Archive for March, 2010

The Thinker

A habit all presidents should take up

No, I am not talking about President Obama’s smoking habit that he apparently has not kicked. I am talking about this habit:

Inside, Obama found crinkled notebook pages, smudged ink, cursive handwriting and misspelled words — a collection of 10 original letters that he considers among his most important daily reading material, aides said. Ever since he requested a sampling of mail on his second day in office, the letters have become a staple of his presidency. Some he immediately reads out loud to his wife; others he distributes to senior staff members aboard Air Force One. Some are from students requesting help with homework; others are from constituents demanding jobs or health care. About half of the letters, Obama said during a recent speech, “call me an idiot.”

I know some of my readers think Obama is an idiot, but in this particular case, he is one smart president. Perhaps other recent presidents have done something similar to this. Some very distant presidents, like Abraham Lincoln, made a regular point of reading and often responding to their public mail. These days with three hundred million Americans and the ability to send the president email at a whim, the president, not to mention the rest of government, is inundated with correspondence from the public. No president can or should even begin to try to read it all. However, reading ten letters a day at least keeps the president somewhat grounded in the life of ordinary Americans.

You can bet to the extent that George W. Bush read public mail at all, it was carefully filtered by staff to reinforce whatever they wanted him to hear. Otherwise, who knows, he might have learned that Iraq was not developing nuclear weapons. Yet Obama’s staff, by his order, actually gives him a representative sample of his official public mail. In a country as diverse as ours, even two friends will not agree on everything. So you can bet that what Obama is reading is often annoying and pedestrian, as well as heartfelt. In any event, if you really want to do the work of the American people, you have to know how they feel. Because Obama takes the time to read a sampling of his public mail, we learn something you cannot say about many presidents: he really does want to make sure public policy aligns with the actual needs of the American people, not what he thinks they need. Moreover, he is using what he is reading from the public is shaping policy.

What a concept! Somehow, you know that if we had gotten a President Hillary Clinton (or a President John McCain) instead of a President Barack Obama, she would not be regularly reading samplings of her public mail. Oh sure, she cares about Americans but this would never occur to her. I doubt she would be holding regular town hall meetings either. Even his critics I think would have to agree that Obama genuinely wants to hear from diverse points of view, and values input from ordinary citizens. Moreover, Obama is making conversations with citizens a part of the ordinary way he does things. It is very refreshing.

Obama, like most presidents, hears criticism that he inhabits an ivory tower. This is simply not true. Few modern presidents with the possible exception of Bill Clinton come from such ordinary roots. President Obama does not have to hear what it is like to live on food stamps. For a time, his family depended on them. He does not have to try to understand racism and multiculturalism. He grew up in a multiracial household. Some would say he came from a middle class family. It is more accurate to say he came from the working poor, which is probably where he acquired the smoking habit. He also understands how hard it is to make ends meet. It wasn’t until his first book sold well that he managed to pay off his student loans. Yet he also understands to some extent the life of the privileged and the wealthy. He worked on Wall Street early in his career.

Consequently, it should not be a surprise that he reads some of his mail and holds regular town halls. This connecting with ordinary Americans is how he has successfully navigated through life. He stays grounded in the real world, which can be almost impossible within the White House and its security bubble. It’s what is making him an effective president, and which might put him in the pantheon of great American presidents.

I hope he takes it a few steps further. One of the problems with being president is that there is no end to the demands on your time. Town hall meetings are fine, but much of the rabble is kept out by the Secret Service. He should also attend focus groups. His staff should contract with a polling firm like Gallup and have them occasionally fly in representative samples of Americans. He should invite them to the White House for focused discussions, or periodically meet groups off site in real America, say a Best Western conference room. Perhaps once a week his staff could pull some random person or family from the White House tour. He could sit down for coffee or a beer, away from cameras and the press, just to hear firsthand what their real life is like.

Many find it annoying, but what I admire most about President Obama is his ruthlessly pragmatic way of governing. It drove both sides of the political spectrum crazy during the health care debates. No side got everything they wanted, but when he finally decided to engage on health care reform, he made it happen. Despite whining from Republicans, the laws look amazingly like what Republicans like Newt Gingrich wanted enacted back in the 1990s but now decry. It’s neither left, nor right. It’s mainstream. Moreover, the more I read about the law, the more I find to admire about it. For example, employees can reduce health insurance costs by practicing preventive health care rather than reactive health care. This is not just smart; it is very smart. Not everyone will change lifestyles when given a financial incentive to do so, but many will. Over time, these sorts of strategies move mountains. Over a generation, strategies like this cut our national smoking rate from 50% of adults to about 20% of adults today.

As long as he is president, I hope President Obama continues to read those ten letters a day as well as hold regular town hall forums. This is time that is wisely invested and should be a required practice for future presidents of any party affiliation.

 
The Thinker

More problems with SiteMeter

I first started metering my blog using SiteMeter back in 2004 because it was free and it did not have much competition. It solved the general problem of knowing who was accessing my web site in a simple way that still seems quite elegant. Create a SiteMeter account, slap some code into your site’s templates and you were done. The only alternative we had back them was to hope our web hosts had installed a package like Awstats. In many ways, SiteMeter was better than Awstats because it filtered out a lot of the noise. Awstats was not that good with determining “real” visits and page views vs. “fake” visits and page views. “Fake” visits and page views are any access by search engines. They don’t represent an actual human being reading your site. SiteMeter and similar services can tell real viewers from fake viewers because it depends on the browser to read and execute some embedded Javascript. The Javascript in your browser essentially “pings” a remote server, passing on information about your access. Search engine robots generally cannot be bothered.

Over the years, I have developed my suspicions about how accurate SiteMeter was. However, it was at least a common benchmark, since SiteMeter was also metering most other prominent websites. At least it gave you some idea of your relevant web traffic. Back in 2006, Google became a serious player in the site analytics business. In 2007 I began also monitoring my site with Google Analytics.

