Archive for February, 2012

The Thinker

Operation Hilarity: who gets the last laugh?

Two Republican primaries are underway tonight, in Michigan and Arizona. In the Michigan primary, the law allows Democrats to vote in the Republican primary. This has inspired Operation Hilarity, a campaign by Markos Moulitsas (owner of the popular liberal Daily Kos website) to encourage Michigan Democrats to vote in the primary for Rick Santorum. The theory is that if Santorum wins the primary, it will keep the nomination process from coming to closure, and maybe lead to a brokered convention. According to Kos (Markos’s handle), even if Santorum ends up nominated by his party, by being so extreme he positions Obama and the Democrats in general to win even bigger in elections this November.

At least at first blush, it is hard to dismiss Kos’s logic. Every day Santorum gets weirder and weirder, which I thought was impossible. He seems to be anti-birth control, or at least anti the government requiring insurers to cover birth control. He thinks separation of church and state means religions can do whatever they want, particularly in the governmental arena, while the government can do nothing to constrain religion, and said President Kennedy’s defense of the strict separation of church and state made him want to throw up. He chastised President Obama because he wants all Americans to get a college education. Of course he is anti-gay and anti-gay marriage. Perhaps weirdest and scariest of all, he chastises President Obama for believing in global warming and defiantly says that the Bible gives us permission to use the earth for our benefit, not for the Earth’s.

The Operation Hilarity theory goes that the more outside the mainstream the Republican candidate is, the less likely he is to get elected if nominated. However, what if Santorum were nominated and then elected? Would this a better outcome than if Mitt Romney were nominated and elected? Or, for that matter, would it be better than if Gingrich or Ron Paul were elected?

It could happen. No one knows how Americans will vote, and all sorts of events are possible between now and Election Day that could change the dynamics of the election. We could go back into a recession, which seems to be happening in Europe. Unemployment could rise as a result. By most yardsticks, the challenger should win this election anyhow, as the unemployment rate is likely to be higher on Election Day than it was when Obama took office. The worse the economy gets, the more likely voters are to vote the incumbent out on the theory that, however bad the alternative, he could not do worse. It certainly happened in 1932. Roosevelt won the election handily. He had not even then come up with the idea of The New Deal. He won because he was not Herbert Hoover and fairly or not the country held Hoover to blame for the depression.

In that case, I would surely prefer a Mitt Romney in the Oval Office than Rick Santorum. This is because Mitt Romney is sane and Rick Santorum is bat-shit crazy. Mitt Romney is inconsistent because he is trying to get elected but his track record shows he governs as a fairly moderate Republican. Rick Santorum is consistent because that’s who he is: an ultra conservative. And an ultra conservative is by definition crazy. I would not like Mitt Romney as my president, but I expect he could usually make the right decision where it mattered most, like in matters of national security. Rick Santorum is far battier than even Barry Goldwater was in 1964. I sure don’t want to be responsible, even indirectly, for letting this clown get his hands on our nuclear trigger.

My chance for a little hilarity is coming up next Tuesday. Virginia is having a Republican primary on March 6. No one registers by party in this state, so anyone is free to vote in either primary. However, you can only vote in one of the primaries, not both. (Republicans would like me to sign a pledge that I would vote for the Republican candidate in the election if I vote in their primary. It has been ruled unenforceable.) So I could participate in the Republican Primary on March 6th, and vote for Rick Santorum. After all, there sure won’t be any real competition in the Democratic primary this year.

While I acknowledge that voting for Santorum would likely help Democrats more than it would Republicans, it’s not a chance I am willing to take. So I will skip voting in the primary altogether, which will doubtlessly please Virginia Republicans. But if I had to vote, I’d have to vote for the only sane one in the bunch and vote for Mitt Romney. Literally, my existence might depend on it.

To those Democrats considering voting for Santorum, just say no or the joke could be on all of us.

Addendum 3/16/11. I forgot that Virginia has very burdensome procedures for getting into Republican primaries. Only Mitt Romney and Ron Paul qualified, so I would not have been able to vote for Rick Santorum. However, a vote for Ron Paul would be only slightly less bad than voting for Rick Santorum, simply because Ron Paul has no chance of winning the nomination.

The Thinker

Googly-eyed at the Googleplex

At least some of the Left Behind crowd think that Rapture means that the Earth will become paradise, a perpetually blissful Garden of Eden for the virtuous where death is banished. The raptured get to live forever on a happy, lush Earth singing praises to God and effused with eternal bliss.

