Archive for September, 2008

The Thinker

The Wall Street villain in your mirror

Well, who would have thought it possible? Liberals and conservatives are finally united! Not on everything, you understand, but definitely on the plan to bail out Wall Street. By a vote of 228 to 205, the bill was ingloriously defeated today in the U.S. House of Representatives. We agreed: we do not want to bail out Wall Street for its malfeasance with $700 billion or more of our tax dollars.

The stock markets did not react well at the news that no one might be coming to their rescue. The Dow Jones Industrial Average fell like a large jetliner, a 777 in this case, falling 777 points, a new one-day record. Not being an economist, I do not know whether this decision by the House was correct or will ultimately become self defeating, but I know it gave me I short vicarious thrill. If it results in a severe recession or a depression, taxpayers may ultimately wish their congressional representative had gone against their wishes. Nevertheless, when the mail runs 100 to 1 against a bailout and your reelection is but a month away, then you might want to pay attention to your constituents. Oddly, 205 members of Congress voted for the bailout anyhow, perhaps gambling that in the end their votes would look smart.

The biggest danger of inaction is not plunging stock values, but a collapsing credit market. For now, credit markets will be squeezed tighter and tighter. Financial firms, sensing hard times, seek to remain solvent by hording cash. This makes the cost of borrowing money pricier, at least for those on Wall Street. Community banks and credit unions currently seem to be holding their own and are in fact taking in new business. However, their funds are not unlimited. Businesses large and small need access to ready credit for major things like meeting their payrolls. So we may find that by punishing Wall Street we are doing something akin to amputating our own foot. However, if your foot is gangrenous, perhaps its amputation is not a bad idea.

Dr. Paulson, i.e. Secretary of the Treasury Henry Paulson thinks the foot can be saved with the application of $700 billion, or perhaps even more, if only we would stop dickering with him about whether the surgery is needed. Paulson is likely a smart guy, but there are many other economists with different opinions. I doubt any of them really can say for sure how to fix the financial markets because this seems to be a different kind of financial experience.

Well, perhaps it is not entirely new. It bears more than a passing resemblance to the Savings & Loan Crisis of the 1980s, a crisis for which current presidential candidate John McCain bears partial blame. He now claims his involvement with the Keating 5 was the worst mistake of his political life. It is unfortunate that he did not learn from his mistake because he generally voted in lockstep with other Republicans and the Bush Administration who were anxious to “free” the free market. Apparently, the free market does not need as much freedom as we gave it and instead should be kept on a big, thick chain attached to a stake in the ground.

Therefore, our stock portfolios are taking a nosedive. Many of you are probably like me. I have most of our daughter’s college education funds invested in mutual funds. Some were moved into income bond and money market funds months ago, but that was just an ordinary thing to do when your child begins college. We are partly protected, but it is clear that unless markets rebound considerably in the years ahead, we will lose tens of thousands of dollars that we painfully invested for her college education. We feel fortunate that we are not more vulnerable to the stock market. Of course, we own many other funds, but we fully expect in twenty years time when we need to draw from them that their value will have recovered.

Anyhow, we sure hope they recover in time. We may be naïve too. This financial crisis may take us a generation or two to dig out of. It may result in the reordering the financial sector from the ground up. One thing is clear: our houses and our stocks have been overvalued for a long time. We are now discovering their true price.

Why are they worth so much less than we thought? Again, I am no economist but I think we all know the answer in our gut: debt. It is not just our individual debt, but also government debt. We are mostly all leveraged to the max so we can live beyond our means. The effects of our indebtedness could be masked for a while, but not forever. Debt in fact discounts the value of our assets.

Secretary Paulson’s attempt to reopen the credit markets may save the patient for a day, but is unlikely to lead to a full recovery without systemic changes. You can hospitalize a severely obese patient who is in the throes of a bad case of diabetes. Yet, unless they also commit to losing weight, eating healthier and exercising regularly they are unlikely to have many more years ahead of them. My suspicion is if by reopening the credit markets we go back to bad habits then we will find that another financial crisis will not be far off. Perhaps this explains my feelings of shadenfruede at Wall Street after the House vote today. The bastards deserved this vote to go against them! However, to really see the bastards, we have to look in the mirror. Just as we chose to live beyond our means, we also chose to elect people that made it possible for us to live beyond our collective means. We did this to ourselves. We were done in by our own reckless greed.

We have to learn how to live within our means again. Not only that, we must reduce our indebtedness too. This is not a platform that is likely to be good for political careers. It may make President Obama a one-term president. Yet, this appears to be what we have to do. We must learn to embrace austerity. How un-American!

The good news is that like it or not we are all in this together now. Wall Street’s pain is our pain, and our pain is its pain. I think it is fine to limit executive compensation for executives of firms we have to bail out. Perhaps as a result the next generation of financial managers will invest money more prudently. Perhaps they will invest in companies that actually produce useful stuff, rather than become enamored with shady financial instruments like repackaged second rate mortgage debt. The world is learning as well. It is learning that its economy is tied with our own. China is learning that putting its surplus in U.S. dollars is a bad investment.

After the immense pain of the Great Depression, it seemed we could never unlearn its lessons. Yet, our hand has been burned on the hot stove yet again. This time, will we finally learn the lesson?

The Thinker

The first debate

My thanks to my friend Renee, who invited a whole bunch of us over to her house last night to watch the first presidential debate between Senators McCain and Obama. It is more fun to watch debates in the presence of other likeminded people. If you are a political junkie like me, the first presidential debate is the highlight of your political year. This year it is hard to imagine a debate where the issues mattered more. There as always was the stoic Jim Lehreh at his desk facing the candidates, two podiums and an audience full of eerily silent people lurking in the dark.

