starring Will Smith. Of the three, you can definitely skip The Day After Tomorrow, you absolutely must see Children of Men and you should try to work in I Am Legend if you possibly can. While this film is not quite as good as Children of Men, it is fine end of the world entertainment.

There is a bit of formula in all these movies. This one follows the “we made a cure that went wrong” formula. A scientist discovers a way to cure all known cancers. Presumably, there was initially much rejoicing, but the rejoicing did not last long. The cure apparently mutated into an infectious disease that ends up killing ninety percent of the human race. Of those who remain, the vast majority mutate into albino man-eating vampires who recoil at sunlight but who spend their nights in search of prey. This explains why Dr. Robert Neville (Will Smith), a research scientist, has steel shutters and doors for his tony Manhattan abode, which are closed promptly at sundown. He sleeps in the bathtub with a loaded gun. His house also has a lab in the basement where the research geneticist works feverishly to find a cure for this disease.

Fortunately, to keep himself fed and amused, there is plenty of plunder in Manhattan, but it is a lonely life. Aside from his basement research to engage his mind, he has only his dog Sam for company. Sam is his last link with his family. While his wife and young son sought refuge outside the city, he elected to stay in Manhattan so he could work on a cure for the disease. In flashbacks, we watch his family leave the city in dramatic fashion. Apparently, the virus first began to spread in New York City. The government quarantined the city, even to the extent of blowing up the bridges leading into the city. Dr. Neville is one of the less than one percent of the population who is immune to the virus. This is fortunate because he is also perhaps the only person left who can find a cure for the disease.

Unfortunately, lurking in the dark skyscrapers and warehouses of Manhattan there remain many of these crazed albino mutants. If he can capture one of them, he can use them to see if one of his potential cures can work. Needless to say, his success rate thus far has been zero.

No question about it though, these mutants are bat-shit crazy, which is why Dr. Neville makes sure he is home before sunset. Nonetheless, he maintains a lonely vigil of visiting a pier along the Hudson River at noon each day. There he waits seemingly in vain for others like him to show up. He broadcasts a radio transmission that tells the world that he is alive and can offer food and shelter to survivors. Is anyone out there to hear him?

I Am Legend is something of a departure for Will Smith, who more typically is cast in more “black” roles. Acting in films like I, Robot, Smith is showing that he is a versatile actor who should not be typecast. Thankfully, Smith is up to the challenge of his eclectic role. He comes across as completely plausible as the obsessed research scientist. Smith gets to stretch his acting abilities quite a bit in this movie and it is all for the better. Not to spoil too much of the plot but two people eventually do respond to his broadcast, a woman named Anna (Alice Braga) and her son Ethan (Charlie Tahan). Anna tells Dr. Neville that there is a colony of survivors in Vermont and that they should join the others there. Dr. Neville is convinced that the colony, if it exists, is a trap. Moreover, he cannot leave his research, which seems promisingly close to finding a cure for the mutation. He also thinks that Anna is something of a nutcase, because she said that God told her to seek him out.

For a violent movie, it is often incredibly scary and yet not terribly gross, which is my favorite kind of violent movie. You may find yourself spending more time gripping the armrest of your chair than eating your popcorn. This is another one of those movies where I wonder how in the hell they made the movie, because it portrays an empty Manhattan where the deer run amok in the streets and grass is coming up through the pavement. No doubt, this magic took a lot of CGI and matte paintings. Much of it had to have been filmed in New York City, a city that never grinds to a halt.

There are a few convenient plot holes and inconsistencies, but nothing to really bother you. Chances are you will be too engaged by the movie to care. At 101 minutes it feels longer than it is. If we have to have more end of the world movies, more like I Am Legend, please.

3.3 on my 4.0 scale. Rent it!

 
The Thinker

Conservatism’s harvest

It is not that, of course; if NATIONAL REVIEW is superfluous, it is so for very different reasons: It stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.

