Archive for December, 2011

The Thinker

Announcement: blog on vacation

Attention dear blog readers. I will be on vacation from December 30, 2011 through January 7, 2012. I will be on a cruise with my spouse, specifically this one.

The good news is there are likely to be a queue of posts when I return. I just don’t expect to be internet accessible during it.

We sail from New Orleans and plan to visit Jamaica, Grand Cayman Island and Cozumel, Mexico.

Thanks for reading the blog and have a safe and happy New Year.

The Thinker

Stepping through the retirement door

Should retirement be scary?

Presumably the answer is no, providing you have your ducks lined up. This generally includes having a decent pension (if you are lucky enough to have one), a well stocked 401-K, maybe an IRA or two and a house that is either paid off or close to being paid off. Ideally, you would retire on something like eighty percent (or more) of your pre-retirement income. Then it’s off to do what retired people are supposed to do, which is play golf and go on plenty of Elder Hostels.

The sad reality is that many Americans simply cannot afford to retire. Many others found that they have been thrust into an early and de-facto retirement. They are laid off and no one wants to hire them because they are fifty-plus and thus old. Maybe they got an involuntary retirement with a token “thank you for working for us” one time payment of $50,000. In any event, they are too young for Medicare (age 65), too young for social security (age 62), and too old to get any affordable health insurance. They are hoping they don’t have to move into a mobile home or, failing that, a cardboard box under the freeway.

Yet people still retire all the time, often before they would like to do so, but sometimes because their stars were properly aligned. I am eligible to retire next year a few months after I turn fifty-five. I always assumed that before I retired from my somewhat senior federal job that I would have some other job lined up. Playing golf does not appeal to me, but staying busy and productive does. One way to stay busy is not to retire from my federal career. The other way is to retire from a federal career I have known for thirty challenging years and start another one.

It’s a dilemma that should be a good one, but is one that for some reason fills me with trepidation. The reason I am considering it at all is because a full time faculty position is being created at the local community college, the same college I have taught at as an adjunct off and on for eleven years. They will be interviewing candidates in the spring and the new instructor will start in the fall. Presumably, I would have an excellent chance of getting the job. They already know me and know that I am a reliable commodity who knows the material. My credentials and experience would be difficult for other candidates to match, and since the job would pay about half what I make now, they will be unlikely to fill it with someone other than an eligible retiree like me. However, with my pension as a retiree, I could teach and maintain something like my current standard of living.

So accepting the job if it is offered should not be a hard decision. I would retire from one career and formally start the next. I wouldn’t feel the pressure to play golf or spend days sitting on park benches. I would stay gainfully employed, which is probably a good idea until the house is paid off. And I like teaching, at least a good part of the time, otherwise I would have not been doing it for so long.

But instead I feel this nervousness and trepidation. In fact, a whole host of feelings I did not expect are welling up inside me. I ask myself interminable questions. Like why should I leave a job I really like? It’s rewarding, pays great and my work has achieved some note. I do sometimes feel that I’ve contributed all that I can, so there is no compelling reason to hang around if other opportunities open up, like they are doing now.

Moreover, I have also learned that teaching is not all it’s cracked up to be. It’s a noble profession because you have to be a bit crazy to do it. Students are often lazy and apathetic, and some of them cheat. I caught two cheating in my last class and had to flunk them, which was not a pleasant experience. Many of the classes are quite elementary, hence not too interesting to teach. And yet, there are rewards. There are always a couple of interesting and talented students in a class. Occasionally, you can make a real difference with a student. Last semester I taught a thirty something man with ADHD. I was his first attempt at college after a failure long ago. He succeeded in my class, mostly due to his hard work, but also with my help and encouragement. I may prove a pivotal transformative figure in his life. That’s neat.

Yet I expect that teaching full time would be a different experience than teaching a class or two a year in the evenings.  There are a lot of aspects of teaching that are not much fun. Lesson plans. Grading homework. Discipline. Students who blow off classes and then expect you to bend over backwards for them. In short, the job would likely be more of a challenge than the one I already have, a lot more tedious and with murky rewards. Watching a student or two in a class rise to true excellence is rewarding, but more rewarding than the work of the team I am leading? How do I top my career with the great things we have already done together? It’s a career that really excites me: watching the promise of information technology being delivered in ways that make the world a better place. Users of our system send tracking information to Google Analytics, which I can monitor in a control panel. Today I marveled watching the real-time usage of our site in Google Analytics, which reported 350-450 active visitors at one time, with five or more web pages being sent every second. That’s an accomplishment, certainly not something I can claim credit for, but which I certainly orchestrated.

And yet any meaning from my job is something I alone ascribe to it. Retiring from my federal job would be closing a thirty-year door on my life, but another door would open, different but potentially more rewarding. One thing I am reasonably certain about: when the door closes on my federal career, it closes for good. I would step into a much different and more challenging world, one that may piss me off more than please me. One that may ultimately say to me: what the hell were you thinking?

And while I might close a door behind me, there would be tendrils from that past that would follow and affect the rest of my life. A pension is as good as gold, at least until Congress in a fit of austerity decides it doesn’t want to pay it, or decides to reduce it. If history is a guide, it won’t happen, but you never know. There are no certainties in life, not even from Uncle Sam. In any event, drawing a good salary today guarantees more security than the promise of a pension at half pay once out of it.