Stan the Dinosaur near the center of the Googleplex

Stan the Dinosaur near the center of the Googleplex

Well, I got news for the Left Behind crowd: if you are a geek lucky enough to be hired by Google and work at its headquarters in Mountain View, California (officially called The Googleplex), there is no need to wait for The Rapture. You can have it today. Yes, paradise is already available on their campus. Heck, you might even have a hard time finding the motivation to go home, which I am sure is by design. What is the point of ever going off campus? I mean, going off campus you have to deal with bills, your cranky spouse, and your Ritalin-laced kids. Stay on campus and there are none of these bothers, just all the gourmet food and smoothies you can eat for free within a short walk, exercise rooms galore, seminars by leading luminaries in various computer and scientific disciplines, twenty percent of your time (if you are an engineer) to play creatively, discount massages just down the hall, and a room or two on your floor filled with snacks and drinks (all free). There are even free classes in how to dance that are specifically tailored for us left footed engineers.

I know this from visiting the campus first hand on Wednesday. The tour came at the end of the meeting, but we got a prequel at lunch. Paradise could not have been any more picture perfect: blue skies, dry air, light winds, and with the temperature hovering about seventy. Crossing the street we had to beware not just of automobiles, but also of bicyclists on the many bike paths. Most of the bicyclists rode on the ubiquitous Google campus bike, with its big basket on the front and decked out in Google’s signature fluorescent colors. Of course the campus was perfectly manicured with palm trees rising nearly a hundred feet in the air framing the background. The closest cafeteria was just across the street. To get in you had to have the official Google badge. Our official nametags would have to suffice, but fortunately our hostess had an official badge and let us in.

The ubiquitous Google bikes

The ubiquitous Google bikes

The cafeteria was more than a bit overwhelming. Maybe you like a good salad bar and Ruby Tuesdays comes to mind. Multiply that salad bar by about ten and stock it full of organic produce, cheeses, nuts, all attractively arranged and constantly restocked. The salad bar was just one feature of this cafeteria. There were many, many entrees to choose from. I sampled the pork with almonds and regretted not taking seconds. It was delicious. About the only part of the cafeteria that was understated was the dessert section, but each dessert was organic, unique and of those I sampled, beyond delicious. And yet you did not want to gorge. None of the desserts spiked your blood sugar. When you have Google’s billions in profits, you can hire chefs who know these sorts of secrets. Also oddly missing: the cash register. Lunch, like almost anything on campus, was free.

I could find no part of the campus untouched by the Google creative team. You would think a trip to the loo would be safe, wouldn’t you? I was in for a start when I sat down and the seat was almost hot: no need to suffer the indignity of having cold buns. Looking for something to read in your stall? Each stall has a collection of Google newsletters (oddly issued on paper) that you can read. It looks like they have a whole team working on newsletters for their toilet stalls. Google will use every opportunity to communicate information, and if that means a newsletter in a stall or healthy eating strategies written on the walls of the cafeteria, so be it.

Idea boards along the corridors

Idea boards along the corridors

It’s hard to look anywhere without seeing the Google design team’s touch. In the building we were in the walls were covered with what look like bubbles of Braille. Just down the hall from the snack room was a massage room which, when I peeked, had a note saying that a session was in progress. If you are not important enough to warrant an office, you can still personalize your cubicle. There must be some things you cannot do to your workspace. Perhaps putting up Playboy centerfolds is against regulations, but I doubt it. Personalizing your space (and this includes your laptop, almost universally Apple, often festooned with logos) is encouraged. It might stimulate a creative thought when someone passes your space, and that’s good.

When the bulk of our work was behind us, we got a somewhat hurried campus tour. Much of the campus is built on top of a landfill. You can see methane pipes to allow the landfill to vent. Some of this methane is captured for energy use, but the campus also has lots of solar panels. About a third of its electricity is generated from renewable sources on campus.

The campus is fairly new since Google is a fairly new company. This gives the campus a feeling of impermanence, but it is undeniably gorgeous. Food is everywhere and free. When you have Google’s deep pockets, you don’t want to waste your highly productive engineers’ time by making them go off campus to get it. It’s not only free, it’s terrific and high quality stuff: the best foods, the best coffees and smoothies, and even the best desserts often just a short walk down the hall. Got to go somewhere on campus? Take a bike. There are usually a half dozen parked next to each building. Working in exercise during the day is encouraged, but if you prefer more formal exercise, there are plenty of enormous exercise rooms, allowing both structured and unstructured exercising.

Engineers like to show off their works. It’s hard to go far in any building without seeing some of them. Go into a 3D Google Earth simulator. See real-time global simulations of Internet traffic (with most of Africa in the dark). In one building we saw a vintage server rack (1999 is vintage), stuffed with commodity hardware you could have picked up at a Best Buy, which forms the nuts and bolts of Google’s enormous hosting platform.