Over the last few months, it became clear to me that SiteMeter was missing many page requests. While it came close to matching the number of visits to my site, it was way off in the number of page views. For example, here are some statistics over the last six days for my site:

Date Google Analytics SiteMeter
Visits Page Views Visits Page Views
3/22/10 174 286 147 212
3/23/10 167 418 152 201
3/24/10 150 319 165 190
3/25/10 127 296 143 176
3/26/10 143 369 146 189
3/27/10 87 289 91 144
Total 848 1977 844 1112

What explains the difference? One small factor is that Google Analytics tracks days in Pacific time, while SiteMeter tracks in Eastern time. However, Google Analytics is reporting more than forty percent more page views that SiteMeter, 865 more page views over the same six-day period!

I really don’t think Google Analytics is creating artificial page views. As best I can figure, SiteMeter is either not getting notified of these additional page views or, more likely, one or more page views per visit are getting lost on the Internet and not actually arriving at SiteMeter. Why would this be? This is speculation, of course, but Google has much deeper pockets than SiteMeter. I suspect they have more servers listening on the edge of the cloud than SiteMeter. If correct, this means that for Google Analytics to collect a “ping” there are fewer routers to hop through on its journey, so they are more likely to be recorded. Part of the problem may be SiteMeter’s more precarious revenue stream. I don’t pay SiteMeter for monitoring my site, which means the only money they make from me are from serving me ads when I (or others) visit SiteMeter to see my statistics.

There are other issues with SiteMeter that show that they are getting sloppy. SiteMeter is also including the Google Search engine as a visitor, which artificially inflates my page view. If you are being metered by SiteMeter, you may be affected as well. Look at Recent Visitors by Details. If for example you see “googlebot.com” as the domain and a large number of page views, it’s pretty obvious that these are not human beings reading your site and the Google search engine is indexing your site instead. This problem has persisted for months and I have brought it to SiteMeter’s attention. They clearly don’t consider fixing it a priority, which implies they are not very concerned about the accuracy of their statistics.

I can understand that keeping track of the myriad search engines out there is a large challenge. I am sure Google has the same issue, but I am also confident that Google has the resources to make sure my statistics are clean. It sure appears that SiteMeter does not, or gives much lower priority to us non-paying customers.

SiteMeter is still useful to me as a quick way to check usage on my site. It gives me an idea of whether a certain post has gained in popularity and who has visited the site recently. However, it is clear that it is, at best, a rough record of actual usage of your site and is probably underreporting your site’s actual numbers of page views. You would be wise not to read too much into its statistics. If you have not added Google Analytics tracking code, you might want to do so.

 
The Thinker

Hospitalized

It was more than ironic that less than twelve hours after writing my last post on violence related to recently enacted health care legislation, I would be putting our health care system to the test. After posting Wednesday night I readied myself for bed. On my way to the bathroom, my right toe grazed the side of the door frame. It hurt but I have broken this toe before. I hoped it wasn’t broken and shuffled off to bed.

The alarm woke me at 6:30 AM. I optimistically assumed I was good enough to go to work, so I shuffled to the bathroom to shave. It sure hurt walking. I realized I had injured my toe more than I thought. I figured a couple of Ibuprofens would take care of the pain. Since I injured the smallest toe, I knew there was nothing a health care provider could really do. Sometimes they are wrapped to the adjacent toe for support, but aside from elevating, icing and trying not to use the foot while it is painful nothing else is done.

What I did not expect was the incident of vasovagal syncope I was about to experience. Since it hurt to put pressure on the right foot, I put it on the left foot instead but the right foot still throbbed painfully. I tried to shave but started sweating and felt dizzy. Feeling I might fall, I sat myself on the toilet then blacked out. My forehead and my nose made a sharp contact with the side of our bathtub. Blood poured out of my nose, into the tub and over the floor. When I regained some semblance of consciousness, I whimpered to my wife, still asleep in bed.

Both the bathroom and I were a bloody mess. She wanted to call an ambulance but a few minutes later I was capable of staggering outside to our car on crutches. I was sweating and shaking on and off. I often felt short of breath. Kleenexes were stuffed up my nostrils. She made the short drive to Inova Fair Oaks Hospital’s Emergency Room which fortunately at 7 AM had a completely empty waiting room. I staggered in on crutches, collapsed into a wheelchair and within a few minutes I was wheeled into a triage room. Ten minutes later we were in Emergency Room 7. An emergency room physician was shining lights in my eyes while I stumbled through the various procedures in a shivering and cold haze.

I was still short of breath and still feeling somewhat nauseous. A saline drip with anti-nausea medication soon went into me through my arm. X-rays of my foot and abdomen were ordered, and were followed by a CT scan of my head, which fortunately did not show a concussion. However, it did show a broken nose to complement my broken toe. My face and forehead were swollen. No amount of tissues seemed to stop the blood from trickling out of my nose.

It took a few hours to feel better and to understand what had happened. If I had ever fainted before, it was as a child because I have no memories of previous episodes. Vasovagal syncopes though are fairly frequent occurrences. They are often a result of combining dehydration and acute pain, and I had both of them. They result in a sudden loss of blood pressure, which naturally caused the fainting. Some particularly squeamish people can get them from watching other people in pain. For example, some husbands have episodes while watching their wives giving birth.

After spending the usual restless night in the hospital, this morning I am expecting to be discharged. I am in the hospital out of what is probably an abundance of caution. Since Marfan’s syndrome runs in the family, and I already have an enlarged aortic artery, there is some concern that there may be a relationship. Some twenty years ago I had a brother pass out from Marfan’s symptoms right in the middle of taking a bath. It may be that as I age my Marfanoid symptoms are expressing themselves. To find out, I am tethered to an mess of sensors on my chest which are wirelessly transmitting signals to some nearby collection machine. Except for when I walk on the foot, I now feel fine. I would prefer to be home.

So what is the state of hospital care today? For those of us who are insured, and even many of those who are not, it’s pretty darn good, at least here at Inova Fair Oaks Hospital. My emergency room physician was on the mark. His diagnosis was confirmed by a visiting primary care physician later in the day. I got lucky in that I did not have to wait long for emergency care or tests. I fell around 6:45 AM and by noon I was wheeled into room in the Telemetry section in the north wing.

I may feel less charitable toward the hospital when I get the hospital bills. My insurance company will pick up the bulk of them, but of course pretty much every physician who sees me will bill me, and I will probably pay 25% or so of their bills as deductibles. They will dribble in over the next few months. I hope I have enough in savings to cover them. It is likely they will amount to a couple of thousand dollars out of pocket.