As theater, the debate did not quite meet my expectations. I only grudgingly give it a C. I came prepared for a good verbal swordfight but with a few exceptions, nothing like blood was shed. It soon became clear that Barack Obama was going to be gentlemanly throughout, no matter what mud was slung his way. If you are trying to appear presidential and bipartisan, this is likely a good strategy but makes for ho-hum television. Still there were so many missed opportunities to hit McCain. Obama reiterated the obvious ones, like McCain’s support for the Iraq War and his tendency to vote the party line. I guess it would have looked mean spirited to inflict too many wounds. McCain after all is an ex-POW and was tortured by the North Vietnamese. Perhaps Obama figured he should not suffer too much.

Frankly, I had far more fun watching and listening to Senator McCain than Senator Obama. The frequent split screen shots were quite revealing. I figure McCain must have cracked a molar from pressing his jaws so tight. While obviously trying to hide his true feelings, McCain’s face was actually a window into his soul. Basically, he was seriously pissed. For the most part, he could not actually come out and act pissed so instead we got many half smiles that looked totally fake while inside you could see that major earthquakes were going on. There were times when I felt certain that McCain was fantasizing about walking across the stage and giving Obama a shiner. It was perhaps borne out by his inability to look at Obama during the debate, and his halfhearted handshake before and after the debate itself.

Not that I was planning to vote for McCain anyhow but his body language and screwed up face just confirmed for me that I want neither he nor his vice presidential pick to have their hands anywhere near our nuclear launch codes. When he did criticize Obama, it was in a mean and condescending way: poor little Barack, he is so dangerously naïve and inexperienced.

Obama was, in a word, unflappable. For McCain, debating Obama turned out to be like being at a carnival game booth where you keep trying to hit the moving ducks and you find out that you never came close. Obama was consistently measured, respectful and when he criticized McCain, it was always based on the facts.

It was also hard not to contrast their styles. Obama has a broad and natural grin that just radiates sincerity. McCain looked like he had an inflamed hemorrhoid. You could see that at times not all his neurons were firing in the proper order. His sentences often rambled and his thoughts were not always coherent. He frequently repeated himself. He went on and on about earmarks, as if cutting them would seriously address federal spending. Puh-lease. If you really want to cut federal spending you have to cut Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security, and neither of them are suicidal. Obama slipped up a few times too. He called McCain “Jim” at one point but quickly corrected himself. As a master speaker, McCain was wholly outclassed.

The pundits are suggesting that neither McCain nor Obama won the debate, but of those who had an opinion, Obama generally got higher marks. Who won really matters little. What matters is: did the debate change the dynamics of the race? Various focus groups of independent voters watching the debate showed that overall Obama did a better job of wooing independents than McCain. I doubt the polls will change much as a result of the debate but if they move at all, they will move toward Obama.

Overall, McCain performed better than I expected. While rambling and incoherent at times, I heard less of it than I anticipated. Moreover, there were times when he looked genuinely sincere and thoughtful. Those times though were few and fleeting. Behind in the polls, he felt the need to sling as much mud as he could at Obama to see if any of it stuck. In my opinion, none of it landed. In this jousting match, neither rider was thrown off their horse. Obama had McCain reeling a few times but McCain managed to stay on. McCain hit Obama’s armor a few times but neither he nor his horse had to check their stride.

Most of us were hoping that both candidates could be pinned down on the current economic crisis. Neither McCain nor Obama rose to Jim Lehreh’s bait, and gave circumspect replies that basically did not tell us how they felt about the package beyond some principles they wanted to see in the final legislation. Both seemed anxious to weasel around the question. That was disappointing but perhaps not wholly unexpected given that the issue is in such flux now. What legislation that finally emerges at this point is anyone’s guess.

The vice presidential debate next Thursday is likely to be far more entertaining.

The Thinker

Review: Ghost Town

Washington Post movie reviewer Ann Hornaday says the recently released movie Ghost Town falls into the genre of “the Really Good Movie”. Because it has been a while since I had seen a really good movie my wife and I made a point of going to see it.

I am not sure I would throw Ghost Town into the really good movie category, but I can comfortably place it in the pretty darn good movie category. This is probably because except for the last twenty minutes of so, Ghost Town, while often interesting and amusing, is also difficult to endure.

Specifically, it is difficult to watch Bertram Pincus, D.D.S., a generally loathsome character portrayed by British character actor Ricky Gervais. Pincus suffers from a fatal flaw: irritable man syndrome. In real life when you encounter someone like this antisocial dentist, you would immediately move to the other side of the room. In Ghost Town, since Pincus is the lead character, you have to inhabit his word for 102 minutes. Pincus is a dentist who moved from London to New York City because he hates crowds (go figure). He works in a multi-partner dental practice in Manhattan. He likes his profession in part because he so rarely needs to have meaningful conversation with anyone. Mostly he wants to be left alone. At the end of his workday, he is completely comfortable retiring to his condominium. He is not unlike Ebenezer Scrooge except he is not obsessed with thriftiness and has a gentle self-deprecating sense of humor.

Pincus must have hit the big 5-0 because he reluctantly checks into the hospital for a colonoscopy. In doing so, he also manages to irritate everyone on the staff. After he wakes up, he discovers that he can see ghosts. Apparently, while in the operating room he was technically dead for seven minutes. Unfortunately, he cannot distinguish between ghosts and real people, which makes life very confusing. Moreover, the ghosts wandering around Manhattan are there because they have some unfinished business. Pincus is their sole conduit with the living. Because he is a loner and ghosts have little respect for his privacy, this is quite annoying. In addition, they sure are persistent, following him en masse around the city and occupying the spare seats in the dental office. He sometimes has to invent clever ruses to escape them. One of the ghosts is Frank Herlihy (Greg Kinnear). While in the process of setting up a love nest for some hanky panky, Frank had an unfortunate encounter with a falling air conditioner. Frank latches onto Pincus with more force than a lamprey’s mouth to the hull of a ship. This is due to the convenient fact that Pincus just happens to live in the same apartment complex as his wife.

