Archive for May, 2011

The Thinker

Review: Red (2010)

Red is probably a better name than my less marketable name for this movie: Retired Geezers in Love. Red is actually an acronym for Retired and Extremely Dangerous. And speaking of geezers, who in Hollywood more falls into the extreme geezer crowd than Ernest Borgnine, age 94. In Red he plays Henry, the super sensitive records keeper apparently tied to his desk in a vault in the bowels of the CIA.

You have to look hard to find a younger person in this movie. So you will have to settle for middle-aged people instead: Mary-Louise Parker (age 46) as Sarah Ross and Karl Urban (age 38) as agent William Cooper. In case you are wondering, the CIA is full of agents who make James Bond look amateurish. One of them is Frank Moses (Bruce Willis, age 56, and looking much older) who is unhappily retired in Cleveland where nothing interesting ever happens. He is reduced to making telephone friends with a woman named Sarah in Kansas City, who from her desk on an open floor of an enormous insurance company makes sure that Frank gets his annuity check every month. Frank keeps tearing up his check so he has an excuse to call and chat with her. He is so enamored with her that he starts reading the same trashy romance novels that she is reading. Eventually he decides to visit her in Kansas City, pretending to be there on business.

Before Frank can do so, some very lethal spooks decide he must die and stage a 3 a.m. attack on his house. This would mean quick death for most of us, but is not a problem if you are a CIA RED agent. His house may be riddled and crumbling from all the automatic weapon fire, but Frank can easily dodge all these bullets, kill all of his attackers and high tail it to Kansas City.

The introductory firefight scene is just one of many over the top attack scenes in this movie. Because Frank is being pursued by his own agency, he doesn’t have time to explain to Sarah when they first meet what’s up, so with many apologies he kidnaps her then hightails it to New Orleans with her. There he meets up with another retired CIA agent Joe Matheson (Morgan Freeman) who is slowly dying of liver cancer in a retirement home. It turns out that if you are RED, and in particularly if you participated in a CIA raid in Guatemala in 1981, a group of CIA operatives led by agent Cooper/Urban need to kill you as quickly as possible. The other unhappily retired ex-agents include the still hot Helen Mirren (age 65) as Victoria, John Malkovich (age 57) as agent Boggs and even a high level Russian operative, Ivan Simanov (Brian Cox, age 64), who is in love with his ex enemy Victoria.

The convoluted plot has something to do with an ambitious Vice President wanting to get rid of everyone who could connect him to the CIA mission in Guatemala, but seems to be orchestrated by the nefarious Alexander Dunning (Richard Dreyfuss, age 63). Sarah/Parker gets to come along for the ride. She discovers that being kidnapped is not so bad. In fact, she enjoys pretending to be a CIA agent a whole lot more than answering questions at an insurance company.

So this movie did plenty to help pay the acting guild dues of its aging cast members. Red turns out to be a fun and quirky comedy that will more than hold your attention, and is surprisingly well executed by director Robert Schwentke (age 43). I too would find retirement boring if life as a CIA agent is anything close to what is portrayed in this movie.

Red is pure comedic action-adventure entertainment, of the sardonic and wisecracky kind. So it is perhaps fitting then that Bruce Willis plays its central character, because there is not a scene in it without his smirk. I’m kind of glad I stopped watching Bruce Willis movies because his trademark smirk is really getting old. However, I am glad to see any movie with Mary-Louise Parker in it, who makes my own middle-aged lust embers glow raging hot. Everyone in the cast is obviously having fun with the movie. You get the feeling they were all quite sad when the movie wrapped up.

Red turns out to be a difficult movie to dislike and a really fun way to spend 111 minutes. Particularly if you are approaching your Polident years, you should see Red because it is one of only a handful of movies since Cocoon featuring principally old actors, who, for the most part, prove they are still full of great comedic talent.

Aside from Willis’s annoying smirk, which you may find charming instead of annoying, there is not much to diss about this fun movie. However, other than its older cast and its fine execution, it is not particularly notable as a movie, except within its peculiar genre where it stands out. It’s a fun B+ of a movie, much more fun than, say, the remake of Get Smart. You don’t have to inhabit the Polident generation to enjoy it.

3.2 on my four-point scale.

Rating: ★★★¼ 

The Thinker

Weather we like it or not

It’s only May 27th, but only seven deaths stand between 2011 and matching the number of the most people killed by tornadoes in a year since 1953. Given that tornado season has hardly started, it seems that in 2011 we might break the all time national grisly record of 794 people killed by tornados set in 1925.

Most of the carnage was directed at the Midwest and South. 132 people died in Joplin, Missouri on May 22nd. The tornado injured 750 others. With 156 people unaccounted for in Joplin, it seems likely that this number will climb. April tornadoes that devastated much of Alabama and Mississippi were just practice for the massive cyclone that hit Joplin five days ago. Tornadoes killed 321 people between April 25 and April 28.

The National Weather Service estimates there were 875 tornadoes in April, most of them on April 25. On April 26, around 11:30 p.m. a relatively weak tornado with eighty miles an hour winds struck nearby Reston, Virginia. It came within a hundred feet or so of hitting the Unitarian Universalist church I attend. Our minister was burning some midnight oil in her office when it hit but fortunately was unhurt. Our spanking brand new building addition that we just dedicated a couple months earlier might have been leveled. Fortunately it passed between our church and a local senior citizens housing complex a couple hundred feet away. It sheared a number of trees, including one that fell on our playground.

What’s to blame? Meteorology is not yet an exact science, but a phenomenon called La Niña is likely at least partially at fault. Tornadoes get their energy from the juxtaposition of hot and cold air. It’s hard for me not to attribute at least some of the magnitude and large numbers of these tornadoes to climate change, and its global warming aspect in particular. Of course, fatalities are likely to rise when tornadoes hit populated areas. With a hundred million more of us in the United States than there were just forty years ago, today’s tornadoes are likelier to inflict more damage and death.