My roommate is both less lucky and luckier. He is lucky because his girlfriend telephoned him on Wednesday and realized he wasn’t making sense. She called the paramedics, who had to get the super to let them into his apartment. They found him tethered to an empty oxygen canister. His oxygen levels were dangerously low. He would be resting in a morgue tonight instead of in a hospital bed had it not been for his girlfriend. I don’t know all of what is going on with him but for a guy my age he is a mess. From over the thin hospital curtains I hear details of his life: his daily trips to the methadone clinic and his constant companion: the oxygen tank. While here at Inova, he is constantly being probed and wheeled out of his room for more tests. From his disheveled look, I doubt he has a steady job. He is likely among the uninsured or marginally insured. A good portion of my hospital care is probably subsidizing his care.

He spends most of the day and night asleep or groggily repeating his name when they come to measure his blood pressure or draw blood. He will awake to find the movie that he has had on is mostly over which he then restarts it again. I am already sick of the movie Duplicity and have even memorized some of the lines. As for me, they periodically come by to take my blood pressure and temperature, which are always in the normal range.

Despite the frequent nighttime annoyances, this hospital stay could have been much more unpleasant. For the chronically ill, at some point these constant interruptions in sleep patterns must feel like torture, because they are never allowed to sleep for a sustained period. For me one night in a hospital is just an annoyance. Inova Fair Oaks Hospital is all high tech these days. I can have movies on demand but more importantly they offer free wireless. By mid afternoon yesterday I was united with my laptop and spreading my news electronically. This episode will mean that I will miss spending a week in Denver next week on business travel.

The staff has been as caring and considerate as possible considering they have to periodically abuse your body. The hospital food has been surprisingly good but the portions have been small. You place your order over the phone from a menu that is provided. The food arrives about forty-five minutes later, usually lukewarm. The rooms are clean, the beds reasonably comfortable and my devoted wife is a frequent companion at my side. No spouse could have been more helpful in my time of need.

While all these creature comforts are nice, some part of me wonders if they are all worth paying for. It seems to me if we are going to get serious about controlling medical costs, movies on demand are easily expendable. My major concern is whether I will pick up an infection. I have been wary of hospitals all these years because of the high level of infections. A few hospitals are good at managing infections. Most are not. I have no idea how this hospital compares with others. Fortunately, I have no gaping wounds.

I look forward to reuniting with my house and my feline later today. I hope that unlike after my last surgery I will be back to normal within a few days. I count myself fortunate to be among America’s well insured. As a federal employee (as well as members of Congress), I cannot be dropped for any preexisting conditions, so I do not have that albatross around my neck. Within a few years, all Americans will have this privilege as well. Thirty million more will also be insured. It’s about time.

 
The Thinker

Tea Partiers: Armed and Dangerous

I guess it is too much to expect Tea Partiers to just go home and be pissed off but lawful citizens. No one expected any of them (or for that matter, most Republicans) to be happy with the health care reform legislation signed into law yesterday. It’s okay for them to vent their spleens, call the law unconstitutional (which it is not), organize peaceful but boisterous protests, petition the government to repeal the law and work actively to regain a majority in Congress. It is not okay to harass members of Congress, spit on them, call African American members of Congress niggers or homosexual members faggots. It is not okay to throw bricks through the windows of their Congressional offices, send them intimidating faxes showing their heads in a noose, or make threats to kill them, or their family, or in one case, a congressman’s brother and his family. In fact, most of these actions are illegal.

Doubtless, we will hear that those crossing the line are a tiny few, but the video evidence of protests by Tea Partiers at the Capitol over the weekend suggests otherwise. Moreover, certain members of Congress were cheering the Tea Partiers on, both outside of the Capitol over the weekend and in one case from the floor of the House of Representatives while it was in session. The instigators, i.e. the Glenn Becks, Rush Limbaughs, Sean Hannities and Bill O’Reillies of the media, not to mention dozens of other rabid conservatives inhabiting talk radio, will of course disclaim any responsibility for their part in this mess. So will Fox News, although they covered Tea Party rallies last summer like it was the most important story in the news. (Curiously, these rallies were far smaller than antiwar rallies years earlier that they ignored, dismissed or underreported.)

This is the ugly fruit of their extreme vitriol and hatred when they lose. They now control a party of people so extreme that the bipartisanship they claim to care about is virtually impossible. Almost exclusively, angry white people are now directing the Republican Party. They have cast their lot with these angry extremists in the attempt to regain political power. The reality is their party is now a party full of loose cannons beyond their control.

Tea Partiers may think that me, a liberal Democrat, cannot understand them because I don’t share their values. I do, however, know what it feels like. We had it for eight years under George W. Bush. We held rallies against the Afghanistan and Iraq wars that regularly drew ten times as many people as participated in Tea Party rallies. We too vented our spleens in protest marches. Every nasty thing that Tea Partiers are saying about President Obama we (or at least some of us) echoed about President Bush. We called him a war criminal that should be brought up on charges of authorizing torture. We railed against his illegal wiretaps and electronic surveillance policies. One thing we did not do was throw bricks into the offices of Congressional Republicans, or spit on any member of the Bush Administration, or insult them to their face with ethnic slurs. We did not target their relatives with death threats. We played inside the rules of the democratic system in our country.

Anger is perhaps expected when your side loses. It turns out that this legislation was not Obama’s Waterloo after all. Tea Partiers though need to be very careful, because through their actions they are quickly distancing themselves from mainstream America, who see their violence as crazy, extremist, unlawful and undemocratic. Instead of coming across as passionate people of conviction, they are coming across as the crazy aunt kept hidden in the attic. By their actions, they are telling America that when they think a law was passed using unconstitutional means, even if it was not, and they are willing to go to unlawful means to undo it. Essentially, they have placed a little asterisk next to the rule of law. At least some of them feel they can circumvent the rule of law and use vigilante justice when their dander is raised high enough.