I’ll figure my way through this bittersweet dilemma. Life is about living and life is defined by change. Life may be offering me a new opportunity, meaningful in new ways but still meaningful. If offered the job, the real dilemma will be finding the courage to step through that door.

The Thinker

A study in sleep

Over the years, I’ve slept in some strange places. A year or so back, I spent an uncomfortable night in a sleeping bag behind a partition in a church sanctuary. Last Friday night found me trying and mostly failing to fall asleep in a comfortable bed in a bedroom wedged inside a modern office building.

It can be tough to fall asleep when you are wired head to foot with sensors (including sensors on your eyelids), there is a belt around your chest and waist and air pressure sniffers are slipped inside your nostrils. How are you supposed to turn over comfortably in bed when all those wires are tethered to a device on the side of the bed? How are you supposed to even sleep with a video camera always watching you?

It’s unnatural, but maybe it will improve my health. All I knew is that my sleep for the last few decades has felt very restless. The problem was one I assumed was familiar to most middle-aged men: the need to pee in the middle of the night. My bladder wakes me up more times a night than our daughter ever did when she was an infant. There wasn’t much I could do about that so I learned coping mechanisms. It typically took me an hour or more to fall asleep. If I woke around four or five in the morning, I could likely count on the rest of my sleep being restless as well.

In fact, I felt like I hardly slept at all except on weekends. I’d hear my wife doze off fifteen minutes or so after the lights went out while I just lay there in the dark hoping for an elusive knock out sort of sleep. Not true, my wife told me. I was often snoring shortly after going to bed. That’s impossible, I told her, because I hear you snoring and I am not asleep. No, you are snoring, she said, and moreover you need to get checked. Sometimes at night you stop breathing altogether, then resume breathing with a start.

That’s how I ended up at the Comprehensive Sleep Care Center in Chantilly, Virginia last Friday night. I needed to be wired up and monitored while I slept, or didn’t sleep, so a doctor of sleep medicine could determine what if anything was going on with me. The likely cause is a rather common condition, particularly among the middle aged, called sleep apnea. Sleep apnea is a potentially dangerous form of interrupted sleep characterized by abnormal breathing while sleeping. I have many of the classic symptoms including what I assumed was a natural condition of middle age: difficulty in staying awake in the afternoon, particularly in a conference rooms with bright overhead lights.

At any age you should be able to sleep well enough so you can get through the whole day without feeling sleepy. Granted, many Americans deliberately choose to deprive themselves of needed sleep. That was not my case. I usually spend eight hours a night in bed. I can only guess how much of that time is productive sleep. Lately, I guess it averages four to six hours a night.

In any event, I have a brother with sleep apnea, so with my wife’s prodding I reluctantly decided I should get tested, but punted until my annual physical. My primary care physician all too happily signed the referral form and within a couple weeks I found myself in a sleep lab mostly not sleeping. There is nothing natural about sleeping while tethered with dozens of wires. As unnatural as going to the bathroom in the middle of the night is, it’s even more unnatural when you have to summon help to do so, and carry your instrumentation with you.

I could not complain about the high platform bed, comfy mattress and pillows, but I could complain about my sleep study neighbors, one of who brought her mother with her. There was much nervous and frequently shrill laughing from the room next to me. I thought her mother would never leave and she would never shut up. The guy next to me was more polite. He dropped off right away and I soon heard his snores coming through the wall. Meanwhile, I lay there and tried desperately to sleep. Unsurprisingly, sleep seemed to elude me.

Sometime after midnight, feeling a bit desperate, I tried one of my recipes for insomnia. It doesn’t always work but it involves concentrating on a past memory and then concentrating on the random links my brain makes from it to other images. It must have worked for a few hours until around three a.m. when my ever-thoughtful bladder decided to wake me up. When I finally shuffled back to bed the trick would not work. Instead, my mind was counting the minutes until 5:30 a.m. when they woke you and sent you home.

After that interruption, I did not feel like I had slept at all, but the technician said I had, just not a deep sleep. He removed many sensors from my body, including some that snaked down my shirt and pants and attached to my legs. My scalp was covered in splotches of white sensor glue, glue the technician told me that would come out with a hot shower.

Shortly after 5:30 a.m. I was pulling out of my parking space and forcing extra vigilance on my drive home. The drive felt as surreal as the sleep study, with hardly a car on the road so early this Christmas Eve, but one perhaps insomniac runner dutifully running down the street. The cat greeted me on my arrival, but seemed puzzled as I headed to bed at 6 a.m. instead of coming out to greet him. I stumbled through a hot shower, and shortly thereafter crawled into my bed to the only real sleep I felt I got that night, which began right around dawn.

Tomorrow I get the verdict. It’s not hard to infer I have sleep apnea; the only question is to what degree and then what to do about it. Most likely I will be sleeping better soon, and won’t suffer the embarrassment of falling asleep during afternoon meetings. However, I will likely have to wear a CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) device while I sleep, which itself means a machine will be needed to push air into my mouth all night. It sounds uncomfortable, but is probably better than the alternative of doing nothing. While relatively rare, complications from sleep apnea can be dangerous.