Pincus, being an irritable man, has hardly endeared himself with Frank’s wife Gwen (Téa Leoni). In fact, he has repeatedly ignored her requests to hold the elevator door and refused to share cabs with her. Yet in order to get Frank to leave him alone he must help him with some unfinished business with Gwen. Since Kinnear also excels in playing irritable characters, Bertram and Frank become a new Odd Couple somehow deserving of each other. Unlike Pincus, Frank at least is attractive or was before he had his encounter with immortality. To rid himself of Frank, Pincus finds that he must try to develop a friendship with Gwen. It proves an uphill task, made worse by Pincus’s pathological tendency to say the worst possible things at the worst possible time.

What makes this all endurable is its underlying light comedy. Pincus may be irritable, but he is irritable in a largely benign way that usually lacks in overt hostility. Over time, we learn that much of his irritability can be traced to a past relationship whose baggage still weighs him down. The same was true with Ebenezer Scrooge.

The light humor and the potpourri of ancillary characters make the movie generally endurable but as a moviegoer, you have to ask, toward what end? This becomes clear in the last twenty minutes of the film, causing the film to become unexpectedly poignant and endearing. God (or at least scriptwriters) works in mysterious ways.

Ghost Town is a solid B+ of a movie. At times, it drags and feels a bit slow. You may find that its light humor is not enough to make you endure Pincus and want to exit the theater instead. However, if you make it all the way through, rest assured that your patience will be rewarded.

3.1 on my 4.0 scale.

The Thinker

Where no man has gone before

These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before. (Italics mine)

Speaking of Star Trek, actor George Takei (age 71), a member of the original Star Trek cast who is perhaps better known as Lieutenant Sulu was married yesterday at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles, California. Most Americans would probably wish Takei best wishes in his marriage, but perhaps fewer would if they knew that he married another man.

Takei Wedding pictureHis husband is Brad Altman, age 54. This might suggest that Takei has a tendency for younger men, except they have already been happily together for twenty-one years. Regardless of what you think about gays and the sanctity of marriage, it is likely that this marriage will survive, since it seems like it has been a marriage in all but the legal sense for a long time.

Well, maybe not. On November 4th, California voters get to weigh in on Proposition 8 that would declare marriage between gays and lesbians illegal. So perhaps this marriage will only survive in the legal sense for a few more months. Takei and Altman though need not worry too much. Current polls suggest Californians will defeat the proposition handily.

Takei may be a famous actor but that doesn’t mean Uncle Sam will cut he and Altman a tax break for their commitment of love. Gay marriage may be technically legal in California and Massachusetts, but that doesn’t mean they can expect any federal recognition for their union. When it is time to file their 1040s with the IRS next year, they darn well better check “Single” or the IRS may have to send its auditors to check their returns for the last thirty years.

Star Trek was of course a product of the 1960s when liberalism was surging. Star Trek let us envision a different world after we had transcended polarizing issues such as racism and sexism. The Enterprise was the model of diversity. Takei played the token Asian. Still, creator Gene Roddenberry was not quite bold enough to add an openly gay character. Back in the 1960s, if you were a homosexual you were deep, deep in the closet. Homosexuals were almost universally perceived to be perverts and deviants. Except for a handful of people, heterosexuals could not conceive of homosexuals being otherwise ordinary people.

So while Takei performed in the original series I doubt he informed Gene Roddenberry about his sexual preference. Back then I suspect Roddenberry probably would have recoiled had he known of his proclivities. Most likely Takei would also have been out of a job. Even if he were okay with it, NBC would not have allowed it. What if it got into the press? I mean, the show ran during prime time! Roddenberry was an extraordinary liberal of his age. I learned when I heard him speak at my university in 1975 that he embraced the radical notion of child liberation, i.e. children should have the right to make their own decisions rather than their parents. In the 1960s, accepting a known homosexual on his cast probably would have been a bridge too far.

Still, there were relationships among the Star Trek characters that raised some eyebrows. Fans noticed right away that the relationship between Kirk and Spock (and to a lesser extent, between Kirk and McCoy) seemed, well, unusually close. Spock was loyal to Kirk, but his feelings transcended mere loyalty and even friendship into something that sure looked like (for all his Vulcan logic) emotional dependency. In Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Spock’s last words before dying to save the crew were, “I am and always shall be your friend.” There wasn’t a Trekker in the theater, man or woman, who was not welling up. Female fans picked up the homosexual subtext early. Their interest spawned all sorts of erotic fanzines that detailed (and continue to detail to this day) the enormous emotional and sexual energy they figure must have been going on between the two characters. In fact, it started a whole movement known as slash. In his last interview, Gene Roddenberry spontaneously admitted that while he felt he was capable of sex with men, he never acted on the impulse. He said that he was intrigued by what he saw as the “many joys and pleasures and degrees of closeness in those relationships”. Whether these feelings manifested themselves overtly or unconsciously in the closeness portrayed between Kirk and Spock is unknown.

Over the years, the Star Trek cast has remained a fairly close bunch. This was due in part to its enormous fan popularity, but also because most of its actors became typecast and had few other choices for earning a living. Some, like the late James Doohan (Scotty), decided to revel in the fan experience. It was hard to attend any Star Trek convention without finding Jimmy. So perhaps it is not surprising that when Takei and Altman were married yesterday, two prominent roles in the wedding went to two members of the Star Trek cast. Walter Koenig (who played Ensign Chekov) was Takei’s Best Man. Nichelle Nichols (Lieutenant Uhura) also attended as his “Best Woman”. It does not appear that any other of the original Star Trek actors were in attendance.

Star Trek has indeed taken us, in the imagination, to brave new worlds but in 1966 when the show started this was a world no one dared show on television. It may be 2008 but I imagine it still took some bravery for Koenig and Nichols to stand up for their long time friend on his long delayed wedding day. It makes me wonder why Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner did not attend. Perhaps they were not invited. On the other hand, perhaps Takei’s sexual orientation made them uncomfortable. Takei is hardly the first man to get married in America, but he is perhaps the most prominent gay American to do so. In a sense, he is taking many Star Trek fans boldly into a new world. His sexual orientation was hardly a secret but not necessarily known among casual fans of the show. Takei also has a history of boldly standing up for injustice. He is a prominent figure in promoting attention to the injustice inflicted on Japanese Americans because of their involuntary internment during World War 2. This also explains his choice of a wedding location.

