Archive for July, 2010

The Thinker

A tiny sliver of enduring value

(This was written on July 29, 2010.)

I am traveling east to west today. We are chasing the sun at 37,000 feet, making something close to a beeline between Washington Dulles International Airport and Seattle, Washington. Our 5:25 PM flight actually left the ground sometime around 7:30 PM, delayed by a combination of a recalcitrant cargo hold motor and cells of thunderstorms. But finally we are aloft and chasing the sun. Twilight is slowly unfolding outside our window. Perhaps by the time we arrive in Seattle around 9:45 PM it will finally be fully dark. Meanwhile the view outside the jet’s window shows a sky still somewhat light but with the ground largely shrouded in darkness. At 37,000 feet, the low stratus clouds hovering over the Great Plains look like waves of sand on the beach and sit far, far below us.

Technically this is the start of our vacation, but flying commercial rarely feels like vacation. The view is interesting but there are too many people too tightly pushed together in this fuselage, waiting for what seems like an interminably long flight to finally finish. Then perhaps my vacation will really start, but I know it really starts after a long sleep because I am already starting to feel the jet lag. It will take a day or two to get used to west coast time.

I leave at somewhat of an inopportune time. Some part of me wants to still be holed up in my office at work, answering email, listening to teleconferences, chatting with coworkers and grabbing a salad at the cafeteria. At least these days my work seems more like play than work. It wasn’t always this way, of course. The first few years in this new job were challenging as I adapted, not always without friction, to a new agency. Moreover, this is my first managerial position, and there was much for this neophyte to learn. Managing, I have learned, is more art than science. An effective manager is also a good people person, which I am not. I am learning strategies to cope with this deficiency. Now, finally, six years or so into the job it is finally coming all together. I feel a bit like a bewildered conductor with a talented but temperamental orchestra that is finally making the excellent new music that I wanted to hear. It is a nice feeling.

Seemingly gone are the old animosities that I felt but which were rarely not articulated. Perhaps after six years you finally become part of the furniture. Perhaps that is what it takes to finally feel the respect you feel is your due. Or, more likely, perhaps I have finally earned the respect that I craved. Now doors open and things happen. My big picture ideas that I felt were so important and have national impact are now on the cusp of fruition. It is a satisfying feeling.

Most of us search for relevance, perhaps in part to feed our own egos but also to feel that our life might have some tiny sliver of enduring value. I know that like most of us I will never achieve greatness. The odds are too large so trying is probably counterproductive. That doesn’t mean that individually and collectively we cannot all do good work. “Think globally. Act locally,” says the bumper sticker. That has been sort of my professional model all these years. Do your best to optimize that part of the universe that you can control but add touches of audacity, vision and perseverance. That’s really all any of us can do. In reality, no one achieves greatness alone, but only through other people. That is certainly the case with me. My contribution is largely one of leadership and perseverance. Others largely did the heavy lifting.

I can rail about global warming, the likely extinction of mankind, and the countless stupid ways we are mismanaging our country and our world. I can contribute to the dialog (this blog is part of that effort) but in the end I must acknowledge that my influence will be marginal at best. We are all within the swirl of larger forces. However, in the tiny area of life within my control, I can still aim and maybe just hit the bullseye.

I am also within a few years of Retirement Number One. I do not have to retire in 2012, but I could opt for a retirement. I already know that Retirement Number One would only be a stepping stone to my next and likely more part time job, which will be something not too dissimilar from the IT work I already do. I do sense though that I my professional life has crested. The view is nice and satisfying, but in the future I will have to set different and likely downsized criteria for my satisfaction and fulfillment. It might involve inspiring community college students who, I have learned, seemed largely inured to inspiration. In many ways, that would be a harder professional accomplishment and perhaps more satisfying. However, whatever large-scale impact I am to have on the world will shortly come to fruition. It remains to be seen whether my strategy will bear the fruit that I think it will. Time will tell.

So I feel wistful. Even if I choose not to retire and stay working until a heart attack fells me at my desk, things would still change around me. Bosses and coworkers would retire. Organizational dynamics would change. New problems would emerge that might be beyond my management ability. I would like to keep my professional life exactly where it is indefinitely. Yet, it cannot stay this way. Life moves too quickly. Too many chess pieces are in play. I know that others will follow in my footsteps and likely be just as competent, if not more competent, than I have proven to be. They too deserve the chance to stretch and to make the world a better place. Part of vindicating your success is to time your departure before the law of averages strike and you screw up something major.

Vacation is about relaxation, about seeing new places, and looking at life from a different perspective, like the suffused rose glow outside our window now alighting the atmosphere. I will get that in the next twelve days out here in Washington State and Oregon, and you will read some of it here. I look forward to tuning out the work side of my brain but right now, at 37,000 feet, it is not yet possible.

Tomorrow though, our latest adventure in the Pacific Northwest begins.

 
The Thinker

Recipe for extinction

Last winter, during our record snowstorms here in the East, various Republicans and climate skeptics took advantage of the extreme weather to tout that global warming was not happening. After all, what could be more convincing that a couple double-digit snowfalls? They had a good time with it and the media shamefully went along. Politicians in general seem anxious to deny the reality of global warming. The Senate seems unable to do anything to move legislation to reduce greenhouse gases, meaning instead being a leader on the global warming issue, the United States prefers the role of laggard. At this point, I would be happy if we could just be laggards. Instead, we prefer to just stick our heads in the sand and ignore the issue altogether.

To complement the near record snowfalls last winter, the East Coast (where I live) has been suffering through record high temperatures. It is not our imaginations. No less than NOAA has formally declared that the March through June of this year has been the hottest months on record. Doubtless these records will be easily broken, likely next year. As much as we would prefer to ignore global warming, chemistry is what chemistry is. Keep dumping more carbon into the atmosphere and average temperatures are going to increase.

Storm events on average are also getting more severe. We here in the mid-Atlantic witnessed this again this weekend when a powerful cell of thunderstorms raced through our area, taking out power to hundreds of thousands of customers and causing three deaths. The thunderstorms came with seventy mile an hour winds that toppled trees like matchsticks and killing a boy in nearby Sterling, Virginia.

It just so happened that about an hour after the thunderstorms blew through, my wife and I had a party to attend in Montgomery County, Maryland. We ended up on roads blocked by trees. We encountered downed power lines stretching across the road. Needless to say, we turned around and tried other routes. At least half of the traffic lights were out as well. The lights were also out at the house where our party was held, but daylight and cooler temperatures from the storms made the party endurable. Most likely the house is still without power, as is much of the more rural parts of Montgomery County. Power crews from as far away as Ohio are coming to help restore power. One thing is clear: with record heat, there was plenty of energy driving these massive thunderstorms.