I never really considered myself living in tornado country before. It is true that here in Northern Virginia we do get occasional tornado watches and warnings. They used to be an occasional thing: once a month or so during tornado season. In thirty years of living in this area, I can count on one hand the number of times a real tornado came within ten miles of my house. Now I feel sort of spooked. Lately there have been tornado watches a couple of times a week, and the one tornado that did strike near us nearly hit a building I attend regularly. Is all this random chance or am I witnessing the beginning of new and more dangerous weather patterns? If I were Spiderman, my spidey senses would be tingling. In fact, my senses are tingling all over, and I don’t think it’s due to electrostatic charges in the atmosphere.

Perhaps I would be less alarmed if I did not have a brother who is a meteorologist and a wife whose idea of fun is spending nights on the computer watching TornadoVideos.Net tracking severe storms. She seems to get happier the closer they get to us. I feel panicky. I want to run and hide in our basement bathroom. I used to tune out thunder. Now hearing thunder pumps the adrenaline. I now especially don’t like thunderstorms at night. At least during the day you can see them and maybe have some warning. At night tornados could catch me unaware.

I knew it was bothering me when the other day I found myself signing up on The Weather Channel’s web site for severe weather email alerts. So far though these emails only add to my sense of fear. I have localized weather alerts to my zip code, but most weeks I can count on getting severe weather alerts at least a couple of times during the week. Often it is nothing (“Coastal flood advisory”– when am I near a body of water?), more often it is flash flood warnings, but about ten percent of the time it is a TORNADO WATCH or even worse a TORNADO WARNING. That is when the adrenaline really starts pumping. Like now, for example. Within the last fifteen minutes I got three warnings, the latest that says:



Be prepared, is the Boy Scout motto. That was one of the few lessons I retained from my Boy Scout years. Forewarned is forearmed. What else can I reasonably do? The thought has occurred to me that I might not be near a computer when one of these tornado warnings arrives. Maybe what I need is a weather radio, one with a backup battery and a hand crank. This way if at 2 AM there is a tornado warning I will at least be aware of it, unless the Weather Radio tower was blown down by a tornado. I will also be something of an adrenaline-filled zombie as well, and unlikely to sleep the rest of the night.


Maybe it is too much. Maybe instead of email alerts and weather radios, I need to revel in ignorance again. Maybe what I really need in a fatalistic attitude and an emergency supply of Valium. My suspicion is unless I retire to an area far away from a tornado zone, I will be living on edge for the rest of my life, at least during tornado season.

The Rapture did not happen on May 21st, but the weather is getting freakier, and seemingly freakier every day.

I think I need that Valium. And maybe a Bible.

The Thinker

Backtalk, Part 1

Perhaps one of the reasons I get so few comments is because I rarely reply to them. It’s either that or that most of my topics are not perceived as very interesting by the public. I often get comments on posts I made years earlier. I think I hit some sort of record last week when I received a comment for a post I made in December 2002, when my blog was new. I find it hard to comment on something I wrote many years ago. When I pick a topic, I give it my all, and then generally purge it from my brain.

I need to reply to your comments but given that some of them are for posts made so far in the past and they are so scattered across topics, at least for a while I will take comments sequentially, starting with the most recent comments. To expose my comments, I created a new comment listing tool that allows you to see comments chronologically, either going forward in time or back in time. Periodically I will review comments, in some cases left many years ago.

  • To Kyrsten Bean on my 2002 post, Intimations of Immortality: Kyrsten, I still get déjà vu from time to time, but less frequently than I used to. Every time it happens, it feels less novel. I read recently that we always live in the past because what we perceive never happens instantly but instead has to filter through the brain to give it meaning. The brain is also always multitasking. Some part of your brain lives in the present, some part is always anticipating the future, and some part is remembering the past. The experience of déjà vu might come from the future part of our brain drawing and filing imaginary scenarios. When a future projection just happens to occur in the present, this may trigger the phenomenon. While we like to think we live in reality, when we dream we are wholly absorbed in a complete virtual reality where the laws of time and space are easily transgressed. It may be that it is our ability to create a virtual world through sleep that feeds our feelings of immortality. Or it could be more than that. Dying could simply be the surrender of a physical life for the choice of the soul/spirit to return to a completely virtual life. There we could stay until we find an interesting enough reason to invest our time and energy to experience life inside of a new body. After all, if your soul can slip up and down the time stream, it can anticipate a good match based on whatever experiences your soul needs.
  • To Harry Potter on my recent post, A Primer on Restroom Etiquette: we live in an environment that is constantly swarming with microbial life, so a certain amount of risk is inevitable. Certainly restrooms get more than their share of nasty bacteria and viruses, but many of them are at least cleaned regularly with industrial strength disinfectants. Some caution is in order when using restrooms, but I don’t share your sense of paranoia. Urinals can be flushed using your elbow instead of your hand, or you can grab a paper towel to avoid touching it directly. Unless the plumbing is under repair or a restroom is out of soap or paper towels, other than laziness there is never an excuse for not flushing or washing your hands. Many restrooms now have faucets that detect the presence of a hand and jet water. I prefer these restrooms because touching faucet handles is likely an easy place to pick up and transmit a nasty germ.
  • To Socratus, who used my Boldly exploring the HD Radio Universe post to discuss the mathematical underpinnings of the principle of Occam’s Razor: I excelled in math and even took two calculus courses, but frankly I cannot follow your math or logic. I’m glad it makes sense to you.
  • To suicide blonde on my post Who Wants to be a Millionaire: I learned recently that having a net worth of a million dollars or more is no big deal. One in fifteen Americans fall into this bracket, which explains why I hardly feel rich. If it makes you feel any better, stocks slipped a bit recently so for the moment I am probably not a millionaire. It sure is not as exciting as being on the game show.
  • To George Coventry on my post If Aubrey fought Hornblower, who would win? I read Hornblower as a teen and found it a reasonably challenging read as I had never been on a sailing ship. I strongly suspect if I had started with the Aubrey-Maturin book instead, I would have never finished the first book, as I would not have had patience. About 10% of the book consists of confusing nautical terms that a landlubber needs a specialized nautical dictionary to understand. What I really craved as a teen in a good sea novel was adventure and Hornblower delivered with a character I could easily relate to. However, if I had spent my formative years sailing from time to time and had picked up much of the lingo, I might well share your feelings that O’Brien’s books are the better set.
  • To Norm on my post Requiem for a Feline: The more time I spend with pets the more I feel guilty for being a carnivore. We are surrounded by sentient beings, some more closely aligned with humans than others. Cats and dogs come very close. Cats are every bit as intelligent as humans, but have chosen to optimize their intelligence in different ways. I was blessed to have my cat Sprite for so many years and now, five years later, I am blessed to have my cat Arthur as well. If Arthur did not have the trauma of being a stray as a young cat, he would come close to matching my beloved Sprite. My condolences on your loss. I can absolutely empathize.
  • To left on my post Infoworld peers ten years out into the technology future: The prediction for shock #5 (Smartphones) are about halfway to being fulfilled, not bad a mere year and a half later. So I’ll probably be proven wrong on that prediction. Shock #7 (perfect image recognition) probably won’t quite get there, but this technology is maturing quickly. A 95% confidence level is probably doable now within ten years. For now, I figure I’m batting .800.