I know it may feel to these people that this law was rammed down throats. Lord knows they told us often enough. Yet, nothing about how this law was enacted was unlawful or unconstitutional. Budget reconciliation has been used repeatedly by both parties, and during the Bush Administration was used to pass tax cuts for the wealthy. These tax cuts quickly ballooned our deficit, which previously had produced a surplus. Now Tea Baggers are complaining we can’t afford the health care overhaul, but not one of them is willing to raise taxes to address the revenue shortfall. Apparently, deficits only matter when your party is out of power and you see it as a way to gain political advantage, and can never be solved through additional taxes.

Really, Tea Baggers, grow up. What a terrible example you are setting for your children! There are few things more embarrassing than watching adults behave like children, but I suspect your children are actually better behaved than you are. In case you missed the presidential campaign, Obama won the presidency promising change, including health care reform. A majority of Americans (53 percent) voted for him. Americans also lawfully elected a supermajority of Democratic senators and a majority of members of the House of Representatives, in part in reaction to the extreme ways your party managed the country. The same parliamentary rules were used in this Congress to pass legislation as were used in the last few Congresses.

You may not like the health care reform legislation, but it’s the law of the land. It is highly unlikely to ever be repealed. At the earliest, it won’t happen before 2013 because it will take a new president to not veto a repeal of the law. Moreover, even if you somehow managed to replace every Democratic senator running for reelection in 2010, you would still not have the votes to overturn a presidential veto. The law will never be repealed outright. A clear majority of Americans now support the law. In particular, any attempt to remove provisions of the law that ban discrimination for preexisting conditions would ensure a legislator’s defeat. Attempts by attorneys generals from the various states to try to convince courts it is unconstitutional are dubious at best, for this law is no more an infringement of states rights than the draft is. You would be much better served by simply accepting you lost a big one, and channel your anger on the next battle.

Frankly, I find Tea Partiers not just weird, but dangerously weird in a Timothy McVeigh sort of way. I hope I am wrong, but my sense is that they are not going to peacefully accept what is now the law of the land. I think we are likely to see more extreme acts of violence from Tea Partiers in the days and weeks ahead. There are too many loose cannons on their ship and there is not one grown up in charge that can muzzle them. Should they be unwise enough to resort to more violence, they will also kill whatever chance they have of regaining political power. Americans instinctively back away from fanatics of any political stripe. Doing so will quickly prove counterproductive. The average American is greatly alarmed by their behavior.

 
The Thinker

Facebooked

Remember when I said I didn’t need a social network? Okay, maybe you don’t remember. I likely don’t have a lot of regular readers and those I do have probably don’t recall some vague post I made on the social networking phenomenon back in 2008. Yet, somehow I seem to have found myself on Facebook.

Those social networking psychologists, they sure are tricky. They hit me at my Achilles Heel. I take pride in not having a whole lot of friends but some of the friends I do have are on Facebook. Some of them (I won’t mention any names) kept persisting month after month by sending me these electronic invitations to join Facebook. Sometimes they actually sent me personal emails to try to convince me to join. Think of how much better we’ll be connected, they told me.

One day a few months ago, it just became easier for me to join Facebook than it was to decline and hurt my friends’ feelings yet again. The peer pressure finally got to me. I had hardly set up my account on Facebook before my sister and one of my friends started chatting away with me in Facebook. For a brief moment, I was impressed. I never got this much attention from them until I joined them in the Facebook enclave. I could feel the love.

Now they knew I kept up on every aspect of their lives, or at least those parts they were willing to post in Facebook. Ah, and there’s the rub. I wasn’t on more than a couple hours before I started tinkering with Facebook’s privacy settings. How much about myself was I willing to share with the world? I quickly decided: as little as possible. Would I be like many on Facebook and have hundreds or thousands of friends? Would I keep up with the friend of someone I know vaguely from church? No way! I decided that if I were going to share things about myself on Facebook then they would have to be a real friend, not some casual acquaintance.

So my list of friends is unimpressive. I regularly decline or ignore friend requests because, quite frankly, I consider them acquaintances, not friends. I currently have twenty-five friends, and nine of them are relatives, which means I have only 14 real Facebook friends. The good part is that all my Facebook friends are real friends. They are people I have interacted significantly with in real life, who I want to keep in touch with (albeit not necessarily every day) and whose opinions I respect. Frankly, I didn’t know I had that many friends.

In some cases, they are now distant friends. They include a now 37-year-old woman who nearly a quarter century ago was our foster child and who rarely got more from me than a Christmas card with a family newsletter. Now I get to read her daily psychic horoscope. They include some cyber friends who I actually have met in person over the years but otherwise rarely chat with regularly. They include some former coworkers who I liked so much we traded email addresses when I left. In addition, they include a couple current coworkers with whom my relationship is more than superficial.

Still, even with my privacy settings up to very high, just how much about myself am I willing to post on Facebook? It turns out: not a whole lot. If I have marital issues, I’m not going to tell them about it via Facebook. I’m not even going to tell my family, but if I do it will probably be over a landline or in person and certainly not on Facebook. What sort of interesting stuff am I willing to share with my friends? I link them to a Jon Stewart video. I tell them I painted the garage door this weekend. I ask for vacation suggestions. It’s very innocuous stuff.

It is true that via Facebook that I am learning things about my friends that I would probably not otherwise know. Renee is looking to rent her townhouse and escape to third world countries. My nephew got a new set of glasses. Sometimes I learn interesting things. What is lacking is the sort of intimate details that you might glean over a cup of coffee. It seems my Facebook friends understand that posts on Facebook could come back to haunt them if they are not careful. With Facebook free to change its terms of service anytime it wants, it’s best to keep conversation pretty superficial. Who knows what future employer might check me out in Facebook and find out I was recently in the hospital for clinical depression? (Umm, I wasn’t really, at least as far as you know, but you get the idea.)

I have also joined a few Facebook groups and fan sites, but for the most part, I don’t have the time to delve into these groups. They are mainly means to alert my friends about what interests me. I do tend to check Facebook most days because it comes up as a browser tab automatically, but sometimes I forget. Moreover, as I use Facebook more often, I find it less and less compelling.

The truth is, I regret getting on Facebook. My instincts were correct. I am not yet courageous enough to close my account. Why? I am a weenie. I don’t like confrontation. For my friends might feel that if I closed my account, I don’t think learning the details of their lives are that important. While I appreciate those nuggets I have learned about my friends, Facebook has a high signal to noise ratio. At best maybe five percent of the things I learn about my friends truly engages me.

