Archive for July, 2011

The Thinker

God is a verb

Those of us who believe in God tend to think of God as a noun. As you may recall from elementary school, a noun is a person, place or thing. God is probably not a person, unless you count Jesus Christ. Nor is God a place, except heaven is assumed to be some physical or ethereal space where God’s presence is overwhelming, sort of God’s home, you might say. Calling God a thing sounds sort of churlish since by definition there can be nothing grandeur or more magnificent than God. Given our poor definition, if we have to define God as a noun, saying God is a thing will have to do.

A sentence is made up of many parts of speech. God cannot be an adjective because adjectives modify nouns. Adverbs modify verbs or adjectives, and since God cannot be an adjective it cannot be an adverb. You can look through all the parts of a sentence and using God for anything other than a noun mostly doesn’t work. God can be part of a word and be something else. Goddamn, for instance, is an adjective and sometimes an adverb. There is only one other part of a sentence where God could work: God could be a verb.

For many of you, you are wondering what the heck I am talking about. A verb expresses action, state or a relationship between things. defines a verb as:

Any member of a class of words that are formally distinguished in many languages, as in English by taking the past ending in -ed, that function as the main elements of predicates, that typically express action, state, or a relation between two things, and that (when inflected) may be inflected for tense, aspect, voice, mood, and to show agreement with their subject or object.

When you think about it though, using God as a verb makes a lot of sense. Granted it is hard to use God as a verb in a sentence, but what is fundamental about our notion of God is the notion of being in a relationship with God. If there were nothing else sentient in the universe, would God exist? Who can say, since no one would be around to detect the presence of God, but for sure it would not matter. God though only has meaning in the context of a relationship. Many of us seek to find God, and those who believe they have found God then try to understand God. This leads to a lot of confusion, however, because so many people have different interpretations of what God wants from us.

Yet if God is understood as the relationship between people, places and things, i.e. God is a verb, then clarity can emerge. This notion of God though will trouble most of us because we tend to see God as something external, all powerful, all good and unique, i.e. a noun. Saying God is a verb simply suggests it is what holds us in relationship to everything else. In this sense, we are literally part of the mind of God. In this sense, God becomes neither good nor bad, but simply is the relationship between all things, physical and spiritual. God in some sense is energy, or whatever forces exist, whether simple or complex, that hold us together in communion. This notion of God answers the riddle: If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, did it make a sound? If God is a verb then the answer is yes. The tree falling in the forest impacts in some measure all of creation because God as a verb posits as an article of faith that everything really is interconnected with everything else. So yes, it made a sound, even if we did not hear it personally.

You will get no argument from scientists and not from quantum physicists in particular. Certainly no scientist will argue that every action is deterministic. Things are deterministic at the macro level. We know with confidence that our planet will be subsumed into the Red Giant that our sun will become someday, because we understand physics well enough. We also understand physics well enough to know that at the subatomic level outcomes can only be expressed in terms of probability, not certainty. Scientists have yet to find evidence of any phenomenon that can exist independently of anything else. A hurricane, for instance, requires heat and lots of water, so it is in relationship with its environment. Everything is in relation with something else, and the evidence is that every action affects everything else in the universe as well, not instantly, but over long periods of time.

Perhaps expressing a reverence for the relationship between all things is worship, and the relationship itself is God. Perhaps God is not a destination, but experiencing God is simply a matter of tuning into the relationship between all things, seen and unseen. God may feel most God-like when we feel a sense of awe from our interconnectedness. I feel it regularly. I felt it last year when I was traipsing around South Dakota’s Black Hills. I could feel it in the life of the soil at my feet and hear it in the brisk wind whistling through the pine trees. I felt it on Friday at a rest stop between Richmond, Virginia and my home in Northern Virginia when I stepped out of my car into stifling hundred plus degree heat. I feel it when the cat is on my lap, and is purring and looking at me with its adoring eyes. I felt it on Friday when I saw a broke, pregnant and homeless woman with a cardboard sign on the streets of Richmond and I felt a pang of remorse by driving by her without giving her a dollar or helping her to a homeless shelter. I feel it in the life cycle in particular, and my experiences of my encroaching mortality. I felt it when as an infant I was nuzzled up to my mother and drank milk from her breasts.

Perhaps God is simply what is. Perhaps our religious struggle is simply to come to terms with and accept what is, and to magnify and glorify the connections between all things. There are many ways to do it, but the principle method is to practice love as much as you can. This is because love certainly is a verb, and has god-like powers.

Perhaps we just need to accept the truth that God is love, and nothing more than that. Love is about enhancing the connection between all things so we are in greater harmony and understanding with each other. It works for me.

The Thinker

Ain’t young or hip enough for Virgin Mobile

Are you cool enough to own a Virgin Mobile phone? Apparently I am not, but the company is glad to sell me their phones anyhow. Based on my calculations I am at least twice as old as their target demographic: young and hip adults.

A lesser known fact about Virgin Mobile is that it targets cheapskates. You have to be something of a cheapskate to own a prepaid phone, which is still offered by many of their plans. Owning a prepaid phone implies that you apparently don’t plan on actually using the phone that much. That’s why I am with Virgin Mobile. I use my cell phone maybe once a week, and often less than that. It’s there for emergencies and convenience. Because I have been on their service a long time, I am grandfathered in under an old plan. I pay twenty one dollars a quarter, unless I exceed my prepaid minutes, which rarely happens. That’s also probably a price I would be willing to pay if I were a young adult who was stretched for cash and needed a cell phone. I didn’t have these options when I was a wild and crazy thing.

The thing about being a cheapskate is you don’t usually want to be thought of as a cheapskate. Virgin Mobile has figured this out, which is why its sites and ads are plastered with hip young adults, and their ringtones tend to be loud, jarring and obnoxious. Virgin Mobile people apparently are skinny. They wear designer jeans. They are pictured at wild parties. Their hair tends to be longish but at least washed. They often come with smiles on their faces that look like they just won a contest on how many people could be stuffed into a phone booth. (Wait a minute: they probably have no idea what a phone booth is.) They are not afraid to be loud, either visually or aurally.