William F. Buckley
First Issue of NATIONAL REVIEW
November 19, 1955

Granted, the late William F. Buckley’s idea of conservatism as it should be practiced differs substantially from those of our current president, whose approval ratings are now at 28%. Based on ever-rising gas prices, a tanking stock market and increased unemployment his anemic approval ratings are likely to collapse even further before his term expires in January. Still, both Bush and Buckley, like many conservatives, based their conservative philosophy on the assumption that what worked before has value, so change should be resisted.

The problems with conservatism have been borne out in the last eight years and should be plain for all to see. Just because you want societal progress to stop, does not mean that it will. Human behavior is that way. We act like a stream. Sometimes it crests. Sometimes it ebbs. Sometimes the stream overflows its banks. Its currents will transform the land around it. The stream, like society, is ever dynamic and changing. It is only when its image is frozen in our mind that it appears static.

Based on many millenniums of observing our species, we can safely assume that we humans will continue to be irascible folk. We will continue to defy neat categorization. We will continue to do dumb and stupid stuff. We will increase our population beyond the planet’s ability to sustain us. We will fight bloody wars for ethnic, racial and economic reasons. We will also do amazing stuff, like putting our species on the moon, making scientific breakthroughs and generating visionary and inspiring leaders that transform nations and the world.

Law, morals, ethics and governments exist to try to bring order and predictability to human affairs. These artifacts though work only to the extent that they fit within man’s current condition. When they do not they are easily overcome by our natural human behaviors, which on a mass scale can rarely be controlled for long. Moreover, when you try to counteract these natural human forces, the effect is invariably counterproductive. The damage of trying to fit the square peg of the past into the round hole of the present over these last eight years is all around us.

We are witnessing the train wreck of a principled but unworkable ideology called conservatism. Giving tax cuts to millionaires did not raise the boats of the middle classes, any more than it did in the robber baron age. Funding abstinence-only sex education has not reduced teen pregnancy. Voluntary cuts in carbon emissions have not reduced pollution. Freeing the free market further means fewer people are watching for foxes in a much larger and more complex financial henhouse. Proactive wars fought with 20th century tactics make us more insecure and prove financially ruinous. Less government, while potentially emboldening freedom, also means less oversight and exploitation. Its result is a nation that today more resembles a patch of weeds than a garden. What we are witnessing today is simply the natural consequence of conservative government refusing to give any ground to modern realities. We are witnessing that the tactics that worked for us fifty years ago are now foolish and counterproductive.

Why? Because we are not the same people that we were fifty years ago! For one thing, we have roughly doubled the number of us on this planet. This has affected how we think and behave. Increased travel and trade have mixed us up more, allowing us to live less insular and more connected lives. At least in the first world, we are much better educated than previous generations. We are less industrialized and more technology based. We have moved on from the past because the past no longer fits us.

Consequently, when conservatives govern we get huge disconnects. The Supreme Court tells us we have the constitutional right to own a gun even though we have no need for militias and the Indians are unlikely to attack. Today, most of us have a neighbor within shouting distance, not miles away. Not surprisingly when you put more of us closer together and you allow us to have guns, more of us are going to be victims of gun violence.

Effective government must adapt to fit the context of its times or it proves counterproductive. It must address today’s issues with tactics likely to work within the current environment, not with solutions that worked for a different age. Some like to call progressivism a philosophy. It is not. Liberalism is a philosophy. Progressivism is not the least bit ideological. Progressivism is pragmatic. It comes down to this: deal with the reality of what is before you by working with its dynamics rather than against it. As you might expect, I am a progressive.

William F. Buckley spent a career eloquently articulating the case for conservatism. Yet conservatism works only to the extent that its constituents do not change. Feudalism kept society stable and worked for centuries. Modern day feudalism, such as practiced by the Taliban or the Bush Administration, no longer works. One size no longer fits all.

In my fifty years, things have changed enormously. There are times when I too pine for the way things were. The order I perceived in the past provides a feeling of comfort. This is probably because I had few cares. I had my parents to worry about the real world for me and for them it was likely as messy as mine is today. I also know that time has passed forever. I would not now give up my computer, or my cell phone, or my unleaded gas, or my hundreds of entertainment choices to feel this way again. As I age, my world will continue to morph just as it always has.