I also find plenty of things that annoy me about Facebook. What annoys me the most is simply its commercial nature. Of course, Facebook needs to make a profit, so they throw ads at me in the right sidebar. They want me to rate ads on whether I like or do not like them. Like hell. The last thing I am going to do is volunteer more information about how to successfully market to me.

As for its user interface, I have to wonder if a bunch of trolls created it. Truly, it is baffling confusing. Perhaps it is one of these interfaces that if you have been in it for a few years would make complete sense. There are endless notifications. You have a home page, but you also have a wall, and it’s unclear what the difference is. I find myself posting stuff on other people’s walls that I should have put on mine because pages can’t be customized, so they all look the same. I can’t edit posts or comments. It reminds me of software, like Microsoft Project, that are largely baffling and frustrating for the average user, but who has to use it anyhow. I just don’t get the interface. I find it annoying. What is “Top News”? How does Facebook decide? Why not just show “Most Recent” all the time? Why do I get all these notifications I don’t care about?

My suspicion is that within the next few months I will just give it up. It will have to be done carefully. Perhaps I will go from checking daily to once a week, and then once a month, and then once a quarter. If one of my friends asks, I will sheepishly admit I find the site largely a waste of my time and could they please email me, call me on the phone or meet me for a cup of coffee? Perhaps if there were a non-commercial version of Facebook that actually was usable, I would migrate to it.

I frankly don’t understand the fuss about Facebook. If it died tomorrow, I would be fine and even happy. I would not miss it at all. I hope that enough people who agree with me will find the courage I currently lack, and just get off it altogether. Facebook, like other technologies like Twitter, or for that matter Craigslist’s Casual Encounters section, I find to be largely a waste of my time.

 
The Thinker

Civilized people practice and promote social justice

According to Glenn Beck, “social justice” is a code word for communism and Nazism. He says if your church is concerned about social justice, you need to find a different church.

I assume this means that Beck will now be leaving the Mormon Church because, hate to break it to you Glenn, Mormons such as you claim to be are all over this social justice thing. There is, for example, in the Book of Mormon this little excerpt from King Benjamin’s sermon:

And now… for the sake of retaining a remission of your sins from day to day, that ye may walk guiltless before God—I would that ye should impart of your substance to the poor, every man according to that which he hath, such as feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and administering to their relief, both spiritually and temporally, according to their wants. (Mosiah 4:26)

Early Mormon communities in particular were little socialist institutions to the extreme. They saw it as a matter of survival to ensure that every member of their community thrived. It seemed to work out pretty well, given the phenomenal growth of Mormonism in a tough climate. Even today, the Mormon Church is engaged in all sorts of social justice actions. For example, most Mormon temples practice social justice by helping fellow church members who are struggling and require assistance. Then there is the LDS Humanitarian Fund, which has donated over half a billion dollars toward disaster relief alone. Mormons are busy redistributing wealth and relieving suffering all over the place, not to mention building all sorts of fabulous temples.

It takes a simple Google search to find numerous references to social justice in the Bible. If you like the Old Testament, consider Jeremiah, 22:3:

Thus says the Lord: Do justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor him who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the resident alien, the fatherless, and the widow, nor shed innocent blood in this place.

In the New Testament, we have Luke 10:30-37, among many other passages:

Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him.

Beck would do much better to admit the obvious: he is about as Christian as Attila the Hun. Granted, he has plenty of company. For those of us on the left, it has been obvious that many of the right suffer from a schizoid personality. Most claim to be Christian, but their actions are hardly Christ-like.

The truth is that Beck is far closer to being a Nazi than those of us who believe in social justice. Nazism was a far right philosophy, and it is hard to find anyone much further to the right than Beck. Nazis were racists, and Beck sure sounds like one. He believes President Obama is a black racist and has “deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture” despite the minor problem that there is no evidence to support him, he grew up principally with his white mother in a white community and the majority of his staff, including his chief of staff, is white. Beck is certainly anti-communist, which was also one of the essential underpinnings of Nazism. (This makes it more curious that he could equate both Nazism and communism with social justice.) He is also vehemently opposed to economic and political liberalism, two other hallmarks of Nazism.

Speaking of communism, one can make a case that Christianity is philosophically very close to Communism. In fact, it’s hard to read the New Testament and not see the similarity. Christianity is far more than communism, of course, because it is a religion. However, if you strip away the religious aspect of Christianity and watch it in practice with a clinician’s eye, it’s all about redistributing wealth. If we were all perfect Christians, we would naturally redistribute our wealth to help the suffering of those around us so that no one was richer or poorer than another, which sounds just like communism. So since Beck is a Mormon, and Mormons are Christians, isn’t he essentially a communist?

Beck has not resolved the conflict between his purported Christianity and his extreme self-reliant orthodoxy. What makes Beck unique is that until now no right wing commentator with any appreciable audience has openly exposed this dichotomy. In the quest to be the most controversial talk show host on TV and radio, Beck has opened a Pandora’s Box. Now the dichotomy of right wing Christians is exposed in a very public, in your face way. He is challenging Christians to leave their churches, at which social justice is almost certainly a primarily underpinning. Many right wing Christians, particularly the prominent ones, now have to defend their Christianity, as Beck has given them no way out. It’s either social justice or social Darwinism. Since he clearly does not believe in social justice, he should be man enough to acknowledge the truth: he is not a Christian. You have told the world what is obvious: you do not want our institutions at any level to remediate the suffering of those down the economic or social latter.

As for the rest of us churchgoers (not to mention all sorts of other faith communities, and even many secular people), we are quite comfortable with the whole social justice thing. This is because compassion is at the heart of who we are, not meanness. With a few exceptions, all but a handful of churches actively engage in social justice, and for many it’s their primary mission. As the Rev. Peter Morales, the new president of the Unitarian Universalist Association put it very succinctly recently :

Religion is much more about what we love than about what we think.