We wandered by seminars in progress, free to anyone on campus, a hall of pictures of dignitaries, all posing with Google’s largely unknown “Jolly Good Fellow” Meng Tan. It’s hard to find a dignitary who has not visited the Googleplex, and they include President Obama and the Dalai Lama.

Suffice to say us decently but not obscenely enumerated government employees were impressed and more than a bit jealous. While we pay to attend our own Christmas parties, Google employees have practically every convenience of life available to them within, at worst, a short walk, much of it for free. While our time is metered like lawyers, they are allowed to have time to goof off. They are constantly stimulated by the presence of so many brilliant people, an infectious working environment and are given practically any freedom on the assumption that it will all contribute to the bottom line. Given Google’s enormous profits, it’s hard to argue with success.

If my pictures don’t suffice, try watching the YouTube video:

The Thinker

Flying cross country on Virgin America

In spite of the rumors that winter gave the United States a miss this year, there is winter out there in parts of the country. These include Iowa, Nebraska and Wyoming for sure, as evidenced by the white stuff on the ground viewed from a height of 36,311 feet. Of course, it is 36,311 feet because on Virgin America, at least, you know these sorts of things without having to ask. Even in Economy class you get a nifty personal information device attached to the seat in front of you, which shows you where your flight is on a map, along with the aircraft’s altitude and ground speed, all rendered on a ubiquitous Google Map.

Seeing where you at any moment is just one minor strategy in Virgin’s attempt to keep you distracted from the tedium of flying. You can also watch a host of satellite channels, watch on demand movies, listen to music or radio, and order your meal with the device. You can even do a text chat seat to seat, or so they promise when the feature is enabled (it wasn’t on our flight). What I can’t do on this flight, and what was advertised, is use the Internet. I was planning to work on this five and a half hour flight between Washington Dulles International Airport and San Francisco. I was looking forward to it, to relieve the tedium of a long flight, because it is work that needs to be done and it would be kind of cool to do testing at 36,311 feet over a VPN.

Virgin America is trying to drag airlines into the 21st century. They missed it on this flight by leaving out the Internet but otherwise they are getting it. Each seat comes with 120 volt power socket, a feature I have not seen on any other airline. Each seat also has a USB port and for those of you afraid to use the WiFi, an Ethernet port as well. Maybe it will be available on my return flight on Thursday.

Anyhow, I am being hurdled across the country at 36,311 feet to go visit one of the masters of the universe. That would be masters of the Internet universe, also known as Google, headquartered in nearby Mountain View, California. Yes, all this way and three days taken out of my week for a five hour meeting at Google headquarters tomorrow. It’s little known, but the mighty Google gives one percent of its profits to its nonprofit arm, And has had mixed success getting my agency involved in its nonprofit mission. creates quick websites around major events, such as the Japanese tsunami last year. They are working to integrate more real-time information on emergencies into their search engine, so if you are on their search page and there is a tornado nearby it will tell you. It’s exactly the sort of information the U.S. government collects in abundance, so we have been seduced in spending a day in Mountain View with other agencies where they try to coax us to publish our emergency information in a rather obscure protocol called Common Alerting Protocol. Google hates developing and maintaining custom programs to acquire this kind of information. I can’t say I blame them.

So I am being hurdled across the country at 521 miles an hour. Meanwhile there is this flight to finish, all five and a half hours of it. At least February is a great time to travel, if you don’t like crowds. Washington Dulles was nearly deserted this morning, which meant getting through security was a breeze. If there is no precipitation there are no flight delays to worry about either. Moreover, this flight on Virgin America was dirt cheap, beating the other carriers by hundreds of dollars, and it was also nonstop as well. I am depending on Virgin America to be on time, not so much today, but on Thursday. I have to get home in time to teach a class that evening.

Virgin America is likely a more laid back version of Virgin Atlantic, Virgin Airline’s international wing. On Virgin Atlantic you get flight attendants who pass rigorous tests for grooming, tact and friendliness, or so I have read. On Virgin Atlantic: not so much. They basically try to stay out of your face. So instead of actually talking with flight attendants, you are encourage to order from a device at your seat instead, which also reads your credit card. You do get a round of beverages but at least so far no second round has arrived. The captain is not the least bit loquacious and to make this cross country flight even less interesting, the flight is amazingly smooth. This leaves me with time to kill. With no Internet I have few excuses to avoid blogging.