As an atheist, Roddenberry did not believe in an afterlife. Nonetheless, if he did find himself inadvertently in the afterlife after his death at age 70 in 1991, I bet yesterday his immortal spirit was observing Takei and Altman take their vows. If he could be seen, I bet he would be seen gently crying in joy. For so many years later, Star Trek is still taking us to brave new and enlightened worlds.

It’s trite, but live long and prosper, guys.

The Thinker

The ownership society has arrived!

On February 21, 2003, President Bush gave a speech in Kennesaw, Georgia. There he first talked about America becoming an “ownership society”. In those heady days of neo-conservatism, an ownership society meant power was going to trickle down to the masses. We would be in charge (own) our health care and drive down medical costs through the magic elixir of medical savings accounts. We would have more ownership over our children’s education by using government furnished vouchers to send them to the local charter or private schools, rather than the nearby public school. Moreover, we would “fix” the social security problem by empowering each citizen to own his or her retirement. We would do this by allowing them to invest at least a portion of their social security withholdings into the stock market. Over forty or so years in the workplace, the value of those assets would compound and compound. Thanks to the magic of our free market we would all retire, if not exactly millionaires, then comfortably indeed. You can easily see how much better life would be if we could just become owners of these things instead of, well, renters!

Good news Americans! We have indeed become the ownership society! Today, more and more of us cannot afford health insurance, so we now get to pay for all of our medical expenses out of pocket! This gives us a feeling of ownership over our health care we never had before in those horrid insured days. Now we have plenty of incentive to shop around although, admittedly it may be hard to drive a bargain with an emergency room physician at 2 AM, particularly when you are profusely bleeding or are unconscious. Many of us are choosing to own the problem of our health care by not seeking medical help at all. We hope that we can find relief in over the counter medicines or $4 generic prescriptions at Wal-Mart. For those of us who used to have health insurance, how can we claim that we are not owners? In the past, you were at the whim of your health insurance companies, who stipulated what they would cover in their expensive, take it or leave it contracts. Now you are unencumbered, free of the HMO and PPO bureaucracy to make your own informed health care choices and to shop around. Perhaps my family doctor will reduce my rate if I threaten to buy an over the counter medication instead.

Those school vouchers sound pretty good too. They do have a few minor drawbacks. First, your voucher probably will not be made up with additional revenue to finance our local public schools, but that’s their tough luck. That’s what they get for providing mediocre education. Second, it is likely that whatever voucher you receive will not cover the full cost of your children’s tuition. Maybe some cheap local charter school will not ask you for additional tuition yet will magically provide high academic standards. Anyhow, it looks like vouchers may involve significant extra out of pocket tuition expenses. When you write those tuition checks instead of putting the money away for junior’s college education, you should feel a sense of ownership. Perhaps you can get stock in the local charter school, and use your shares to vote for principals that you like.

And as for financing our retirements with gains from the stock market, good news there too! You may be asking, “Mark, haven’t you read the papers? The stock market is in the toilet because of the sub-prime housing mess! How could there possibly be any good news?” Well, you see it is good news because, citizens, now we are all going to be owners, whether we like it or not! As usual, our fine financial leadership leapt into action. After finally determining that our financial system had a severe case of constipation (due to consuming too much sub-prime mortgage backed securities of uncertain worth), the Secretary of the Treasury, working with the Chairman of the Federal Reserve and the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, decided that a pricey dose of Ex-Lax was in order for Wall Street. Apparently, the U.S. Treasury underwriting Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac was not enough. The government, already the insurer of last resort for floods, will now own eighty percent of the mega-insurance underwriting company AIG in exchange for providing it with a huge line of credit in order to ensure it stays solvent. In addition, our administration is readying to ask Congress to spend up to seven hundred billion dollars to buy these sub-prime and other securities that Wall Street cannot unload. We are told that this will solve Wall Street’s constipation problem for good since those Fannie and Freddie bail out suppositories did not do the trick. The good news, citizen, is that the federal government will now own all these properties, which means you are entitled to your share! No wonder the stock market finally roared back at the end of the week. Those traders were positively euphoric. You would be too if you went to Las Vegas and lost everything you own in the casinos, including your house and cars, only to find that your older brother, in his largess, was going to cover your reckless losses. In fact, you would probably head right back into the casinos to see if you could work some more of this magic.

So we the taxpayers are the winners here, see? Wall Street gets to go back to its business and we the taxpayers get to own all these properties, many of which are spanking new! I know I want my property. I know that soon the government will own all sorts of properties across the country. I want my sub-prime house! I was thinking about requesting my free house in Flagstaff, Arizona as a possible retirement house. That way I could sell my current house and keep the proceeds. Sweet!

There is the little problem that the government is not planning to raise my taxes to purchase all these sub-prime mortgage backed securities. Raising taxes of course is evil, even when completely necessary, which means that we will petition our creditors, most of who are foreign, to lend us seven hundred billion dollars so we can in turn buy these mortgage backed securities whose value no one can actually assess. I suspect our creditors will be accommodating because they have no idea what their investments in these sub-prime securities are actually worth either. Yet, they have an idea that the U.S. Treasury will still be in business in ten or fifty years when their U.S. Treasury bonds come due, with interest, of course.

So maybe I will not get my free house as I hoped. Maybe instead it will be our foreign creditors since technically it appears that they own the country, not me. My job as taxpayer is apparently mainly to cough up the interest on our federal debt.

Hmm. So perhaps I was premature to suggest that the Bush Administration succeeded in making us all homeowners, even those of us who rent. On the surface though it looks like, sure enough, neo-conservative principles have worked! We now have that ownership society they promised us! Who says we have a miserable failure as a president? He delivered on his ownership society in just five years!

And yet, this new ownership society just doesn’t quite look and behave the way we expected. It is like buying a Rolex watch only to find out it is a cheap rip off.