Exactly. The foundation of love is compassion. The moment the circle of your love extends outside your immediate family, you are tipping the scales of social Darwinism, which is social justice. When you have compassion, you learn to see and want to mitigate the suffering of the less fortunate. You know that the virtue of self-reliance is not the answer to everything. Instead you understand that circumstance, connections, genetics and sometimes even your race frame your level of suffering. Because many of us were in these situations, and others compassionately helped us, we are moved to relieve the suffering of others. In other words, if you have any love in your heart at all for your fellow man, you must necessarily practice social justice.

I have some compassion for you too, Brother Beck, even though I confess it is hard to find in your particular case because I find your view of the world harmful and unhealthy. Right now, you are too busy earning your millions by enflaming our suspicions and our hatreds. However, should you ever be brought low, it will be people like me practicing social justice who will do our best to find you some food and a safe place to sleep. Moreover, because our nation is so large and I cannot reach out and help all three hundred million people at once, I certainly will be asking my government to practice social justice for all its citizens as well. I want to live in a civilized nation, not the mean and Darwinian one you obviously promote.

 
The Thinker

Review: The Ghost Writer

If The Ghost Writer, now playing in theaters, does not feel a little familiar then you are not paying attention to politics, particularly British politics. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair was widely viewed within Great Britain as George W. Bush’s stooge and lackey. It seemed that whenever Bush said “jump”, Blair would respond with, “How high?” Great Britain was our firm ally after 9/11 and followed us into the debacle that became the Iraq War. There are all sorts of reports, some actually factual, that suggested darker and more sinister motives from 10 Downing Street.

The movie W. gave director Oliver Stone a chance to plumb the depths of George W. Bush’s soul. Based on my review, Stone portrayed Bush as even shallower than he let on in public. The Ghost Writer lets director Roman Polanski give Tony Blair the same treatment, just in transparently fictional setting. Polanski may be a convicted child molester here in the United States, but he clearly hasn’t lost the knack for directing. The Ghost Writer does turn out to be a whole lot more engaging than its transparent premise would suggest. It also is perhaps a window into Polanski’s own troubled soul. More on that later.

Pierce Brosnan plays Tony Blair, sorry, “Adam Lang” who superficially looks and sounds a lot like Tony Blair. In this movie, he is also George W. Bush’s lackey in TWOT (The War on Terror). By the time the movie starts, Lang has been put out to pasture. He seems to prefer to live in New England in retirement; however, he remains always the restless politician because he rarely stays at his estate for very long. He is apparently rich enough to retire to a very exclusive house on an island off the coast of New England. (They do not say which island it is, but I assumed it was Martha’s Vineyard). There he lives on a big estate surrounded by a very big fence with a number of toughs at the front gate. Protestors can often be found in front of the gate, as they are convinced that Blair, sorry, Lang ordered British forces to torture Islamic extremists.

The ghostwriter (Ewan McGreggor) gets to spend time at the estate for the obvious reason. He will earn a quick quarter of a million dollars if he can revise an earlier draft of the book within a month. As we learn from one of the opening scenes, the first ghostwriter met with an untimely fate and was found on a beach near the estate, dead from drowning after presumably slipping off the ferry to the island. Can you say, “foreshadowing”? I knew you could!

Lang’s retreat is a very odd and very cold (as in impersonal) place. It is clear within minutes of getting inside Lang’s little fortress that there are some major household tensions going on. To wit, Lang’s brilliant but distant wife Ruth (Olivia Williams) seems to be estranged from Adam, who seems to be more interested in bedding his long-time personal assistant Amelia Bly (Kim Catrall). There are many peculiar things going on at the Lang estate and much of the staff’s time is spent in the daunting business of image control. The maid is unusually cold and, moreover, there is a creepy guy who spends his day in the driveway obsessively raking away saw grass. Nor is Lang, when the ghostwriter finally meets him, terribly revealing about his past life. He refers to him as “guy”, but in fact, the ghostwriter is never named once in the movie.

The estate is as dark and confusing as the island it inhabits. It is February and it is unremittingly cold and grey, with frequent squalls of cold rain. The manuscript by the first ghostwriter is kept in a special vault under lock and key. The ghostwriter eventually finds himself trying to supplement the material by talking with others who knew Adam. Names in the first draft of the book and mysterious old photographs in the guest room of the house lead the writer on a chase that becomes increasingly darker and scarier. Meanwhile, we learn that the International Criminal Court wants Lang to stand trial for crimes against humanity for allegedly ordering torture.

So it is convenient that Lang is living in The United States, one of a handful of countries not to recognize the ICC. Lang can quickly escape to Washington into the bosom of his Bush friends, but can he escape from the creepy guy living outside his security fence who seems abnormally obsessed with him? And was the first ghostwriter’s death an accident or something more sinister?

You can probably correctly guess the latter. The allusion to the ICC though is somewhat funny, given that Polanski has been on the run from U.S. law for more than thirty years. He was recently detained in Switzerland and will likely return to the United States to serve his sentence for having sex with an underage minor back in the 1970s. Perhaps that’s what makes this otherwise rather predictable movie work so well: Polanski understands what it feels like to be hunted. It also helps to have some terrific actors. Brosnan’s performance is about what you would expect. McGreggor is a decent actor as always. Eli Wallach has a neat little bit part as well. The actor to really watch is Olivia Williams as Lang’s wife Ruth, who sort of befriends the writer while also pushing him away.

This was one of those rare movies where I figured out the ending, but from the gasps in the audience I gather most of them were like my wife. So there is actually quite a bit to enjoy in this weird, creepy world inhabited by Adam Lang and his cohorts. It’s something of a rarity today in our special effect laden theaters: a movie for adults on adult topics. It’s worth seeing.

3.2 on my four-point scale.

 
The Thinker

Not exactly Waterloo

What a curious analogy by South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint: if Republicans and others opposed to “socialism” can stop President Obama and Democrats in Congress from passing health care reform, it will be Obama’s Waterloo. He will be doomed to finish out an ineffectual term, kind of like Jimmy Carter.