But I did my best anyhow. I spent much of the flight absorbed in my iPad, parked in Airplane mode. It is still a fairly mysterious device to me, but I’ve been making my way through its user manual, finding more things to like about the iPad and others to pan. I like its built-in cameras. It is so easy to take pictures and movies. I am trying it out with this quick business trip. With the camera and email program sort of integrated, it should be nearly effortless to take pictures, dress them up, and post them to friends. The same goes with taking movies. With luck I’ll be able to use it to take pictures and movies of the Google campus tomorrow. Reputedly Google doesn’t know what to do with all their money, so they have couches you can sleep in in their lobbies. I’ll know soon enough if the rumors are true.

Google is one of the centers of the Internet universe, so it’s sort of like going to visit the Vatican, if you are an Internet junkie. In short, I am glad to go on this trip. At least Google usually tries not to be evil, although their recently updated privacy policy and their blatantly ignoring of privacy settings on Safari browsers to collect personal information about you that they should not suggests they are pushing the envelope. How many of us could pass a background investigation if our browsing habits were part of the investigation?

It’s hard to argue too much with their success. Though we know all that data they are mining on us comes at a hidden price, we like the illusion of a free Internet better. Anyhow, Google is a big enough force that even the mighty U.S. government which I represent may deign to afford it a special accommodation, since its dominance helps us spread important emergency related news. Still, we have our ethics rules to ensure we cannot be bought off by Google and its billions. We have been assured that the free lunch in their cafeteria won’t be an ethical compromise, because it is valued at less than $20 per person and that’s the maximum amount we can accept from a company or organization per calendar year without getting in trouble. $21 implies corruption, but $20 does not. Go figure. We are also wondering whether we will be allowed to sign their non-disclosure agreement. Supposedly they won’t let you in their building unless you sign it. But we are the mighty government, mightier even than the mighty Google, and we have pricey lawyers too (just not as pricey as Google’s; they are living on a civil servant’s salary) and they are parsing their nondisclosure agreement and frowning at it. Google might have to cut us a pass. I’ll find out tomorrow.

Meanwhile I am flying over the partially snow covered peaks of Utah. Our descent into San Francisco cannot be too far away.

The Thinker

Second Viewing: Peggy Sue Got Married (1986)

How time flies! Peggy Sue Got Married was released in 1986, twenty-six years ago! Moreover, in the movie Peggy Sue (played by Kathleen Turner) is attending her high school class’s 25th anniversary, which means she was portraying a 43-year-old woman. Fortunately, Turner is only a couple of years older than I am (she was born in 1954) which explains why Turner looks so fabulous in the movie. If you squint your eyes, she can sort of pass for eighteen.

1986 was a long time ago. I remember it as the year of the Challenger disaster, but it was so long ago that Jim Carrey (playing Walter Getz) was largely unknown and Nicholas Cage (who plays her ex Charlie Bodell) was just starting to get good parts. Kathleen Turner herself was also gaining traction as an actress, having made a name for herself in the steamy (literally and figuratively) movie Body Heat (1981).

Peggy Sue, of course, is the ex class prom queen, a leggy All American girl who at the start of the movie is crushed by the infidelity of her husband Charlie. She is so crushed that she has not put herself back on the market. The class reunion is untimely, but she still fits into her 1960-style silver prom dress. The reunion, not unexpectedly, makes her confront her past. She regrets going steady and marrying Charlie, who still makes a name for himself locally by selling appliances in shrill local TV commercials. Charlie is not supposed to be at the reunion but his presence along with her unwillingly being crowned Queen of the reunion is more than her fragile state can handle. She faints on stage and this is where the science fiction begins.

No aliens or spaceships appear, but Peggy Sue finds herself back in 1960 in her high school, but with her 43-year old memories intact. And it sure seems real enough. It is overwhelmingly nostalgic for a while, but her middle-aged brain also allows her to cut through the fog of her adolescent feelings and see things as they were. Moving twenty five years back in the time stream also helps her come confront so many issues buried in her past, including unrealized infatuations with Michael Fitzsimmons (Kevin O’Connor), something of a class bad boy, into poetry, living life passionately and smoking reefers. Also appreciated with new eyes is the class nerd, Richard Norvik (Barry Miller), crowned king of the reunion because of his multi-millionaire status.