The Thinker

Solving the medical forms hassle

Seven years ago, I suggested that the ubiquitous thumb drive should become our electronic wallet. You would simply plug it into the point of sale device, authorize the transaction (a PIN is acceptable, but a thumb scan would be better), and an electronic receipt would get stored on the device. The receipt could later be imported into your personal money management software, such as Quicken, for automatic categorization, giving you better insight into your spending.

Some years of experience using thumb drives regularly shows that it is not the ideal device for an electronic wallet, in part because the USB terminal can wear or tear, rendering the device useless. Today, a smart card might make more sense because it would fit in our wallet right where the credit and debit cards go. My point was that to be useful the device would show you your balance at a glance, and it could receive as well as send data. Today, the device could also be network aware, making secure connections to your bank periodically to get the latest balance. You might call it a smart cash card.

A few weeks back I had an annual physical. As is typical of someone fifty plus, I left with a stack of prescriptions and referrals. As a consequence, I have since been making my way to various specialists. Yesterday I visited an endocrinologist, who was examining some minor cysts in my thyroid. Naturally before I could see him I had to go through a daunting process of filling out four pages of forms, listing for the umpteenth time my long and tedious medical history. I am sure you have had the same experience many times. List all your medications and dosages. List all your surgeries. List current and past conditions that you have had, including hospitalizations. List your family’s medical history, parents and siblings. Provide an emergency contact. Oh, and don’t forget your name, address, phone numbers (home, cell and work), email address, date of birth, social security number, current employer, current employer’s address and phone number not to mention, of course, your almighty health care insurer, their phone number, your policy number and your group number.

As someone who works in information technology, filling out these forms repeatedly is an obvious problem that should just be solved. Yes, as part of the Affordable Care Act, health care providers are being nudged into electronic medical records. I can understand the reluctance of doctors’ offices to go there, given the voluminous information they collect and the chance of clerical errors. Still, much of the information is route and common. It could be provided by the patient in an electronic fashion very easily. All it needs is a law to make it happen.

This is a job for government, not to make such devices, but to set standards for them and to require health care providers to accept them. Such a government standards entity already exists:  the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Other agencies, probably the Department of Health and Human Services, through regulation could require health care providers to accept electronic data provided by the patient in lieu of filling out those awful and painful new patient forms.

Here is how it might work. Next time I visit a new doctor, I would take out my medical smart card. It would be more than an electronic wallet, but also have my medical history. I would wave the smart card over the card reader at the receptionist’s desk and it would ask for permission to transmit certain types of data. Ideally, it would show me on a screen all the information requested. I would be able to change it (in the process changing the data on the card, since it would be inaccurate) or blank out fields I don’t want to share. I would then give my permission to share the data using some sort of authorization mechanism. Ideally I would do this by pressing my thumb on a spot on the card. However, a PIN or retinal scan might be okay as well.

There are devices out there that get part of the way there. For example, MedicTag is one of a number of devices that puts your medical history on a USB drive that you wear at all times. The problem with devices like this is that there is no guarantee that your health care provider will even think to check for the device. Even if they can, there is no standard for encoding the information so that it can be easily read into a provider’s health care database yet stay secure. To make sure that the data can be read in an emergency, it is likely unencrypted. Worst of all, since most health care visits are not for emergencies, then routine trips would likely require you to fill out paper forms anyhow. Certain providers, principally emergency rooms and ambulance companies, would have permission to read your card without your authorization.

I would bet that most health care providers would be glad to install devices that could read structured medical information from these devices. They would quickly pay for themselves in productivity savings and accuracy of these data. Most health care providers already have a records management system, generally Medics Elite. These companies would find plenty of incentive to build software for point of presence terminals to collect the data.

I am sure that a smartphone could be configured to do this. It can already be your electronic wallet. That seems to be the thinking behind Google Wallet, but so far vendors have been lukewarm embracing the technology. Doubtless apps could be created that would comply with any NIST standards for sharing medical information. With cloud services now becoming standard, most of us would be glad to pay a reasonable fee to have our medical and other private information backed up in the cloud, in case we lose the smartphone. The real problem is that there is little in the way of standards for transferring frequent medical information, at least from patient to provider. This is why we need the benevolent hand of government. Once standards are in place and providers create interfaces, any number of vendors could compete to provide devices and apps to make this a reality. Just as many of us now have electronic boarding passes that are scanned off our cell phone, there is no reason why the same data could not be transmitted using an infrared or wireless connection, once authorization is granted.

As an aging human being who doubtless has many hundreds or thousands of doctors’ appointments ahead of him before I die, a device like this cannot come soon enough. After all, as you age you realize time is short, and you can save heaps of it not filling out redundant medical forms.

The Thinker

Review: Joyeux Noël (Merry Christmas) (2005)

It seems only non-Christians are allowed to escape the holiday season without enduring a Christmas movie. In spite of their appeal, this year you may find that you cannot stomach one more viewing of It’s a Wonderful Life or A Christmas Story. Instead, you might choose one of the more recent and oddball Christmas movies out there: Joyeux Noël (Merry Christmas).

The movie tells the strange but true story of combatants during World War One celebrating Christmas together in no man’s land. Much of World War One was fought in no man’s land, an occasionally shifting ribbon of disputed land between France and Germany stretching hundreds of miles. There were no Geneva conventions governing the conduct of war, at least not then. The enemies would lob things fair and foul at each other, from poison gas to tank shells to grenades to billions of bullets. Occasionally when soldiers crossed the trenches they fought the old fashioned way in hand-to-hand combat.