Most of us Americans have a hazy idea at best about The Battle of Waterloo. A quick recap for those of you who might have been asleep during the lecture on European history: in the Battle of Waterloo, Napoleon had managed to return to power in France after being exiled to the island of Elba off Tuscany. (It would be like Obama losing a second term, and then later winning another term.) Napoleon had already held power for a decade. Having been bitten many times by Napoleon, allied powers quickly organized to defeat him again. English and Prussian powers were able to defeat his armies rather handily in June of 1815 at Waterloo in Belgium. After all, they knew what they were up against and brought forty thousand more soldiers than Napoleon to the battle. After the battle, Napoleon went to live on another island, this time St. Helena in the South Atlantic Ocean, where he died rather ingloriously of stomach cancer in 1821.

In short, Waterloo was the concluding battle of Napoleon’s resurgent short second reign. In contrast, President Obama has been in office a little over a year. The closest analogy one can make between Napoleon and health care reform legislation was Napoleon’s administrative reforms, which included a tax code, a public road and sewer system, establishing a central bank, and a set of civil laws known as the Napoleonic Code which were, at least in theory, quite progressive. Many of these laws and institutions survive today and may be Napoleon’s true legacy in France.

In this health care battle, if any side has superior forces, it is the establishment. It is true that Democrats have the political advantage in Congress. However, the watered down legislation making its way toward the reconciliation process represents significant concessions to the health care and health insurance industries. Single payer health care? Gone. A public option health care plan to compete with private health insurance plans? It has virtually no chance of being added during the reconciliation process, based on press reports. If brought up, it stands little likelihood of making it through reconciliation.

In many ways, if the current legislation were enacted, it would be a great victory for the health insurance industry. These companies understand that in the end they cannot sell health insurance if no one can afford to buy it. The legislation requires most uninsured Americans to buy health insurance from the private health care insurance industry. The government is basically requiring Americans to dole out more of their hard earned money to give to private corporations, not the government. That sounds like the government is assisting the corporatocracy, not socialism. If Americans cannot afford to buy the product, in many cases the government will offer subsidies and tax credits to make it possible.

To label these reforms as socialism is ridiculous. If regulating the health care industry is socialism, then one has to ask the obvious questions of what else the government is doing is socialism, because most of the federal government could be construed as socialist. Regulating drugs for safety and efficacy must be socialism because it interferes with the free market for drugs. Federal highway transportation standards and interstate commerce regulations must be socialism. Most significantly, Medicare and Medicaid must be socialism. Yet, few of those railing against socialized health care are talking (at least openly) about getting rid of Medicare and Medicaid. Many of them loathe Medicaid (health insurance for the poor) but to vote against Medicare would estrange them from virtually every senior citizen in the country. Republicans, of course, thrive on cognitive dissonance. So sure, of course they can be for socialized medicine for senior citizens yet bitterly oppose it for the rest of the working class whose taxes, by the way, are funding the Medicare system that seniors are using.

The only health care legislation that would truly be socialist would be a certain forms of a single payer health care system. This would have the government pay all Americans health care bills. In return, you would have to get health care from a government approved health care provider. Even so, as envisioned, the single payer health care approach is probably not socialistic, because the government would not directly provide the care. Most single payer health care systems follow this model. Great Britain’s Public Health Service is a major exception. Curiously, in Great Britain the Conservative Party is aligning itself as the savior of the PHS.

Is a public option socialistic? A public option provides a government administered (not owned) health care plan open to all legal U.S. residents. It would probably look a lot like Medicare; in fact, it might be Medicare extended. However, practices currently do not have to accept Medicare patients, and many do not (or do so only with grumbling) because they do not feel they are adequately reimbursed. A public option would probably not be wildly successful. A public option would probably be like buying a “good” or “better” model refrigerator. Most Americans would lust for the “best” models available from companies like Blue Cross. However, having a public option, even if it is not as great as Blue Cross, beats having no health care at all. Ask forty seven million uninsured Americans. What a public option does is help make health care more affordable because health insurers would have genuine competition. However, as I noted, the public option has little chance of passing with health care reform.

The argument really amounts to whether the federal government should mess further in the health insurance marketplace. It’s about making sure the government does not grow any further, except in ways that matter to Republicans, like having large defense contracts to privileged contractors like Halliburton. It is apparently okay for the government to ensure that securities are traded in a fair and open manner. However, it is not okay for the government to require a level playing field for health insurers. State corporation commissions ensure level playing fields all the time with electric, sewer and water rates and we don’t fret about it. Some states even regulate health insurance providers. We recognize that industries that are monopolies, or near monopolies like the health care industry in many states, need regulation to ensure that a vital service is available at all. It is hard to think of any service more vital than health care. Moreover, it’s hard to think of an area more in need of regulation, given astronomical premium increases and no constraints about whom a company can insure.

It is clear what the cost of inaction would be: eventually there will be no health insurance industry at all. Maybe that is what Republicans are secretly hoping for, although the way they take major contributions from the health care industry it is hard to believe. After all, if no one but the very wealthy can afford to pay out of pocket for health care, perhaps with all these surplus doctors costs would finally drop to an affordable level. I personally think it’s more likely I will get a visit from the tooth fairy than this ever happening.

So I would not hold my breath there. I can guarantee you one thing: if health care reform does not pass, eventually the health care industry will be petitioning Congress for regulation. The last thing they want is not be the broker between you and receiving health care. So take your health insurance reform now or later. The reality is the current legislation is a great gift to the health insurance industry, which will likely ensure its survival with, at best, only a light touch from government.

Waterloo? In this case, Napoleon is not President Obama, but the health insurance industry. Perhaps the rock group Abba got it right:

Waterloo – knowing my fate is to be with you.

 
The Thinker

Review: Arranged (2007)

Arranged may be a chick flick. It’s hard for me to say for sure because, alas, I am not a chick. Its story is quite simple: two new female teachers in New York City are assigned right out of college to teach in the same public school and they become friends. This hardly sounds like much of a plot for a movie. However, one happens to be an orthodox Muslim and the other an orthodox Jew. Moreover, they must work with each other. Oh, the horrors!

In the hands of a different director, this could be turned into a slapstick comedy, but instead this story is told in a straightforward manner. Nashira (Francis Benhamou) is so orthodox a Muslim that she wears a hijab in public. She has to handle a class of elementary students full of such diversity that the teachers refer to the school as a little U.N. She is quickly forced to interact with Rochel (Zoe Lister Jones), an orthodox Jew. Rochel is a special education teacher and her student participates in some of Nashira’s classes. Both approach each other warily, but a student quickly presses the obvious issue. Don’t Arabs hate Jews and visa versa? Both women have hardly spoken a dozen words to each other and suddenly in front of the class they have to confront their ethnic and religious divide.