I’ll comment on my next 20 comments in future posts. Thanks for the comments and sorry about the belated replies.

The Thinker

Enjoying the rapture

I woke up this morning, expecting to go to Hell because I had not accepted Jesus Christ as my Personal Lord and Savior (PL&S) ™ only to discover, as I feared, that no rapture was underway. Instead, we have a picture postcard perfect day here in Northern Virginia: blue skies, emerald green grass, birds chirping, with the ground still damp from recent rains. The temperature is 67 degrees Fahrenheit and there are gentle breezes from the West Northwest.

I expected to have forgotten that today was the start of Armageddon, except, surprisingly, a bored press corps took notice of Harold Camping and his followers. So many other End of the World events have come and gone you would think that the press corps would have simply overlooked this latest one. The good news for Apocalypse fans is that in 2012 there is another opportunity, so you can now look forward to that. How do we know? The ancient Mayans said so, so mark your calendar now for December 21, 2012. On this date according to the Mesoamerican Long Calendar, we will have completed a cycle of 144,000 days since the earth’s mythical creation date. My guess is that this end of the world applies only to the Western Hemisphere, so I would definitely move to Europe before then. (Be careful to reside east of Greenwich.)

As a non-Christian, getting my mind around this rapture stuff is hard. This comes from being too left-brained, I suppose. I cannot believe in the personal God that so many people believe in. But if that God exists, then I cannot imagine it being a vindictive God. It seems you have to believe in a vindictive God to accept the rapture. Perhaps the hardest part for me is coming to grips with the idea that so many otherwise sensible people believe this nonsense. These are the same people who will buckle their seat belts because they acknowledge the possibility that some non-deterministic event could cause them to be killed in an automobile, so they best mitigate the risk. And yet they will throw caution to the wind when it comes to something like the end of the world, and orient much of their lives around something that simply will not happen for billions of years.

I also find it curious that so many of those predicting an imminent rapture know that they will be saved. How do they know? Merely through a profession of faith by saying they decree that Jesus in their PL&S? How do they know that their intolerance, bigotry and homophobia won’t keep them out of heaven? Their answer, probably, is that it is simply a matter of faith. Nonetheless, their behavior can be disturbing, particularly when they tell their children that they will not be ascending into heaven with them. Why is it these children are not in foster care? It’s hard to imagine a clearer case of parental emotional abuse.

It looks like I will neither ascend into heaven nor descend into hell today, and neither will those hoping to be raptured. I was sort of hoping those who were yearning for rapture would get their wish. This is because frankly I find most of these people insufferable to begin with, so the world would probably be a better place if they were teleported to a new reality. I’m guessing there is a ninety percent correlation between Harold Camping followers and climate change deniers. If they mysteriously disappeared, perhaps we could take long overdue actions to seriously address climate change. The overwhelming evidence seems to have no effect persuading these people anyhow. Those of us “left behind” have to make the best of the ecosystem that we have, so we might as well earnestly start living in congruence with our natural environment. This can be hard to do when so many people in power are so convinced that the end of the world is imminent that they see no value in protecting our environment.

Meanwhile, I will enjoy the rapture of a wonderful day. Mankind makes its own hells, but Mother Nature provides us with a natural Eden. All we have to do is choose to enjoy it. Today in particular seems to be a day to be outside and surrounded by nature. So that’s where I plan to spend a good part of my day, on my knees pulling weeds. I will be mindful of the nature and wildlife, whose song will ring in my ears, whose earthy smells will invade my nostrils and whose glory is all around me. For me this is the rapture and it is available most days for free and without the need to find it through a holy book. We just have to choose to open our senses and let nature fill us with its wonder.

The Thinker

ISO a sane Republican

You know the Republican Party is in trouble when only insane people can get nominated for president. The other day, one of the newest candidates in the field, former Speaker of the House and chronic philanderer Newt Gingrich had the audacity to suggest that Rep. Paul Ryan’s Medicare plan was radical. This seems right, as it changes forty years of universal, single-payer health care for seniors with a voucher for private insurance that won’t cover your health care costs. So Newt was right in this particular case. This was borne out by the thousands of protestors, many of them senior citizens, venting their anger on proposed Medicare changes at town hall meetings. Numerous opinion polls show that by a margin of about three Americans to one want to keep Medicare as it is. Yet Gingrich was immediately pilloried by Republicans for his remarks, and they really didn’t like his characterizing the plan as “right-wing social engineering”, which is obviously what it is.