It is hard to imagine a more miserable existence than living moment to moment in trenches along the front. Aside from the frequent mayhem, there was also interminable boredom, bone numbing cold, filth, disease, bad food, wounds that were frequently fatal and sudden and random death. The French, Brits, Americans and Scots were saving the world from the Hun; the Germans were fighting for the glory of the Fatherland. Yet each side prayed to the same God, often using the same Latin words, while trying to annihilate the other side.

A piece of the front inside occupied France is held in all its ugliness by the French 26th Infantry, assisted by the Royal Scot Fusiliers. Facing them across the trenches is Germany’s 93rd Infantry. It’s a thoroughly ugly place, as you might expect, barren of most vegetation, cratered and with plenty of corpses in no man’s land. At least a cold and brutal winter keeps the bodies from decomposing.

Strangely, although prompted by their superiors to kill the enemy, soldiers kill more out of duty than desire. Palmer (Gary Lewis), a Scottish priest, seems to have not gotten the message that the only good German is a dead German. He is Catholic, in the universal sense of the world, and does not like his superior quoting Matthew saying Jesus wants them to slay their enemies.

When the guns and winds are quiet, noise carries over the trenches, including, as Yule approaches, common Christmas carols, spoken in different languages. Things become a bit surreal when the German soldiers deck the trenches with Christmas trees. On a cold Christmas Eve no one seems to have the will to fight. The Scots start off with Christmas tunes to the sound of bagpipes. About the same time, one of the German soldiers (a tenor) and his beautiful wife arrive on the German side, on a special visit to cheer up the troops. The soldier/tenor Nikolaus (Rolando Villazón) and his wife Anna (Diane Kruger) are moved by the sound of bagpipes. They are also moved to defect, feeling the futility of the war and desperately wanting to stay with each other.

An implicit ceasefire becomes more explicit when officers from all sides meet in no man’s land. The Scottish priest Palmer driven by a holy force also finds himself in no man’s land. Officers trade stories, and soon enlisted men are as well, openly fraternizing with each other. Nikolaus and Anna sing for both sides. Father Palmer holds an open air midnight mass. Enemies follow along in Latin.

This is a hard movie to pull off convincingly, but somehow director Christian Carion manages to do it. The front during World War One is rendered in impressive detail and accuracy. The characters, be they French, Scot or German, are convincingly portrayed and come complete with depth and quirks. It’s an odd movie not just in its subject, but in that unless you know English, French and German, you will need subtitles. For a few short hours in a part of the earth right next to hell, a surreal and holy space is opened up. Soldiers discover that their enemies are people largely like them.

This is a Christmas movie that works, in spite of the long odds against it: realistic, heartfelt and deeply moving, both before and after the pivotal scenes begin. It’s a hard movie to watch twice because it is so gripping and affecting, but worth the journey of the human soul to watch once. Keep a box of tissues handy.

3.4 points on my four-point scale.

Rating: ★★★½ 

The Thinker

Philanderers for president!

Are you a better person for being married only once? That’s what I was wondering today as I read this article in the Washington Post. Mitt Romney, currently polling second among Republicans in the run for the party’s presidential nomination, doesn’t have a string of broken marriages to point to. Gosh, he’s been married to the same woman for more than forty years! He likes to draw attention to the fact because it shows you just how much he believes in marriage. You might say he’s a marriage pro. First time up and he hits a home run. Thus, as your president, he’ll hit them all out of the park because his eye is keen and his stroke is true.

You can’t say the same thing about Newt Gingrich, currently the top choice in most polls of Republicans for the same nomination. Twice divorced, he is now on wife number three (Camilla), who he apparently bedded while still married to wife number two (Marianne). Marianne should have seen it coming though because Newt apparently bedded her while still married to wife number one (Jackie). All these are mistakes in Newt’s past that he candidly acknowledges and says he regrets. To show that he has had a change of heart, he has signed the National Organization for Marriage’s pledge that he will faithfully work for a constitutional amendment defining marriage nationally as the union between one man and one woman. Curiously, the pledge does not require him to be faithful to Camilla, which may be good for Newt given his track record. Not to worry, Newt has said pledged publicly that he will be faithful to her. If this were truly a concern of Camilla’s (and I have my doubts), I’d make him wear a chastity belt and keep the only key.

Anyhow, congratulations to Mitt and wife Ann and forty-two years of perfect fidelity! The great thing about Mitt is I can look at him and know he never cheated on Ann. This is in part because Mormons seem to have some sort of secret inoculation (I think it’s the Terminal Guilt Vaccine), but also because you can see it in Mitt’s eyes: he’s just not the philandering type. He’s just a simple and kind of goofy guy. If he were a horse, he’d insist he wear blinders. Mitt too has signed the NOM pledge, which suggests he wants the rest of us to wear blinders too. It’s just like those monkeys on Captain Kangaroo: hear no evil, speak no evil, and see no evil. It’s that simple folks, married folks. Except of course for the sinful and chronic philanderers like Newt Gingrich and countless other politicians who don’t measure up to his high moral stature.