Well I am sure that by doing more of the same and electing John McCain and Sarah “I can dress a moose” Palin as our next president and vice president, during the next four years we can become even more of an ownership society. It’s funny though. This ownership society sure looks like an ower-ship society to me. From the greatly deflated value of my stock portfolio, it looks like I am already paying the price for other’s incompetence and malfeasance.

The Thinker

Consciousness as a two-way mirror

I haven’t written about metaphysics for quite a while, mainly because I did not have much to say. Principally, I was losing interest in the subject but also I have been busy engaging in life, which I suspect is its natural purpose. Yet, occasionally something comes up in the press on metaphysics that piques my curiosity. Yesterday this article on The Human Consciousness Project was published on Time Magazine’s website. The project, led by Dr. Sam Parnia of the Weill-Cornell Medical Center involves an in-depth worldwide coordinated study into out of body experiences that some claim to have while they are technically dead, but who are later successfully revived.

I have occasional disagreements with my brother on the afterlife or lack thereof. My brother is a scientist and is trained to be skeptical, which is to his credit. Unsurprisingly, he categorizes himself as an atheist. Studies underway like this one though raise reasonable doubt. Says Dr. Parnia:

There was a cardiologist that I spoke with who said he hasn’t told anyone else about it because he has no explanation for how this patient could have been able to describe in detail what he had said and done. He was so freaked out by it that he just decided not to think about it anymore.

I think it is great that what many would consider loony science is getting some clinical study again. It may be simply my natural fear of mortality, but I have come to believe that I have a soul or spirit that is external and transcends death. For the most part, it is just a feeling, but I am glad to know there have been and are continuing scientifically rigorous studies into out of body experiences.

One obvious question is whether a person who had such an experience was truly dead. Dr. Parnia points out that death is not instantaneous and that it takes a long time for our cells to actually die after being deprived of oxygen. Most of us assume though that if there are no brain waves, no reflexes and no heart is beating that you must be dead. If our brain is not working it should not be possible for those ten percent who experience out of body experiences while being clinically dead to later report in such detail actual experiences they observed while dead. Yet, unless there is a huge conspiracy taking place (something that flunks the Occam’s Razor test) that appears to be the case. Something, let us call it consciousness, can survive the clinical definition of death and is aware.

More to the point though is Dr. Parnia’s speculation on how this could be happening:

Now, if you look at the mind, consciousness, and the brain, the assumption that the mind and brain are the same thing is fine for most circumstances, because in 99% of circumstances we can’t separate the mind and brain, they work at the exactly the same time. But then there are certain extreme examples, like when the brain shuts down, that we see that that this assumption may no longer seem to hold true. So a new science is needed in the same way that we had to have a new quantum physics.

My suspicion, as is also true with Dr. Parnia, is that as we get a better understanding of quantum physics we may begin to understand that consciousness and brain activity are actually two aspects of the same thing. Indeed, I speculated as much in this post. The better our understanding of quantum physics becomes, the more our fundamental assumptions of what is reality seem undermined.

We are all subject to our own biases, and I am no exception. The renowned physicist Dr. Albert Einstein came up with the groundbreaking theories of General and Special Relativity, which opened our eyes to a reality that we could not see. It is hard for us to believe in the reality he described: that we are bound in a finite warped matrix called space-time and that it is the relationship of objects inside this continuum that warps time and space. It’s all so abstract, like algebra, to seem real. Yet, Einstein utterly rejected the then emerging science of quantum physics because he was philosophically opposed to its nondeterministic pinnings. “God does not play dice with the universe,” he once famously said. Like relativity, quantum physics seems impossible for us to grasp. It is hard to grasp that at some small level that time does not have any meaning; that everything is probable but nothing is certain; that a wave consists of both particles and energy simultaneously and that Schrodinger’s Cat could be both dead and alive at the same instant. These are all paradoxical truths of our universe at a certain level and perspective. Our instinct is to reject notions at variance with our common experience.

We do know, as Einstein articulated, that energy and mass are interchangeable. What I am beginning to understand is that everything we perceive as real is energy in some form or another, and what we perceive as mass or matter is merely a transitory property of energy made possible by the unique arrangement of certain physical conditions in the space-time continuum.

So what we experience as our life and perception appears to be a combination of both mass and energy. Yet, since mass and energy are essentially interchangeable, it is not wholly beyond possibility that at brain death consciousness survives. The difference is that since the energy that makes up our consciousness cannot be accessed through the matter that is our brain, that those of us trapped in the mass-energy concoction we call consciousness cannot perceive it.

Death may be and I think likely is nothing more than a door from one variant of experience to another. Einstein also taught us that energy could never be destroyed. It could only change in form. Perhaps death then is like a two-way mirror. When a person stands behind a two-way mirror and he is in a lighted room, another person outside the room looking at the mirror can see him because the mirror becomes semi-transparent. Turn off the light and you just see your reflection. In both cases, two people are present. In only one case can you perceive the other.

Our soul may be like that. Our soul though may be what we really are, and our body may simply be like its shadow, a part of us and inseparable from us. Well documented after death out of body experiences suggest that something like this is occurring, as crazy as it may seem in our current reality frame. Perhaps the skeptics among us simply need to widen their lens, much like Einstein did to more perfectly describe the Newtonian universe. Perhaps we need to acknowledge a universe that is far more real than our limited intellects can grasp.

The Thinker

Belated cat blogging

It was two years ago this September 9th that we adopted a homeless and rather ordinary looking black and brown three year old tabby. After two years of living with us, Arthur is settling in well. For a cat, he is living the good life. He has a home of his own. We provide him with shelter, food, water and plenty of attention. Arthur even has his own cat door to our screened in deck. There he can while away a day sleeping on a table or watching the birds, squirrels and bunnies that traverse across our back yard.

Whatever trauma was inflicted on him as a young cat still lingers. While he loves his adopted humans very much, he is still not comfortable being picked up or cuddled. He remains profoundly skittish and paranoid. When I can get him on my lap, just a slight shift in position is enough to make him bolt off my lap. He still requires an escape route before going into any room. Having too many people at close range makes him nervous.