Fifteen years ago, the Affordable Care Act would have passed Congress with most, if not all Republicans voting for it. There was nothing radical back then about legislation that required personal responsibility. Indeed, if John McCain had won the election in 2008 and proposed this legislation, it would have still been embraced by the Republican Party. Hatred for all things Obama though requires that Republicans lose all perspective on this issue. Rather than requiring people to face their responsibility they would prefer to allow people to abscond from their health care responsibility altogether. Ironically, all this does is push the burden of paying for this lack of responsibility on those who are responsible. Republicans now clearly believe that freedom includes the right to be personally irresponsible at the cost of your fellow citizens.

One of the best things Mitt Romney did as governor was sign the legislation that required virtually all Massachusetts residents to be insured. As a result, most residents of the state are paying for their health care insurance. Costs are no longer being shifted from the uninsured to the insured. To get the Republican nomination, however, Romney has to convince Republicans that he made a dreadful mistake and this great idea is certainly never something that should be done nationally. In other words, Romney is being penalized by Republicans for being an effective governor. He is at fault for getting things done. He was a bad governor for even working with its overwhelmingly Democratic legislature.

It seems like more and more the sane Republicans are bowing out of the presidential race. Donald Trump was never a serious candidate. (Scott Adams called it first.) Mike Huckabee realized his heart was not in it, but probably also realized even if he ran that Obama’s popularity would make it a doomed race. Also, the private sector pays better. Haley Barbour realized that he was too much of an establishment candidate to win a nomination. Sarah Palin is playing it sly, but seems to realize any run would be to stroke her own ego. In any event, her negatives ensure she could never be elected. Former Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson is considering a run, but he is seen as so moderate that he has practically no chance, and has endorsed many elements of the Affordable Care Act.

Republicans central problem is that there really is no candidate out there who could win the presidency unless the Republican Party moves back toward the political center. It’s hard to see in the short term how this can happen. The only way it is likely to happen is when voters deliver a lesson to Republicans, which is likely to happen in 2012. Losing big can open up a space where moderation can be seen as respectable again. It is possible this moment of reckoning will come sooner. It will come if Republicans unwisely refuse to extend our debt limit. There is nothing like getting smacked with a sudden double dip recession to sober up an ideologue.

There is likely no savior out there. John Huntsman looks likely to run, but he has a history of moderation. Republicans are enamored with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, but he is suffering from nearly twenty percent negative approval in New Jersey. Texas Governor Rick Perry doesn’t seem inclined to run, but in any event he is intensely strange and keeps making noises that Texas should secede from the union. Former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty inspires no one, including himself. Former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, the same guy who could not find a single cosponsor for his bill to gut the National Weather Service, is weird and according to a McCain spokesman, the stupidest senator in the last twenty years. Then there are a whole host of really fringe and bizarre characters, many of whom were on display in a recent Republican debate in South Carolina. Ron Paul wants to put the United States on the gold standard and legalize prostitution. Former governor of New Mexico Gary Johnson wants to cut Medicare in half. The winner of the poorly attended debate seemed to be a hitherto unknown former CEO of Godfathers Pizza Herman Cain, who wants to abolish the IRS and thinks those who want to carve exceptions for abortions for those who are raped are pro choice.

One can only hope that Republican primary voters are more moderate overall, because if Republicans want to have any chance in 2012 they need to nominate someone like Mitt Romney, even if they have to hold their nose in the process. If they make the mistake of thinking that the American people are as far to the right as they are, then they have already lost.

The Thinker

A symphonic surprise

I may be a graduate of George Mason University and only live about a dozen miles from the university, but now that I have the diploma I rarely find a reason to visit my alma mater. Large performances can often be found at its Patriot Center, but major sporting events and rock concerts rarely interest me. George Mason University also has a Center for the Performing Arts, which I have frequented a few times over the years. Usually though when I feel the fine arts calling me, I head into Washington, D.C. It is hard to compete with its rich number of arts venues there, and my wife and I have repeatedly sampled most of them.

When a friend, who sings locally in the Reston Chorale, told me she was singing in a performance with the Fairfax Symphony Orchestra and the Fairfax Chorale Society at GMU, I decided to get tickets to her event. There are lots of things I have been meaning to do in the quarter century I have lived in Northern Virginia, and one of them was to hear the Fairfax Symphony Orchestra. Usually, I ponied up for tickets to hear the National Symphony Orchestra instead. The NSO of course is a first rate orchestra, a true national orchestra and has a terrific venue in the Kennedy Center’s Concert Hall. I have lost track of the performances I have seen just inside the Concert Hall, but one of the more memorable ones was a fully orchestrated version of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 8, the “Symphony of a Thousand”, or close to it. There were so many soloists they were taking over the box seats.

Last night (and tonight in Manassas, Virginia) our local FSO performed Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, perhaps better known as his Resurrection Symphony. Like Mahler’s Symphony No. 8, it is ambitious in scope requiring not only a large choir but also an exceptionally large orchestra, which is perhaps why it is not played more regularly. It seemed a daunting challenge for the FSO. The FSO is a regional orchestra, and the “Fairfax” in FSO comes from Fairfax County where I live. How good could it possibly be, with the NSO in Washington and the BSO performing regionally at Strathmore Hall in Bethesda, Maryland? I assumed the FSO was probably better than average for a community orchestra, since it has been around since 1957, but I kept my expectations very modest. The performance venue at Mason’s Center for the Performing Arts was certainly swank and it has a Kennedy Center feel to it. While a community orchestra, this event came close to filling up the auditorium. Only a few hundred seats were unsold, mostly where we were up in the nosebleed section. We paid about fifty dollars each for our tickets. No point in paying for orchestra seating, I figured, for a second-class orchestra.

