Archive for October, 2009

The Thinker

My bipartisan health care solution

Buddhists steer toward the middle path. They are convinced that more harmony is found in the center than at the extremes. Today, particularly when it comes to the current health care debate, there is virtually no middle ground. Partisanship has reached such extremes that only a couple brave members of Congress will cross the aisle. Even within a party, there are ideological splits, such as between Blue Dog Democrats and The Progressive Caucus.

It may not be obvious, but I am a moderate, or at least what a moderate was before hyper-polarization began during the Gingrich revolution. Now my moderate stances are characterized as liberal. For example, I am a fiscal conservative. Lately a fiscal conservative is seen as someone in favor of restraining the size of government. I am less concerned about how big or small government should be (although I suspect we need big government because of the complexity of the problems that must be managed today), than we should fully fund the government that we have. To start, we should put our federal tax rates back to where they were in the mid 1990s. In case you forgot, our country enjoyed tremendous prosperity during those years. This was in part because we seemed to have found the right middle fiscal path. Lowering tax rates and cutting capital-gains taxes have resulted in less prosperity and huge budget deficits. Reverting to 1990s tax rates would not immediately close our deficit but it would be a step in the right direction. It was a moderate middle path, asking the rich to give proportionately more of their income, but not at the top tax rates of eighty or ninety percent that we had in the 1950s and 1960s. The rich got much richer, so they had little reason to complain but of course, they yowled anyhow.

Through all the smoke and haze on health care reform, there is a pragmatic middle ground if both sides would get off the high horses and act in the best interest of the country. (I know, what an idea!) Unfortunately, no one is really sincere about bipartisanship, including our president. All of Obama’s talk about bipartisanship is mostly for his political advantage. It’s important for him to be seen making the effort to be bipartisan because it improves his street credentials, particularly with independents. However, he knows at this moment that if meaningful health care reform is to happen it does not exist. There is bipartisan consensus on health insurance reform (for example, denying insurance companies the right to exclude people based on preexisting conditions) but this reform does nothing to solve the affordability issue or to restrain long term costs. If we don’t solve the latter real soon we could end up a second world country.

Unfortunately, we are up to our eyeballs with disinformation at this point. One example is that the claim that a “government run health care” plan to compete with private health plans will be subsidized, thus adding trillions to the deficit. As currently envisioned, this plan (which would only affect the uninsured middle class) would be deficit neutral. It would be funded through premiums and cuts/efficiencies in Medicare. Moreover, it would be required to remain deficit neutral. If costs go up then annually either premiums would rise, or benefits or payments would be changed to make sure it remains deficit neutral. On the surface, you would think that a “deficit neutral” plan would be acceptable to Republicans, who ironically now see themselves as fiscal conservatives. Yet currently all Republicans in Congress are planning to vote against it, because they say it is “socialism”. (It is curious that Medicare Part D was not considered socialism.) They also believe that some murky future Congress will lose nerve and start subsidizing the program in the order of trillions of dollars.

Republicans are correct that our government has a poor track record at controlling costs of our existing public health care plans. This lack of control is causing the deficit to explode. Granted, there are departments like Defense which are growing at very large rates. However, most of other federal agencies have been growing with inflation, if that. It’s lack of controls on entitlement problems that are driving deficits into the stratosphere. Medicaid (the health plan for the poor) was never designed to be self-solvent. After all, by definition you cannot expect poor people to pay their own health insurance premiums. So the federal government and the states jointly contribute monies, and states have some say on the services allowed in their states. Doctors already complain bitterly about inadequate reimbursement rates for both Medicare and Medicaid. In the case of Medicare, every year there is bipartisan agreement to postpone fiscal responsibility another year. In short, costs are going up in part of bipartisan Congressional spinelessness. You didn’t think all that money that AMA members contribute to their campaigns was going to buy nothing, did you?

Unquestionably, both Medicare and Medicaid are rife with abuse. Much of the abuse has to do with the fee for service model of both programs. Certainly some of the failure can be placed on administrators overseeing these systems, although in most cases it is federal contractors checking the paperwork, not federal employees. Who is committing the actual fraud? Clearly, those billing for services never rendered are breaking the law. Arguably, the whole fee for service model invites abuse because there are no constraints on doctors to limit tests, many of which are marginal value, and which are performed in their own office and push up their profits. These problems too are well documented but Congress seems loath to change it. This problem could be fixed if Medicare and Medicaid were to change and payment was based on successful outcomes for a given condition. Naturally doctors are not too happy with that approach either, as they have invested huge amounts of money in equipment on the assumption that a fee for service model will endure forever.

What I would like to see on this debate is a grand bipartisan compromise, essentially a middle path solution that, at least twenty years ago, would not have been the least bit controversial. Republicans are skeptical about the government’s ability to competently administer another health care plan. So make the government prove they can, by making approval conditional and by rolling out the program slowly. Essentially the government would have to demonstrate that it can administer a deficit-neutral health care plan that is affordable, outcome-based and that constrains costs on a small scale and then can successfully scale it up incrementally. It would be rolled out in stages over a period, say three to five years. The states picked to participate would be chosen by a lottery. Initially it would start with a handful of states, and then it would be assessed for effectiveness. If it were staying on track, it would be expanded to include more states. If not there would be opportunities to kill or fix it before it gets out of hand. A set of independent auditors would determine whether benchmarks and quality standards had been met or not. This would make us fiscal conservatives happy plus it would demonstrate the government can competently run a large and solvent health care plan that meets the needs of the insured. If the government cannot, at least we cut our losses.

In the interim, open up the Federal Employees Health Benefits Plan to those who would not qualify under the planned expansion of Medicaid. The FEHBP is definitely not socialized health care. Every member of Congress knows he can choose from a large exchange of health insurers and cannot be denied based on preexisting conditions. It won’t solve the long term cost problem of health care costs, but it could allow many more people who now need health insurance to get it while the longer cost issue gets addressed.

The Thinker

Review: Journey to the Center of the Earth (2008)

Some months back I mentioned in my review of Coraline that seeing the movie in 3D did not any value. I recently finished Journey to the Center of the Earth in plain old 2D. After finishing the movie, I realized that seeing it in 3D would actually improve it.