Conservatism at its roots amounts to the desire to revert everyone to a myopic and unrealistic view of the past that was always more image than reality. Life was simpler for me in 1957 when I was born. However, to get that feeling of simplicity I would not want to return to the era of the Cold War. I would not want the pervasive racism that our country had back then. Nor would I want its pervasive conformity. I would not want my spouse to be a Stepford wife who had few career opportunities beyond that of mother and housewife. I would not want homosexuals to live in shame and in the shadows. I would not want just three television stations (all in black and white) and a few commercial radio stations. I would want the feeling of neighborhood and family connectedness that I had back then. I think we are recreating these for the times that we live in. In today’s world, these feelings are extended toward a larger community in cyberspace. My wife is one of many people whose social circle dramatically expanded with the Internet. Now they are very much her real friends. Fifty years ago, she would never have met any of these people.

We need to realize that while huge changes have occurred in our lifetimes, there have also been huge amounts of progress, much of it for the better. Fewer of us live in poverty. Our health care is better and we live longer and more meaningful lives. Most of us will not spend our final years in poverty. There is less discrimination in the workplace and in society in general. It is easier for us to be, as Martin Luther King prophesized, judged by the content of our character, not by the color of our skin. Barack Obama is a modern manifestation of King’s progressive vision.

We should want the best of both the past and the present, not just the past, and be mindful that what is new can be good as well as bad. I hope that by creating a better present, the future will unfold to be a happier and more enriching experience for all of us. I do know, as you should know also from the past eight years that trying to go back to the way things were done, is very damaging. Like communism, conservatism is one of these great ideas that stimulate the imagination but just do not work in execution. My hope is that after these last eight years, we will, like its great proselytizer William F. Buckley, give it a civil burial and move on.

 
The Thinker

Give a little love and simplify your life

My Dad has simplified his life to fit into a two-bedroom apartment. At age 81 and a widower this all for the best. Even so, his two-bedroom apartment is more than he needs. The spare bedroom is great for guests, but he does not get many of them. Since my mother passed away three years ago, he has been reducing his life even more. Her clothes were donated shortly after she died. Her plants proved too burdensome for him to care for, so they are gone. Also gone are any sign of holiday decorations, except for the smattering of Christmas cards that he places in a basket.

I hope long before I turn 81, assuming I make it to that ripe age, I have simplified my life too. My wife and I make periodic attempts. When they succeed, they amount to de-cluttering us to where we were a few years ago.

There is a burden to possessions, but its burden was not clear to me until this weekend. I helped my friend Renee sort through the property that her mother had left. Renee’s mother died unexpectedly last month at age 68. Both Renee and her mother could be forgiven for thinking that her mother would live longer than she did. I am sure though that if Renee’s mother had any inkling that she would not have survived to age seventy, she would have dramatically simplified her life. For in dying unexpectedly she left Renee with both a staggering amount of grief and a staggering amount of possessions. I did not realize just how much stuff this was until this weekend when a host of her friends and I went through the arduous process of helping her try to sort it all out.

Somehow, in spite of her grief, she and her son James managed to have a memorial service for her mother in South Carolina, empty her condominium and move her possessions to two storage units at a new ezStorage in nearby Reston, Virginia, all within the space of less than two weeks. We spent today simply trying to inventory their contents in order to identify any damaged items. There were close to ten of us going at it all afternoon, and we only made a modest dent in the pile. Her mother apparently was not afraid of living large, and seemed to have plenty of money. Her career took her to over eighty countries. Seemingly, in each, she found some exquisite piece of furniture or artwork to send home. I never met her mother, but clearly, she was no K-Mart shopper. I was just stunned by both the volume and the quality of her furnishings. She had a vase that was made in 600 A.D. She kept exquisite hardwood furniture handed down for generations that looked nearly new. Her art collection included dozens of truly stunning paintings from all over the world.