Okay, I was wrong. The FSO blew away my preconceptions, just as they wholly filled up the stage and the choir filled up the back of the stage. Regional orchestra? Maybe. Excellent orchestra? Absolutely yes! Under the direction of music director Christopher Zimmerman, the FSO rendered a spirited and very much in your face rendition of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, which is just the way Mahler would have wanted it performed. On the 100th anniversary year of Gustav Mahler’s death, I had the feeling he was observing from on high and nodding in approval, probably with tears flowing from his eyes. This is a work that is truly immortal. The FSO, ably assisted in the latter movements by the Fairfax Chorale Society and the Reston Chorale, as well as soprano Jeanine Thames and mezzo soprano Janine Hawley, delivered what can only be described as terrific Mahler, every bit as good a performance as the glorious 8th symphony I saw more than a dozen years ago.

Mahler’s music is simply intense. It is rarely subtle, but it is complex, full of multiple themes all of which tend to grab you by the heart and hold you in its emotional grip, transfixed and transfigured for the duration. For me, it took less than thirty seconds. The first movement, Allegro Maestoso, starts off briskly and refuses to allow you to have even a moment to catch your breath. It is almost a symphony in itself, and ends with what feels like a statement of the feelings and anxieties of mortality and the search for meaning. But of course it is just the first statement on a theme that moves through five movements, ending with a violent outburst in the last movement. The only thing that is understated is the choruses, perhaps done to evoke an otherworldly feeling. Meanwhile during the performance, to accommodate the many, many musicians, orchestra members kept entering and leaving the stage. Sometimes they performed offstage, such as when a horn section required a muffled sound.

When more than ninety minutes later the symphony finally came to its glorious end, I was one of the thousands of listeners reeling and sort of stunned. It took me a while to arise from my seat and applaud; I had been wholly lost in a virtual musical world. We gave the orchestra and chorales four rounds of ovation.

Clearly there is no reason for me to go into Washington D.C. to get my classical music fix anymore. Classical music aficionados might choose to visit our region not just to hear the NSO, but also to venture out to Northern Virginia to hear the FSO, who is likely to get me as a new season subscriber. If you like classical music, and particularly if you live in Northern Virginia, you simply have to hear what you have been missing.

The Thinker

An adult in charge

According to the latest AP-GfK poll, President Obama’s approval rating is at sixty percent. Much of this can be attributed to the death of Osama bin Laden. This high won’t last, but with ratings like these even at nine percent unemployment, America is feeling unusually favorable toward our president. This includes those ever-fickle independents. If Americans are generally satisfied with a president, they tend to stick with him for a second term. Consequently, it will be hard for Republicans to develop a compelling case against his reelection. Also working in Obama’s favor: a breathtaking lack of compelling Republican challengers.

Republicans may not be fact-based or evidence-driven, but thankfully at least our president is. No president since Franklin Roosevelt has been dealt such an ugly hand upon taking office. FDR did much to soften the Great Depression by reducing unemployment almost in half, but it took a war to fully pull America out of its funk. After two years, we are technically out of a recession, but because of gas price increases, high unemployment and depressed housing prices most of us still feel like we are in one. Obama has done much to bring the change that he promised, but it is clear there is still much to do.

One thing that has worked in his favor is his willingness to work strategically. His ability to focus on something that would change the dynamic in the War on Terror, through finding and killing Osama bin Laden, was but one example. Obama had planned to start withdrawing troops this year from Afghanistan. With Americans solidly wanting us to get out of the country, he may finally take up my suggestion and withdraw. Our objective, at least as it was originally conceived when the War on Terror began, is accomplished. Al Qaeda, if there is anything left of it, likely doesn’t have more than a few dozen people in Afghanistan. The Taliban are again out of power. Combine a withdrawal from Afghanistan with a nearly complete withdrawal from Iraq, and he can claim two foreign policy successes. (Timing will be important, however. The Afghan government was never likely to remain in power for long after we left, and almost certainly won’t be able to once we are gone. If its government has to fall, it’s best to make sure it happens shortly after the election.)

Everyone seems surprised by the president we actually got. Like most liberals, I was hoping for a more comprehensive health care reform than the half-baked mess we actually got. I did not expect him to turn out to be as centrist a president as he is. In some ways he is Republican in the 1970s mold. He is a centrist to all but Republicans who by moving their goal post so far to the right claim he is a socialist. He turned out to have way more energy than I expected. Bill Clinton was legendary for his short sleep cycles and long working hours. I don’t know how many hours Obama actually works, but I am amazed by his ability to smartly multitask, to delegate responsibly, to ask the right probing questions and to play his cards close to his chest. He might want to take up competitive poker in retirement.

I remember groaning last December when before the new Congress took office he pushed for a politically risky set of spending cuts and tax reductions. However, it was a smart thing to do. It postponed inevitable confrontations with Congress and kept a fragile recovery from faltering by putting more money into Americans’ pockets. Frankly, it was both smart and gutsy. He knew that if given a choice between cutting spending and pocketing tax cuts, Republicans would pick the latter. He made their weaknesses work to his advantage.

Obama also surprises in unconventional ways. Few people pay attention to our space program, but essentially Obama decided the way we were doing manned spaceflight needed to evolve. He then directed the private sector to pick up the slack of getting our astronauts into orbit. It was time, fifty years into the space race, to let private industry bear these costs and risks instead of the taxpayer. Bush’s Orion program smelled from when it was first announced. You knew there was going to be (and there were) cost overruns and delays, and it would be done inefficiently. However long it takes for companies like SpaceX to provide NASA with a commercial vehicle to put astronauts in space, it will be done faster and cheaper than with requirements and oversight coming out of NASA. Instead, NASA can concentrate its manned spaceflight program on areas that matter: outside of earth orbit as well as devote more resources to its highly successful and cost efficient unmanned program.