Unfortunately, the reason Journey to the Center of the Earth is a better movie in 3D is because it made such a mediocre 2D movie. Moreover, after seeing it in 2D it becomes clear that because of all the obvious effects that in 3D it might cause you to lose your lunch the movie is meant to be seen in only in 3D. In 2D, you just realize just how full of nothing this movie actually is.

Blessedly, the movie clocks in at only 93 minutes, so you won’t have to sit in your seat too long. Still, the movie is about 33 minutes longer than it needs to be. It is clear from the plot at exactly whom this movie is targeted: boys on the cusp of pubescence. This is clear not only from the shallow plot and predictable special effects, but by the presence of child actor Josh Hutcherson, who plays Sean Anderson, a 13-year old boy. Sean spends his days lost in his handheld computer. His life gets considerably more interesting shortly after his mother drops him off at his Uncle Trevor’s house. Here is another sign that this is not going to be any A List movie: Uncle Trevor is played by famed B-movie actor Brendan Fraser, probably best known for his many Mummy movies. Fortunately, Fraser gets to sleepwalk through this movie. In this movie, he plays a vulcanologist, rather than Rick O’Connell of the French Foreign Legion. He might as well be O’Connell of the 21st century, because he is playing a similar character.

It seems Sean’s father disappeared underground a decade ago and is presumed dead. What a coincidence; Sean’s father was a vulcanologist too, and Trevor is the younger brother following in his footsteps. In any event, Trevor inherits a box of his brother’s belongings and in it is the Jules Verne novel with scrawlings around the margins by his late brother. Curiously, at the very same time his nephew is visiting, seismic activities are happening that mirror those that occurred when his brother disappeared, so he and Sean are soon hopping Iceland Air to Iceland. There they quickly encounter Hannah (Anita Briem), who offers to take them into Iceland’s mountains so they can do some pressure measurements.

Briem is the best thing about this movie, such as it is, as she is great eye candy and her character Hannah has a mild acerbic sense of humor. Naturally they are hardly astride the mountain when a thunderstorm appears, they rush into a cave, and find themselves trapped in the cave. The only way out appears to be down.

Not to worry, Hannah has supplies. You might think it would take a long time to get to the center of the earth but fall down the right lava tube (which they quickly do) and you can get there in no time. Oddly, it has normal gravity. Sure enough, everything they encounter down there is right out of Verne’s novel! Apparently, it was all real and Verne was simply writing it down. Moreover, they find signs of Trevor’s brother down there. Could he still be living?

I would like to say they encounter everything in the novel, but there is not time for the whole novel. There is time for parts of it, including giant mushrooms, luminous blue underground CGI-animated birds, and a voyage on an underground sea where they are attacked by vicious CGI sea serpents and huge piranha-like fish. One thing is for sure: there is a lot of florescent material down there; you don’t need a flashlight. Just when you reach the point where you are feeling slightly engaged they find themselves in another lava tube ascending from the center of the earth and are deposited in Sicily, just like in the novel. Not to worry Sean’s mother. He is back in time before school restarts.

This is a film even the American Family Association can love. There is no swearing in the entire movie. The closest allusion to sex is that both Sean and Trevor claim dibs on the sexy Hannah. There is some slimy and mucous-like stuff in the movie that might have vaguely Freudian undertones. Mostly this movie is just mindless eye candy.

While pap and predictable, I cannot with honesty say it’s a bad movie, it’s just in no way a good movie. If you like Brendan Fraser, you will probably like his character here too, as it is more of the same. The humor is light but engaging. It feels like a made for TV movie instead of something you were supposed to see in a theater. Hence the need for 3D: to make you feel like you are getting something for your money. After all, the SyFy channel makes crap like this all the time, just with Grade C actors, no 3D and cheaper special effects. I hope that if you saw this in 3D you at least got a mild case of vertigo. You sure won’t get it in 2D.

Unless you enjoy spending ninety minutes ogling an attractive blonde woman, this movie is eminently skippable, so please do. My wife will watch anything with Brendan Fraser. Her fabulous company was my only motivation for seeing the movie. Fortunately, her company and running commentary were so good that I didn’t particular mind this waste of an hour and a half of my life.

2.8 on my 4.0 scale. Move along.

The Thinker

We have to go, and go, and go

Friend, do you suffer from BPH? If you are female, I can definitely say no. For you have to be born male to get BPH. Men generally discover by the time they are forty or so one inconvenient truths about middle age men, specifically they cannot get through the night without shuffling a couple times to the bathroom to go Number One. If this sounds like you, congratulations, you are a normal middle-aged male. You also have Benign Prostatic Hypersplasia. With a name like that, you can see why urologists prefer to say you have BPH.

If you have BPH, your prostate is swelling to an inconvenient size. This is good news in a way because it means you are still producing testosterone. It also probably means you do not need to reach for Viagra in order to be intimate with someone. Your prostate is swelling because testosterone is causing your prostate to create something very similar, DHT or Dihydrotestosterone. Your prostate has been producing DHT since puberty, but over time, it has the side effect of making your prostate swell. Your prostate is a gland that provides most of the fluid when you ejaculate. Your prostate is also inconveniently located just below your kidneys. When it swells, it tends to constrict the urethra, making it harder to go and also harder to fully empty your bladder. So your bladder rarely fully empties, which means you tend to go more often and when you go it can take a while. This condition can also contribute to urinary tract infections.

I, like most men my age, feel part zombie because my bladder inconveniently wakes me up throughout the night. On a good night, I will only shuffle to the bathroom once. On a bad night, it can be up four or five times. I must have developed BPH at an early age because this has been a problem of mine for at least twenty years, and I am 52. It generally arrives in men by age forty, although it may develop so gradually that it seems normal, which in fact it is.

The good news is that if you suffer from BPH you probably do not have prostate cancer. That’s why it’s called benign. If you are a smart man, you will have regular physicals. Your doctor will place his fingers into your colon and feel your prostate. It can be enlarged, and if it feels smooth like a balloon that is good. If when he presses on it he detects nothing hard, it suggests there is no cancer. That won’t solve your frequent urination problem, however.