If you dare, call Virgin’s customer service number (1-888-322-1122). First you get blasted by what sounds like a jazzed up ringtone. Then of course you get the Virtual Virgin Adviser and have to work your way through the usual confusing menus or try to say what you want in English or Spanish and hope their software interprets you correctly. The Virtual Virgin Adviser sounds like he still has acne. He probably isn’t captain of the high school football team, but instead he comes across more as voted Most Popular.

A couple of times I made it through the virtual adviser and actually talked to a “Live Adviser” (yes, they call them that). They too sound young and hip and clearly they have been coached to feign enthusiasm and youth. I assume it is an effective strategy because the owner of Virgin Mobile, Virgin Airlines and other affiliated companies is Richard Branson, and you don’t sail around the world in your own high tech and custom made balloon by not knowing how to make some serious money. Still, it is annoying. As a cheap middle-aged guy, I’d gladly select another company just as cheap with less cool advisers and boring sites. I just haven’t found them, or figured it wasn’t worth the effort. After all, my unused minutes keep accumulating. It’s unlikely I will ever need to spend them.

While I tend to be inured to design, I will confess that one of the harder things about sticking with Virgin Mobile is that its cell phones are ugly. Their ugliness is primarily because of all the glowing red. Virgin Mobile has been going with a bright red theme and it’s going to stick to it. I guess it’s part of its branding. Which means your cell phone wallpaper is likely to be a bright red and your ringtones, unless you are half dead, will wake even a sleep-deprived teen from a deep slumber.

So I may have to buy a cricKet phone someday, because they cater to us older folks with their inoffensive green color schemes and their tiny but at least familiar looking keyboards. Unfortunately, their cheapest plan is $35 a month, which is probably why I am still using Virgin Mobile and putting up with its garish phones, hip “live advisers” and obnoxious ring tones. I also have to put up with its limited coverage area. In some states it is hard to use the phone at all, as I discovered when I spent a week in South Dakota. That’s because they piggyback on top of Sprint’s cellphone network, and Sprint serves mostly metropolitan areas along the coasts. That’s probably the real reason Virgin Mobile is so cheap because if you are not near an urban area you are probably out of luck. Fortunately, 98% of the time I am near my house, so it’s only a problem when traveling.

Aside from Virgin Mobile’s low, low prices, there is at least one other reason I stay with them. I recently lost yet another cell phone. Fortunately, I paid only ten dollars for it. Even more fortunately, it was easy to replace it with another ugly, piece of crap phone. I went to their web site, searched on “replacement phone” and within minutes I had another ugly piece of crap phone on its way, for $7.99 plus tax. It probably cost them more to ship it to me than the phone is worth. And now it sits in my back pocket waiting for calls that rarely come. As I expected, no one left me any voice mail in the interim.

If I have some advice for Richard Branson, it would be to create a division of Virgin Mobile for us older, unhip Americans. There are a lot of us and given the downturn in the economy, many of us need to economize anyhow. We just don’t want to deal with all the hip stuff. Moreover, we would prefer cell phones that don’t suggest our pockets are on fire. In addition, we don’t want to talk to a virtual adviser, but with a live one please. I might even let you charge me some cell phone minutes for the privilege. Deal?

The Thinker

Calling their bluff and Obama’s trump card

The temperature hit a record 105 degrees Friday at Washington Dulles International Airport, a new record. The temperature must have been at least as hot at the White House. There President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner were engaged in their latest discussion regarding raising the nation’s debt ceiling. Apparently tempers flared, Boehner left, and the president and speaker were left to give dueling press conferences to explain why the other side was being unreasonable. Meanwhile, social security recipients were anxiously wondering if they were going to get their checks on August 3rd.

The dueling press conferences were at least instructive in underscoring the fundamental issue of disagreement. It’s not the deficit that really matters, it’s not even the debt ceiling, and it’s not jobs or the state of our economy. It’s taxes. For House Republicans, the bottom line is no taxes must be raised, not even when our deficit is more than a trillion dollars a year. Unfortunately, they have boxed themselves in by claiming that debt and the deficit were more important when all along it was really about taxes. Now, as President Obama pointed out in his press conference, they are left with the inability to say yes.

To Republicans, the deficit is less important than no new taxes. It turns out that for them taxes trump everything. It used to be that Pentagon spending was sacrosanct for Republicans: how could we possibly endanger our national security? Well, not anymore: when push comes to shove they would rather reduce our military budget than raise a dime in new taxes. The logic gets fuzzy when it comes to agriculture subsidies and the like. In their minds, taking these away without adding subsidies somewhere else is a tax hike. Thus spake Grover Norquist. But cutting Pentagon spending in general, even though there is a huge defense community that depends on federal spending, is apparently okay if it avoids a tax hike.

The debt ceiling is fungible as well. Republicans are not opposed to raising the debt ceiling, but only if there are no new taxes and “savings” by cutting expenditures exceeds the amount by which the debt ceiling is raised. It is also fine to not pay our bills, bring the economy into depression, leave grandma without her social security check and raise our long-term borrowing costs rather than raise a single dime in new taxes.

One can arguably say that Republicans are crazy, but one cannot fault them for inconsistency. They mean what they say and they say what they mean unless, and this is a very big unless, they can have a sudden change of heart or Speaker Boehner can convince enough House Democrats and non-Tea Party Republicans to go for another deal.

So far Republicans have been remarkably tone deaf to their corporate masters, who are now telling them, “Okay, enough is enough. Time to sober up and compromise now.” Too bad these same corporate masters were not working to elect establishment Republicans rather than Tea Party Republicans last year. While they achieved their desire for a majority of Republicans in the House, it came at the expense of political accommodation, hitherto a necessary skill when there is divided government.