Nor was she afraid of the 21st century. She had a large high definition television, computers and all sorts of electronic gizmos. She also had many books. She also owned lots of other amazing stuff I cannot mention because my mind could not embrace its vastness. Her mother’s belongings filled up one of their biggest storage units, floor to ceiling, packed tight, as well as a smaller unit that was similarly packed so tightly it was hard to imagine where they could add a deck of cards.

No wonder Renee looked frazzled. It is not easy being the only surviving child when your last parent dies. The challenge becomes particularly large when your parent is also well moneyed and likes to buy things. Simply sorting through all of her stuff will take years. There are literally thousands of items, all of which need to be categorized and appraised. Most of it will end up sold at an estate sale. Once the estate sale is complete, Renee will never have to worry about money in her retirement.

Also left behind: a year old purebred Rag Doll feline, a sort of final living link to her mother. The cat is now living in Renee’s house, which is also full of birds. The cat needs a new home but the birds need to be protected from the cat’s predatory instincts. For now, the cat lives in her bedroom while she tries to find it a home. She would prefer to give it to someone she knows, so she can check up on it from time to time.

I do not expect to meet my maker at age 68 like Renee’s mother, but I do hope that by age 68 I will have gotten rid of most of my junk. Since that is only 17 years away, I had better start soon. We have walls full of books that we will never read again. We have dozens of cans of paint we will never reopen. I have warranties going back to the Reagan administration. We have three bikes, only one of which is ever used. We have three DVD players, all in perfectly good condition. We have seven computers but only three people actually living in the house.

All these possessions should feel liberating but increasingly they feel like a ball and chain, making my life overly crowded and confusing. Judging from my neighbors, my life is relatively de-cluttered. At least my garage actually has a car in it. Many of my neighbors leave their cars in their driveways and use their garage for storage.

Ideally I would leave this life about the way I entered it: naked and without a possession to my name. That seems unlikely, but what I can do is give my daughter (who like my friend Renee will someday be sifting through my effects) more time to grieve for my parting, and less time having to deal with my possessions. I think my father understands this, and I now realize that by simplifying his life, he is actually showing us great love.

Thanks, Dad.

 
The Thinker

iMac Journeys, Part Two

After a couple weeks, my iMac and I are settling in comfortably together. There is little sign that this marriage will require a quickie Las Vegas divorce. Mostly I love what I am experiencing. However, after having spent the last fifteen years in the bizarre world of Microsoft Windows, I can see it will take some time for me to reorient my brain to think like a Mac.

The extra peripherals have arrived and are installed. The most important one is this matias OS/X keyboard. Finally, I can type reliably again, although this keyboard is of no higher quality than any other plastic keyboard I have used. The chicklet keyboard that came with my iMac just was not working out. Also installed is a super quiet OWC Mercury Elite Pro external hard drive. It is hooked up via an ultra fast FireWire 800 cable to a FireWire port on the back of the iMac. It has 250 gigabytes, which is about average for an external hard drive these days. Its real virtue is that it lets me enable perhaps the most important but most neglected software built into the OS/X operating system, a utility called Time Machine. Time Machine not only keeps hourly, daily, weekly and monthly backups of my hard disk automatically, but also has a cool interface so I can go back in time to easily retrieve previous versions of a file. Using it to search for previous versions feels a little bit being Tony and Doug in that 60’s TV show Time Tunnel. Its main virtue is not that it keeps backups. You could do that on a PC for many years too. Its virtue is that it does it all automatically so you never have to think or even worry about it. Like much else about the Mac, after a tiny bit of set up, it just works.

That is not to say I have not had a few quirks. Mac Mail, an otherwise excellent email program, hung on me yesterday. Fortunately, OS/X figured it out and gave me the option to restart it. In addition, Mac Mail got confused today. It told me that an email in my Inbox was from X when actually it was from Y. Hopefully this is just a momentary glitch because otherwise I really like Mac Mail. I like the way that when you are focused on a message it automatically highlights other emails in the folder from the same person. I like its slick integration with IMAP mail servers. IMAP essentially lets me put all my email on GMail, but has the advantage of a much nicer user interface than GMail. Of course, if all my email is in GMail, then I can access all ten years of my email from any browser.