I learned all these things this week because my employer invited a urologist over to talk to us about BPH. She came with all sorts of very clinical illustrations and actual pictures taken at Reston Hospital by special cameras that slide up your urethra. The lecture was actually interesting. Just as interesting as the lecture was listening to my fellow middle-aged men in my room. It is nice to know I do not suffer alone. This is not the sort of thing guys tend to share with other guys, or even their significant others. I am sharing it here in part to spread enlightenment.

Moreover, at least the men who attended the lecture are not morons. Many men avoid physicals simply because they want to avoid the prostate examinations, which can be embarrassing and uncomfortable. Sensible men, like those of us at the lecture, realize we have a condition. We also know that prostate cancer affects most men in life, although many die unaware that they have it, as in most cases the cancer grows very slowly. We do not consider ignorance in this area a virtue.

These same men thirty years earlier might have been bragging about their bedroom conquests. Now we come with bags under our chins and eyes and receding hairlines (well, not me, at least not yet). It was remarkable how straightforward and clinical we could be in a group setting when given the opportunity to question a urologist at length. Will surgery cause impotence? Will drugs to treat it cause impotence? Can BPH be cured? Do some men not get BPH? (Answer: yes, those who die young and who stop producing testosterone at an early age.) Our main concerns were “Are we likely to get prostate cancer?” and “Will we ever be able to sleep through the night again?”

On the latter question, there is hope. There are drugs to treat BPH of a class called Alpha-blockers. They relax the smooth muscle of the prostate and widen the urethra channel. (Flomax is probably the best known, but ask about Hytrin or Cardura because they are available as generics.) However, they might cause ejaculatory dysfunction. Another class of drugs, the 5-alpha-reductase inhibitors will also shrink the prostate, but not very much, and can cause a diminished sex drive if not outright impotence. For many men, fear of the latter makes us think that getting a good night’s sleep is highly overrated. (On the other hand, our wives may secretly be relieved.)

There are also surgical alternatives, including a microwave procedure and vaporization of part of the prostate with a laser (Greenlight Laser). Some of these can be done on an outpatient basis.

You may also want to embrace a prostate-healthy diet. Unsurprisingly, it is probably not a diet you will like, as it emphasizes lower amounts fats and eating soy. The diet will probably do nothing for your BPH, but it does reduce the risk of acquiring prostate cancer, which for men is something akin to breast cancer in women: to be dreaded and prevented if possible.

If you have BPH, and most men of a certain age do (but may not be aware of it), it’s good news in a way. It means that you are a survivor. A few generations ago, you were likely dead from something else by the time it became a problem. Today, you likely have a few decades of life ahead of you. You just have to decide whether to treat it or not. The condition can become so chronic that you end can up in an emergency room because you are unable to void your bladder. You probably do not want to reach that stage, so at some point you will want to have a deeper conversation with your doctor about BPH and perhaps see a urologist for a better diagnosis. You should also want your doctor to regularly give you a PSA (Prostate Specific Antigen) test. If you are developing prostate cancer, it will probably detect it, plus it can be used to help determine the severity of your BPH.

I know I will be talking with my doctor about drugs for BPH during my next physical. I hope that any side effects will be mild on me. I know I sure would relish a night of uninterrupted sleep again.

The Thinker

Huffington Post breaks a glass ceiling

The Huffington Post must be getting uppity, or clever, or both. This online newspaper/mega-blog/news aggregator (it is hard to say exactly what Huffpost is) reached a couple significant milestones in September. Specifically, it overtook the online versions of stalwart newspaper web sites like The Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times. Or so reports, which tracks visits on many prominent web sites.

Neither The Washington Post nor the L.A. Times are going out of business any time soon, and they clearly also make revenue from their newspapers. However, the upstart Huffington Post is slapping them around. Amazingly, Huffpost cataloged more unique visitors than either of these sites in September, while also linking to interesting content on their web sites. Here are the statistics for September 2009:

  • Huffington Post – 8,350,417 unique visitors
  • Washington Post – 8,124,820 unique visitors
  • LA Times – 8,319,427 unique visitors

I find these statistics amazing. Neither The Washington Post nor The L.A. Times is some obscure newspaper. The Washington Post is the paper of reference for Washington D.C. and by extension the federal government. It can count among its accomplishments bringing down a U.S. president. The L.A. Times commands a huge metropolitan area and has had no local competition since 1989. Yet, The Huffington Post, which has been online less than five years, now receives more visitors than either of these sites and likely generates more online revenue as well. By contrast, first went online in 1996.

So this is just more bad news for the newspaper industry: a spunky online startup is doing a better job of communicating news and opinions online than they are. Most likely, Huffpost is doing this with fewer people and at less cost. At least the Grey Lady herself is not yet threatened in cyberspace. The New York Times web site recorded 19,546,618 unique visitors during the same period. One sign that the New York Times is sweating is that they recently announced layoffs of an additional one hundred positions in its newsroom. This may not be a great strategy in the end, given that The Huffington Post is hiring while both The New York Times and The Washington Post are firing.

Newspapers like The L.A. Times and The Washington Post do like to complain about sites like Huffpost. Mainly they feel like they should get a referral fee for their shoe leather journalism. I feel their concern is without merit. Unless a web site has an agreement with a newspaper, they link directly to the article, rather than embed its content on their web site. Moreover, Huffpost only adds or quotes a sentence or two from the actual article, which is legal. Newspapers that do not want their content accessible by sites like Huffpost merely need insert one line of text into their site’s .htaccess file to block them. Clearly, newspapers are talking out both sides of their mouths. They know they are getting more revenue due to referral from sites like Huffpost than they would if their content was not searchable. If they are curious, then as an experiment, they could block these sites and see if their bottom line improves. Only a fool would take this bet. The New York Times actually tried it by hiding its “premier” content (like columnist Paul Krugman) behind a paid firewall, and found they made more money by serving the content for free with ads.

Nor does Huffpost survive solely by pointing users to other sites. Granted, it remains a fair amount of their business model, but the Huffpost also has a large number of prominent bloggers and something that is starting to resemble a news staff. Moreover, newspapers like The Washington Post are engaging in pennywise but pound-foolish strategies. A few months back The Washington Post let go their most prominent blogger Dan Froomkin, who apparently drew considerable traffic to their site. Two weeks after being fired, Froomkin was hired by Huffpost and is now chief of their Washington bureau as well as a part-time blogger.