This movie is at once fun and painful, poignant and slightly irritating. Most of us would love to travel back in time to a pivotal time in our lives, but it’s a mixed bag for the emotionally fragile Peggy Sue. Her mother is more plastic than real, Charlie is dopily devoted to her but immature, and the girls she hung around with back then mostly annoying and superficial teenyboppers. The pressure of being a middle age woman in a teen’s body eventually becomes too much not to share, so she confides her situation to Richard Norvik. He is, to say the least, is surprised by her attention, but takes her seriously and helps her think through her situation. In return, Peggy Sue gives him intelligence on how to apply his brain to great fortune. Mostly though she struggles with her feelings for Charlie, knowing that he will eventually betray her. Peggy Sue may be twenty-five years in her past, but she is riding a powerful emotional roller coaster. Her forty-something perspective though often proves useful in providing self-analysis of her situation.

Francis Ford Coppola, who also cast his daughter Sofia as Peggy Sue’s younger sister Nancy, directs the movie. This science fiction frame is actually a just a fun device to allow Peggy Sue wallow in then sort of resolve her powerful feelings. Coppola does a great job of rendering both past and present, and the acting is largely well done as well. The plot is also hard to resist. Who cannot have feelings, either positive or negative, for the class prom queen?

While the movie is engaging, ultimately it does not mean very much, unless you are content to just sort through in Peggy Sue’s complex feelings with her (mostly a chick thing, I assume), enjoy some cinematic nostalgia for a time long past, or want to ponder what your feelings might be if you could wind the past back twenty five years. The movie is not so much fun as it is bittersweet, with its attempt to pull at your heartstrings perhaps a bit overdone.

Peggy Sue Got Married is certainly not a bad movie, nor a great movie, but it is a movie worth seeing once. Having seen it twice, I realize I had tuned out some of the movie’s minor flaws. Had I remembered them I likely would have given seeing it again a pass.

3.1 on my four-point scale.

Rating: ★★★☆ 

The Thinker

Review: Hugo

While director Martin Scorsese rarely disappoints, he certainly can leave you feeling like you got half the movie you were expecting. That was my reaction with Shutter Island (2010), where the trailer turned out to be much better than the actual movie.

Happily, Scorsese overall has a terrific batting average, and Hugo finds him true to form, if not at peak form. Hugo is as good a movie as The Aviator, and may be better. It doesn’t have the star talent of our most marketable actors like Leonardo DiCaprio. A largely unknown child actor plays the title character Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield). I first encountered Butterfield in the quirky 2007 movie Son of Rambow.

Butterfield is not a mesmerizing child actor, but he is consistently very good and does manage to breathe plausibility into Hugo Cabret, an orphan who calls the rooms behind a Parisian train station his home. He carries on a family tradition of keeping the station’s many mechanical clocks in sync. Butterfield reminds me of a prepubescent Elijah Wood, in that he is small framed and is blessed with expressive eyes you cannot get enough of. Staged in a 1930s Paris, Scorsese delivers an impeccably realistic period Paris, whose only peculiarity is that while all the signs are in French, everyone speaks proper British English.

The train station itself is a character in this movie, on the surface just a busy hub full of constant streams of passengers in transit. Its heart rests in its many vendor stalls, which includes a curiosity shop run by a man known as Georges. His shop is full of mechanical toys. It is little wonder that Hugo is attracted to the store like a moth to the flame, since mechanical things fascinate him. What fascinates him the most is an automaton, a mechanical man meant to run using a complex system of connected gears and pulleys. He inherited the automaton from his father, who passes unexpectedly. When his surviving uncle also dies, Hugo finds himself an orphan. To avoid being sent to the orphanage, he must keep the clocks running in the station so everyone thinks his Uncle is still alive. It’s not a problem because both his father and his Uncle tutored him in the art of maintaining mechanical things. However, surviving means a lot of surreptitious stealing, not to mention rapidly ascending into the ironworks that make up the rafters and walls. From there he can maintain the many oversize timepieces commuters count on for accurate time. Surviving also means evading the station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen) and his very fast and aggressive dog.

Hugo’s passion is to make the automaton work again, in part because it was his father’s passion before his death. He is convinced that if the automaton can be made to work, it will reveal a secret message from his late father. Finding the right parts is an uphill challenge, which is partly why the mechanical things in Georges’ shop are such a draw to him. Caught stealing from him, the man takes a precious sketchbook from him, and seems intent on burning it. By destroying it he will also destroy the boys fondest hopes.

With no megastars, Scorsese substitutes a host of memorable character actors instead. Georges turns out to be Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley), once a famous French silent movie director who chooses obscurity when World War One brings an abrupt end to his fantasy-filled short films. Méliès is not so much taking his anger out on Hugo as he is still traumatized by the abrupt end of his career — so traumatized that he wants to utter obscurity and to be forgotten for his prior triumphs. Méliès has a young daughter about Hugo’s age, Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz) that Hugo desperately befriends in the hope of getting his sketchbook back. They quickly turn into real friends. Hugo uses his skills as a locksmith to get her into movie theaters (where she is not allowed to venture). Isabelle in turn introduces Hugo to Monsieur Labisse (Christopher Lee), a kindly bookseller who loans Isabelle a constant stream of books from his bookshop at the station.