Yet, there is a power stronger than even Grover Norquist that Republicans have foolishly ignored until now, but they will discover on or around August 3rd if the debt ceiling is not raised. It is the power of senior citizens who depend on social security but who will not get it. It is the power of sixty million angry and desperate phone calls from hot-tempered grannies and gramps who, if they are mobile, will also be picketing outside their representative’s offices. You really don’t want to rile up these folks, because they were the ones who voted you into office, but they did so on the condition that you would not mess with their junk.

Politically, letting Republicans push us into default probably would help rather than hurt the president, providing it can be shown that he did everything possible to prevent a default. Given that the Senate has already rejected the House’s plan, this has already been demonstrated. The economic effect of default would likely be catastrophic, but the political effect would be to throw the Tea Party out in 2012, and likely lead to the demise of the Republican Party brand.

Still, there has to be one adult left in the room. If I were President Obama, and if push came to shove I would say that the 14th Amendment gives me the right to extend the debt ceiling unilaterally to cover all debts covered by law. I would also cross my fingers and hope that at the 11th hour that there were enough worthy creditors willing to loan us money to avoid default. I expect he has his lawyers all over the problem. That is his trump card that he will be forced to pull out only if all else fails.

The Thinker

The Internet is getting too smart

I don’t know if you have had the same experience I have had trolling around the Internet. No matter where I go, the same targeted ads follow me.

From the perspective of web advertisers and sellers this is good news. Why serve me useless ads for places like Popeye’s Chicken when instead they can target me with ads for open source support from OpenLogic? OpenLogic is one of a number of companies that provide support for open source software. It’s a pretty obscure field, which means if I am to get targeted for their ads someone knows a whole lot about me.

For you see, I do happen to know a bit about OpenLogic. One day at work I was so disgruntled with the price increases that Oracle wanted to support its MySQL product that I went hunting for cheaper alternatives. MySQL is a database used everywhere, but mostly on the Internet. It powers most major Internet websites including the Google search engine and photo sites like Flickr. MySQL has gone through a series of acquisitions over the years, first by Sun, and now Oracle, which acquired Sun. It’s pretty much a given that when Oracle acquires a product, it raises prices by about a third, and that’s what I was seeing for Oracle support for MySQL. Larry Ellison needs more yachts. Yes, there is “competition” for MySQL support but most of these vendors are simply reselling support that really comes from Oracle, which means their prices closely match Oracle’s prices. OpenLogic was one of the exceptions, provided we installed a community edition of MySQL. It looked like if we went with OpenLogic we could trim our support costs for MySQL by half. Good deal.

In the last month or so I have seen OpenLogic web ads pretty much everywhere I go on the Internet. It’s not a big enough company to target users indiscriminately. Most people have no idea what open source software is, and if they do they probably aren’t someone who might have authority to buy or recommend it, as I have. But clearly somewhere on the web there is some firm or firms keeping track of this stuff. It doesn’t seem to matter whether I am at work or at home on my personal computer. I can be on the road as well. OpenLogic ads will follow me everywhere. Frankly, it creeps me out. I don’t want the Internet to know this much about me. I want to turn this off. I want anonymity again when I surf the web.

What worries me more is that if the commercial world can piece this together about me, perhaps Big Brother is doing the same as well. Maybe we are all being monitored by the NSA or some other government agencies, maybe when by law we should not be. Who can say? The Patriot Act has been extended way beyond its planned uses, and both the Bush and Obama Administrations think it gives them carte blanche to snoop around on the Internet and put together electronic dossiers on potential terrorists, which theoretically could be any of us. I have a feeling that my NSA file is already much larger than any FBI file accumulated against famous people like Martin Luther King.

I can live in denial about potential government snooping of my private life, but corporations clearly know way too much about me, including stuff I have not divulged online. I am seeing ads for Three Musketeers candy bar (“Now with more chocolate”) most places I go as well. Someone apparently knows I buy a bar once a week or so. When I do, it’s usually in the snack bar at work. I pay cash. Yet the Internet seems to know somehow because I see the Three Musketeers ads served nearly as much as the OpenLogic ads.

It used to be that if you felt paranoid about your online privacy you would go into your web browser and remove all your persistent cookies. Web sites would lose associations with you. Apparently, that is no longer the case. Web cookies are so old fashioned. As best I can figure your internet protocol (IP) address is being tracked and matched in real time against targeted ads, and probably associated with your name and buying habits. This means that removing cookies offers little privacy protection. I am really disturbed though when I find that some company is relating my work IP address with my personal IP address. This must be happening; otherwise I would not see so many OpenLogic ads when I surf from home.

The Internet also knows I am an old fart. Well, not that old. I live in denial at age 54. But it knows that old farts like me want QWERTY keyboards. So I am being targeted with ads for cricKet smartphones because, presumably, it also knows that I don’t yet own a smartphone. And hey, they have QWERTY keyboards for us old farts! I never mentioned online anywhere that I prefer QWERTY keyboards (well, until now) but someone has figured it out, or has figured out I was likely to want one, being an old fart. I embarrass myself trying to type text messages on my cell phone. It can take minutes. Gimme a keyboard, dammit!

Meanwhile, United Airlines is also targeting me, tempting me with flight deals that don’t seem much of a bargain. This is presumably because I am in their frequent flier club, if flying United three to six times a year for business makes you a frequent flier. Jetblue is tempting me as well, perhaps because I gave them a positive review, but also because I bought some tickets from them online recently. Doubtless I am hardly unique and I bet you too are puzzled by these highly targeted ads as well.

The thing that bugs me is that they don’t pay a toll. Oh, I am sure sites like Google charge a toll, but I don’t get any money from it. I’d like to put up a tollbooth on my Internet experience which basically would say “If you want to serve me a targeted web ad, pay up buddy!” I know there are browser Add Ons like Ad-Block that do a decent job of killing most ads, but I have found them annoying because they aren’t one hundred percent effective. I’d like advertisers to bid for my attention. I figure if I charged only a penny per targeted ad per day, I could make between two and five dollars a day. Can someone write software like this? I’d buy it. Maybe I will write it when I retire. I figure at my age and income level, I should be a valuable advertising target for someone. Just why give away the store?