What is Huffpost doing that the other newspapers are not? Many things. Newspapers, with a few exceptions like USA Today (15,487,750 visitors) are regional in nature. Huffpost is essentially national, although it is taking steps to provide localized editions (New York, Chicago and Denver so far). Second, it feels like a conglomeration of various types of newspapers. By combining the sober with the sensational, it is sort of like getting a New York Times and a New York Post in one online experience. Huffpost’s left column is essentially the “blogger/opinion” section of its “paper”, and is sort of, but not quite as good as opinion sections of The Washington Post and The New York Times. Its sober side tends to appear in the middle column, although its headline screams Drudge Report style. The right hand column is largely entertainment news.

Huffpost also watches demographic trends and is aggressively playing to them, as is evident with its liberal bent. Like it or not in 21st century America we are likely to see governments and social policies that are more liberal than today’s. It is trying hard to appeal to Generations X and Y, while keeping enough solid content to interest baby boomers like me. Most recently, it opened up an impact section, where readers can contribute stories about people dealing with major life crises. It is smart not only because it showcases those who have fallen through the cracks in our society, but also because it tends to a ready and underserved market of people interested in these stories.

If newspapers like The Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times eventually fail, one has to wonder if Huffpost’s business model will fail as well, given how much of their business depends on newsgathering done elsewhere. It appears though that Arianna has a plan and is investing today’s profits to create staff and stringer-written national and local content.

In short, as I speculated recently, Huffpost may well replace traditional newspapers. It is smartly positioning itself to be the first mass-online newspaper. Even the venerable Grey Lady should quake. Tomorrow’s electronic newspapers will look superficially like today’s, but will be broader in scope and allow greater personalization. They will provide both general interest news as well as stories of interest to more specialized and local communities. Newspapers still clinging to old models are likely to end up outfoxed and out of business.

The Thinker

Review: Watchmen

I remember how nervous fans were when the first Harry Potter movie arrived in theaters in 2001. Could it possibly live up to the novel? Most people would agree that the first movie did not, although the movies seemed to improve as time went by. The first Harry Potter movie though tried hard to ensure fidelity to the book, perhaps obsessively so. It was thought that extreme fidelity was needed for the franchise to succeed, even at the cost of making a better movie.

Fidelity to the source also seems to be the approach taken by the producer and director of Watchmen. As a graphic novel, Watchmen developed something of a cult status among connoisseurs of the genre. Framed in an alternative reality, the graphic novel written by Alan Moore was groundbreaking when it was published as a limited-edition series in 1986 and 1987: adult, violent (perhaps obsessively so), and full of really interesting characters. In this alternative universe, starting around 1940, costumed vigilantes began appearing in America’s cities to address the lawlessness of the time. These included The Comedian, Doctor Manhattan, Ozymandias, the Silk Spectre (a woman) and a creepy hooded figure named Rorschach. Eventually they formed a loose federation.

The only genuine superhero among them was Doctor Manhattan who got his status from a bizarre nuclear accident. He became transformed into a true superman who among other things used his superpowers to win the Vietnam War, thus inalterably changing the timeline we know. Because of his success, President Richard Nixon becomes something amounting to a dictator who is seemingly bent on a nuclear war course with the Soviet Union.

Apparently, America eventually got tired of these hooded vigilantes. In 1977, President Nixon signed into law the Keene Act, which sent all but two of The Watchmen into retirement. Doctor Manhattan cannot undo his nuclear accident, and the U.S. national security depends on his hanging around. The ultra-creepy vigilante Rorschach simply refuses to stop. Ozymandias reveals himself as Adrian Veidt and becomes the world’s most successful billionaire. Veidt is seemingly bent on freeing the world from industrial oligarchies by providing cheap and abundant power available to all. Doctor Manhattan meanwhile inhabits a weird quantum world where he is increasingly unable to relate to ordinary human beings, although he has something like a love relationship with the daughter of Silk Spectre, Laurie.

Got all that? Fortunately, it is not hard to follow. The film begins with the grisly death of The Comedian, memorably played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan. With his death, Rorschach (brilliantly played by Jackie Earle Haley) suspects that someone is out to kill all the Watchmen and in his own often lethal style goes out in search of answers. The year is 1985.

Like Harry Potter director Chris Columbus, Watchmen director Zack Snyder figures that closely adhering to the source material is good. Those who have the graphic novel can enjoy scenes that are copied frame-by-frame from the graphic novel. Snyder does deviate from the graphic novel in a few ways, primarily toward the end of the film. Overall, the film can be considered a faithful interpretation of the graphic novel.

Director Snyder hits it out of the ballpark with some characters but completely strikes out with others. Jackie Earle Haley’s portrayal of Rorschach is every bit as good Heath Ledger’s portrayal of The Joker in The Dark Knight and serves as the movie’s central character. If you need a reason to see this often-grisly movie, make it to see Haley’s performance. Yet it is often hard to pay attention to Rorschach because the mask he wears, made to look like the famous inkblot test, is always in motion across his face. (The same problem occurred in the movie V for Vendetta.) Billy Crudup’s portrayal of the effervescent blue Dr. Manhattan is also well done. However there is so much CGI between the actor and his realization on screen that the acting is very filtered. Patrick Wilson as Nite Owl II/Dan Drieberg does a good job playing the role of the true gentleman among this boisterous crowd. Others, like Malin Akerman (Laurie Jupiter, a.k.a. Silk Spectre II) are obviously miscast.

Overall, the movie is well realized, but certain actors tend to throw it out of balance at times. Watchmen is also perhaps too grandiose in scope. Are we flawed and violent humans worthy of being saved? Don’t we deserve mutual nuclear annihilation? Do we really need one more movie where superheroes have to save the world from utter calamity? In some ways, the movie feels like a battle between gods from Greek mythology, in this case between Dr. Manhattan and Adrian Veidt over who is the more powerful, wise and clever. We humans seem to be pawns on their chessboard.

Frankly, the movie works better when it is down and gritty instead of high minded and cerebral. One cannot get enough of Rorschach, even though he is hard to stomach, because he is utterly riveting with every violent act he undertakes. Similarly, the Clark Kent-ish Night Owl and the perverse Comedian cannot help but draw your attention and fascination. I was much more engaged in flashbacks between Laurie’s mother and her husband than I was on Doctor Manhattan’s or Veidt’s philosophical ponderings. Moreover, although I had to squint through certain scenes because of the excessive violence, and I am no fan of violence in movies in general, the violent scenes at least made me feel alive and more engaged than scenes on Mars where Doctor Manhattan and Laurie ponder a world without the complexity of human relationships.