If Obama has any genius this might be it: to see the underlying problem in any system or endeavor and sense what it truly takes to fix it. Obama understands things all politicians should understand but many deliberately choose not to understand. He understands that to reduce deficits in the long term, you need to increase deficits in the short term. The real problem with our trillion-dollar deficit is not the cost of entitlements, although Medicare and Medicaid cost increases are serious. The real problem is that our federal government is funded primarily through income taxes, and when people are unemployed or earn less, they pay less income tax. When millions are thrown out of the workforce in a short period of time, which is exactly what happened during this Great Recession, tax revenues plummet. It is not politically possible for budgets to be cut that much at same time, particularly when Americans particularly need services governments provide in recessions. So deficits increase.

I have yet to hear one prominent Republican admit the simple truth that declining income taxes are the principle cause of our current deficit. Of course, not many of them will admit that two unpaid for wars and an unpaid for expansion of Medicare contributed to the problem either. Cutting spending and increasing taxes would both reduce the deficit, but neither or both really solve it. A robust economy where the government gets a reasonable but not excessive share of the wealth is the way to really get rid of deficits. We know it works because it worked in the Clinton Administration. Confidence begets more confidence. Prosperity balances budgets and eventually creates surpluses, if spending is held in check with economic growth. High stakes showdowns over a debt ceiling does not engender confidence; in fact, it engenders just the opposite.

It would be hard to imagine a more irascible opposition than the Republican opposition that Obama currently has. It is one driven almost entirely by principle, much of it logically inconsistent. What a noxious brew they are, setting impossible demands to cut trillions in return for raising our debt ceiling. Yet, the crazier and more irascible that Republicans become, the more pragmatic and sober Obama appears. For the president, it becomes a virtuous cycle and for Republicans it merely lowers their overall low approval ratings even further. The burden for compromise shifts to Republicans, particularly when Obama and the Democrats are willing to go half way and they are not. Republicans are unlikely to capitulate entirely, but eventually the obvious self inflicted political carnage will likely result in small increments to the debt ceiling while parties try to work things out. A true grand compromise is unlikely given that there is so little common ground and an election will loom. Americans however want bipartisanship, and seeing none of it from Republicans merely reinforces their current case of buyer’s remorse. The advantage in the 2012 elections thus clearly swings toward the Democrats, who, the referenced AP poll show are picking up traction. On only one issue, national security, does the country trust Republicans more than Democrats, and that’s by a single point.

The middle is where elections are won but Republicans simply will not go there. Obama though has occupied that field and Democrats, somewhat reluctantly, are moving in as well. He is building political capital by being the only adult in the room.

It’s a shame though that he’s the only one.

The Thinker

Ooma: the landline reborn

The landline’s days appear to be numbered. Ten percent of landlines are disconnected every year. Many people see no reason to pay for a landline when they are also paying for a cell phone. It’s an easy expense to get rid of, particularly in tough economic times.

Yet landlines do have certain advantages:

  • Cell phone coverage is still spotty in places
  • Cell phone voice quality also tends to be poor and, depending on your provider, you may suffer from abrupt disconnects
  • Cell phones require regular recharging, which renders them less useful
  • Traditionally, landlines were on a completely separate system. Your power might go off but because Ma Bell’s system worked on low voltage DC power you could at least call the power company to complain.
  • The landline had the virtue of being extremely reliable. In those days before Ma Bell was broken up, you may have paid too much for a phone but service problems were virtually nonexistent.
  • Phones manufactured by Ma Bell were almost indestructible. They lasted forever.
  • The freedom to be anywhere in your house and not carry a cell phone
  • One consistent household phone number. We have had the same phone number since 1993.
  • No per minute charges for local calls

What I call “land landlines” are getting hard to find. These are old twisted pair phone lines that come from an actual telephone wire from your local Bell spinoff into your house. Broadband Internet has transformed landlines. If you get your Internet from a Bell spinoff like Verizon, your landline is just a feature of your FiOS service. It occupies some tiny part of the spectrum on your fiber optic channel.

When we signed up for high speed Internet from Cox Communications, our cable provider, back in 1999, we were something of Internet pioneers. For the first few years, high speed Internet suffered from severe quality of service problems. We once spent a whole week without Internet until their overloaded staff finally got around to fixing our service. It took us years before we became confident enough to bundle our landline into our cable service. When we canceled our service with Verizon, our landline essentially morphed into a proprietary VOIP (voice over internet protocol) phone controlled by Cox. The only real difference was it was less reliable than our old service. Our cable modem has a battery backup but as we discovered, if your broadband is down your landline is also down. Which meant that you needed a cell phone as backup telephone service.

We weren’t really paying anything less for our landline with Cox than we were with Verizon. The only real savings came from $10 or so that we saved by bundling TV, Internet and phone into one service. We rarely dial long distance, but long distance was always extra. Cox’s long distance rates were a bit excessive, as much as 15 cents a minute without a package. With minimal long distance, adding in communications taxes we still paid between $25 and $35 a month for our landline.

The price grated on me. While I usually have my cell phone tethered to my belt, it’s not always there. Moreover, since I use Virgin Mobile, signal strength was somewhat problematical. Still, I had been scouring the market for years for a cheaper alternative. Skype is great, if you have ever tried it. Internet-to-Internet phone calls were free, but were really you with a headset on. Skype’s video feature is awesome; I have used it to chat with siblings and old friends in real-time. However, to reach someone with Skype on a landline or cell phone you had to buy minutes. In addition, lacking a Skype appliance, to get and receive calls you had to leave your computer on as well. This meant when someone called you on Skype, you have to dash to your computer and don your headset. MagicJack looked like an ideal solution, but it was not very reliable.

To work, the ideal landline VOIP solution needed the following attributes:

  • High reliability, just like the old Ma Bell network if possible
  • Be able connect to my existing twisted pair phone system
  • Offer good or great call quality
  • Be dirt cheap, with few or no local or long distance charges
  • Work as an appliance, so I did not need my computer to be on

Since I got broadband, I did not understand why I should have to pay anything for long distance, since I don’t pay extra to get data from servers in Alaska compared to Herndon, Virginia where I live. So when Consumer Reports recommended Ooma as a good VOIP solution, it was only a few days before I shelled out $249.99 to purchase the device. Within a week it arrived on my doorstep.