There are anonymizer services out there that would make my web browsing experience less personalized, but you have to pay for anonymity. Running everything through a proxy would also make content appear more slowly. I realize Internet privacy is something of an illusion, but it feels like it has gone way too far in the wrong direction. I want to reclaim some private space online, but it seems impossible at this point.

To start, it would be nice to get rid of all the ads for OpenLogic, Three Musketeers, various airlines and other sites, but I have a feeling there are other targeted ads in the queue waiting for me if I succeeded. It seems that as part of the price to pay for being an online denizen I will have to get used to being watched. I wish it were otherwise.

The Thinker

Real Life 101, Lesson 16: Some random suggestions

This is the sixteenth in an indeterminate series of entries that provides my “real world” lessons to young adults. It is my conviction that these lessons are rarely taught either at home or in the schools. For those who did not get them growing up you can get them from me for free. This is part of my way of giving back to the universe on the occasion of my 50th birthday.

It’s been a while since I wrote a “Real Life” lesson for young adults. Mostly I believe I have mined the topic, so I suspect there are few posts left in this series. Yet there is still some vein left. Moreover, the series still gets regular hits. Not every post in the series is read every day. At best only a handful are read on a particular day, but it adds up over time. Presumably the series is of use to some people, which I find gratifying.

Most of adult life is learned through living it. Yet I do have a few more suggestions for you to consider as you transition into adulthood that should prove useful.

Read religiously. Reading keeps your mind spry, stimulates new thoughts, reduces boredom and often facilitates rational engagement with the world. It can also be tremendously enjoyable and insightful. Try to always keep a book close to you. Whatever I am reading is usually sitting next to the toilet, because this is a perfect opportunity to engage the mind. You can certainly read online, but most online content is ephemeral. It’s great to get news, weather and sports online, but it is likely that nothing on or similar sites really means anything, because you will purge it within a few days at best. So read mostly books, either paper or electronic, but also quality old fashioned newspaper and magazines. What is so special about a book? It is (generally) structured, edited, thoughtful, focused and comprehensive, as well as well written. This is hard to find online except, maybe, on sites like this one. Get recommendations from friends and don’t be afraid to read outside your comfort zone. You will often get the most insight and personal growth from books you would not normally read.

Listen religiously as well. Listening is a lost art and I will not claim to be an expert in it. Like reading a book, if you have the opportunity to listen, try to make it worth your time, and when someone is sharing something heartfelt, listen compassionately. See if you can paraphrase it either aloud (people like to know they have been listened to) or paraphrase it silently to yourself, so it will carry some weight. If you find yourself driving, skip the pop rock station and tune in NPR or a local news station instead. Keep a stack of audiobooks in your car. You can borrow them for free at your local public library.

Give your mind time to wander. Your mind needs time to wander. This is done by turning off distractions like NPR, not all the time, but periodically while you are driving, or leaving the radio off while you do the dishes. Your brain needs to digest and make inferences about what it has learned. I find that I am most creative and get the best ideas when I deliberately tune out life’s distractions for a spell. Often your brain will find solutions to some of your toughest challenges during such times. Driving is a good time not just to listen to an audiobook, but also to let your mind wander to nothing but the background hum of road noise.

If it sounds ridiculous, it is. We live in modern times where arguably insane and crazy people are getting much of the airtime. Instead, choose to be reality-based, not because it is fun, but because you are much more likely to survive if you choose reality. Here are just some of the bat-shit crazy ideas going around at the moment.

  • Claim: Climate change is not happening.
  • Answer: On average, every year is hotter than the year before it. Are you saying all our thermometers are in error or that all meteorologists are engaged in a massive conspiracy to falsify temperature data?
  • Claim: Businesses create jobs.
  • Answer: When people have more money and use it to buy more things, this stimulates demand. Businesses hire people to keep up with economic demand.
  • Claim: Smaller government and lower taxes creates economic growth.
  • Answer: California has tried this approach for decades yet has gone from a state that had one of the best economies to one of the worst economies. They are letting people out of prison early because they can’t afford to keep them there, for crying out loud! Maybe it happens sometime, but it’s not a silver bullet.
  • Claim: Students don’t learn because of bad teachers.
  • Answer: While there are some bad teachers out there, students choose to learn or not to learn. It is up to them to engage, which can be hard to do when there are problems at home, your neighborhood is rife with gang violence, you come from a single parent household and you can barely afford to eat, let alone afford nutritious food. Maybe serving students breakfast, lunch and a snack while at school, plus making sure they get more exercise while at school will do more to help children learn is the best way to help them learn. Safe neighborhoods would help too.

Be brave and when someone speaks nonsense, speak the truth instead. We only wallow in ignorance because we allow it to go unchallenged.

Do your professional reading. Don’t let your skills atrophy! Stay engaged in your career. Take continuing education courses. (You may be required to do so anyhow.) Consider a certificate from a local college. Subscribe to a couple of trade magazines. In many cases, they are free. As life is about change, the same is true with your profession. I bet that even garbage haulers have journals on the latest in waste management techniques. Doing so helps distinguish you from others in the field and makes you less likely to suffer career misfortunes and, if you do, enhances the likelihood of a quick recovery. In my case, I read IEEE Computer every month, as well as belong to the IEEE itself. I also read some of the most useful information technology websites, and subscribes to RSS feeds for the sources I most respect. It is time well spent, and it keeps me engaged in my career. It’s not coincidence that it’s been 23 years since I had a bout of unemployment. Hint: trade journals make excellent bathroom reading material.

The Thinker

Google’s secret sauce revealed by Google+

It’s no particular secret that I hate Facebook. My loathing of it has not been enough to keep me off it, since I have a couple of friends that I would hardly ever hear from if it were not for Facebook. Surely, I thought, someone could write something better and more intelligent.