Overall, Watchmen is worth seeing for the memorable characters, but you may find yourself wanting to fast forward when it strays into the ethereal. If superheroes or alternative reality movies aren’t your thing, you can better invest your time elsewhere. Except for a few clunkers in the casting department, this faithful film noir is engaging and well executed. It will hold your attention.

3.3 on my 4.0 scale.

The Thinker

You and your kids need flu shots

According to recent polls, more than a third of parents say they are unlikely to have their children vaccinated against the H1N1 (Swine) flu, which is now raging across the United States. This news comes despite other polls where fully three quarters of Americans agree this flu is a serious national health problem.

As a parent, I have to shake my head. These parents are either wacked out, dreadfully misinformed or simply don’t give a damn about their children’s health. I will go with the assumption that most parents love their children, so I will assume most fall into the “dreadfully misinformed” category. Who knows what paranoid fantasies these parents are conjuring up about this shot? Perhaps they are thinking their kid will be like that 14-year old girl in England who died after getting vaccination for the HPV virus. They might have missed the evidence that her death was wholly unrelated to the vaccination. Or maybe these parents are just paranoid tea-baggers, convinced that the government is intent on killing their kids. This may be a sizeable crowd but I would still have to lump these into the “wacked out” category.

Some others may have heard that you can catch the flu from getting a flu shot. Now this is possible, though unlikely. You are only at risk if you opt for the nasal spray rather than an injection. To work, the nasal spray must use a live (but mutated) virus. It is unlikely you will notice anything, but if you do, you are most likely to get mild cold symptoms. On the other hand, it could also be that you just happened to contract some other flu or cold at the same time.

However, if you get the flu shot in your arm, you will be injected with a dead virus, which means there is no possible way it could give you the flu. Nor can it happen to your children. They may not like the momentary sting of the injection but that is a silly excuse not to get them a shot, and borders on child abuse.

What we do know is that H1N1 flu affects children and young adults disproportionately. They are much more likely to get it, and they are much more likely to have a more severe case than the rest of us. I have had two cases of it in the class I teach at a local community college, and in both cases, the student was out for more than a week. I know a few adults who have had H1N1 and they reported mild fevers and a quick recovery. It is believed that this is because the virus is similar to one that went around three decades ago, so they have a partial resistance. In any event, this flu is now definitely in the pandemic stage. It exists in most communities of any significant size. In many communities, hospitals are setting up triage tents outside the hospital to deal with the deluge of cases. It is expected to peak over the next month or so and then slowly taper off. The only real question is whether the flu will get to you before you can get the shot. That depends on your carefulness and how fast (or whether you choose) to avail yourself of a flu shot.

I have a good reason to delay getting a flu shot. Because I am middle aged, if I do contract it, it is likely to be mild for me. Although I hate the flu, I would be happy to let young adults, children, pregnant women and other highest-risk groups get their shot before me. (At 52, I have reached the age where I am at some risk of death from the flu, so an annual flu shot is recommended.) What I do know is that there is a shot available for every man, woman and child in the United States. It’s already paid for. If you get the shot from your local doctor or drug store they may charge you a small administrative fee, but it won’t be for the shot itself. They will receive it for free. If you are bothered by an administrative fee, assuming it is charged at all, make an appointment with a local public health clinic and get it free there instead.

There are other specious worries about this flu shot. For example, some worry that because it was manufactured outside the United States the quality control will be bad. This is not a problem. The FDA has a long established process of rigorously monitoring vaccine production. The vaccine is outsourced mainly because our drug companies say it’s not profitable enough for them to manufacture it. Frankly, you have a much higher likelihood of being hit by lightning than being the victim of a badly manufactured flu shot. I wish our food supply were as well regulated as our flu shots. We’d never have to worry about getting sick from E. coli or other nasty bugs.

Others simply trust to luck. They figure they won’t get it, so why get a shot? And if they are lucky, surely it must rub off on their kids too! The problem with this philosophy is that it is stupid. Just because you don’t get it this year doesn’t mean you won’t get it, or a variant of it, in the future. Moreover, flu shots help you build up a natural resistance to these and other common bugs. As I found out, the flu typically puts you out of commission for a week or so. In many cases, it also puts you in the hospital (and leaves you responsible for hefty hospital bills). In extreme cases, it can kill you. Ordinary influenzas kill about 20,000 Americans a year, or about 55 people a day. Through October 3rd, the Centers for Disease Control reports 147 pediatric deaths from the flu, most attributable to the H1N1 virus. Are you willing to let your child be another victim when you can prevent it at no or little cost?

I already have scheduled my annual flu shot for next Thursday. Fortunately, my employer provides it free of charge at our convenient clinic. It makes sense for them to do so; this way I am more likely to stay productive. As soon as I can get a H1N1 flu shot without impacting those who need it more, I will get it as well.

Once upon a time, I was childless and stupid too. I trusted to luck until the flu took me out of commission for a week. When it did, I vowed if I could get a flu shot once a year, I would. Not only was the experience humbling and scary, it had a huge impact on my life. Not only did my work suffer, but many others had to pick up my slack while I was down. Not all influenzas are preventable but many are. Prevention requires mindfulness that to a virus you are no one special, just another host to breed baby viruses. If you can get the shot, be proactive and schedule it every year. Also, do common sense things like wash your hands regularly.

Of course, our precious children should not be allowed to opt out of the shot. They are supposed to be guided by loving and responsible parents. If the polls are right, at least where it comes to their children’s health, more than a third of America’s parents are being irresponsible.

Don’t let your kids or yourself be one of the statistics, dead or suffering pain needlessly when it is cheap, convenient and wholly preventable to avoid it. Get the whole family immunized. Perhaps you can do it all at the same time, so when your children become adults they will see the flu shot as an ordinary and important part of raising a healthy family.

The Thinker

jetBlue: A civilized airline

One of the downsides of traveling on your employer’s dime is you rarely get to choose a decent airline. Since most of my business travel takes me to Denver, I am usually on one of our contract flights between Denver and Washington Dulles, which means I am on United Airlines.