Ooma met all my criteria. Consumer Reports said it was very reliable. It would work with my existing twisted pair phone network so I could just plug it in to a telephone jack. Voice quality was at least as good as a regular telephone, but could be improved if HD phones were used. Perhaps most importantly for a cheapskate like me, all long distance and local phone calls were essentially free. No monthly service fees, forever! No extra charges for long distance, at least within the United States. Ooma goes the last mile by working with local telephone exchanges. It can reach all landlines and cell phones. International calls were extra, but were dirt cheap (about a penny per minute). Since I don’t call internationally, it’s not an issue, but if it were I’d be unlikely to get a better rate.

Essentially, after buying the Ooma appliance, I had free local and long distance. The only recurring fee was for communications taxes, in my case $3.50 a month. So that’s $3.50 a month compared with $25 to $35 a month I am spending now was quite a bargain. Ooma’s purchase price would pay for itself in about a year and afterwards the saving would just keep piling up. (However, there may be termination fees if you cancel your landline, and if you bundle service you’re your Internet provider, that savings may go away as well.) Moreover, I did not need to leave my computer on. Instead, I use the Ooma Telo, an Internet appliance that usually sits between your broadband modem and your Internet router.  Its voice compression algorithms allow it low bandwidth utilization while maintaining high reliability and excellent voice quality.

Ooma must still pay fees to telephone companies to connect your call to a local exchange. How do they stay in business if they don’t charge you a fee? There probably is some profit from selling you their Ooma device, and I am sure that helps. Second, the phone can only be used for residential use, not business use, which means you do not tax its network that much. Third, they sell extras. They like to push their premier plan for $9.99 a month, which offers features like call blocking and call forwarding. (It comes bundled free for the first two months.) And they must make a bit of money from number porting. I also spent $39.99 to port my phone number to Ooma.

In truth, my actual cost is more than $249.99 plus the $39.99 to port my number. It turned out that our cable modem and router are located in our loft, where we don’t have a telephone jack and it would be inconvenient to move our computers elsewhere. Unless all your phones are wireless, a telephone jack is needed, which ours are not. The Ooma Telo requires a wired connection to your high speed Internet. For me the cheapest solution was to install a telephone jack in our loft. This meant fishing telephone cable, something I could have done myself but found it easier and faster to hire someone to do it. Once more, I used the power of Craigslist to find someone to do the work. I paid $85, including $5 for the cable the installer provided. So my total investment is about $375, which means it will take me about a year to recoup my investment.

My number port happens tomorrow, but we have already tested our Ooma with a temporary phone number. After a few small installation hiccups it is working reliably. (We did notice a little voice echoing and initially some clicking on the line.) $35 landline phone bills and paying for long distance will soon become a memory. What will not, at least for now, will be the convenience of a landline, which Ooma has smartly reincarnated for the 21st century. Ooma has arguably transformed the landline and this customer is happy to pocket the savings.

My next task is to lower the cost of my Internet and cable. Let’s see how low Cox and Verizon are willing to go for my business. I am confident there are more savings to be had there as well.

The Thinker

A primer on restroom etiquette

Yep, I am still regularly browsing People of Wal-Mart. I keep hoping they will get a better class of clientele, but evidence on the site suggests just the opposite is true.

Lately there has been a trend to show pictures of Wal-Mart customers who apparently have not mastered the art of using toilets. Sometimes there is something like toilet paper hanging out of their shorts. More often someone just made a mess down there and it is leaking through their underwear (if they have any) for the whole world to see. Sometimes it seems like they are proud of themselves and are showing off.

My biggest Wal-Mart fear is being forced to use their restrooms. Perhaps they keep them nice and clean, but it doesn’t matter. I am still leery about sharing a restroom with any of their customers, even using one of those sanitary toilet covers, should I need a stall. However, there is plenty of evidence that Wal-Mart customers can be found in public restrooms near you. Maybe that’s why I avoid them. Unfortunately, sometimes you have no alterative.

The good thing about public restrooms (aside from taking care of a chronic biological necessity) is that they are the most egalitarian place people of the same sex can congregate. The exception, of course, is executive washrooms, which, needless to say, I’m not important enough to have access to. It doesn’t matter what your age, race or income level is: we all have to excrete. I have to assume though that some people, particularly of my gender, never quite got their potty training certificate. Or maybe they figured potty rules apply only at home, although I doubt that. Anyone who can’t do their business properly in a public restroom probably doesn’t even know how to use a flush toilet. At least I hope that is the case, because it is the best thing I can say about them.

Whether you are in a stall or in front of a urinal when you are done you should religiously flush the toilet! There is this thing called a handle, which if you press down on causes a pneumatic water cycle that places your body waste into the sewage system and refreshes the commodes with clean water. It’s amazing and incredible but it works. I am constantly amazed by people who apparently haven’t mastered this important skill, or, more likely, just don’t give a crap (literally) to take two seconds to flush. Are they filled with passive aggressive rage?

Once you have mastered the business of pressing down on the handle, you might want to check to see if the toilet did its job. I get the feeling that some of you have bowel movements maybe once a week. Regardless, please assume that the next person in the stall does not want to have a close encounter with your bowels. If this happens to you please wait for the cycle to finish and flush again. Repeat until all your detritus is gone and the water is clear.

Guys, if you have to tinkle, using the urinal is definitely preferred. However, if they are all in use or you prefer the privacy of a stall, don’t stand up to pee into it. This is because, just like at home, your aim is unlikely to be perfect. Unlike at home, where your wife or significant others will bitch at you for missing, no one will complain if you do this in a public stall, at least not until after you have left the crime scene. The rule is simple, guys: if you are going to pee into a toilet in a stall, sit down to do your business. (Hint: drop your pants and underpants first!) When I encounter your residue, I recoil and immediately search for another cleaner stall, if possible. If you must pee standing up in a stall, have the decency to raise the toilet seat first so you don’t dribble on it for the next occupant and put it back down when done. Thank you very much.