This is a movie that is hard to explain why it should work but so easy to enjoy because it is so rich in cast, set and great directing. Scorsese does such a wonderful job in making a 1930s Paris wholly convincing, except for all the British English. You are quickly sucked into Hugo’s life, his world behind the walls and in the rafters, his fascination with gears, and the memorable characters he encounters in the train station. It’s a movie that is not only convincing as a period in history, but which works as a multilayered study of interesting and overlapping characters. Sacha Baron Cohen channels a little Inspector Clouseau, but his bumbling is due most to a war injury that hobbles his patrols of the train station. And yet the movie is far more than character stories, for it also brings us into the world of the early 20th century, and the crazy silent films made by men like Méliès, which in turn gives us an appreciation for just how brilliant they were for their time. The connector, as you might suspect, is the automaton that somehow manages a magical mechanical feat once the heart shaped key is found that starts it working. Literally the past helps create the present and sets in motion a chain of small human events that is touching and so deftly realized on film through Scorsese’s careful directing.

Hugo in fact is an excellent movie, close to being a landmark film in itself, and fully worthy of the 3.5 (out of four stars) I am rating it. It’s still in theaters. Hurry and see it if you can.

Rating: ★★★½ 

The Thinker

Election 2012: It’s looking like 1964

This is the year when because of the bad economy Republicans are supposed to be shoe-ins for election. When the president is floundering due to a bad economy and high unemployment (so the theory goes) the alternative, no matter how poor a choice, should coast to election.

Elections tend to be fickle events and often turn on last minute happenings. Still, when one projects the current state of politics forward to November, conventional wisdom seems likely to lose. If I were President Obama, I would not spend too much time worrying about his reelection. Instead, I would spend more time working to elect a Congress that will work with him during a second term. Trends suggest this election will resemble the Election of 1964. In that election, President Lyndon Johnson cruised to an easy election. (He assumed the presidency on the death of President Kennedy.) Democrats also picked up thirty-four House seats and two Senate seats.

Back in 1964, the Republican Party was about as confused a party as they are today. The conventional wisdom forty-eight years ago was that New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller would cruise to his party’s nomination. Rockefeller though had some Newt Gingrich in him. He was not the bombastic, bomb-throwing Republican like Newt. That dubious honor went to Senator Barry Goldwater (Arizona). Rockefeller was an establishment Republican. He spent much of his time as governor building highways, not fretting about cutting taxes. Rockefeller modeled Gingrich in that his personal life left much to be desired. In 1963, he divorced his wife and married a woman fifteen years his younger on the rebound. In the divorce settlement, his new wife’s ex-husband was granted custody of her children. This fed rumors of adultery, which became a serious liability for Rockefeller, and helped drive the candidacy of the bombastic Barry Goldwater.

For those pining for a true conservative, Goldwater more than delivered. He wanted a much more aggressive war in Vietnam than Johnson had delivered, and was fanatically anticommunist. His rhetoric suggested that preemptive use of nuclear weapons was okay, which greatly alarmed most Americans. Despite this, Goldwater was successful in achieving the nomination, in part due to Rockefeller’s marital missteps. He even narrowly won the California primary, which largely sealed his nomination. The contrast could hardly have been sharper in the 1964 election: a true conservative vs. a Texas Democrat who was part redneck but doggedly in favor of civil rights. Goldwater won only six states and accumulated only 52 electoral votes.

Contrast Rockefeller and Goldwater with the current field of Republican presidential candidates. No matter who is eventually nominated, they will be (to quote Mitt Romney) “severely conservative”, or at least be forced to run as one. With the possible exception of Mitt Romney, each is as at least as alarming as Barry Goldwater was in 1964. There is nothing the least bit moderate about any of them, at least judging by their rhetoric. Moreover, each carries “severe” baggage. Romney is the flip flopper to end all flip floppers, willing to say virtually anything for a vote. Gingrich has a history with Americans that conjures up nastiness and revulsion. Ron Paul wants to go back on the gold standard, favors a policy of isolationism, plus wants to cut the government roughly in half. Rick Santorum thinks birth control should not even be covered by insurance plans. This is borne out in polls where each candidate is polled against President Obama in a hypothetical election. Talking Points Memo keeps a list of these head to head matchups. In the best of them for Republicans, Obama leads Romney by seven points. If the election were held today, he would trounce Gingrich by thirteen points, Ron Paul by ten points and Santorum by seven points.