United is one of these airlines which, if I were to grade it, would rank somewhere between a C and a D. Sadly, most of the domestic airlines here in the United States would rank between a C and a D. The good part about flying United is you pretty much know what you are going to get. Since my employer will not pay for business class, I will be back in economy. Since I am six foot two inches, I know my knees will be rubbing up against the seat in front of me. Trying to check in, whether online or at the airport, and I will be nagged to purchase “Economy Plus” seating. Because they can, United will also charge for bags: $15 for the first bag, $25 for each additional bag. These baggage fees have become quite popular and essentially are a way to raise your ticket prices without broadcasting it.

Fly United and you expect that the airplane is likely to be dirty, except in business and first class. If you want a meal, expect to pay $9 or so, assuming they are offering one, and do not expect it to be large or particularly memorable. Otherwise, all you get is a beverage service. Movies are scattershot, and generally available only on the longer flights, but at least they are free. Their wide-body aircraft generally have personal TV screens where you can select from some canned entertainment; otherwise, you are left to your own amusement. While their skies are not exactly friendly, they are not overtly hostile either.

Which is why my short flights on jetBlue to and from Boston last week was such a noticeable change for the better. Since I could not find a contract flight, I had to book an out of network flight instead, and jetBlue had the most convenient time and the best price. Given its low-ticket price I was expecting something like United Airlines or worse.

I could not have been more surprised. jetBlue is a civilized airline. First, there is no artificial distinction between coach, business and first class. As with a few other airlines like Southwest, there is only one class available. It was weird to walk into an airplane with no artificial bulkhead between premier seats and those of us in the cattle car section. The seats were all three across, upholstered in leather and actually left a few inches between my knees and the seat in front of me. Nor was the seat artificially narrow. Not that it was wide, but it was comfortable. Some airlines (and Northwest comes to mind as a particularly egregious example) will torture you by trying to jam you into 22 or 23-inch wide seats.

At least for my flights, the cabin was absent the usual detritus of napkins on the floor and reminders of previous passengers in the seatback pocket. The welcome boarding the plane seemed at least half-heartfelt. I never felt that on United. Settling into my seat, I found that I had my own personal TV with several dozen satellite channels available. If I did not want to watch satellite TV, I had XM satellite radio to choose from instead. This suited me just fine and I settled into the XM National Public Radio channel.

On-time departures are problematical with any airline, but my flights left a minute or two ahead of schedule and arrived on time or a little early. On the brief flight, we had a choice of either chocolate chip cookies or jetBlue’s proprietary blue-tinted potato chips. The beverages are announced at the start of the flight, and are usually somewhat limited, but include bottled water.

On the longer flights, if you want to see a movie you have to pay for the privilege, although there is plenty of entertainment on the satellite channels, just rife with commercials. You also have to pay $2 for earphones if you do not own any and want to listen to the entertainment. Overall, my experience on jetBlue was what passed for a high quality airline experience these days. It was weird. It was like they actually cared a bit about my flying satisfaction.

Southwest was the only other airline where I have felt something similar. Granted this is a relatively recent phenomenon. Southwest used to be infamous as the cattle car express, and they still have a bizarre policy where there is no assigned seating, meaning that you tend to arrive extra early to have the first chance to board. Even so, Southwest is at best a B- of an airline. jetBlue ranked a solid B.

If there are A-rated airlines out there, they are likely foreign carriers. Since I do little foreign travel, I have little to compare but I was impressed with IcelandAir a few years ago. Most domestic airlines seem to be flyer-hostile, or at least exhibit a passive aggressive side through tactics like usury baggage fees and premier seating that simply means your knees have an inch or two to spare. On jetBlue, the first bag is free, providing it does not exceed fifty pounds. (The second bag is $30. The third is $75.)

The only part of the jetBlue experience I found annoying was the commercials. JetBlue will commandeer your TV at certain points during the ascent and descent and subject you to annoying ads. You cannot turn the TV off, but you can at least unplug your headset and look elsewhere for a while.

Those of us older travelers cannot help but feel wistful for a time when the standards were much higher. In the early 1980s, I would annually fly Delta Airlines to Florida. Back in coach we were served real breakfasts. The food was provided hot in ceramic containers. You got real silverware and linens too, as well as a choice of meals and condiments. Moreover, all this came with the price of a ticket. There were no baggage fees at all for the first couple of bags. (This year I flew Delta to Salt Lake City and I can assure you they are busy emulating United Airlines.)

Those days are likely gone for good. Meanwhile, if you have to travel domestically and do most of your traveling back in the coach section see if you can fly jetBlue. You may at least get a hint of what real airline service used to feel like. When I have a choice, I will be booking jetBlue in the future.

The Thinker

New England is still calling me

During the summer of 2008, my family took a roadtrip to Beantown, stopping along the way at artsy places like Mount Gretna, Pennsylvania and lowlife way stations like the Ghosthunters show storefront in beautiful (well, actually kind of ugly) downtown Warwick, Rhode Island.

This week I finally had a reason to fly into Beantown, a.k.a. Boston, Massachusetts. Beantown turned out to be a way station to my real destination, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, which sits on the southern side of Cape Cod. There I spent three days in a lovely conference room and spent my evenings wandering around Woods Hole and nearby Falmouth. The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute sits in what is probably the most bucolic campus in the country, with dozens of lovely building surrounded by maple and oak trees, joined by lovely walkways and with the Atlantic Ocean just a fifteen minute walk away.

As I told my daughter, I enjoy my short distance business trips the best. The shortest ones generally occur in my own time zone, and I can get there with a direct flight, generally lasting an hour or so. Getting there does not swallow most of my day. As it turned out, it took longer to drive between Boston’s Logan airport and Falmouth (where we stayed) than it did to fly between Washington Dulles and Boston. There were no weather or aircraft delays, just routine traffic delays trying to drive out of Boston during rush hour.

Cape Cod is further away from Boston than I thought. I imagined you could glimpse it from Boston Harbor but I doubt that is true, at least not at surface level. It is further east and further south than I imagined. Falmouth, where we stayed, turned out to be a lovely and typical New England town with plenty of stores, galleries and restaurants designed mostly for tourist season. In October, while the tourist traffic was somewhat off, the locals were friendly, looked well moneyed and were overwhelmingly white.