At the same time, he dotes on attention and petting. He is an easy cat to please. Scratch him on gently on his head, or under his chin, or pull lightly on his tail and he purrs contentedly and looks at you with adoring eyes. He loves being brushed so much that if he were not so ordinary looking he might win a pet competition. With continual coaxing, I can get him to jump on my lap. Occasionally, he is in such need of attention that he will jump on my lap on his own initiative. He is discovering that being on my lap can be enormous fun. Yet, he has to weigh his fun against his intense feelings of paranoia.

For a while he let us trim his nails but he must have figured out that it reduced his ability to defend himself, so now that is out of the question. This makes bearing a cat on my lap challenging. Even when I wear heavy jeans, I often feel the sharp prick of a claw on my leg. When I wear shorts, I can see the scars I bear for the honor of being loved by a cat.

Arthur has every comfort a cat could want but does not know what luxury means. We bought him a nice clean kitty bed that he has never slept in. We have a cat condo used by our previous feline residents, but he has never ventured into it. His favorite place to sleep is in the basement on a couch, where he has ample warning of people coming and going.

In the morning, I typically find him in our TV room looking out through our blinds at the street. Occasionally he will greet me at the bedroom door in the morning, but since our daughter is a night owl, he tends to need his morning rest. Mostly in the morning, he is looking lethargically out the window. He may well be in a hypnotized state.

His cat door is actually inset into a window in our kitchen. It is hard to get in or outside of without something to rest on, so we have turned a kitchen chair into a cat stool. On the other side of the window is a table we use sporadically when we feel the desire to eat outside he uses as a platform. He makes a dozen trips a day or more outside. The sound of the cat door opening and shutting has become very familiar.

Arthur is a simple cat. He is neither particularly stupid nor brilliant. We have purchased various cat toys for his amusement. For the most part, they are ignored. It is likely that his kittenhood was too traumatic to have learned how to play. All he wants is positive attention at the times of his choosing. He seems to lack most common feline curiosity, although to my surprise I recently saw him looking at me from the other side of the bathroom door. Previous felines in our household delighted in hiding in closets or under furniture. They also enjoyed getting vertical. Arthur likes to always be in plain site and generally avoids sitting on furniture. In that sense, he is a remarkably respectful cat.

He does have one serious deficiency. Perhaps the litter boxes at the shelter were not changed as often as he would like. Despite having two litter boxes cleaned twice a week, he has been known to periodically urinate on the carpet, much to our consternation. He always picks the same spot. When this happens, out comes our oversized bottle of cat urine odor remover, although it never seems to quite do the trick. Worse were the occasions when he would pee down our air ducts. Then his odor would stink up the whole house. There were times that the smell was overwhelming. We have had our ducts professionally cleaned, covered one register completely and put a special vent over the other. His favorite spot on the rug for peeing is now covered with a rubber bath mat. Soon we expect to replace the carpet with a wood floor, which will make future episodes like this easier to deal with. (Yes, he has been to the vet on this issue. One incident showed he had a bladder infection. All other times he has been clean.)

He is learning to beg. Generally we avoid giving him table scraps, but I do keep a container of kitty treats on the kitchen table, and give him a few when he shows up. Fortunately, none of it seems to be going to his hips. Arthur has always been a big boned cat, but never a fat cat.

His least favorite thing is going to the veterinarian. This is to be expected, but with his advanced avoidance skills, it can range from difficult to impossible to get him into a cage. Unfortunately, Arthur has needed to see the vet on various occasions. Most recently, he had to suffer the indignity of having three rotted teeth extracted, which gives him the appearance of Bucky Katt. Now his face looks a bit offset.

His favorite activity is receiving lavish belly rubs from me. I give them to him when I am under the covers in bed shortly before retiring. He can get quite upset if I do not make the time for his belly rub. He knows exposing his tummy could be dangerous, so it must be exquisitely pleasurable to override his innate cautious sense.

I hope for the day when he is completely over his skittishness and I can hold him in my arms and cuddle him like I did with my late, lamented cat Sprite. Perhaps that day will come, but I am increasingly dubious that it will. Arthur is an affectionate kitty, but he has to get affection on his own terms.

Perhaps in another two years, if I post about him again he will be recovered from that early trauma. Perhaps I will be able to cuddle him in my arms someday without risk of being seriously scratched. Stay tuned.

The Thinker

The measured notes of a remarkable man

Sometimes you do not realize how much someone means to you until they are gone. I find it surprising though when I am touched by the death of someone I knew mostly tangentially. Wilson Nichols Jr., the former music director at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Reston, Virginia that I attend, passed away into the great unknown on August 20th at the age of 61.

Wilson died in North Carolina from the complications of progressive diabetes. He struggled with diabetes during the entire time I knew him. I first ran into Wilson around 1997 when I started attending this church regularly. Most likely you have not been to a Unitarian Universalist Church. The one I attend is probably similar to most and is full of mostly white, mostly highly educated, mostly liberal and mostly older people. At the time, Wilson was likely around my age: in his early fifties. He wore large Coke-bottle glasses. I later learned that diabetes contributed to his glaucoma, which explained the glasses.

Wilson was not a particularly handsome man, although such attributes are always in the eye of the beholder. Yet, he was a hit with many of the parishioners. There was often a queue of people before and after services wanting to hug the guy. He was generous with his hugs as he was with his voice. As you might expect, music was his passion. Over the years, I have seen other music directors and accompanists at church, but none exuded his passion for music. It just leached out of him. He managed to make a living with his part time gig as the church music director and by giving music lessons to neighbors. He earned a Master of Arts degree in music, and led a number of chorales.

Originally, he led a chorale in Gaithersburg, Maryland. In his later years, he ran his own chorale, aptly named the Wilson Nichols Chorale. We parishioners were blessed to hear concerts twice a year at the church. Most of the membership attended even though the events were not official church functions. Membership in the chorale was by invitation only and Wilson was particular about whom he let on the chorale. My daughter Rosie, who sung in the church choir for a few years, was eventually invited to be in his chorale. It was during this time that I got to know Wilson on a more than superficial basis.