My Mac is just phenomenal at finding stuff easily. There is always Spotlight, which is a super fast and super easy to use search index of your computer. However, many applications, like Mac Mail, have a program-specific version of Spotlight integrated into it. In Mac Mail, for example, there is a convenient search box. Type anything in there and you do not even have to hit Return for it to start searching. It starts showing a results window specific to folder you are focused on in Mac Mail. It took a while to figure out how to import my email on my Windows machine. I was using Mozilla Thunderbird. Mac Mail would not let me directly import it from my PC version of Thunderbird. So I had to install Thunderbird for the Mac and import from the mailboxes on my PC. Then I used Mac Mail’s built in import facility for Thunderbird for the Mac. Forty thousand plus emails saved over the last ten years imported quickly and flawlessly.

So far, I found equivalents for various PC programs that I was used to using. I used Webdrive to remotely access computers as drive letters inside Windows, using the familiar FTP or SSH protocols. You can do this with a Mac but it is something of a hassle to pass the authentication information in an automated manner. ExpanDrive is an OS/X equivalent to Webdrive. I also needed a good visual code merge tool. WinMerge is a Windows solution that is neat and has the virtue of being free. I found a Mac equivalent called DeltaWalker that unfortunately is not free. That is the general problem with Mac software. There is a lot more free stuff for the PC than there is for the Mac. I do not mind paying extra money for this software for the conveniences built into the OS/X operating system.

Quicken for the Mac remains an issue. It is a little disappointing to pay $69.99 for the software to discover that it cannot even do some of the same features as my Windows version. For example, it cannot do scheduled transactions. This is annoying but right now, the larger problem is simply getting my 18 years of financial data moved over. I tried the conversion tips but they did not work. I get a “transaction file full” error when I move over my transactions. It looks like I will need some phone support from Quicken to clear this hurdle. Unfortunately, this means that I cannot donate my Windows machine quite yet.

The Mac has a cool multiple desktop feature called Spaces. The only problem is that old habits break hard. I find myself ALT-TABbing a lot, which in the Mac world is CMD-TAB but it does the same thing. I will refine these skills with time.

I really like The Dock, which is something like the Windows task bar that hangs out on the bottom of the screen, only bigger and with better icons. Unlike the Windows task bar, which only shows running applications, this one allows you to store shortcuts to your favorite applications. It also tells you which are running by placing a small luminescent blue dot beneath it. The Dock is always there so you do not have to navigate using a Start button. If an application needs your attention, it does so by jumping up and down. It is hard to miss and kind of cute!

I have just begun exploring some of the OS/X utilities. I have a movies folder and it is neat how in the folder view you can see a sample frame from the movie automatically. In addition, OS/X is smart enough to provide right and left arrow buttons on each side to let you easily browse your movies. There is also a scroll bar available to quickly zoom through your movies. On the other hand, I find some things annoying about the iTunes program. It does not seem to like Windows media and there is no conversion utility to turn them into MP3s, at least that I have found. Naturally, it wants to sell me iTunes. Moreover, iTunes seems to want to only work with an iPod. I own a Creative MP3 player. So far, to store music to it I have to mount it as a device and copy and paste MP3s into it.

I like OS/X’s Sleep mode. Windows has a Hibernate mode that most people do not use. Unlike Windows Hibernate, which can take thirty seconds or more of disk activity before it goes into hibernate mode, it is just a few seconds with the iMac. This is very convenient. Sleep mode uses very little power, and it takes only a couple seconds for the iMac to wake up. So I do not have to feel that guilty leaving it in sleep mode overnight. Everything is where I left it and fully accessible.

Unquestionably, OS/X is a superior to any edition of Windows. I would not characterize it as completely intuitive or 100% reliable. However, it is generally very consistent and reliable. With my memory upgrade to four gigabytes, it is also now blazingly fast. With its faster memory, it can download files much faster than my Windows machine. I figured the problem was that my Internet connection was relatively slow. It turns out that my Windows memory was the major bottleneck when I downloaded files.