July in the Washington region is always a time you sweat your way through. Triple digits are not uncommon, nor are Code Red, Orange, Yellow and Purple days when the air quality is poor. The air quality doesn’t have to be this bad but, of course, we refuse to look toward renewable forms of energy. Instead, Midwestern power plants along with power plants hidden in the Appalachian Mountains grind out the energy our air conditioners need, almost entirely using coal. The greenhouse gases of course go into the atmosphere, turn our local atmosphere toxic soup and make the already dangerous triple digit heat even more dangerous.

I thought I had seen everything global warming had to offer at this point until on Sunday when I took a shower. In sweltering ninety degree plus heat and humidity I found I had to replace a post with our mailbox on it. I tried to minimize my misery by doing it during the mid morning, but it was still a sweaty and exhausting job. I looked forward to a tepid shower when I finally finished the job, knowing that a cold shower was out of the question.

The last thing I wanted though was a hot shower, so I kept dialing back the hot water until nothing was coming from our water heater at all. Instead of tepid water, though I was getting warm water. If I was hoping to cool down from a shower, I had hoped in vain. Our land was so hot and so cooked that our water pipes, buried more than a foot underground, now carried only warm water.

This was new. Eighteen sweltering summers in my house but only now in 2010 have I had no choice but to endure a warm shower.

Nothing will convince climate skeptics, but if I were looking for proof this warm shower experience would be very alarming. But not for long. Soon, I will expect to take warm showers during the summers. As for climate skeptics, if they acknowledge it at all, they will probably say it’s entirely natural. It’s part of God’s plan or something, when all it really is is us humans thoughtlessly and recklessly throwing trillions of tons of carbon into the atmosphere. All this global warming is entirely preventable. All we have to do is choose to act.

Instead, we seem to be embracing our extinction. Climate skeptics tend to be pro-life, so to me the irony of their position is inescapable. Let’s just hope that on our way to extinguishing our own species a few other species can cling on. Perhaps they can find a way to live in balance with nature. We sure haven’t. Nor do we seem inclined to do anything meaningful that would at least halt our extinction.

Unlike the millions of species that went extinct due to natural selection, at least we can’t say we didn’t see it coming.

Future generations trying to survive in an overpopulated and overheated world will rue us for our current thoughtlessness. We won’t care. We will be dead but oh, the memories we will take to our graves: driving big and dirty cars, eating greasy artery clogging food and comfortable summers spent indoors in air-conditioned houses. These climate skeptics might as well give our children and grandchildren the finger, because it’s obvious they don’t really care about them or their children. All they care about is living selfishly and recklessly and letting others in the future pay the consequences.

 
The Thinker

Our lost generation

Parents of my generation (baby boomers) are discovering that transitioning our children into adult life is challenging. Whereas most of us were looking forward to the freedom and responsibilities of adulthood (many of us were chomping at the bit), it seems that these days it is just the opposite. It seems like if some of our offspring could have their way, they would never leave home. They would forever be the ward of Mom and Dad.

For a long time I thought the information I was getting was merely anecdotal, but now I am of the opinion that I am witnessing a general trend. I am talking of more than graduating and finding out that there are no jobs and so, by default, you move back home. I mean that our offspring that cannot seem to handle the real world. They can handle what is familiar, which inhabiting their bedroom and tuning out reality with their computer and high speed internet.

Those on the right will probably say we boomers have coddled our children too much. We taught them to be helpless, they will say. There is some truth to this. However, our children live in a much different society than the one we were born into. For one thing, our population has close to doubled. For another, our children have largely grown up with both parents working. Mom was probably much less a presence in their lives than in ours. With both parents working, connection time that used to occur daily around the dinner table is not happening as frequently. As a result, our children have learned a certain helplessness, because there whereabouts were always known, their time always carefully scheduled, and their opportunities for unstructured play very limited. They lived a managed life, which may be a new paradigm.

I doubt that many children today inhabit the sort of neighborhoods I did, where stay at home moms were the rule, where kids had a snack provided by Mom coming home from school, did their homework and were then unceremoniously dumped into the streets to play and not be seen nor heard until dinner time. No one on my block worried that we were getting in trouble or of a creepy child molester in the neighborhood. That was because we generally knew our neighbors. Today, most of our neighbors are strangers. If we are lucky, we know some of their first names.

My generation raised our kids in a way that made sense with the times we lived in. Since most of us were unable to have a stay at home parent, we worked through day care and after school care issues instead. Since crime was more problematic compared to our youths, we preferred our children engage in school related or organized group activities, or have their play dates indoors in our house or at a trusted friend’s house. Since we had less time to interact with them, we tended to skip the complexity of a family meal and let them forage the kitchen. If we wanted a family meal, it was more likely to come in the form of processed food from McDonalds or Wendy’s.

In short, childrearing used to be relatively simple. My parents raised eight of us, and my mother told me she never worried that much about us, nor obsessed over our grades or our choice of friends. She figured we would mostly pick it up through experience. We picked things up mostly by watching our siblings. Parental attention did increase when we became teenagers, and this led to inevitable feelings of rebellion. We lusted for independence and freedom the way a wino craves a bottle of Boone’s Farm. Of course, we wanted a part time job, so we could afford wheels. (The idea of a parent buying their teen a car was then virtually unheard of.) Anything that got us out from Mom and Dad’s shackles was a good thing. Maybe we would end up sharing an apartment or a house with a bunch of other young adults but we would be free.

When I survey my own extended family, I see a much different story. I have a niece age 29 and a nephew age 25, both still living at home. Both have issues with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) that is complicating their lives and spawning other psychological issues. Both have bachelor’s degrees but no jobs, nor have much in the way of prospects for acquiring one. Much of this is due to the economy, which is harsh in general but is especially harsh for young adults. However, it seems that there is more than that. It appears that the complexity of modern life is too much for them to handle in general right now. Fortunately, they do have their parents who have not abandoned them and make sure they are getting the medical attention they need, for which they pay out of pocket. Their old bedroom is still there too and that’s where they still spend much of their lives.

I have another niece who seemed more traditional. She was chomping at the bit to get away from her parents and in the process made a number of arguably wrong turns. She ended up with a boyfriend and against her parents’ wishes, shared an apartment with him. Later she dumped her boyfriend for a less shady boyfriend who impregnated her. The last I heard, they were not planning to get married. Mom and Dad covered her maternity costs, and heavily subsidize their lifestyle as well as dote on their grandchild. She found out that Mom and Dad weren’t so bad after all, since arguably she made some major mistakes in her life and they are helping her to cover them. For now, she is back sucking their on their financial teats. Fully independent living seems in her distant future as well.