As I said, dynamics can change as the campaigns get underway. However, it’s already understood that Republicans are underwhelmed with their candidates this year. This is evidenced by substantially lower rates of participation by Republicans in primaries and caucuses to date compared with recent years. Unless their nominee can subsequently animate Republicans in a way they so far haven’t, this trend is likely to continue through the election, giving Democrats an enthusiasm advantage. Surprisingly, Democrats appear to be rallying behind Obama in this election, and their enthusiasm level seems quite high, in spite of the fact that Obama has governed the country more like a 1970s establishment Republican than a Democrat.

Of course, the biggest factor determining this election the state will be of the economy. It remains to be seen how it will play out, but the recovery seems to be becoming tangible to ordinary Americans at last, with the unemployment rate likely to be below eight percent in a month or two. This is a rate that is still too high, but the unemployment rate seems to be steadily dropping rather than holding steady. As a trend, it suggests whatever Obama is doing is working, at least belatedly. Independents would be hard-pressed to choose an unknown commodity over a known one that is delivering, particularly when the choice may affect their job prospects and bank balances.

Will all this good economic news make the public more forgiving toward their Congress? There is little evidence of this, with approval ratings of Congress hovering in the 10 to 13 percent range. What’s hard to figure out is how much of this disgust will translate into “throw my representative out of Congress too”. If so will it be bipartisan, or partisan? Given the likely higher enthusiasm from Democrats in this election, it seems likely that Democrats will benefit from these dynamics rather than Republicans. Republicans have two small factors in their favor: voter ID laws likely to reduce votes from minorities and completion of redistricting, making Republicans more likely to retain seats than lose them.

There are a lot of retiring Democratic senators this year, so Democrats will be fighting headwinds trying to retain their narrow control of the Senate. 2010 turned out to be a change election in favor of House Republicans. Two years though of a Tea Party dominated House have left most Americans infuriated with their obstructionism and unwillingness to compromise. Disapproval of Congress is today higher than it was prior to the 2010 election. Given that many Republicans are likely to sit out this election, it’s not unreasonable to think that Democrats will regain control of the House. I think the odds are at least 50/50 Democrats will succeed.

I do suspect that barring any great surprises that Obama will cruise to an easy reelection. This will be for no other reason that he is a defender of the status quo, and Americans like their Social Security and Medicare. The Senate is likelier than not to switch to Republican control, but only narrowly if it occurs. The means that Democrats can keep the Senate as bollixed up as Republicans have done. If I had to bet, I’d bet that Democrats will regain the House, marginally lose the Senate and retain the White House.

In the election’s aftermath, Republicans will have to look at the wreckage. The sober ones will have to ask how much of it was self-inflicted by moving even further to the right. As Barry Goldwater put it in the 1964 election, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.” Maybe not, but extremism by nominees for a political party is likely to be a vote loser. After much moaning and groaning, this may open a welcome space for centrist Republicans again. They are likely to find plenty of independents that were reluctantly voting for Democrats only because there was no centrist Republicans.

The Thinker

Life under the mask

There are things in life that really, really suck, like finding out you have terminal cancer. Then there is stuff that really sucks, like losing your job. There is also ordinary stuff that sucks, like missing a connecting flight. Then there is stuff that you wish you could say sucks but you might get a reputation for being whiny for saying it sucks. For those of you who suffer from sleep apnea and are having treated it the typical way (by trying to sleep with a mask over your nose and/or mouth while mechanically pumped air zooms down your windpipe), you will relate to my opinion that the experience really sucks.

Most sucky experiences though are transitory. Using a CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) or BPAP (bi-way positive airway pressure) machine while sleeping is the way those of us with sleep apnea should sleep for the rest of our lives. The result of not using it could be, not to mince words, deadly. When you have sleep apnea, your lungs decide to shut down while you sleep, causing carbon dioxide buildup and increased blood pressure. This can cause various heart ailments including heart attacks, blocked arteries, strokes and maybe waking up dead.

So it is truly remarkable that given the potentially deadly consequences, so many patients prescribed a CPAP or BPAP simply stop using it. They’ll take their chances with sleep apnea and sudden death, thank you very much. Because when you have to do something annoying for eight hours when you crave uninterrupted sleep, your CPAP or BPAP (a branded version of a BPAP is a BiPAP) is going to feel more like an enemy than your friend.