Google is giving it the old college try, actually a second try. Google Buzz was a first bumbling attempt, and is still around, but hardly anyone uses it. This newest attempt called Google+ is rightly perceived as sort of sexy. Facebook won market share surreptitiously but smartly, mainly by marketing to a high-end clientele. If you saw The Social Network you know it was designed to be an exclusive club in cyberspace for those attending Harvard University, then later slowly branched out to other Ivy League schools. It grew like kudzu, slowly at first, but steadily until before we knew it, it was pervasive.

I don’t know exactly how Google chose who would use Google+, or G+ as others and I are starting to call it (it’s so much shorter). But I suspect they looked at the Facebook model, ran some sort of algorithm that figured out who their most social Gmail users were, assigned them a “cool” rating and invited them to try G+ out. Being social of course they quickly invited their friends. I figure that’s how I got invited. (Right now, don’t assume you can just sign up. You need a sponsor.) My friend Renee is by far the most prolific poster I have among my Facebook friends and she has a Gmail account. So I wasn’t surprised that she got an early invitation and she quickly extended it to me. I have spent the last twenty-four hours or so dabbling in the G+ universe.

Yes, I do like it better than Facebook, which would not have been difficult. First, I admire Google as a company. Second, like me, Google obviously spent a lot of time pondering Facebook’s obvious and massive deficiencies, like its baffling user interface, and figured how to do it one better while looking sort of like it.

G+ Circles are one example. Circles are merely collections of friends or people that share a common interest with you. Facebook does have groups, but you have to navigate to them, redrawing your screen in the process. With Circles, Web 2.0 technology ensures that the screen stays the same, but the content changes. It’s much less jarring. Moreover, Facebook groups contain people you don’t necessarily want to interact with. Once you use a G+ Circle, you wonder how Facebook missed something so obvious.

It’s ridiculously easy to create and populate circles. Facebook will suggest friends based on your friend’s friends, the email services you choose to let it peruse and information you put in your profile. That’s a lot of hassle. Many of us in the Google world already have GMail, so there is nothing much for Google to do as far as suggesting friends. Doubtless it just figures out whom you are emailing and ranks them by how often you converse with them. Just drag their icon into the circle you want. That’s pretty much it. If they are not already in the G+ hive, apparently it can send your G+ posts to them via email. It’s unclear to me as a neophyte whether it does this automatically or whether you have to authorize it. I hope it’s the latter.

G+ is a beta product, so it will doubtless morph with features as it grows. I have yet to try most of its ancillary features, but most like Hangouts and Chats sound useful. Its main value appears to be as a key component of the amorphous but meaningful Google experience. For example, I can see that over time G+ will make email something that happens in the background. When necessary, communications will go out via Gmail, but since most of the people you contact will also be in G+, or will get email notifications of conversations through G+, the whole email To-From-Subject-Message thing becomes less relevant. Rather you just find the person in the circle of interest and send them a note. Google handles all the details. Email addresses become unessential physical details that Google handles transparently for you.

Google's application menu

Google's application menu

It’s really that grey bar on the top of your browser screen that distinguishes G+ from Facebook. Facebook had some idea what Google was up to because they too are trying to integrate email inside of Facebook, making Facebook social networking and email one common and seamless experience. But Google has all these other products: a slick calendar, an easy to use Reader for newsfeeds, Google Docs for documents and spreadsheets, its easy to use Picasa photo album not to mention its still top-notch search engine. Facebook cannot begin to compete with all these services Google has had around and have been maturing for years.

Moreover, as more and more of your personal stuff exists within the Google cloud, thinking about where you store all your stuff becomes so 21st century. It’s just out there when you need it – stop worrying about it and just assume it’s always there and instantly avaiable. For the optimal experience, of course, use Google Chrome as your browser. Or, if you are mobile, use an Android-based smartphone, although Apple’s iOS will work as well. Chrome and Android become presentation portals for all the Internet stuff that’s important to you. All those backend interaction portals, like G+, become optimized but sophisticated tools to make your interaction with the web as meaningful and simple as possible. There is all this plus the open Internet. You can still get to any place on the web you need to go. Moreover, doubtless there is an app, if not hundreds of apps that will let you do peculiar but necessary stuff on the Internet. For example, you may need to access that remote spreadsheet at work. Or if like me you are in the water monitoring business, you may want to check on water levels on your favorite local river. Hey, there’s an app for that.

G+ is an attempt, not so much to kill Facebook, as it is to let Google wrap its benevolent arms for you around your whole electronic world. We all get things done in the real world through real people, so interacting with them and exchanging information with them in as seamless and as effortless a way as possible is something we all want. Effortlessness is enhanced through G+ Circles, because there are groups you are very tight with and others less so that you can peruse when time allows. That is the meaning of G+, and is why both Facebook and Microsoft should be very afraid. The gentle giant from Mountain View, California is likely to succeed in bringing us the enfolding Internet, and G+ is its secret sauce designed to seal the deal.

The Thinker

Review: Gladiator (2000)

Has it really been eleven years since the movie Gladiator was in theaters? The movie won an Oscar for Best Picture in 2001, and Russell Crowe’s Best Actor award cemented him as a top tier actor. Gladiator is one of those movies I have been meaning to see because everyone said it was such a good movie. Yet I punted, in part because I heard the violence was excessive and because my spouse had no interest in seeing it. Since my wife was on the other coast over the weekend, I knew the time had come to see it at last.

The violence turned out to be not as bad as I feared, which is good, because I have a weak stomach. This surprised me because being a gladiator is an incredibly bloody job, not to mention typically a short lived profession. If you haven’t seen the movie then it won’t be a surprise when lots of people die, mostly gladiators and Germans, some in ghastly ways. But it rarely happens in ways where guts are spewed all over the ground or dismembered and twitching limbs make you wish your seat came with a barf bag. It’s grisly enough and if at times you find yourself thinking it could not have been that bad, then you need to read more history books.