I have other nieces and nephews still working their way through college so perhaps their prognoses will be better. One attempted college, dropped out when he found it involved real work and then joined his father’s business. For a while, things looked good working for his father. He bought a house by himself, but financed it with a sub-prime mortgage. Then, unsurprisingly, when the economy tanked he lost the house. He still works for his father. It is unclear whether he could find employment otherwise.

There are other stories I can relate from friends I know that are similar, but I will not. What I am seeing is a lost generation of young adults, with real adulthood delayed and for many receding out of reach. They have plenty of company in other nations. Marketplace Money, for example, chronicled the high unemployment rate of youth in Spain, which is around forty percent. It’s a lot lower here in the United States, but still plenty high. Moreover, as the economy tightens, those with jobs feel less inclined to retire; it’s too risky. This has the effect of making entry-level jobs harder to acquire. So they wait and feel disenfranchised and marginalized while hoping things will change. I suspect they spend much of their time feeling lost, hopeless and scared.

Some of their problems are situational but some are also related to diet. As a generation, they are prematurely fatter than ours was at their age, and eating a proportionately larger share of unhealthy food and more calories. If you believe as I do that you are what you eat, their diet may both be literally and figuratively weighing them down. Based on my classroom teaching experience, they are less curious and engaged in life compared to my generation.

I don’t know what all this means yet, but I am certain it is not good. It is one of the many reasons the United States is slipping as a first world power. A more enlightened society would find a way to harness the power of our youth and young adults so, like the Civilian Conservation Corps in the Great Depression, they perform meaningful and hopeful work. Instead, except for the parents who continue to shelter them as young adults and a handful of programs like Americorps, it appears that we just don’t give a crap about them. Many are greatly talented but have no way to earn a living from their talents.

This wound will continue to fester. At some point, it may disenfranchise an entire generation.

 
The Thinker

The age of limits

The motto for the University of Central Florida (where I got my bachelor’s degree) is “Reach for the stars”. For a university less than an hour’s drive to Cape Canaveral it is an appropriate motto. While UCF will continue reaching for the stars, the world in general and America in particular is realizing that reaching for the stars is unaffordable.

I am not speaking specifically about the space program although we are “reaching for the stars” a lot less than we used to. For example, the Obama administration is trying (wisely, I think) to retire the space shuttle. It also has the novel idea that in the future, the private sector should provide the government with a service to get astronauts into earth orbit and back. High unemployment and exploding deficits seem to be generating a bipartisan consensus that we now have more government than we can afford.  Believe it or not, I agree.

It is my opinion that given our modern world we probably need more government, at least for select programs. However, I don’t see how to pay for these programs without cutting others. Granted, the government can be staggeringly inefficient. While certain agencies are very efficient and indeed innovative, others are hugely wasteful. This week’s Washington Post investigation into the proliferating and apparently overlapping authorities working in the murky and high-classified world of counterterrorism shows good intentions gone seriously awry. There appears to be no central authority managing all this. We do have a Director of National Intelligence but in reality, the DNI is more of a coordinator than a director, as he does not have budget authority. This explains the high turnover among DNIs. Even if he did have the authority, it would prove a Herculean task to align our counterterrorism priorities with this kudzu of agencies and contractors and their proliferating and overlapping missions.

The main reason the United States is not reaching for the stars is that a lot of genuinely needed government is squeezed by the steadily increasing costs of entitlements. These entitlements are principally Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, although the list could also be expanded to include items like federal pensions. Arguably, we could actually get both health insurance costs under control, push it out on the private sector, pay a whole lot less and cover all Americans if we adopted the Japanese health care model. Perhaps we will get there someday but right now, we prefer to dither around the edges. The recently enacted health care legislation is a step in the right direction, but only a step.

Efficiencies in government programs are fine, but ultimately all government must be paid for with taxes. However, you can only pay taxes in relation to your income. With less income, less discretionary money to spend, and with more of it allocated toward health care, the consumer can no longer prop up the economy, which reduces economic growth. Moreover, if economic growth slows or halts, tax revenues must slow as well.

As Joe Bageant depressingly points out, future economic growth also assumes that nature will keep providing us with its bounty in endless supply. It assumes that we be able to find new affordable sources of mineral wealth and endless new tracts of land for agriculture and housing needed for a burgeoning population. Unfortunately, it appears that most of the easily available minerals have been extracted, which means the cost of living is going up. If our income does not keep pace then our standard of living is likely to be lower. Moreover, land is also finite. We cannot continue to grow forever by developing unspoiled land. Survival itself is predicated on the existence of nature. In short, growth is becoming more expensive. The more we grow, the more it costs to grow, and the less benefit there is to growth.

Thinking Americans seem to understand that we have reached a nebulous growth limit. If we can grow our way out of our economic problems, it will be at an unacceptable cost. We saw what the cost was recently with the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Moving to an energy economy based on renewable energy is certainly more desirable than our current hydrocarbon-based economy, which among other things made June 2010 the hottest June on record. Our structural problems though are far larger than creating a clean energy future.

The real problem is we have reached a critical mass of people. Since 1970, the United States increased its population roughly by half: another hundred million people. From now on, population growth is going to introduce disproportionately negative effects. Unfortunately, at least in the short term, population growth is unstoppable. This means that the cost of living is going to increase, as more of us compete for fewer and more expensive resources.

The effects are being borne out not just at the federal government, but at state and local governments as well. As costs eat away at income, there is less revenue available for governments. Inevitably, this means fewer services. However, right now it seems impossible to come to consensus on how to address the problem. If government must be cut, what should be cut first? Since we essentially have government by corporation, it is likely that corporate interests will triumph over the needs of citizens.

Inevitably, something must give. In fact, that something is already giving. All sides seem to acknowledge our problems are structural, but parties are unwilling to move from ideology toward pragmatic solutions. Republicans will block any tax increases if they can, even if, as in the case of repealing tax cuts for the rich, there is plenty of ability to pay. Democrats seem loathe to admit that any part of the welfare state needs to be trimmed back. Most think that with the right mixture of pixie dust we can maintain the welfare state without raising taxes on the middle class. Right now Democrats are content with the delusion that health care reform will change the dynamics of runaway spending, when it will not. Even President Obama understands this. He has stated that it will only slow the growth of health care spending.