Ah, engineering. That is what you really buy when you buy an iMac: premium hardware specifically designed to operate with the premium software. Using Windows is like driving on a gravel road. Using an iMac is like driving on a newly paved interstate highway with no traffic. It feels slick because it is slick.

More iMac adventures to follow.

 
The Thinker

Some candidates are more equal than others

It’s great to be a millionaire! You get to have all that money, live a lavish lifestyle and have your capital gains taxed at rates that are maybe one third to one half the rate of any income you happen to earn. Chalk up a new privilege for having deep pockets, thanks to a June 26th Supreme Court ruling. If you want to run for office, and so many millionaires do, you are also guaranteed to have an advantage over any less moneyed opponent.

The court has long held the dubious opinion that money is equal to freedom of speech. The obvious inference is that those with lots of money have a whole lot more freedom of speech than the rest of us. If I want to have the freedom of speech that millionaires have, say to put a full page advertisement in most of the nation’s major metropolitan newspapers, I might need to raise a couple million dollars. A millionaire though just writes a check. Done. I guess you have to wonder what is the point of having money, it being a completely fungible commodity, if you cannot spend it like you want. Some millionaires use their money to buy condominiums in Trump Tower while others use it to run for office. (Some do both.) No wonder that politicians like John McCain and John Kerry marry rich. Unless you have a certain personal magnetism like Barack Obama or have extremely good party connections, most politicians of modest means have to grub for campaign money the old fashioned way.

The so-called “Millionaire’s Amendment”, an attempt at campaign finance reform sponsored by Senators McCain and Feingold, was an attempt to even out the playing field for the less moneyed candidates. It was based on the assumption that all candidates should have as equal a playing field as possible so their message can be as equally heard as possible. This would allow voters to make a more informed choice and would promote a more effective government. The court had already invalidated limits on how much a millionaire can spend on their own campaign with their own money. The Millionaire’s Amendment simply stated that when a candidate spends more than $350,000 of his own money to run for office, his opponents’ contributors can spend up to three times as much as the normal $2,300 personal campaign limit otherwise imposed by law.

In this ruling, the Supreme Court once again proved that it is far more concerned about the free speech rights of millionaires than people like you and me. On the same day it overturned 200 years of precedent by saying that citizens have an absolute right to own a gun it also came out with this squirrelly opinion right out of Animal Farm.

Surely, you have read the George Orwell classic, right? In case you missed it, the book is a parable that tells the story of animals on a farm revolting against their oppressive owners and taking collective ownership of the farm. Only, as was true of the communism that it satired, the animals discovered that while all animals were in theory equal, some, specifically the pigs, were “more equal” than others.

Citizens, your Supreme Court agrees. The Declaration of Independence solemnly proclaims that all American citizens are created equal, but since those exact words are not in the constitution, the Supreme Court instead decided to parse the freedom of speech clause. Freedom to speak is apparently equivalent to the freedom to spend your own money anyway you want, which I mistook for the concept of liberty. If you are rich and running for office, your money gives you a disproportionate advantage to get out your message. It is like you having a sound truck going up and down the block while your opponent is reduced to speaking at a street corner. Guess whose point of view you are likely to hear? Guess who has a disproportionate influence?

The Millionaire’s Amendment was simply an attempt to even out the playing field a bit. There were no constraints on how much a millionaire could spend on his campaign, but it did allow his opponents to be heard a little louder. At least that was true until this ruling invalidated it. Justice Samuel Alito, writing for the slim 5-4 majority, said that it “imposes a penalty on any candidate who robustly exercises that First Amendment right” to “engage in unfettered political speech.”

You would think that a millionaire’s opponent would have that same unfettered right, but apparently only to the extent of their own less sizeable assets. In short, the Supreme Court has very explicitly stated that some people’s rights to finance their campaign are more important than yours, and you can measure the size of that right by the money in their pockets. Any attempts to rectify the situation through law, even when it does not restrain the millionaire’s right to spend his money as he pleases, are likely to be ruled unconstitutional by this court.

Clearly some animals are more equal than others and it appears the Supreme Court is going to make sure it stays that way.