Nashira only takes her hijab off at home. Home includes Mom and Dad, who are obsessed with matching her up with a proper Muslim man in an arranged marriage. Rochel doesn’t have to wear a veil, but also has to deal with her own set of orthodox Jewish parents, also obsessed with her getting married, but even more so that Nashira’s parents. Both Nashira and Rochel quickly discover that because they are being pushed into arranged marriages and come from orthodox households that they have plenty in common. Rochel rebels being matched. Nashira is intrigued. Both risk being ostracized if they do not agree to an arranged marriage.

While they wrestle through their first year of teaching, they also have to figure out how to work with each other and handle the large number of arranged suitors coming to their doors. This quickly give both two women something in common. Almost unwillingly, they find they like each other. The same cannot be said of their parents. Rochel’s mother is aghast when she brings Nashira home to work on a joint assignment. Nashira’s parents are equally wary of her new friendship with Rochel.

Rochel’s quickly begins to resent her yenta and finds herself yearning for the freedom of her older cousin, who had the audacity to break away and live a life free of her Jewish trappings. However, some exposure to her cousin’s life soon makes her realize she is uncomfortable with her level of freedom. Yet none of her arranged suitors suit her in the least; in fact each one seems worse than the last one. Nashira’s experience is much better. Her parents soon introduce her to a man who takes her fancy and she begins making her wedding plans.

It is a story that is perhaps a bit too contrived and predictable, but both actresses are unusually convincing in what would otherwise be stereotypical roles. Moreover, it is nice to see an orthodox Muslim woman and an orthodox Jewish woman break free of their ethnic stereotypes, if only on screen. They discover that their common humanity is a stronger force than their obsessive orthodox upbringing. Yet, both take some comfort in the traditions as well.

In short, Arranged is a simple film destined to tell a simple story that is a bit uncomfortable at times, a tad melodramatic and sometimes lightly funny. By design it never quite soars. It would be unfair to call it a B movie because it is hardly mediocre. Rather it is a heartfelt and well-acted story of an unlikely but enduring friendship.

Does that make it a chick flick? Maybe. Lacking guns, violence, nudity or swear words it may appear to be inoffensive, but to the many of us who grow up in orthodox families can relate easily enough. So it is definitely more than a B movie, but has few of the qualities of an A movie either. I give it a B+ for sure, or a 3.1 on my four point scale. If you have the opportunity to see it, you should but it is not special enough to seek out. While not as much fun as movies that revel in ethnicity like My Big Fat Greek Wedding, many of us will still find the movie touching.

 
The Thinker

Virginia is a socialist state

Oh Lord, I am worried! I have lived in Virginia for more than twenty years but until recently, I had not realized I was living in a socialist state. Why? Because Virginia is one of four uppity states not content to be just ordinary states but which insisted on calling themselves “commonwealths”.

This is quite alarming. What is socialism? According to Merriam-Webster, it is “any of various economic and political theories advocating collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods”. Granted, thanks to the “enlightened” people at Fox News, most Americans now believe the word has an entirely different meaning. Socialism now apparently means the government taking any action to redistribute wealth, particularly from the richer to the poorer. (Don’t worry, patriots. The other way around is perfectly okay, as always. Screwing the poor is a sacrosanct American tradition.)

All I know is that the meaning of “common wealth” is obvious enough! It means that some poor bugger down in Tidewater, Virginia must be entitled to some part of my six-figure salary! Virginia felt so strongly about being a commonwealth that in its original constitution passed in 1776 it declared that “Commissions and Grants shall run, In the Name of the commonwealth of Virginia, and bear taste by the Governor with the Seal of the Commonwealth annexed.”

Virginia is not alone. Three other socialist states are out there: Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and Kentucky. All have the audacity to call themselves commonwealths. And we let them into the U.S.A.! How could we? Don’t these uppity states know that socialism is un-American?

I am afraid to say there is rampant evidence of socialism here in the Old Dominion. For example, if you want to purchase hard liquor, you must buy it at a Virginia ABC store. Warning: before reading further, if you are standing, please sit down. Virginia ABC stores are owned and operated exclusively by the State of Virginia. In fact, we have a Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control! Virginia law allows no other legal means of acquiring hard liquor within the state! This has some obvious problems. First, there is no competition! The government sets whatever price it wants to for liquor and residents must pay it! This encourages bootlegging and an illegal moonshine industry, which is still going on today! Even worse, when Virginia ABC stores make a profit, the profits are used to fund state services! This also means that Virginians who enjoy hard liquor are disproportionately overtaxed.

If it were only Virginia ABC stores, perhaps this socialism would be tolerable. Yet, Virginia also has a state lottery. It allows no other lotteries in the state, so private industry has no opportunity at all to run their own betting parlors. This is by law! Moreover, Virginia prohibits most other forms of gambling. If you are into gambling on horses, you can only place bets on races at state owned and managed offsite betting parlors and only for races at Colonial Downs east of Richmond. This is clearly more socialism as well as stifling free enterprise!

My suspicion is that there are similar socialist things going on in the commonwealth socialist states of Kentucky, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania as well. It should be obvious that Massachusetts is already a socialist state, given their tendency to elect Democrats! It’s like they want to be socialists! How weird is that?

If you are a red-blooded, all American citizen, you should be alarmed by these socialist trends. I have heard other states are doing similar things, but are masquerading as “states” rather than the communist/socialist/tree hugging commonwealths they actually are. Clearly, drastic action is required. We can start with a constitutional amendment kicking any state out of the union that labels itself as a commie “commonwealth”. Actually, it would be much cooler if it allowed residents of other states the right to rape, pillage and plunder these states. That would show them the way the natural order actually works. Maybe they will eventually see the light. In fact, we should be able to kick any state out of the union we feel that may even be thinking about socialism. Why? Because socialism is bad, obviously! It stifles competition and free markets.

I guess I need to move across the Potomac River and back to Maryland. There may be many Democrats over there, but oh Lord, at least they are not a commonwealth!

 

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