Director Ridley Scott has something of a talent for directing ancient battle scenes, because not only did he direct Gladiator but more recently he also directed Robin Hood, also starring Russell Crowe as a muscled warrior. Robin Hood is just a common soldier. In Gladiator, Russell Crowe gets to play Maximus, a Roman general who also happens to be close to emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris) and his comely daughter Lucilla (Connie Nielsen). Maximus is a dutiful general but having defeated the Germans in a bloody but decisive battle terrifically rendered at the start of the movie, he simply wants to return home, make love to his wife and pal around with his son.

Unfortunately, the emperor is nearby after the battle is won, as is his son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), who wants to assume his throne. Marcus Aurelius, however, proves to be a secret Republican, as in someone who believes in the Roman Republic, and quietly tells Maximus he is to be his successor, but just long enough to return the Senate to power. To say the least, the politically unambitious Maximus is surprised, but his surprise takes a different direction when shortly after the emperor conveys his intentions to Commodus, his son decides a little patricide is in order and wrings his father’s neck. This sort of leaves Commodus as the new emperor, but also makes it imperative that the faithful and loyal Maximus be murdered. Maximus is wildly popular with his men and Commodus realizes that he could wield great loyalty if his father’s wishes were carried out.

Needless to say, Maximus escapes death, but just barely. He quickly realizes that his family is likely in danger, and gets back to Spain as fast as he can. However, he is not fast enough to save them, or elude an African slaver. It’s quite a fall. He is quickly sold as a gladiator for some quick cash. He proves adept at the art of slaying in arenas, which comes naturally after having led so many battles. He and a fellow black gladiator Juba (Djimon Hounsou) beat the odds and survive while men die around them. Both eventually are sent to fight in the games in Rome, and arrive with their owner Proximo (Oliver Reed), a former gladiator himself who managed to buy his freedom and who longs to return in glory to fights in Rome’s massive coliseum. The new emperor Commodus promotes these bloody contests to try to win affection from a populace indifferent to him. He hopes that by winning the crowd he will also keep the Roman Senate at bay, where powerful senators like Gracchus (Derek Jacobi) want him dead and the Senate in charge.

Gladiator is a fine movie with wonderful acting, special effects and has a feeling of authenticity about the ancient Roman Empire that would be delightful except it is so faithfully harsh to the time. In short, it is a fine movie, yet not without its flaws, and the flaws are such that I probably would have disqualified it as a best picture candidate.

Gladiator’s biggest problem is its wholly implausible plot. Yes, I can sort of accept that Maximus missed his chance to be a surprise emperor of Rome. From there the incredulity factor reaches surreal and finally unacceptable levels, to where you just have to surrender to its craziness. It’s easy to accept Maximus’s family dying at the hands of Roman soldiers; this was a fact of life for the politically vanquished in that time. It’s easy to believe that if he survived, Maximus would have been sold into slavery. This was an age where slaves probably outnumbered free men. It is not easy to believe that Maximus, by then something of an older man, would survive in the very lethal world of gladiators. The whole thing falls apart when he makes it to Rome; he proves successful in the coliseum, comes to the personal attention of the emperor, is unmasked and soon has the Roman legions lining up behind him for a little coup d’état. The ending is, frankly, ridiculous. I won’t spoil it for you. In fact, Commodus was a victim of a conspiracy that kept his reign short, but his downfall was much more pedestrian than the fanciful and frankly incredulous way he meets his end in this movie.

Still, it is hard to be too upset about a movie otherwise rendered so well. So this movie is best viewed with a biased and sentimental heart. Disconnect the logical part of your brain for the duration.

3.4 on my four-point scale.

Rating: ★★★½ 

The Thinker

If I was the president

Gah! The amount of disinformation going on about the debt ceiling, the budget deficit and the economy continues to astound me. That so much of it is sticking goes to prove that money can buy pretty much anything. The oligarchy is clearly in charge, which is why closing loopholes for people who own private jets is viewed as anathema by the Republic Party. We’re talking freakin’ corporate jets, jets that cost tens of millions of dollars at least. Chances are if you or your corporation own one or more corporate jets, you are beyond rich. You are filthy rich and the last thing you need is yet another tax break aimed at your jet. It’s amazing Republicans aren’t laughed out of the room when they try to defend these and other outrageous tax breaks.

It’s probably a good thing I am not president right now because here is what I would say to Republicans: I dare you not to extend the debt ceiling. In fact, I double dare you. If you are anxious to end your party in one fell swoop, and make it as irrelevant as the Whigs, go right ahead. It’s not like we don’t already have a budget passed into law. You have already agreed how much we can spend through the end of the fiscal year but you won’t even pony up the money to pay for that? What does “law” mean to you? Is it a recommendation or something binding on the country? In any event, if we have another fiscal calamity because your party would not extend the debt ceiling just to cover the spending we already signed into law, your party will go straight over the cliff in 2012. It would be nice if the Senate could start first, but the constitution requires all spending bills originate in the House. The Senate could easily pass an extension of the debt ceiling under budget reconciliation rules. So go right ahead, Republican Party. Die by putting principle before pragmatism. The price may be horrendous to our livelihoods and economy, but at least the cancer of your party will be gone and saner heads can rule again.

Furthermore, I would not sign any omnibus spending bill into law until every current lawmaker who voted for the Medicare Part D legislation, the Bush tax cuts and two wars on borrowed money first said they were sorry and that they regretted their decision in writing. You cannot have it both ways. You cannot cause the problem in the first place and then refuse to raise taxes to address the problem you created. It’s one thing to say “I’m sorry”, it’s another to follow through with an act of contrition. I am interested in deeds, not words. Now is the time to pay for your mistakes not by just admitting they were wrong but helping us get out of them. You have to undo your mistakes. You must swallow hard and let the Bush tax cuts expire. You must agree to sizeable defense cuts because there is no way to be fiscally solvent otherwise.