It won’t help in November if voters respond to their frustrations and visceral fears by electing more ideologues to Congress. This merely extends our national dysfunction, adding to the final bill. Perhaps Tea Partiers secretly hope that if elected they can effectively bring about the collapse of the federal government, thus allowing government to be reconstituted under a smaller federal model. Newt Gingrich tried it in 1995. Maybe it will work in 2011.

Even if they succeed, reducing the scope of the federal government will not really address the central issue. Reducing the scope of the federal government merely pushes costs back on state and local governments. For example, states already pay hefty shares of Medicaid services. If the federal government were simply to stop contributing to Medicaid, states would either need to pick up the slack, drastically cut Medicaid services or end Medicaid altogether. Unfortunately, ending Medicaid altogether does not solve the problem of treating poor people’s medical problems. It would simply extend lines at emergency rooms and push up already high health care premiums, which would make more people lose health care coverage. To “solve” this problem would mean to not solve it at all: simply not treat those who cannot afford to pay. Let ‘em eat cake, I guess.

Unless things are fundamentally realigned in a workable way, many of these sorts of horrible choices are in our future. If we acted united rather than divided, we could manage these problems with much less pain. Social security, for example, is not in much financial trouble and extending the retirement age can make it solvent with no increase in taxes. The real problems are in wasteful and hugely overpriced health care programs, which are exacerbated by our unwillingness to eat right and exercise, perhaps because lower income Americans simply cannot afford healthy food. Our choices here are stark: either do away with health insurance except for the increasingly smaller proportion of people moneyed enough to afford it, or institute the sort of “socialized” medicine anathema to so many on the right, whose effect might well be the rationing they fear. (We already have rationing based on ability to pay. What terrifies the right is that a physician might be required to put someone with less money but a more chronic condition ahead of their ability to get care.)

In an age of limits, other sacrosanct programs must now become touchable. Even Secretary of Defense Robert Gates understands that in a weak economy runaway military spending cannot be sustained indefinitely. Consensus seems to be forming that our War on Terror, or at least in Afghanistan and Iraq, are no longer affordable nor are they buying us national security.

There is plenty of general government bloat that could be removed if we could summon the nerve; it’s not just where a lot of politicians think it is. Bloat includes the excessive and overlapping national security programs The Washington Post documented, huge and wasteful agricultural subsidies, corporate welfare in general, Medicare and Medicaid payment reform, and even our manned spaceflight program. We should not be cutting those services that are vitally needed to run our complex and increasingly interconnected world. Some of these agencies arguably need more money. These include the FDA, FAA, FCC, NIH, TSA and the SEC, to name a few. These agencies in reality spend only pocket change yet provide invaluable and absolutely necessary services.

The glass half-full news is that we are hardly alone. Even China at some point will have to scale back its growth and limit its services. Countries like China less leveraged by debt will have more breathing room, but the dynamics of population growth and resource limitations are inescapable for all nations. The more we resist these dynamics, the harder things are going to be.

Nature is trying to tell us to live simpler. We need to start listening.

 
The Thinker

Mel Gibson: behaving worse than a beast

Wouldn’t it be nice if our star actors and actresses were as wonderful and as interesting in person as the characters they portray? Some of them doubtless are, but some of them are also like Mel Gibson who, at least when he is drunk or under stress, behaves like an angry and psychotic asshole.

Should you have the stomach to hear for yourself, you can listen to two Mel Gibson cell phone rants with his now ex-girlfriend Oksana Grigorieva. Oksana is also the mother to their daughter Lucia, born in October 2009. In the calls, a distressed, raving and hyperventilating Mel Gibson is very upset with Oksana for many alleged transgressions, for which he repeatedly calls her a “bitch” and terms much, much worse than that. Her many egregious sins apparently include falling asleep in bed with him before first giving him a blowjob and not making the bed in the morning.

Presumably, Oksana taped these calls as evidence in future custody proceedings. I am not entirely sure that surreptitiously recording these calls is legal, but they certainly are a window into Mel’s soul. I assume that Mel had been drinking when he made these calls. Heaven help the man if he was not. Mel’s propensity toward inebriation has gotten him in trouble before, most famously in 2006 when he was arrested for driving under the influence, and subsequently made anti-Semitic remarks to the arresting officers. After that arrest, Gibson reputedly underwent therapy for alcohol addiction. These phone calls suggest the therapy did not take.

Aside from being a depressant, alcohol is also known for reducing inhibitions and they are in full display in these phone calls. Thank goodness Mel and Oksana were at least separated in physical space. If someone went off like this with me in the same room, I would be rushing for the exit. People like Mel make an excellent rationale for owning a firearm, which statistics show is most likely to be used in a homicide to kill an intimate. If I were Oksana and had been in the same room with him when he said these things, I would be reaching for the gun because Mel sounded angry enough to use one himself. I might even have used preventively.

Love, alcohol, family history and bad genetics can make us behave like beasts. However, Mel behaved worse than a beast. Most members of the animal kingdom are not naturally angry or cruel. They kill primarily to survive. They will rarely lose control, even when their lives are in danger. Losing control when your life is in danger is an excellent way to die.

Just for the record, Mel, words like c*nt, bitch and whore simply mean that you believe that some women are not quite human. By labeling a woman this way, you are essentially saying that they are subhuman, so they might as well be slaughtered and turned into Solyent Green. Just to utter these words to a woman, but really anyone, says that you believe they should be stripped of their humanity, integrity and personhood. They should not be uttered at all, no matter how much you personally dislike someone. Now it is okay, though not polite to call someone an asshole, as I called you, when they have clearly earned the title. With your reckless and unrestrained actions toward a woman, you clearly demonstrated that you are an asshole. You also are mentally ill and need more help.

You are not, however, a prick, which, like c*nt, would suggest you are nothing more than your sex organ, although from these phone calls it would be hard not to make the inference. We know you are not a prick because can see the better Mel in your movies. Perhaps you have turned to directing movies in part to exert control over some sphere of your life since it is lacking in others.

It sounds like much of your anger was due to other life events. It sounds like you are financially overextended and you were taking it out on Oksana. So sorry you had to give up your L.A. Lakers box. I really doubt, as you allege, that Oksana cost you five million dollars. However, even if she did, it was your decision to allow her to spend the money. You two are not even married!

It sounds like you are getting therapy. You need more. A lot more. It may be time to change therapists because it doesn’t look like your therapy has been very effective. Certainly there are women out there who are gold diggers and as thoughtless and emotionally abusive. In fact, I have known a few. Maybe I got lucky, but none of them said or implied that I was worthless. In that sense, they bested you.