The citizens of this part of Massachusetts are an unfailingly polite group, or so it appeared to this visitor. A walk down the Shining Sea Bike Path into Woods Hole led to many pleasant greetings from fellow residents. Woods Hole is small and exclusive enough to make it nigh impossible to park without a permit. It is also a harbor town. Aside from serving oceanographic interests, it acts as a conduit for tourists to and residents of Martha’s Vineyard. For $7.50 you can board a ferry that will deposit you on the island. Make sure you also purchase a return trip and not miss the 9:30 PM ferry, or you may be in for a long and cold night. Particularly during the summer season, without a reservation you cannot count on a room at Martha’s Vineyard.

I looked hard to find things to dislike about this part of Cape Cod. Most towns in New England come complete with a picturesque town square or commons, which offer a lovely dose of tamed nature in what would otherwise be a busy part of town. In Falmouth, my group found plenty of old churches, meeting halls and restaurants. Dinner at The Quarterdeck in Falmouth revealed a tavern populated not by tourists but by locals, all of whom seemed to be on intimate terms with each other. There was not a hint of crime or litter in Falmouth. Nor could I complain that the town felt fake. Steeped in hundreds of years of history, it cannot help but be authentic. Nor, after walking its long main street, I could I find a chain restaurant, a real plus. If you do not enjoy seafood, you would probably be happier elsewhere, but if you do enjoy seafood you are blessed with abundant and fresh seafood at local restaurants, which you can watch being hauled in at harbors like Woods Hole.

If forced to find items to complain about, one could make the case that the local roundabouts found on the Cape as well as much of New England, while quaint, are annoying and create backups at certain parts of the day. I also checked the local real estate prices. The riff raff are apparently easy to keep away because they cannot afford to live in this area. It helps to inherit a relative’s property or to have a six figure income. Otherwise you probably cannot afford to live in this area, despite its conspicuous absence of supersized houses.

This second trip to New England in less than two years made me realize again that New England is loudly calling for me to settle there. Fortunately, it is also calling my wife, which means we will be looking at retiring, if not in some charming Cape Cod town like Falmouth, then somewhere in New England, providing we can afford it. While there are definitely some not so nice areas of New England (such as Revere, where Logan Airport sits) much of it is charming and inviting to those who like a northern climate.

I imagine New England gets much less charming in the winter, particularly during its abundant snow season. I suspect much of its charm would wear off after shoveling snow several times a week. Most people retire from places like Boston, not to these places. I may find that the milder climate of Northern Virginia where we now live is much better overall.

Still, now that I have an exposure to New England, I want to live here. It will be hard to convince myself to spend my retired years somewhere else.

The Thinker

Community college is not quite college

As long time readers know, I teach off and on at a community college. More specifically, I teach off and on at Northern Virginia Community College, one of the nations largest community colleges. I taught a Computer Fundamentals course in the spring semester, took the summer off, and am back teaching the same course for the fall semester.

Community colleges serve some valuable purposes. Primarily, they help bridge high schoolers that never quite excelled in high school with the college education most need these days to succeed in life. This is a sizeable crowd, more so these days than most due to the severe economic recessions. NVCC like many community colleges is bursting at its seams. Enrollment is up over ten percent from last year. We have classes that start at 6:30 a.m. We are occupying space in excess office buildings because the campuses are not big enough. This is good as otherwise many of these students would not be able to take a class at all, or would need to extend their education.

In addition to those who never soared in high school, NVCC serves other groups that are arguably marginalized and disenfranchised, but should not be. We get many ESOL (English as a Second Language) students, people just auditing courses, senior citizens with too much time on their hands and a fair number of students who attend community college because apparently they cannot think of anything better to do.

After nine years of off-and-on teaching, one thing I can say for sure: community college is not “real” college. At least, it is not the college experience I knew attending a four-year institution some thirty plus years back and this has me worried. Many of the courses that are taught, while necessarily from a business purpose, are of dubious academic worth. I can use the Computer Fundamentals class that I teach as an example. About a third of the class imparts what I consider to be real knowledge: the basics of computer science. Most of the class is really about learning the Microsoft Office Suite: Word, Powerpoint, Excel and Access.

Granted the Microsoft Office suite is ubiquitous, whether you work in business, government or academia. Microsoft Word is the typewriter grown up. Microsoft Excel is a fancy tool for analyzing data. Microsoft Access is a desktop database. Still, in my opinion anyone going to college should be able to master any of these applications on their own. If Microsoft Office should be taught at all in college, it should be as an elective. These applications are not that hard to learn. Each comes with tutorials you can take at your leisure to learn basic and more advanced features. The expectation should be that if you are in college, you have already acquired enough intelligence and curiosity to independently learn and use these desktop applications as need dictates.

The fact that most of my students are baffled with these applications (even while they use them regularly) tells me that community college is essentially high school extended. Perhaps I paint with too broad a brush. Not all community college courses are like this one, but many if not most seem to be. Moreover, perhaps because instructors recognize they are often working with academically challenged students, they may tailor their courses to the lowest common denominator. This seems to be manifested in the low volume of homework and exams that are dumbed down.

As a college freshman, I suffered through many courses I did not particularly like. Some were more challenging than others, but none of them were dumbed down. As a full-time student, generally taking four to five classes a semester, between classes, studying and group projects I remember typically putting in ten to fourteen hour days six to seven days a week. I remember craving lots more free time than I actually had. For the most part, I had no time for extracurricular activities like dating and drinking.

I doubt that is true of most of the full-time students that I teach. My daughter, age 20, also happens to be attending NVCC. I suspect she has a lot of natural intelligence, but she rarely needs to study for any of her classes. Mostly when she gets home from classes she has volumes of free time, much of which is spent playing World of Warcraft. Her friends who are attending four-year colleges have a much different experience. From the feedback I get from her, they are working their fannies off, just like I did. In short, they are being academically challenged. I doubt this is true for most of my students.

In our modern age, we need community college to bridge the gap between high school and real academia. I just wish that community colleges would be upfront and acknowledge that for the most part community colleges are college-lite. If NVCC is typical of most community colleges, it is perhaps thirty percent of the academic experience that they would receive at a four-year university.