Here’s another tip: every restroom I have ever been in, except in third world countries, have wash basins with soap and either paper towels or a hot air blowing machine. Use them to dry your newly clean hands and, if necessary, your stall.

It does not say so on the door, but restrooms are not places to engage in conversation, unless it’s an “excuse me” when encountering someone entering or exiting. Ideally, you want to be anonymous throughout the period. It is especially not (Larry Craig, take note) a place to find new romantic or sexual partners of the same sex. Save that for Craigslist. Fortunately, perhaps due to my strong anti Gay-dar, I have not encountered any hand gropers yet. I can assure you that if it happens and I have something sharp on me, that person will subsequently be bleeding and possibly missing some phalanges. You have been warned!

Neither is a restroom a place to have delayed social conversations via etchings on the restroom or stall wall. I don’t care about your opinions about gays or “faggots” as you call them. Similarly, I am not interested in dialing the phone number scrawled on the stall wall for some “head”. No doubt she is actually a he, in fact, probably you.

Certain bodily noises are inevitable when you are doing your business, but please to the maximum extent possible don’t make it my business too. I don’t want to hear any more flatulence than is absolutely required, and I sure don’t want to hear it accompanied by verbal expressions of how you are feeling. Ideally ventilation fans would mask most noises. Nor should you linger too long. Sometimes our plumbing wants to go slow, but bathroom etiquette demands that you minimize your time doing your business. Besides, someone with a more chronic need than you may be waiting anxiously with their knees tightly crossed.

That’s pretty much it. In short, using a restroom is not an excuse to revert to being a caveman or a brute. If you still have questions, Foothill Community College in Los Altos Hills, California has a helpful video. (Hint: in real life, please lower your pants and underwear first.)

The Thinker

bin Gone, and good riddance

Lately my newspaper has seemed obsolete. Anything of importance, I usually learn about online the night before. Today was a happy exception. My Washington Post totally shocked me by being the first to inform me that our special forces had killed Osama bin Laden.

Today as the news ripples across the United States, it is impossible not to feel great joy and catharsis. Anyone age fifteen or older must have the memory of September 11, 2001 seared into our brains. Most of us shared in the experience by watching it unfold on television. Some of us who live in New York City, Washington D.C. or Shanksville, Pennsylvania had a closer encounter with history.

On that date, I was working in Washington D.C. in the Hubert H. Humphrey Building, a building close to the capitol. I first learned of the event when a breathless contractor told me to come to the TV quick where images of a smoldering World Trade Center were projected on a wide screen TV. We stood there open jawed trying to figure out what had happened. After some confusing minutes, we found ourselves outside the building staring out toward the west and seeing plumes of tan smoke rising from the Pentagon. We knew our nation was under attack. Our hearts were all skipping beats as we tried to pull together all the disparate information we were getting, much of it false. (A suicide plane is headed for the Smithsonian castle!) Landlines mostly worked but the cell phone system was overloaded. People were wandering the streets futilely trying to call loved ones on their cell phones. Sirens wailed endlessly. As our vanpool made a premature trip to get us all back home, the smoke from the Pentagon lingered in the air on an otherwise delightfully cloud-free and cool late summer day. We waited for hours in traffic to return to the relative safety of suburbia and embraced spouses and children with real tears in our eyes.

That day was followed by days of silence, not just due to mourning and shock, but also due to the lack of aircraft. We live a few miles from Washington Dulles and the dull roar of airport traffic is constant. The only thing in the air was military fighter jets, relentlessly circling the capital, which were much louder than commercial jets and rattled our windows. Mostly it was surreally quiet. I knew, as all Americans knew, that our national life had been altered fundamentally. I rate only one day in my life of more national significance, and that was when we landed men on the moon for the first time. It is unlikely I will ever be as close to disaster again.

Osama bin Laden’s death certainly does not end the war against al Qaeda, but it does finally release a large national bubble of psychic melancholy that has persisted since that day, which by itself helps in our national healing. Bin Laden’s death is one death that even I can feel happy about. I tend to avoid absolutes, but he was a very evil man. Even if terrorism against us increases as a direct result of his targeted killing, I still will be glad that he is dead, and even gladder that our special forces killed him. Justice was delayed, but nearly a decade later justice was finally meted out.

For a while, maybe a good long while, Americans can feel happy again. It will doubtless be reflected shortly in President Obama’s poll numbers. His high ratings will likely be transitory, although if there are no major crises between now and election day it should probably seal his reelection. The president may not be able to instantly turn around the economy and solve our budget deficit, but unlike George W. Bush, he can capture and kill Public Enemy Number 1. He succeeded by focusing on the problem and making sure our counterterrorism units and special forces had the resources to do the job correctly. Apparently, these things can be accomplished without pompously parading on aircraft carrier decks in a flight suit with a Mission Accomplished banner behind you. Apparently, it takes a sound strategy, executed with viable tactics to kill such an elusive mass murderer, rather than cowboy antics and red state platitudes. It is done through applying intelligence rather than ideology. This would be news to our right wing if they were to absorb it, which they will not.

It turns out our president is one cool and focused dude, much less concerned with pandering to politicians and pundits than working methodically at reaching a goal. I had this impression of him from the start, which is why I voted for him. Maybe America realizes the value of having a strategic president, blessed with intelligence and vision, but especially blessed with dogged tenacity and focus. These qualities eluded George W. Bush.

I hope Americans everywhere today celebrate, and celebrate lustily. There should be no shame in feeling good about killing this man. While the long war on terror will continue, let us justly and unashamedly revel in this symbolic but significant accomplishment.


Switch to our mobile site