You crossed a line, but what your raving remarks truly reveal is not that Oksana is worthless, but that some part of you believes that you too are worthless. You are not. You have been emotionally abusive (which research suggests you learned from your family) and show every likelihood of being so in the future, unless you can change. So please, find a better therapist. Heal yourself, man. Perhaps someday, you will understand that certain words and certain tones of voice do not just scratch, they maim, sometimes for life. The most likely one to be maimed though is not the victim, who may have some feelings of self worth and integrity, but the perpetrator who is already maimed and is now more so.

I am wishing you a speedy healing.

 
The Thinker

Review: Ondine (2009)

In 2006, in the movie Lady in the Water, director M. Night Shyamalan asked us to believe in narfs. Narfs, also known as water nymphs or naiads are mythological female creatures that preside over water sources like springs and streams. In the movie Ondine, director Neil Jordan asks us to believe in selkies. Selkies are seal-like creatures that when they shed their sealskins are for all appearances human. They hide their sealskin until they are ready to return to the sea.

Selkies certainly are implausible, but just as implausible is the bizarre experience that happens to Syracuse (played by Colin Farrell), a commercial fisherman who accidentally hauls in a woman in his fishing net. Ondine, the lady in his net, is real enough and when he jostles her, she turns out to be not quite but nearly dead. Ondine, played by the beautiful Alicja Bachleda, certainly seems lost and confused and can barely walk. She has no memory of where she has been but seems inordinately concerned about staying hidden. Syracuse, a gruff looking but otherwise gentlemanly fisherman, cannot help but find a soft spot in his heart for this young woman, because he has been missing romance in his life for a long time. His ex-wife may have custody of his daughter Annie (played by Alison Barry), but it is clear that Syracuse is the better parent. At least Syracuse stays sober while his ex-wife Maura spends nights and weekends in the taverns.

Annie is a precocious child. Ondine is not long settled in to the abandoned house that used to belong to Syracuse’s departed grandmother before Annie discovers and befriends Ondine. It is Annie, who recently learned of the legend of selkies in school, who suspects that Ondine is one of these mythical creatures. What else could possibly explain her loss of memory, her paranoia and her strong and almost instant natural affection for the scruffy Syracuse? Selkies are supposed to bond with a human and spend up to seven years as their mate.

No other explanation seems to make any sense. The odds of picking up a woman from a fishing net are astronomical, so her being a selkie seems plausible, even to Syracuse. If Ondine is a selkie, she seems to have all the attributes of one including a compelling affection for the sea. Moreover, she gloms onto her people (Syracuse and Annie) with genuine love and affection. Annie checks out all the books at the local library on selkies. She stays spunky despite the fact that her kidneys are failing, she needs regular dialysis and the odds of her getting a donor kidney are very long. With her electric wheelchair, she moves effortlessly through their village, while trying to tune out her mother (Dervla Kirwan) and her annoying stepfather. She appears to be channeling Nancy Drew.

While having a selkie as a lover appeals very much to Syracuse, and Ondine seems happy to accept her situation, too much real life continues to creep into this fairy tale. A mysterious man in black is seen in the village. Ondine seems to sense his presence and spends much of the movie hiding, but after a while, she cannot help but be seen by others. When a scary accident by a rogue car nearly kills his ex-wife, Syracuse senses that Ondine brings danger to his family and they must part. Yet genuine ambiguity remains about Ondine’s selkie status, particularly when Ondine brings in record catches for Syracuse, including non-native salmon. Toward the end of the movies, she also wishes for Annie to be cured, and against all odds Annie gets a healthy donor kidney.

The movie is largely absent the suspense and brushes with otherworldliness that we expect in a Shyamalan movie. The story is told very simply. The camera rarely strays from Syracuse, Annie and Ondine. It is hard to escape the feeling that something more nefarious has been going on. Ondine cannot be quite what she seems, although she has all the attributes. Yet, what else could explain her mystery? To find out invest 111 minutes in this movie. See a little of the Irish seashore as well, and walk in the shoes of the fisherman Syracuse, whose life is otherwise utterly ordinary and unmemorable.

Ondine is certainly not a bad movie, but it should not be mistaken for a Shyamalan-type movie. While reasonably well executed and with decent actors, in the hands of a more skilled director, I might have rated this movie higher. Instead, it’s a good and reasonably engaging movie, but in the end nothing particularly memorable. 3.0 on my four-point scale.

Rating: ★★★☆ 

 
The Thinker

The beginning of the end of Microsoft

It did not make many news reports, but on May 22nd something remarkable happened. Apple Inc. became worth more than Microsoft. The worth of Apple shares totaled $222.12 billion. Microsoft shares totaled $219.88 billion.

Why is this so important? Clearly for as long as most people can remember, Microsoft’s value out shown Apple’s by many order of magnitudes. Also, Microsoft technology is pervasive. You really have to look hard to find a business that does not have its information technology centered on Microsoft. In spite of this, and Apple being hardly seen in the business world, Apple is worth more.

How can this be when Microsoft Windows is on ninety percent of desktop computers, and its pricey Microsoft Office software is the de-facto business-standard? The answer appears to be that Microsoft has peaked. Its products are lackluster and generally boring. Apple on the other hand is now a brand with sparkle. Its iPhone, for example, is the pricey but niftiest smartphone on the market. Its newest product, the iPad, which left me unimpressed, is being snapped up across the world. Apple always had a reputation for having cool products. Particularly since the iPhone was released, Apple now has a product that is no longer niche but widely used by people at all income levels. Even if AT&T’s service leaves something to be desired, people marvel at the cleverness and usefulness of the pervasive iPhone, and take that as a sign that other Apple products are the same way. When the time comes to upgrade home computers, many are now happily paying premium prices for the Mac.

Microsoft’s strength has hitherto been playing copycat and offering similar but not as great products with the official Windows seal on them. Its Windows operating system began as a blatant rip off of Apple’s graphical user interface. I have to think hard to find any Microsoft product that is truly innovative. Its Microsoft Office suite is not. It’s success, like Internet Explorer, was due largely to its ability to bundle it with its Windows product. Why should a company buy Lotus 1-2-3 separately when they could get Microsoft Office preinstalled with their PCs? If I had to pick an innovative Microsoft product, I would pick its Xbox gaming console. Even there, Microsoft was hardly first in the game box market.

Microsoft remains a very profitable company, but reading its tealeaves should be making Wall Street reach for the Pepto Bismol. With the introduction of Windows 7, revenues are up substantially this year as businesses refresh their Windows operating systems. Yet, like most of their operating system upgrades, they did not get it right until they went through an unsuccessful introduction of another Window version, Windows Vista. Much of Microsoft’s revenue stream comes from customers paying premium prices for just so-so products: Microsoft Windows and Microsoft Office. However, both of these products have serious long-term viability issues.