And Democrats, you are not scot-free either. Medicare and Medicaid are a mess. They are definitely more efficient than private health insurance, but they cost way too much and Medicare in particular is riddled with incentives to cheat. It needs fundamental changes, not vouchers. It can be fixed by adopting proven best practices in other similar health care systems across the globe. Get to work.

And America, you don’t get off scot-free either. You are a mess and you need to shape up. Seniors, since you are on Medicare, you need to get annual physicals and follow your primary care physician’s guidance because in general you weigh too much, eat the wrong crap and don’t exercise, and this is costing the nation a fortune in outpatient and hospital care. If you miss the benchmarks in your physician’s action plan, you must pay a premium because it is people like you, being either stupid, or oblivious, who are driving up costs. You’re old enough to know that life is not free. If you want health care in retirement, you must do your part to restrain costs.

Doctors, you don’t get exempted either. You have to practice better medicine and work more efficiently. You have to stop billing for all these unnecessary tests and submit bills only when you have achieved an effective outcome. Yes, I know many of you are still paying off your loans from medical school. Deal with it. You have plenty of company.

Here’s some of our new rules of governing:

  • Unless you are severely disabled or destitute, you must contribute part of your income to the betterment of society. That means you must pay some percentage of your income in taxes.
  • Every single program in the federal government must meet goals written into its legislation and terminate after five years if they have not achieved those goals. We will empower the Government Accountability Office to find out whether the goals were met for the agreed upon budget. If it’s not working as planned and for the agreed upon cost, it’s gone. No more open-ended legislation is allowed. There must be a funding mechanism attached to all new spending, and it must be certified as reasonable by the Congressional Budget Office before it can be accepted as legislation.
  • We will borrow money to pay for war only, but we will also make it part of the Department of Defense’s mission to avoid wars in the first place. The agency will work intimately with the Department of State to ensure we avoid as many wars as possible. Wars are costly. Our military plans must include plans to limit the scope of a war as tightly as possible, and withdraw our forces as fast as possible.
  • Once we achieve a balanced budget, at least five percent of revenues annually will be dedicated to paying down our budget deficit.
  • We will not be afraid to raise taxes when needed. We need to repair the bridges and highways we got that are crumbling. Transportation taxes must be raised. Coincidentally, we will stimulate the economy and the middle class in a major way. This probably means increasing the federal tax on gas to at least fifty cents a gallon. Yes, it will hurt in the short term but it’s money that will be spent right here in America and will encourage more fuel efficient transportation.
  • No more partisan nonsense is allowed. Taxes are not evil. They are the cost of civilization. People who can afford to pay more should, because their wealth is due largely to those lower than them on the income scale.

I believe that this is what we need to make our country great again. President Obama, I hope you are listening.

The Thinker

Second Viewing: Forbidden Planet (1956)

I know I saw Forbidden Planet many years ago and I vaguely recall it was sort of interesting. There must have been more compelling science fiction film options at the time, because it did not make much of an impression. My wife always admired the film, so when it showed up at my warehouse superstore in Blu-ray format for $12.99 I decided to buy it on impulse. Shown in theaters at a time when I was gestating in my mother’s womb, I knew it could not be that good. And yet seeing it again after so many years, particularly in HD, brought renewed appreciation for a film that is justifiably a classic.

Forbidden Planet was at least a decade ahead of its time. It was a groundbreaking film that changed the genre. Watching the movie as a middle-aged man, I could see that so many of the science fiction movies and TV shows that followed it were in some ways imperfect clones of Forbidden Planet. Lots of science fiction authors had tackled travel to distant suns, but Forbidden Planet was the first to do it in a way that looked plausible instead of cheap. Fifty-five years later when you see Forbidden Planet with modern eyes you have to marvel at how good it is.

In fact, about the only thing that disappoints in the movie is the acting, which is Grade B. While disappointing, it is not unexpected. Old movies are, well, old. Expectations for actors, most of who were on contract with a studio, were minimal. Hollywood was populated by B actors. It was a time when actors mostly didn’t bother to act, perhaps because in the 1950s we wanted our characters to be stereotypes instead of real people. In Forbidden Planet we get Walter Pidgeon as Dr. Edward Mobius, the slinky Anne Francis as his daughter Alta and the impossibly young Leslie Nielsen as Commander J.J. Adams (“Skipper”, as they usually call him) of the United Planets Cruiser C57-D, basically a large flying saucer. None of these leads, or the actors portraying its crew, does much in the way of good acting.

Once you get over this deficiency, you quickly realize that Forbidden Planet is an interesting movie in spite of this. Right off the bat you know Gene Roddenberry (creator of Star Trek) must have seen the movie, because the United Planets sounds suspiciously similar to the United Federation of Planets, because they have Hyper Drive which must have been Warp Drive, version 1.0, and because they have these hyper drive decelerator platforms, which at least look a lot like a transporter platform when in use. The producers of Lost in Space obviously modeled their robot on Robby, the robot in this movie, except frankly Robby is a lot more interesting and at least has a name.

The plot, to check up on the crew of Altair IV, a spacecraft that landed there twenty years earlier and had not been heard from, hardly matters. What we get instead is the first plausible portrayal on screen of life on another planet. We also get special effects that are actually special and absolutely amazing for its time. Today they would not be worth mentioning, but in 1956 showing “blasters” delivering force rays, or depicting a planet with multiple moons in the sky, or creating an invisible monster literally from the id outlined by a force field was amazing stuff. In fact, all these years later, it’s still admirable and a bit frightening. This was made in an era where the height of technology was the vacuum tube. Yet they created a plausible robot, a world of a vanished but highly advanced alien species (“The Krell”) as well as broke a few social taboos. No, there were no women on this spaceship, just horny guys too long alone with each other. You have to assume the Catholic Church thought the movie was sinful, for Morbius’ nineteen year old daughter Alta played by Anne Francis spends much of the movie dressed in a very high miniskirt that looks more like a negligee than a dress. Perhaps Forbidden Planet invented the miniskirt. Unquestionably, Anne Francis looks great in one.