Should you vote for Mitt because he is a faithful guy? That should be a strike in his favor if you are a conservative, because true conservatives want to go back as far as possible into the past and relive those glory days. And back in, say, the 18th century, divorce was simply unavailable in the United States. Back then you might as well have connected husband and wife together with a ball and chain. In any event, if found guilty of adultery it was likely a crime and, channeling Nathaniel Hawthorne, fallen women like Hester Prynne might be forced to go around with a big scarlet A on their bodices.

Even if you are a conservative, you might want to give the virtue of fidelity as a reason for voting for someone a second thought. Curiously, Newt did some of his best work as a conservative while cheating on Marianne. Working with Bill Clinton, another fellow philanderer (perhaps that’s why they got on so well), welfare benefits were fundamentally changed and the federal budget actually got balanced. Perhaps it was all that testosterone surging through him due to Camilla’s womanly charms, but he managed to affect change on a magnitude that even Saint Ronald Reagan could not pull off. Remember the episode “Mirror, Mirror” in the original Star Trek’s second season, where an alternate Captain Kirk keeps a convenient captain’s whore in his quarters? If I wanted to further conservative values and Newt became our next president, I’d be chipping in to get Newt a presidential concubine. She might do her best work underneath the desk in the Oval Office.

What amazing accomplishments can the faithful Mitt Romney claim as governor? Well, there was that Massachusetts health care plan, which Democrats modeled in the Affordable Care Act. Now, of course, conservatives revile the ACA for being allegedly socialist. More importantly, it’s reviled because Democrats passed it and that Black-Muslim-Kenyan-socialist-apostate President Obama signed it. In short, all that faithfulness was not only unhelpful to conservative causes; it actually was a detriment. It appears to have interfered with clear conservative thinking.

Curiously, chronic philanderers Newt Gingrich and Bill Clinton rate among our most productive politicians. Nice faithful guys like Mitt Romney get one term as governor. Even slimeballs like Rod Blagojevich, the former governor of Illinois recently sentenced to 14 years in a federal prison, got two terms as governor. Americans were generally peeved that Clinton was brought up on impeachment charges, and figuratively cried when he left office, giving him approval ratings in the sixties.

Of course, if you are trying to throw sand into the gears of government, maybe a true conservative is what you want. Maybe you should vote for Ron Paul, another candidate whose faithfulness I cannot question. (This is due, in part, to suffering through this movie.) If Ron Paul had his way, our federal government would be largely a shell of what it is today. People like Newt Gingrich though tend to enlarge government because exercising power is not about diminishing power. Think about it: if you diminish your power, you can’t exercise it at some later time. Having power is about making your enemies pay and giving their horde to your friends. Only a die-hard idealist like Ron Paul might actually succeed in shrinking government. To do this, at your center, you have to be ideology centered rather than ego driven.

Unsurprisingly, this is not true of any of the other Republican candidates. They are all drooling from the corners of their mouths because they want to exercise power. If power is diminished, that means everyone has less of it. And where’s the fun in that? It might mean, for example, no constitutional amendment to declare marriage as between only one man and one woman, because you sure don’t want to spend tax money enforcing it. And that might mean deciding defining what a marriage is becomes a matter for each state and keeping the federal government’s hands off the whole issue. That’s not cool. You cannot enforce an ideology that way.

If I actually wanted a politician to get something done and have to pick between a faithful politician and a philandering one, I’ll pick the philandering one. After all, having an illicit affair is not a simple matter. It requires complex skills, surreptitious behavior and high stakes. That sounds kind of what we need in a pragmatic president.

So I say: philanderers for president! And, “Go Newt!”

The Thinker

Iraq and Afghanistan: the folly slowly winds down

The end result will be a gradual deterioration and failure of both endeavors [Iraq and Afghanistan] as casualties and costs go through the roof and as Americans grow tired of a conflict with no clear exit criteria. Eventually we will declare a weak victory and leave, but no one will be fooled: we will have had our hands burnt and will be unlikely to indulge in such reckless military adventurism for the foreseeable future.

Occam’s Razor
November 3, 2003

It won’t be like the final episode of M*A*S*H. When the final helicopter with U.S. soldiers flies out of the Green Zone by the end of this month, there will be no “Goodbye” spelled out in rocks on the ground below. For the vast majority of Iraqis, if anything were to be written to express their feelings about our war and occupation, it would be “Good Riddance”. It took us eight long years, at least a trillion dollars in direct costs and likely three trillion or more dollars in final costs, not to mention at least 4,483 casualties just in Iraq to do what exactly? Do we even remember why we invaded Iraq in the first place?

Most Americans have forgotten. We tuned out the Iraq War around 2007 and to the extent we focused on our soldiers overseas, we turned our attention to Afghanistan instead. Just in case you forgot, we had to invade Iraq because it had weapons of mass destruction that it was getting ready to unleash against our allies and us. You knew it was true because in front of the U.N. Security Council, Secretary of State Colin Powell pointed to satellite photos of railroad cars that he said contained portable chemical laboratories that made nerve gas and other internationally outlawed chemical agents. Those weapons of mass destruction were right there!