I suspected he was gay for years, in spite of the line of women queued to give him hugs, or maybe because of it. I never pry nor ask about such things, but during one service, he openly admitted his sexual orientation. I was still working through my own squeamishness with gays at the time. I thank Wilson for helping me sort through my own feelings. Logically I did not believe that gays should be discriminated against. Emotionally I had to work through my issues of interacting with gays. Some gays I have known enjoy teasing us straights. That might explain why I felt uncomfortable. With Wilson though, his force of personality was so large that his sexual orientation soon become moot. Since meeting and knowing Wilson, I never felt uncomfortable about a person’s sexual orientation again.

Sadly, over time, Wilson’s condition became more acute. His eyesight degraded to the point where he could no longer read music. He was hospitalized a number of times because of his worsening diabetes. He could still play the piano effortlessly. He had one of these minds that could hear a work of piano music and could often be able to play it afterward. He eventually sold his townhouse and moved to his native North Carolina where his brother and sister in law apparently took care of him in his decline.

For the most part me and my fellow parishioners are a musically inept bunch. I never learned to read music. Thank goodness for Wilson. With his enormous singing voice, he could overpower the rest of us, giving any hymn a resonance the rest of the congregation could not quite create. Wilson though was in his glory, not at weekly services when he sang boisterously while sitting at the piano, but at his twice-yearly chorale concerts. They were big deals. He hired a few instrumentalists. The chorale itself was buttoned down in black; men were expected to wear tuxedos. After the chorale progressed in, he strutted into the sanctuary to a thunderous applause. Then he would solemnly set himself down at the piano, for he was about to produce art. From there, he would both play the piano while somehow simultaneously directing the singers and instrumentalists. For me, the holiday concert was my big musical event of the year. A few soloists had voices that were a bit shrill, but overall he amassed quite a collection of free local vocal talent. His selections were a mixture of the usual and the eclectic. Sadly, our church sanctuary was never constructed for great acoustics. His concerts deserved a somewhat better venue than they received.

Now that he is gone from this world, what I miss and admired most about Wilson was his passion. It is harder to find passionate people today, as we are so wrapped up in our toys and stock portfolios. To Wilson, music was like a snort of cocaine. Music, in all its forms and flavors, kept him feeling enchanted.

A few years ago shortly before he retired to North Carolina, the Wilson Nichols Chorale gave one last concert, sadly not in our church where his presence was too awkward. Instead, we attended the concert at a small Episcopalian church in McLean. The concert was given to a greatly diminished audience.

Afterwards there was the usual reception. It was clear that by this point Wilson’s eyesight was mostly gone, so I made a point of telling him who I was. My daughter, who sang under his direction for many years, was also with me. He gave my daughter one of his world famous hugs and told her to visit him in North Carolina. Thinking I likely would not see him again, I told Wilson in a very heartfelt manner just what a joy it was to know him and to hear his music over the years.

Today at service during our Joys and Sorrows, I lit a candle in his memory and said some nice words about Wilson. It seems like most of the congregation had moved on years ago. Nevertheless, I could still hear his booming voice in the rafters. Wilson filled our small church with so much musical energy and passion. We were blessed to have him as our music director for so many years, and I was blessed to know him. In retrospect, my only regret is that I did not take the time to know this remarkable man even better.

Wilson’s spirit is out there and I for one feel it every time I attend services. I just wish I could get one more of his big hugs.

The Thinker

Unsolicited advice for Senator Obama

I have to hand it with Republicans. When it comes to a campaign playbook, they stick with what works. An election won is an election won, whether won fairly or through foul tactics. The last leg of the 2008 presidential campaign is shaping up to look a lot like the 2004 campaign, which is heavy on the negative advertising (generally because it works). This time the McCain campaign is running ads that are outright lies. They do not just stretch the truth; they actually lie. Perhaps the most egregious ad was this one where they claim Obama was in favor of sex education for kindergarteners, a lie debunked by many reporters and documented on

President Bush and Vice President Cheney have proven that scruples only matter to losers. McCain has this one last chance to be president. With Bush and Cheney blazing the way, he can feel comfortable tossing his alleged principles aside and just do what it takes to win. All is fair in love, war and politics, apparently, including lying these days.

Fortunately, the Obama campaign is doing better than the Kerry campaign did and generally is swift in responding to attack ads. The problem is that the Obama campaign is responding. It is reacting. This is a poor way to win a campaign because the campaign is always on the defensive, which makes it hard to get its message out. The School of Karl Rove has validated some crucial lessons: elections are often won by whichever side stays on the offense. Rarely is a football game won through an interception.

The McCain campaign is playing the campaign game like a dirty game of rugby where you repeatedly kick the legs out from under your opponent. It is hard to grab the ball when your opponent keeps making you land on your ass.

Unlike the pathetically desperate McCain campaign, the Obama campaign does not need to resort to lies to go on the offensive. Joe Biden understands what to do, as did Harry S Truman. Tell the voters the truth and the opposition will think it’s hell. It becomes a matter of knowing which truth-telling shells to lob, when to lob them and where to lob them. It is time to lob some artillery shells and fortunately I know when and where to lob them, and which ones to lob.

For the moment, Sarah Palin is the wind in the Republicans’ sail. McCain’s pick has been surprisingly effective in picking off more disgruntled Hillary Clinton voters than expected. It is likely that these voters have a good gut feeling about Sarah Palin, but do not know some unseemly facts about her limited record. If many voters like her because they have a good feeling about her, those feelings need to be replaced by reasonable doubts.

These swing voters need to know that she has a history of vindictiveness. Voters need to be educated about her repeated efforts to use her influence as governor to twist the arms of the Alaskan State Police to fire her former brother in law. They need to know of her repeated attempts while she was mayor to fire the Wasilla town librarian for stocking books she did not like, as well as to ban books from their library. They also need to know that while mayor the town had a policy of charging rape victims the cost of rape kits used after they were sexual assaulted, as she did nothing to change the policy. The campaign should create ads like this and play them repeatedly in swing states where Hillary voters predominate, such as Pennsylvania, Ohio and Missouri.