Although Windows 7 is being well received, it is unclear whether ten years from now we will still want Windows at all as a desktop operating system. After all, Windows is proprietary. Open source operating systems have been available for a long time, and certain desktop Linux variations are entirely free. These have not caught on, but the Google Chrome OS might, once it is formally introduced this year. Particularly on lower end machines like cheap laptops and netbooks, computer manufacturers are going to find the combination of the free cost of Google Chrome OS along with its rapid boot up and swift loading time to be compelling reasons to use the operating system. If nothing else, a model with Chrome OS will cost less than the same model with Windows on it. Microsoft may find itself discounting the price of Windows, or maybe even making it an open source product so it does not lose too much market share. In either case, the profitable and reliable Windows OS revenue stream looks precarious.

On the Microsoft Office front, things look better for Microsoft but perhaps not forever. Google Docs is a sort of Microsoft Office-lite product that is free and lives in its Internet cloud. Right now, most people will not prefer Google Docs to Microsoft Office, but for personal use, Google Docs is free, whereas Microsoft Office requires spending at least a couple hundred dollars for a license. You don’t have to be particularly smart to imagine that the well moneyed Google will work hard over the next decade to up its Google Docs feature set so that it will work faster and be more functional. It is already pushing Google Docs for business, allowing businesses to offer similar functionality to Microsoft Office for a fraction of its cost. For businesses that need the basics and don’t want the hosting hassle, it’s good enough and quite a bargain. Microsoft Office is the other major component of Microsoft’s profits. Drive a stake into it, or just dilute its market share and shareholders will be hollering.

Microsoft Exchange and Microsoft Outlook rule the business email universe, but in a decade, this can change as well. Exchange is pricey, needs beefy servers and is hard to administer. GMail has proven to be reliable and as quick as Exchange/Outlook, plus there are no hassles with hosting GMail and no desktop software to install, maintain and patch.

Microsoft’s server and entertainment lines are profitable, but make up only a small percentage of their profits. Others, like their online services, currently do not make a profit, although Microsoft claims its Bing search engine should soon be profitable. It’s unlikely though that Bing will ever overtake Google’s search engine.

The general problem for Microsoft is the same: lack of innovation in general and always playing catch up with the more agile players in the IT world. At what point does the desktop become obsolete because most of the work is being done in the cloud? When that time arrives, the handwriting will be on the wall for Microsoft.

Things are not guaranteed for its agile competitors, of course. Google and Apple still have to show they can continue to be innovative. Given their records of accomplishment the smart money is on them, and was borne out recently in Apple’s share prices. Microsoft stockholders might want to petition Bill Gates to return as CEO and software architect. During Gates’ reign, Microsoft steadily advanced in both sales and market share. It is unclear though even if Gates could be convinced to return to Microsoft whether he could change the dynamics at play.

It appears that Microsoft is being slowly being bested. It won’t disappear entirely, but in ten years it may be but a shadow of its current self, perhaps where Apple was in relation to Microsoft ten years ago. If I owned a lot of Microsoft stock, I would make it a goal to sell about half my stock over the next five years. While it may lose market share, it will still be profitable for quite a while, just not as profitable as it could be. I would begin putting my money into more agile and promising companies instead.

 
The Thinker

Some lesser known travel tips

While I do not do a huge amount of traveling, I do enough of it to have developed some useful tips. Here they are for your consideration:

  • Book a direct flight. Yes, direct flights tend to cost more and no, they are not always available. However, if a direct flight is available, it is usually worth paying extra for it because you are much more likely to arrive at your destination on time. Flight delays also affect direct flights, but they are just as likely to affect your connecting flight too. If they do not affect your connecting flight but do affect your departure flight, it may mean that you will be placed on a later connecting flight, so you are likely to have two (or more!) flight delays instead of one. In short, the probability of travel delays increase with every connection. The impact of a travel delay is also inversely proportional to the length of time between connecting flights. In most cases, unless you simply cannot afford it, the cost of potential delays justifies the extra cost for a direct flight.
  • Don’t book a late afternoon or evening flight. This advice applies primarily to the spring and summer, when thunderstorms and other major weather events are more likely. Weather causes most flight delays. In case you haven’t noticed, thunderstorms are much more likely to occur in the late afternoon or early evening after the atmosphere has been cooking for a while. So if you have a choice, leave earlier. As a bonus, airports will likely be less congested compared to later in the day.
  • How to pick the best window seats. If you enjoy looking out your window, your view is going to be improved if the wing is not obscuring your scenery. Otherwise, you might as well book an aisle seat. So pick a window seat either in front of the wings or way in the back of the plane. When booking a flight, most airlines will show you a picture of seats in relation to the aircraft’s wings. Unless you like the sun coming through your window, pick a seat where you are less likely to have to deal with sunlight. In the northern hemisphere, when traveling west, sit on the right side. When traveling east, sit on the left side. Similar rules apply when traveling north or south, although you also have to factor in the time of day you will be traveling.
  • How to pick the best aisle seats. If it is important for you to get up and move around during the flight, or you just need quick access to the lavatory, your best bet is probably aisle seats near the rear of the plane. The flight attendants will start services near the front of the coach section and work their way to the back. This gives you the opportunity to walk the aisle early in the flight as well.
  • Frequent flier programs are less than they seem. It takes quite a bit of traveling to get any value from a frequent flier program. Most programs require 25,000 miles in order to qualify for a “free” flight. However, your ideal “free” flight is probably not available. Airlines deliberately limit the number of these seats on flights, making them hard to get. They also tend to block useful dates, like holidays, or convenient travel times. Moreover, your miles usually come with expiration dates, which mean that if you travel only a few times per year then you are unlikely to ever take advantage of the program. What you probably will get instead is endless marketing and credit card offers. When you want to use your miles, airlines will push you to use your miles to buy “discounts” for various flights. You may be able to get a better deal by looking for a discount flight with the same or another carrier. The most likely use of your miles will be to occasionally upgrade to business class, which is quite nice, but takes many miles to earn even this privilege. In short, for many people mileage programs feel like a scam.
  • Use Hotwire for hotel bookings. If you feel confident that your travel dates and destinations won’t change, buy your hotel room in advance with Hotwire. Their savings on flights and rental cars are so-so, but not so with hotels. Since you don’t know precisely what hotel you will get until you pay, the first couple of times that you use Hotwire it has a dangerous feeling to it. However, before booking in Hotwire you can click on an area map to see whether the hotel with is close enough. In many cases, you can infer the actual hotel that you will get because there may be only a couple of hotels in the map area. Use Google Maps or Google Earth to see what hotels are available in the area shown on Hotwire’s area map. If you don’t like the hotels you see, then maybe you want to pay for precisely the hotel you want. What you do know up front is how much you will be paying, including applicable taxes, and the rates may astound you. So far, my experiences have all been positive. Nor have I ever gotten an undesirable room because I prepaid. Typically when I use Hotwire, I pay 25% to 40% less than an AAA rate at the same hotel. Particularly for extended touring types of vacations, you can save serious money using Hotwire, typically $500 or more. If you love dickering, you might get a lower rate on Priceline by negotiating your own price, but I haven’t found the time involved worth the hassle. Most of our hotels for our upcoming vacation are already booked using Hotwire.
  • “Free” baggage on regional jets? On many smaller regional jets or propeller driven planes, a carryon bag simply will not fit in an overhead bin. (They won’t fit in many wide-body jets either.) Since they don’t fit, the gate crew will check them at the gate for you at no charge. In my experience, they tend to gate check anything you can bring through security for free. Considering that most carriers are charging $25 a bag, this could be a big savings.
  • Take whatever you need for bed in your carryon. You are probably not planning to spend a night at some airport hotel, but I have inadvertently spent my share of them. If you do, you probably won’t be connected with your luggage overnight. Airlines also routinely lose luggage. This means you should consider carrying overnight essentials, like a travel-sized emergency kit of toothpaste and other things needed at bedtime (in three ounce containers or less), a hairbrush, medicines and a clean change of underwear in your carryon. At a minimum, always bring prescription medications in your carryon bag.
  • Join AAA. Few things in life are a genuine bargain. AAA is one of them. Their towing service, available anywhere in the country as well as some foreign countries, is alone worth the cost of joining. However, comprehensive AAA tour books and maps also help you plan a quality vacation and come at no extra charge. You should probably avoid many other AAA products, like their insurance plans and credit cards. These products are likely not the best deals on the market, nor are the companies that underwrite them necessarily the best either. Like AARP, AAA uses these products as profit centers.
  • Make, retain and reuse a travel-packing list. It is so easy to forget to pack items. Sometimes what you forget to pack can be a real time consuming hassle to deal with on the road. Write it once and refer to it when packing for every trip. You might also want to install an Android or iPhone travel-packing app on your smartphone. Of course, there is a web site that can help you as well.
  • Consider a netbook. When you travel, you typically need more than a Smartphone but don’t want the hassle of a full sized laptop computer. The sweet spot is a netbook. The better netbooks will also play DVDs. Most are reasonably rugged and lightweight, making them easy to put in a carryon bag. While typing may be a bit challenging, you won’t be using them a lot. You can get a good netbook for a couple hundred dollars.
  • Use the cloud. The internet is pervasive these days, at least if you are traveling in the first world. Assume that free or easily obtainable internet service will be locally available. Store all your email and important information in the cloud so it is accessible anywhere you need it. Google probably offers the best, freest and most reliable cloud-computing infrastructure. Import and move your email into a Gmail account and use it as your primary email. (Hint: if you use an email client like Outlook Express, set it up for IMAP use, so your email always stays in the cloud.) Since there is so much space, keep all your email in Gmail. Use Google Calendar as your calendar and Google Docs to store common structured and unstructured data. If you do it right, when you are on the road you have all your important information.
  • Take your passwords with you. Store your passwords in a password manager like Keepass and bring it with you on a USB thumb drive. Keepass is simple and straightforward and can be run right off your thumb drive. You never can tell but you may have to transfer some funds in a far away city and need your passwords.
 
The Thinker

Review: Clerks (1994)

Most of us have had the experience of working retail. And most of us have had similar impressions of the experience: yech! Most of us disliked retail so much that one retail job during a lifetime was plenty. Working in the land of cubicles like Dilbert is a real step up from ringing up retail merchandise all day or stocking shelves all night. When you work retail, your work is typically grinding, boring and endlessly repetitious. The customers are vacillating and annoying idiots that like to vent their frustrations on grossly underpaid retail workers. After work, you’d celebrate Miller Time except you are paid so little you probably cannot even afford to. When you work retail, you are probably still living at home or are sharing a room in a group home somewhere. Basically, you are living in poverty, just not drawing from the welfare state.

Kevin Smith’s 1994 movie Clerks though manages to make the ubiquitous retail job seem if not quite fun then at least bearable, given it’s weird cast of characters. Clerks was Kevin Smith’s first real film of note. It was scorned by many “serious” movie reviewers but apparently is something of a cult classic for those lucky enough to have seen it. Like all of Smith’s movies, it is crass, and chalk full of expletives and sexually explicit innuendos. Yet, to those of us who did retail and spent time rubbing shoulders with the bottom twenty percent of humanity it feels authentic. I know I sure related to Dante Hicks (Brian O’Halloran), one of the ubiquitous retail droids behind the counters of the 7 Elevens of the world, although in his case it is a Quick Stop in Leonardo, New Jersey. His job is shitty but surprisingly he cares a bit about it, even when he is unexpectedly working sixteen-hour days because his boss goes on an impromptu vacation. He feels some responsibility even when being treated so shabbily.

Dante is basically a nice early twenties something white guy who earns a very modest wage as the assistant manager of the Quick Stop. Next door is a video rental store with a spaced out dude named Randall behind its counter. Randall must not have much to do because he spends most of his time hanging out with Dante over at his store while various customers, most of the eccentric and loser variety, cycle in and out. Sometimes the place bustles but it is often empty. That’s when a young man’s fancy turns toward his girlfriend Veronica who seems suitably devoted to him but, we quickly learn, has had three dozen lovers. Most of these she says don’t count because (sort of like Bill Clinton) fellatio is not real sex. Veronica puts out for Dante. Meanwhile, Dante learns that his ex girlfriend Caitlin is engaged. This bums Dante out, who had real feelings for Caitlin and sees Veronica as something like a second-class girlfriend. Yet, surprise! Caitlin comes by to tell him that she is not as engaged as the story makes out, and she still loves him. They arrange to go on a date later to see if sparks still fly while Dante cannot summon the nerve to tell Veronica.