Except of course they were not but once invaded for a mistake we found it inconvenient to quietly leave. We had won an unnecessary war in Iraq, but almost immediately lost the peace. Iraq, held together by Saddam Hussein’s terror, quickly split into its ethnic factions that quickly got back to doing what they used to do when there was no strongman: wage religious and ethnic war on each other. To enforce something resembling peace, we compartmentalized much of Baghdad into ethnic enclaves complete with two story concrete high separation walls and what feels even today like a billion checkpoints. It never stopped the violence. Nothing really did, although it was curious that violence seemed to at least ebb the more our soldiers stayed on base.

Yes, by the end of the month we will be out, except for the 16,000 or so Americans who will be attached to our embassy in the Green Zone. It’s unclear to me why we need 16,000 Americans in the Green Zone, particularly after talking with a former ambassador to Iraq in the 1980s (who happens to be a member of my church) who oversaw what was then the doubling of staff in Iraq, to 32 people.

Supposedly we are leaving behind a peaceful and stable Iraq, but of course this is a lie. Bombings continue regularly, but rarely make the news these days because they have become so routine. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki appears to be imitating the dictator we toppled. Security in Baghdad and elsewhere, to the extent it exists, is handled by troops sworn to loyalty to him. al-Maliki also takes after Saddam Hussein because he has no problem with torturing his fellow citizens, although perhaps he is less egregious in it than Hussein was. One major change: al-Maliki is a Shi’ite where Hussein was a Sunni. Just as Hussein found it convenient to keep a few trusted Shi’ites on the staff, al-Maliki seems to have found it convenient to keep some Sunnis on the staff as well. It’s unclear if democracy has really taken hold in Iraq or not, but it there is plenty of evidence, like with recent elections in Russia, that there is mucho ballot stuffing. Maybe this is a sign of progress.

In any case, our American soldiers leave with a whimper, not a bang, and we will be lucky if our last soldiers only have shoes thrown at them as we exit. President Obama can at least take credit for getting us out of Iraq. We leave behind a country still very much at civil war, but with a shell of a democracy and a three trillion dollar price tag.

Over in Afghanistan, things are not that dissimilar. The government of president Hamid Karsi is thoroughly corrupt, and we don’t like it, but largely choose to do nothing about it. Corrupt Afghani governments are as Afghani as apple pies represent the taste of American, so there is not much new here except that the Taliban, at least for the moment, are not in charge, at least not in Kabul. It seems likely that they will be shortly after we make our own Goodbye, Farewell and Amen episode. Thanks to our largess, they might be able to be bought off, at least for a while, buying us a few years of the illusion of leaving Afghanistan as a stable democracy. Most likely the Taliban are more religious than idolaters of American manna. The good news is that the Taliban probably have learned one lesson: don’t let al Qaeda and their affiliates set up shop, or out come our cruise missiles and special forces. Otherwise, we won’t care if they oppress their women and decapitate errant sinners in their public squares again. Well, we will certainly denounce it, but we won’t do anything to stop it. The bottom line: sponsoring terror is okay, just not against our interests or us.

But American troops can’t leave Afghanistan quite yet. Obama first has to wind the conflict down in stages, and leave it just stable enough for us to skedaddle out of there as well without too many mortars hurdled at us as we exit. All bets are off, of course, if a Republican wins the presidency in 2012. Republicans seem pathologically unable not to flex military muscle, except for maybe Ron Paul, which might be a reason to vote for him.

Within a few years we should have wound down both conflicts. The cost of our adventure proved ruinous, as I predicted, but did plenty to keep the defense industry alive. What have we won? Arguably we succeeded in wiping out al Qaeda, now a shadow of its former self. This likely could have been done without invading Afghanistan, and certainly without the folly of invading and occupying Iraq. If we take as a lesson learned to stop invading foreign countries that annoy us, perhaps that will justify the cost in the long run. Our history since Vietnam though suggests we won’t retain our lessons for long, so we are probably doomed to repeat the lesson. Perhaps next time though our creditors will just say no. The perhaps we will learn to make peace instead of war. Here’s hoping.

The Thinker

Governments should not be run like a business

It’s hard to listen to a politician today without hearing them tell you that the problem with government is that it’s not being run like a business. For example, Mitt Romney says his private sector experience running a venture capital firm (Bain Capital) was great preparation for being governor of Massachusetts and, he hopes, president of the United States.

In reality, a primary reason our government is as messed up as it is is because incoming politicians have tried to treat government as a business. The resulting mess tends to be ugly and ruinously expensive. As one example, for a couple of decades now our esteemed national leaders have declared that since the private sector can do everything better than the government, we must outsource as much of the government as possible to gain the wonderful efficiencies of the private sector.

Outsourcing the government has been great for businesses, but not so much for government and for the taxpayers. Ask Blackwater. There was a need, they had the product and they had a business model designed to shaft the government. A grunt private, even with pension and various other benefits costs a tiny fraction of the cost of a guard provided by Blackwater. How much more? It’s hard to say exactly, but add in benefits, profit and nice corporate offices in Arlington, Virginia and even the most unskilled guard from Blackwater likely bills at least $100 an hour. A private does not have a problem following orders. It’s not just a good idea, it’s required, even when inconvenient. Failure to do so may result in a courts marshal. Ask a Blackwater contractor to do something not explicitly in the contract and they will either refuse or it will require the payment of some sort of high usury fee.