 
The Thinker

Review: The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian

Some movies are improved by having read the source material before seeing the movie. If you have, like my wife, then the movie The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian should leave you entranced and very satisfied. As in my case, if you have not then this movie may not mean quite as much to you and may feel more than a bit formulaic.

Granted, I did see the first movie, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe back in 2005 and really liked it. The same actors playing the Pevensie children are back for the sequel, yet in the intervening three years they naturally look quite a bit older. At the rate they turn out these movies, the actors may mature long before their characters do in the books. All are competent actors for their young ages, but not always totally convincing in their parts. I found Anna Popplewell, who plays Susan Pevensie, disturbingly attractive, with her dark hair and eyes and gorgeous lithe figure. Susan can give Legolas a contest with the bow and arrow, and at least Anna Popplewell can act, unlike Orlando Bloom. I looked up Popplewell’s age in IMDB and she is above the age of consent, so I can feel good about lusting for her.

Sequels rarely live up to the original and that is the case with this movie. It is several hundred years later in Narnia, and the residents have grown complacent. Narnia is now mostly a myth and a council rules the land, since Prince Caspian is apparently too young to ascend the throne and his father is dead. Caspian, played by the boyish and devilishly handsome Ben Barnes, becomes a marked man the moment his aunt gives birth to a son. He is hustled out of the castle by Doctor Cornelius (Vincent Grass), a sort of Professor Dumbledore-lite because his evil Uncle Mirax uses the birth of his son to try to kill him and to put himself on the throne. Out in the woods Caspian meets the thought to be extinct creatures of Narnia. He blows a magical horn given to him by Doctor Cornelius, which has the effect of summoning Lucy, Edward, Peter and Susan back from London during the Blitz to Narnia. It is just as well for they have been itching to get back to Narnia anyhow. I guess dodging all those V-2 rockets isn’t exciting enough for them.

It takes them a while to realize the Narnia they left is largely gone and that many hundreds of years have elapsed. It is not too long before they encounter Narnia’s oppressed creatures and Prince Caspian, although there are the usual suspicions and fights you might expect as they straighten out the new pecking order. Aslan, the mysterious God-like largely benevolent lion seems to be absent. Only little Lucy sees him at all, and the others discount her sighting as the product of her overactive imagination. Uncle Mirax uses Prince Caspian’s departure to consolidate his hold on power and become the evil King Mirax.

Overpowered by his forces, the marginal forces of Narnia, led by King Peter, launch a night attack on the King’s castle. It is only partially successful and leads to many deaths. The Narnians are forced to retreat to a catacomb deep in the woods, but their eventual defeat of course seems inevitable against King Mirax’s superior army. Their only hope is for King Peter to challenge King Mirax to a dual to the death. Naturally, this tactic proves reasonably successful as King Mirax feels he must show his superior skills to his people.

So there is much swordsmanship, profuse sweating, battles mixing real and animated participants, glorious CGI and wailing and gnashing of teeth. It is pretty clear that with the book having its source in a series of Christian-oriented children’s books that good will triumph over evil somehow, if only the good residents of Narnia can show their moxie. Okay, I will spoil the plot: somehow, they do win against all odds. Aslan does show up at a rather anticlimactic point toward the end of the movie. Prince Caspian, aided by all the other youthful kings and queens around him, finds his courage and eventually claims his kingdom. The Pevensies get to return to London.

Still, the movie is not that much worse than its predecessor. In my opinion, you cannot film too many movies in glorious New Zealand. The acting is mostly competent all around. In addition, there are a number of new characters that add a lot of fun. One of them is Reepicheep, a swashbuckling mouse voiced by Eddie Izzard. Yet, the movie is at times confusing. Aslan when he appears speaks mostly in mystical mumbo jumbo. Considering the odds the Narnians faced, couldn’t he have arrived a wee bit sooner?

If you are a fan of the books, see the movie. If you have never read them, you will find this movie reasonably engaging, if predictable. Bring the kids, particularly if you want them to grow up with good Christian values. It is at least gloriously realized.

3.1 on my 4.0 scale.

 

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