After a week or so, they should air ads demonstrating not only that she has a cruel and vindictive side, but also promotes policies anathema to many Clinton supporters. She is obviously no supporter of abortion rights, not even in the case of rape or incest. She does not support national health insurance, a cause dear to many Clinton supporters. She does not believe global warming is real. These ads should enforce a meme that she is inconsistent and her positions are outside the mainstream. Talking Points Memo, for example, put together this video that clearly shows that Palin repeatedly supported the Bridge to Nowhere in Alaska before being against it. There is no arguing with video.

Palin is hardly someone who opposed to taking federal money. In fact, she proved especially competent acquiring it. She gave money to DC lobbyists to make sure that Wasilla got far more than their share of the federal dole. As it is, Alaskans already receive more federal dollars per capita than any other state. While mayor of Wasilla, she pulled in more federal dollars per capita than any other town or city in the state. The ads should end with her image positioned next to President Bush’s. “Stubborn. Says one thing but does another. If Sarah Palin becomes president, will she too just be more of the same?”

Doubtless, there is much more in Palin’s record that could be brought out, but a couple weeks of clever and focused advertising using my strategy would remove any luster she currently enjoys.

The Obama campaign should then run videos that emphasize his correct judgment vs. McCain’s incorrect judgment. Show him courageously speaking out against the Iraq War when it was considered anti-American to do so. Relentlessly hammer in the point that McCain voted with President Bush 90% of the time. Show that Obama’s tax plan would reduce taxes for 95% of Americans while making the rich pay more. Hammer in that McCain’s plan would actually give more tax relief to the richest 1% than they currently enjoy. There should be two major closing themes. The first: voting for McCain and Palin is like giving George W. Bush a third term. The second: judgment matters and Obama has demonstrated the wiser judgment needed to be president.

Yo! Obama campaign! Anyone there listening?

The Thinker

Review: The Dark Knight

Am I the last person to review The Dark Knight? Somehow, I doubt it but there probably will not be many more reviews after mine. The movie was released on July 18 and I did not see it until the Labor Day Weekend. Hey, I’ve been busy. Had I spent my teenage years reading Batman comic books, perhaps I would have been at its first midnight show.

My wife and I did manage to see it before it snuck out of theaters, but not before the movie grossed more than half a billion dollars. It seems likely to hold the record for highest grossing movie for at least several years, perhaps until the next Batman movie comes out. Are those kind of gross box office receipts warranted?

Maybe. The public has voted two thumbs way up. Every critic has noted the late Heath Ledger’s outstanding performance as the twisted Batman arch-nemesis, The Joker. Cesar Romero he is not. I will echo that he gives a fine performance and certainly makes the movie. I have not seen many of his movies so I cannot say whether it truly was his greatest performance, but given his short life it seems likely. Ledger makes The Joker a compelling character. It is hard not to find him far more interesting than Batman.

If you are going to make a Batman movie, you have to think big and have financiers with deep pockets. Suffice to say the producers literally blew a ton of money (up) in this movie. Even destroying the Batmobile was not enough; they had to destroy a hospital too. Clearly, the money was not wasted. I doubt though I am the only theatergoer that is becoming inured to special effects. They can be done so well these days that they have become trivialized. Special effects rarely elevate the story for me and the same is true here. The Dark Knight could have been just as good if they had spent half the money. The Joker’s wild criminal confluence is what is important. Within a week, he has turned Gotham City inside out and is close to unmasking Batman.

The story is fantasy of course, which is why it is easy to overlook minor plot points like how one master criminal could possibly whip up such calibrated mayhem in such a short period of time. But the whole Batman scenario is fantasy too. More than a few parts of this movie reminded me of V for Vendetta, which I reviewed and liked very much. Both V and The Joker clearly had their emerging psychos twisted and perturbed at an early age. At least V though has something of an altruistic motive. The Joker is more like a cat that enjoys toying with its prey before consuming it.

The movie succeeds at being fully engaging. Still, it has its flaws. One is its length. At two and a half hours, many people are not going to be able to sit through it without at least one dash to the rest room. For this movie, skip the soda and buy only the popcorn. Although an excellent movie, a half an hour could have been chopped from this movie. It would have been a better movie because it does tend to drag and feel muddled in places.

Most of the cast from Batman Begins is back and that includes cinematic luminaries like Michael Caine as Alfred and Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox. With its relentless focus on The Joker, Christian Bale as Batman seems almost ancillary. Katie Holmes, who first played prosecutor Rachel Dawes, must have been too busy raising babies and doing mysterious Scientology stuff with Tom Cruise to reenact her role. Maggie Gyllenhaal, who I admired very much for her performance as Lee Holloway in Secretary (2002) gets the honors this time. Here though she hardly comes across as the sort of glamorous gal prosecutor with brains that would attract a billionaire like Bruce Wayne; in fact, she seems rather plain. I really liked Gary Oldman as Lieutenant Gordon in the first movie. He improves on his performance in this reprise. Aaron Eckhart won the role of prosecutor Harvey Dent and plays the role convincingly and with lots of gusto.

It is Heath Ledger though who steals the show and carries us off with it. We are in his demonic control from its first minutes. What a tragedy to lose Ledger, not just because he had such a promising career ahead of him, but because this role is impossible to adequately reprise without him. Consequently, the short-term profits of the Batman franchise are likely to take a tumble in subsequent installments.

Overall though I preferred Batman Begins. It is marginally the better movie, in part because it was more tightly directed and the story of Batman’s beginning was more compelling than Batman’s descent into darkness, which this film chronicles almost as an afterthought near its end. It is likely that Batman Begins, with it relatively more modest box office receipts, will be seen as the best movie in this franchise when it finally retires.

This movie rates 3.3 on my 4.0 scale.


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