Community colleges do serve a number of vital purposes. As a place to acquire new job skills rather cheaply and without traveling far, they are vital. As a place to learn business skills, they excel. As an example of egalitarianism at its finest, they do a great job. The barrier to entry is low. While it depends on the course and the instructor, most courses do not qualify as a proper academic experience. They tend to convey much more of the how to rather than the why. Few require much critical thinking.

I try hard to set a higher standard, but it is difficult. First, the material is not particularly challenging to master, although my students, who often skimp on studying, might disagree. I assign term papers and set what I hope are high standards for research. Despite howls from my students, most of my exams are not multiple choice, but require them to express in their own words some key concept. I used to provide the notes I lectured with and Powerpoint slides, but when it became apparent they could not even be bothered to study from these, I stopped. Moreover, I was contributing to the problem. To really master the material, they need to take their own notes and learn from them. I even provided advice on how to study at the start of the semester, which apparently many never picked up in high school. Some students in every class will excel, and I will do my best to make the material more interesting, although it is pretty dry. Most seem to prefer mediocrity to exceptionalism.

While I can try to raise the bar in my own class, clearly the bar needs to be raised overall in community colleges. Instructors need to set higher standards. We do students no favors if the majority of them graduate with Gentleman C’s, or B’s that are really C’s. These students, like it or not, will be leading our great nation someday. Unless we academics set higher standards, America of the 21st century is likely to be a place where the mediocre, rather than the exceptional, are running the country. In other words, we will be a nation in decline.

Here is my advice to today’s high schoolers. If you can afford it, attend a four-year university. I suspect that overall you will have a much better academic experience. You should not be able to skate your way to a four-year degree, and if you can, I would lower the credentials of the college giving you the degree. You need to master every course that you take to succeed. Never settle for mediocrity, or you may think that is the way America works, because it is not, at least not yet. Always set a high standard for yourself. If instructors like me are not giving you the academic experience you imagine, raise holy hell. You deserve the best that I can give you.

The Thinker

Rockit Man

Ever have a guilty pleasure? Actually, I have quite a few, and one of them is reading the comic strip Brewster Rockit.

There is no reason to like this comic strip. Yes, there is no reason at all, except it appeals to those of us with a juvenile sense of humor, which I must have acquired somewhere in my life and never succeeded in shedding in adulthood. So I am coming out of the closet. I may try to be witty and sophisticated on this blog, but I still am a fan of grade school humor. Truly, this is a comic for the barely prepubescent, and yet I still like it. In fact, in getting my daily Brewster Rockit fix, I often laugh aloud, sometimes with tears running down my face.

Why do I like Brewster Rockit? Probably for the same reason I enjoyed Looney Tunes and Bullwinkle when I was a kid. I did not have to think too much to laugh at it. I never have to worry about whether the “plot” makes sense or not. It never will. Take today’s “plot”. Brewster Rocket, the titular commander of the R. U. Sirius space station, has been on humanitarian mission to rescue The Doughnut People. These walking, talking sugary snacks are apparently marooned on some planet and have begun to cannibalize each other. I tell you, humor rarely gets more sophomoric than one donut taking a bite out of each other. This humor is so middle school that I should not laugh at it at all. Yet I do. Frequently.

Things never make much sense on the space station R. U. Sirius. Trying to make sense of the strip is ultimately self-defeating, but the frame of the story (such as it is) is that the R. U. Sirius orbits the earth both to welcome aliens (presumably the friendly kind) and guard the earth from evil aliens, all while keeping us on the earth ignorant of all the aliens out there. Putting the empty-headed Brewster Rockit in charge of this space station is like electing George W. Bush to be President of the United States, in other words, not a good idea, but sort of fun seeing the village idiot trying to manage an impossible job.

Not to worry too much though, because there are signs of intelligence on the space station. It comes complete with an evil mad scientist Dr. Mel Practice, whose sadism seems unbounded. Perhaps not coincidentally, he looks a lot like Dick Cheney. The only sane person on the station seems to be Lieutenant Pamela Mae Snap. Her job seems to be to correct Brewster before he accidentally does something disastrously wrong, which turns out to be a full time job for the curvaceous Pam. Not that Brewster is capable of deliberately doing anything bad. He is always empty-headed and jovial and is usually capable of putting one foot in front of the other. I picture him a lot like Arnold Schwarzenegger, only without the Austrian accent. Apparently, he used to have a real brain, but all those alien abductions took their toll. He now lives in his own special Twilight Zone.

Cliff Clewless, the station’s engineer, is sort of like Montgomery Scott had he flunked out of engineering school. Although he sports a large belly, he thinks he has a way with women, despite the omnipresent sunglasses and sports cap. The station even comes complete with children. Mostly we see Winky, a young boy who is regularly about to be devoured by some alien experiment concocted by Dr. Mel. About once a month or so, you know some alien or monster will try to slice into the boy, and he will yell, “Ahhh!! My spleen!!!”

There are a number of other lesser-seen ancillary characters. These include Dirk Raider (a sort of medieval Darth Vader), Bucky the Robot (just a bucket on a coat rack), a PAL 9000 computer (that must be built on the same circuitry as HAL), Oldbot (a robot who has seen better days and destined for the scrap heap) and Ensign Kenny (whose job is to be the station’s red shirt and die repeatedly in evil ways).

The artist and creator Tim Rickard draws heavily on old and not so old science fiction comics, movies and TV shows, as well as, I suspect the Rocky & Bullwinkle Show. Bullwinkle and Brewster have almost identical intelligence levels and seem capable of saying funny things, which they have no idea sound funny. Like in Star Wars and Star Trek, Brewster’s spacecraft seems unaffected by distance and relativity. He can be on the planet of doughnut people one day and back on the R. U. Sirius the next. Brewster Rockit is simply out for cheap pedestrian laughs, the cheaper and more inane the better.

I feel better now that I have confessed my sin. I guess I am more human than I thought. Whether Brewster is still with the doughnut people tomorrow or not, I know I will be reading the strip and probably chuckling, particularly when Winky is caught by another evil experiment of Dr. Mel’s, and is yelling about his punctured spleen.

If this keeps up, I will be chuckling at The Family Circus next. If I do, please kill me.


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