Businesses are entities designed to make profits. Governments expressly don’t want to make profit because taxpayers resent paying a dime more in taxes than they have to pay. If government were truly run as a business, the IRS would charge processing fees to process your tax return and charge $1 a minute for tax advice over the phone. In fact many of us pay a fee to file a tax return, but the government doesn’t get a dime. It’s private sector entities that add value and profit by facilitating the transaction so you can get a refund faster.

If government charged a fee for every service, it would grow corrupt. How many civil servants do you see driving around in luxury cars? I’m a pretty well paid civil servant, and I’ve never come close to having the income to buy a Lexus. Those few that do are likely political appointees or elected officials, and with luck their crimes will be discovered by salaried detectives and prosecuted by salaried DAs.

Here’s the thing: the civil service works best when people are paid a respectable but not lavish living wage, they are held to a strict and impartial code of conduct and they are permitted to exercise as much independent judgment as their position allows. I know this from working inside it for thirty years. When you get a fair deal, you have incentive to work in the interest of the government. Job security in the government is not something evil; it is a feature of a job that enhances loyalty and makes it easier to put the peoples’ business first. Pay a civil servant too little and there is incentive to take bribes. This is the problem in most third world countries where bribery is rife: no one can afford to live on the pittance that is their actual salary. Corruption simply breeds more corruption. Paying civil servants a living wage solves the problem.

There are so many silly myths about the private sector that you would think experience would have debunked them. One is that businesses are oh so efficient. Businesses tend to be as efficient as they need to be and never more. The ones who are really bad at efficiency tend to go out of business. Small businesses in particular have a hard time at it. People think they are cut out for being an entrepreneur, but in reality it is very hard and the odds are against you. Take a look at the docket at your local county bankruptcy court sometime. Look at the stack of business bankruptcy filings. Businesses fail all the time, some for reasons that suggest incompetency, some because they have the wrong product or service for the market, but usually for both reasons. Every business out there wants to have a lock on a particular market so they can raise prices and reduce quality. That’s why companies like Google and IBM spend significant amounts of money to buy out competitors. They don’t invite competition. They want to cut competition off at the knees. This is done by means legal, legal but unethical, and outright criminal actions which pragmatic businesses do hoping they won’t get caught. An obvious example: companies like Citibank accused of robo-signing hundreds of thousands of home foreclosures.

Maybe that’s fine in the world of business, but do we really want to inculcate this attitude in our government? I would hope not! Government exists to address common societal issues that are not suited to business. Some of the reasons are because they must be done impartially, because the work in inherently unprofitable, and because there are long-term interests that need to be addressed.

This may be hard to believe, but there are some things the government does much better than the private sector. In general, education is one of them. It may be hard to believe when you think about failing inner city public schools, but most schools are not failing and get high marks from parents. There are enormous efficiencies when you can buy textbooks for a school district in bulk, or need to ensure that 10,000 teachers adhere to the same standards, or that your students at least get one healthy and nutritious meal a day in the school’s lunchroom.

The public sector is exceptionally cost effective delivering higher education, as evidenced by state universities near you with well moneyed alumni. A public college tends to be half the cost, or less, than a private college, and often achieve better results. They serve a critical need: making higher education relatively affordable, something the private sector could not do, which is why government created them. Community colleges are an even bigger bargain. I am wrapping up teaching a semester course at a community college. I was hired to teach the course for less than $3000. My students got plenty of individual attention. They paid a few hundred dollars each for the course. It just so happens that a similar course is available down the street from Oracle Education, at a cost of several thousands of dollars. Arguably, my students got a much richer educational experience at a tenth of the cost. Yes, community colleges are bargains, which is why they are expanding like crazy and are one of the growth sectors in this crazy economy. What’s not? Try private colleges, particularly career-oriented private colleges like Kaplan University, owned by the Washington Post. Their success rate is miserable and their costs are high. They do excel at convenience, but they have little incentive to make sure their students graduate. They are after a profit, not the success of the student.

In general, government is a much different domain than the private sector. You want those leading your government to be people who understand this, and understand what makes government work efficiently and effectively. You want leaders who align the government with the current and future needs of the citizenry. You don’t want someone who thinks that a private sector business model will work in this domain. Instead, you want someone who has demonstrated competence leading and managing governments and other non-profit institutions. This leaves out most of those currently running for president. You would be wise not to vote for any of them, because they are likely to leave your government worse off when they leave.

The Thinker

Review: Glory (1989)

I’m going through a Civil War phase (currently reading these books) so I thought I would supplement my reading with one of the many Civil War movies out there. Glory (1989) got some good reviews, so it seemed like a safe bet. However, Glory is a much different Civil War movie, because it focuses on one of the first regiments of African American soldiers who fought for the Union, the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry.

Matthew Broderick plays Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, who fought valiantly at Antietam as well as many other prominent Civil War battles. Shaw is picked to lead the 54th, perhaps because he counts among his lifelong friends a bookish Black freeman Jupiter (Jihmi Kennedy). Jupiter is one of the first in line when the regiment is formed, which makes for some awkwardness because Shaw must treat Jupiter as a private, rather than as his personal friend. Everyone in the 54th seems to inhabit an uncomfortable personal space. The Irish drill sergeant Mulcahy (John Finn) has to turn these men into soldiers, and frequently transgresses an uncomfortable color line in doing so. These black soldiers feel and frequently are treated as inferiors to their white comrades. The tension of a black regiment led by whites is also palpable.