All sorts of strange things happen in this store. When business gets slow, Dante and Randall go to a funeral home to pay respects to the family of a girl they knew in high school. The trip ends disastrously and hysterically. Back at the store, Dante and Randall get very creative with finding ways to have fun on the job, particularly since no one is looking. They and some friends manage to have a soccer game on the roof of their building. And what happened to that guy who needed to use the bathroom and asks for a skin magazine and fresh rolls of toilet paper? Stay tuned.

Clerks was clearly made on a shoestring by (then) no name actors. Smith was also getting his directorial moorings with this film, because it suffers from a number of minor problems, including dialog that is often spoken so quickly that it is hard to process. Smith’s handprints are all over this movie that he wrote, produced, directed and even acts in (in the role of Silent Bob, a low level doper). Surprisingly, his approach works really well. You will remember Clerks because once you see it, it is absolutely unforgettable. Much like the movie Airplane!, you may find yourself quoting dialog from it weeks later. If you are like me, you will be laughing hysterically through much of the movie. In fact, it inhabits a spot among the top dozen funniest movies I have ever seen.

Smith has done a number of other movies that are similar in style, two of which are notable and I have seen. These include Dogma and Zack and Miri Make a Porno. Having seen Clerks, I must now rent Clerks II made ten years later and hope it is as good. I may need to get my own DVD of the movie for my collection as well as see everything Kevin Smith wrote or directed, because his sense of humor is scarily similar to mine.

Clerks is as good as a low budget cheap humor movie can get. Rent it. 3.4 on my four-point scale.

 
The Thinker

News alert: Supreme Court decisions are inherently political

Did you watch the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings on the nomination of Elena Kagan to be the newest Supreme Court justice? If you did, you may well have experienced déjà vu.

About the only thing that changes in these hearing is the nominee. The questions are all eerily familiar, as are most of the faces on the committee, which do not change a lot. Senators ask lots of probing questions that the nominee will tend to dodge. Most of them will be about controversial issues like gun control and abortion. The president’s party will generally throw softballs and be effusive with their praise for the nominee. The nominee will dodge most questions saying of course they cannot say how they will rule on hypothetical future cases. They will say that they will weigh the issues that come before them fair and impartially. Then, the Senators will generally vote the way their party leaders want them to vote because they are not jurists, they are politicians. This time around, since every Republican senator is scared that a vote for Kagan will inflame the Tea Party, only one or two Republicans will be brave enough to break ranks. The only real question is whether there is something about the nominee controversial enough for the opposition to attempt a filibuster.

The president and his staff are painfully aware of all this, which is why finding the right nominee is important. Diane Wood, for example, was probably crossed off because she was just a tad too liberal to escape a Republican filibuster. Kagan though was unusual because she had never been a judge. Her lack of a record was something of an asset. Senators were left to fume about minor actions she took while dean of the Harvard Law School. With Democrats in the majority and little in Kagan’s record to get bent out of shape over, Kagan seems likely to be confirmed by the Senate in about a month. But that’s okay. Obama was replacing a liberal justice with another liberal justice. Overall, the balance of power on the court was unlikely to change, with conservatives on the court tending to win most decisions. Expect a real brouhaha if a conservative justice retires and we have a liberal president, or visa versa.

What really annoys me is the elaborate pretense from both senators and the nominee that they will be impartial. What else is the nominee going to say, really? If a nominee were honest, they would admit that virtually all of the Supreme Court’s decisions are political. Senators claim they want impartiality when it is clear they really want a judge that will rule in a partisan matter aligned with their political ideology. When Chief Justice Roberts underwent his confirmation hearings, he went so far as to say that he saw the role of the justice to look at the law and the particulars of the case and then rule whether the case amounted to a ball or a strike. He seemed to be implying that any case could be rendered as either black or white.

As if it is ever that simple at the level of cases the Supreme Court deals with. If a case were easy to decide, it would not have gone through district and appellate courts first, nor would the Supreme Court have bothered to even hear the case. Any case the court agrees to take is going to be inherently squishy and political in nature. While everyone seems to understand this truth, no one will acknowledge it.

The reason you know I speak the truth is that everyone is deeply concerned about the nominee’s record of dealing with controversial or squishy cases. Why? Because these cases help disclose their tendency to apply their political ideology to actual cases. In Kagan’s case, along with many other nominees, their political ideology is hardly a secret. No president is going to nominate someone they think will be at odds with their ideology. Sometimes they don’t get the nominee they expected. Both recently retired justices Stevens and Souter were nominated by Republican presidents, but turned more liberal as they aged. Subsequent nominees have been much more ideological, as presidents worked hard to make sure their ideology rippled through the court long after their terms expired.

The result is a court that now renders a lot of near split decisions, generally on the most controversial political cases. Particularly with controversial cases, it’s not hard to figure out how justices will rule. While the rationale will differ, they will generally line up along their political ideology. Justice Kennedy is usually the only swing vote, and lately he has been trending more conservative. He may be the only impartial justice on the court.

Of course, justices will be influenced at least to some extent based on their feelings and the way they were raised. When there is ambiguity and you have to make a decision, where else will you turn? At the Supreme Court’s level, where cases are inherently squishy, of course those factors are going to weigh more heavily than they will at a state or county court. In the lower courts, the judge is often required to interpret the law a certain way. At the level of the Supreme Court, as much as some on the court would say otherwise, they make the law by deciding the case.

The Second Amendment, for example, was genuinely ambiguous. Did it mean that everyone has a right to own a gun, or did it mean that people had the right to own a gun only because they might need to help support a militia someday? The Supreme Court in a number of recent rulings seems to be saying that the part of the amendment dealing with militias is interesting background history but irrelevant. Everyone has the right to own a gun. The court parsed the arguments and history of the Second Amendment and there was evidence of original intent in both directions. The court, based on its ideological leanings, made the political decision to interpret the amendment (yes) liberally. It could have said it was so ambiguous that Congress needed to pass a clarifying law. It did not.

Often the Supreme Court will, by the narrowest of margins, overturn a ruling by an appeals court that was also decided on the narrowest of margins. That so many different “impartial” judges can see these murky cases in so many different ways and come to so many different conclusions just goes to prove that Robert’s “balls and strikes” argument is hollow.

Everyone understands the reality, which is why the president is so careful not just with Supreme Court picks but also with picks for district and appellate courts. The more judges he can get confirmed that align with his ideology, the better the odds are that over time these jurists will issue rulings that also align with his ideology. This is also why senators, through the use of dubious tactics like secret holds, try to bottle up nominees for lower court judges that are the least bit controversial.

At the federal level, all but the lowest courts decide cases that are inherently political. That’s the way it has been since the birth of our republic and the way it will be while our country exists.

It would be nice if we would stop pretending it is otherwise.

 

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