The plot matters little except that it is a thinking person’s movie, genuine science fiction instead of cowboy-western science fiction that predominates the genre. In the Blu-Ray format, it is stunning. It is hard to believe the movie is older than I am. Pull back its science fiction veneer, however, and readers of classic literature will discover they have seen this plot before, at least if they read William Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

In short, even given its faults, Forbidden Planet was a landmark film of its day, a film that largely defined science fiction on film, both classy and expensive. It is one of two movies that became pillars of early science fiction, with the 1951 movie The Day the Earth Stood Still being the other (and earlier) film.

However, The Day the Earth Stood Still was an earth-bound movie. Forbidden Planet reached for the stars, found them and delivered them to us on the screen, arguably the first movie to do it right. I am glad I gave the movie a second chance, because it was much more than I remembered.

The Thinker

Review: Next to Normal at the Kennedy Center

There were dueling musicals playing Saturday night at the Kennedy Center. We found ourselves in the Eisenhower Theater watching the rock musical Next to Normal, the story of a woman caught in bipolar disorder. Right next-door in the Opera House was the musical Wicked, which we had caught in Chicago way back in 2005, is still going strong and based on people hanging outside the theater, is still attracting its share of devoted groupies.

It would be hard to put two stranger musicals side by side. Wicked is a glitzy but largely empty-headed musical fantasy on the world of Oz with a mixture of pretty good to great music, a so-so story, lots of costumes and numerous scene changes. On the other hand, Next to Normal is a modest musical with just one set (on three levels), a small cast, zero special effects and is anchored in the present day. Wicked is a fun musical; Next to Normal is a downer of a musical and, if you have dealt with mental illness in your family, it will also feel uncomfortably familiar. Yet surprisingly, Next to Normal emerged from off Broadway, made a previous appearance here in Washington at Arena Stage, went on Broadway, won a number of Tony Awards and is now on tour. Its success may be due in part to the crushing number of people and families struggling with mental illness.

No question about it, Diana Goodman is a mess of a woman. Life for her is largely dysfunctional. Some part of her seems like a normal housewife until she does strange or harmful things like making sandwiches on the floor or deciding to slice her wrists. Such as it is, her life involves taking pills and talking to psychiatrists. “Success” is achieved when she is so medicated she feels almost nothing. Yet she realizes that her medicated world is a false world, and sings as much in one of the songs, I Miss the Mountains. Her mental illness is so consuming that it squeezes all other life out of her small family’s existence.

Her dutiful husband Dan (Asa Somers) spends his life closely monitoring his psychotic wife, and hopes for days or weeks of something resembling normal (It’s Gonna Be Good). Only there is no normal in this house. Diana is like a bull in a china shop, and has no idea of the emotional devastation she is inflicting on her husband or her estranged daughter Natalie (Emma Hunton). Natalie, an overachieving high school student, is devastated by her mother’s emotional absence from her life. Her father cannot do much to fill the gap. He is too busy playing the role of dutiful caregiver to Diana. It’s a role that leaves him emotionally devastated too, as well as exhausted and suffering from something akin to post traumatic stress disorder. He is always on edge, always trying to keep his family from imploding, and always wondering when his wife’s next crazy episode will arrive. It is hard not to sympathize with Dan, a truly nice guy who must live life keeping a stiff upper lip.

As the musical unfolds it is easy to see that Diana’s mental illness is catching. Natalie is pursued by Henry, who enjoys listening to her music and grows to love her, but not in a healthy way. Rather, Henry senses she is emotionally vulnerable, and like her father wants to play the role of catching her when she falls. Meanwhile, Natalie starts channeling her mother. An episode that puts her mother in the hospital pushes her over the edge, and she begins taking some of her mother’s medicines to try to escape her less than ideal reality. Overseeing everything is Gabe, the cause of Diana’s psychosis. Gabe was her son. The real Gabe died at eight months of an unseen intestinal blockage, but he lives on as a creature from the Id in Diana’s mind. It is the powerful image of Gabe, as a rebellious teenager (played by Curt Hansen), that symbolizes Diana’s desire to live life on her own terms. She wants to break free from the world of medications and psychiatrists, as long as she can feel again. Gabe is really something of the central character of the musical, usually onstage and providing commentary and temptation. The baby Gabe may have died long ago, but his projection lives on and pulls the whole family into his massive gravity well of pain and hurt.

Shrinks also play an important counterweight in the musical, as they fruitlessly try to move Diana into a place of healing. Even the best shrink in town, Dr. Madden (Jeremy Kushnier) finds he has his hands full with her, and eventually recommends electroconvulsive therapy, which has the effects of making her forget most of her past.

In our performance, Alice Ripley played Diana, who originated the part and won a Tony for her role. Presumably Ripley could sing better on stage than she does, because her raspy alto voice mirrors the pain within her character. Her voice was the only off note (but presumably a deliberate one) to a fast flowing, depressing yet riveting musical. While allegedly a rock musical, it doesn’t particularly sound like one. The music has songs that are definitely come out of rock, but others that sound more like pop or easy listening than rock. As with Rent (and this was directed by the same man who directed Rent, Michael Greif), the orchestra, such as it is can be found on the stage, almost characters themselves.

Looking around at the audience I got the sense that many were dealing with mental illness in their own lives. We know today that mental illness is a huge problem, so it would not surprise me if many of the mentally ill and/or their families found some identity and therapy in the musical.

It would be nice if the musical had a happy ending, and it does sort of resolve things, just not in a neat and tidy package. At least for a brief time the characters find a breathing space of sorts, and as the show’s title suggests, a place next to normal where something close to normality can be sampled.

This is obviously an adult themed show and not appropriate for small children. It is one of the few musicals to explore inner rather than outer worlds and in my mind a lot more meaningful than the fun but vapid production of Wicked next door.

(P.S. Also watch Garden State, a terrific movie, much more lighthearted but with a similar theme.)


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