Glory gives us a lot of fine performances, but for much of the movie Broderick seems a little out of his element, projecting an overly meek and timid officer who has trouble assuming the full weight of command. Overall, the performances are excellent and include Denzel Washington as Private Trip and Morgan Freeman as Staff Sergeant John Rawlins. Movies about African Americans are quite rare. Here we are blessed with a fine set of African American actors and get a chance to inhabit their personal space and issues. Mostly what the 54th lusts after is a chance to go into combat, but once out of basic training their work is logistical and behind the lines. In order to see combat, Colonel Shaw has to sell his regiment to a skeptical set of superiors. When finally allowed to test themselves in battle, they prove their stripes at the cost of many lost.

Overall, Glory delivers the goods: fine acting, a compelling story and a rendering of the Civil War that feels authentic. The movie moves toward its climax when the 54th is asked to lead a doomed attack on a rebel fort in the Charleston harbor. Here is where many Civil War movies would come up short, for it is quite hard to get all the details right and merge them with fine acting. However, Director Edward Zwick pulls it off exceptionally well. The 54th is largely wiped out as a regiment, but their heroism led to greater inclusion of African American regiments in subsequent battles of the Civil War.

This is a Civil War movie in miniature, which gives us the chance to know people and personalities with an intimacy often missing from Civil War movies. While hardly a perfect movie it is compelling and well executed. If trying to get a taste for the Civil War, watching Glory would be a good place to start.

3.2 on my four-point scale.

Rating: ★★★¼ 

The Thinker

Master liar

I’ll give Herman Cain one thing: he is a great liar.

Of course, I cannot say for certain that Cain is lying about denying incidents of alleged sexual harassment and, more recently, denying an alleged 13-year on-again, off-again affair with an Atlanta-based divorcee. On the latter allegation, Cain at least admits a friendship with the alleged other woman, Ginger White. He admits giving her money from time to time. From the voluminous cell phone logs provided by Ms. White, it would be hard to deny they traded a lot of text messages, including one at 4:30 in the morning.

That’s quite a “friendship” you have there, Herman. Can I get in on this act? I suspect though I would not qualify for your offer because I am inconveniently a male and thus not quite the sort of “friend” you are looking for. I’d be glad to take your free money for being “friends”, as long as you don’t expect me to answer text messages at 4:30 a.m. Ideally, we’d be just Facebook friends.

My gut though tells me that Cain is just another in a long line of serial philanderers and sexual harassers so full of themselves they believe they are God’s gift to humanity, and in this case, the United States too. If I were in the top one percent like he is, maybe my ego would bloat up too, like a giant Stay Puft Marshmallow Man in a Thanksgiving Day parade. Then maybe I could lie convincingly like Herman Cain. To lie like he does, you first have to be shameless. He seems to have all the qualifications there. This is, after all, a guy who feels free to berate the 99% for being failures because they are not among the 1%. It is much easier to imagine this than all these women being shameless too in order to get a day in the national news. If so, they probably had a terrific mentor. Unfortunately for Cain, there are all sorts of corroborating evidence: phone logs, overly personal handwritten notes in books that he has signed and memories of intimates of the accusers when these incidents happened. So as much as I might want to give Cain benefit of the doubt, the evidence suggests, if a fire never happened, something sure is smoldering.

I imagine learning to lie convincingly takes practice. It requires acting, although in Cain’s case he may have done it for so long that it has become like a second skin. One of the reasons I am so bad at lying is because I have so rarely attempted it. There are many reasons for this, but most likely it is because in my formative years I learned that lying was a sin. I learned this not just on my pappy’s knees, but also from various Sisters of Charity with long yardsticks and a flair for inflicting corporal punishment. So whenever I have lied I felt guilt. But more often I felt shame, which was painfully easily read on my face.

African Americans like Cain may have an advantage here: their darker faces make it easier to hide a flushed face. Or perhaps he never learned to feel ashamed about lying. Regardless, the art of lying convincingly requires no fear. Raise that chin. Look the camera directly in the eye. Do not hyper-blink. Be the person you want to project. This probably becomes easier as you rise in the corporate world. People learn to fear you, or at least act in a submissive fashion. The world should move around you, rather than the other way around. This approach has the “virtue” of providing an element of doubt. If you can charge fearlessly ahead in spite of these allegations like Cain, it is easier to give the benefit of the doubt to the candidate, particularly if you are inclined to vote for him anyhow.

I do wonder what would happen if there were incontrovertible proof. If Cain and White did have sex, there may be DNA evidence lying around. This certainly was bad news for Bill Clinton but at least he was already president at the time. Cain might regret his absolute denials. Meanwhile the Cain campaign is hedging, saying it is “reassessing” his candidacy. An untimely withdrawal from the race may be as close as we get of an admission of guilt.

I would not be surprised, as in the case of Jenny Sanford, if some weeks after Cain’s withdrawal from the race we learn that his wife Gloria has filed for divorce. Then, instead of people remembering Cain for his 9-9-9 plan, his fortunes reversed, we may remember 666 instead: the Number of the Beast.


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