Is there no pill I can take? Alas, none is available, and it appears there never will be one either. No pill and your remaining choices are chancy at best. If you are very overweight or obese, sometimes losing the weight will cause the sleep apnea to go away. Or not. In my case, I am not a whole lot overweight, so the sleep doctor doubts it will do much good. Even so I may give it a try. Trying to sleep with my BPAP is so annoying it may be worth taking off that weight and more and hope for the best. Then maybe I can fully sleep again.

There is also a dental appliance you can try. My brother, who also suffers from sleep apnea, tried it to bad effect. He may need orthoscopic surgery to correct his jaw alignment. You can also have your uvula, tonsils, adenoids and some throat tissue removed. Even with all that radical surgery, it only cures sleep apnea about a third of the time. And it is quite expensive, painful and could have side effects.

Of course, the reason you use a CPAP or BPAP is to get sleep you are not getting, the vital REM (rapid eye movement) sleep that makes dreaming so vivid. In my case two sleep studies confirmed I got no REM sleep at all. Presumably I am at least getting some of it now. However, my BPAP is hardly conducive to sleeping. Let me count just some of the ways:

  • Your mask probably won’t seal very well. Cleaning the mask nightly helps by removing oils from your skin that accumulate on the mask’s seal. To really get a good seal you have to lock the mask down. This means pulling the mask’s head straps quite tight and locking down the screw that connects the mask with your forehead. This in turn means indentations on your forehead in the morning and maybe a headache. You do this to avoid the whistling noise that results when the extra pressure from your machine finds a way to escape. In any event you, try a little of this, a little of that and at least in my case it never seals perfectly. In my case, with every breath some cold air hisses out near the bridge of my nose and that keeps me awake.
  • Even if you think your mask is sealed, it will start whistling in the night. This is because the machines are usually programmed to start off at a low level, hoping you fall asleep before it really cranks up the air pressure. It needs to do this to keep the windpipe open. This whistling will usually wake you up. You will probably reach for the button on the machine that turns the air pressure down a bit, but it will be back at full pressure in an hour or so.
  • If your nose is disjoint because it was broken, like mine, then the top of the mask won’t seal well. Worse, it irritates the bridge of the nose. When I complained I was sent a jelly-like piece of plastic that is draped over the bridge of the nose. It definitely helps but is hard to get on correctly, because you have to tip your head up while you try to don the mask, so the plastic won’t fall off.
  • When you sleep, you expect your body to relax. It should be natural for your breathing to slow down. Not with your machine on. Your lungs expand and contract, sometimes like you are in a brisk walk. That does not stimulate sleepy feelings.
  • The mask feels claustrophobic. Particularly if you sleep with your mouth open, you will breathe out warm air from your body into the mask and thus on your face. Had I grown up in a tropical climate, maybe this would feel okay, but it feels weird instead.
  • With the BPAP machine that I use, the cycle varies. As you exhale the pressure drops. The machine doesn’t necessarily get the cycle right. So you either feel like you are breathing too much or, worse, that you are not breathing enough. Particularly if you rise to go to the bathroom, then reconnect the mask to the machine, and the machine restarts at a low level, you may feel like you are not getting enough oxygen, and it’s hard to suppress the shortness of breath feeling. Which means, you stay awake and feel a bit panicky.
  • You both hear and feel your breathing. The mask amplifies your breath. The mask itself expands and contracts a bit while I breath, making a crinkling noise and potentially unsealing the mask. This also means that if you do get to sleep you might sleep through your alarm because you won’t hear it. Instead, you will be listening to yourself breathe.
  • Since you are tethered to the machine with a hose, the hose is a constant distraction while you shift in bed. So you spend a fair amount of your rest time pushing the damn hose out of the way.

I hope I can get used to it. I’ve talked with other sleep apnea sufferers who say they have, but I imagine it takes years, if it happens at all. After thirty days of use my sleep doctor will look at the metrics collected by the machine and adjust my settings. I sure hope she will drop the pressure a notch or two. It seems excessive at 3 AM.

Using a CPAP or BPAP is really like spending every night in an iron lung. It may be that an iron lung is really what we sleep apnea sufferers need to get a decent sleep, providing we can fit a bed inside one. An iron lung however is likely prohibitively expensive, and it’s doubtful your spouse wants you sleeping in one. So it’s a CPAP or BPAP instead.

So forgive me for venting. Whining is good for my system. And while I realize I am just whining, it really sucks.

The Thinker

Review: Cowboys and Aliens (2011)

I am guessing the conversation in the producer’s office for this movie went something like this:

Producer #1: Movies with space aliens are always hot at the box office. Let’s make another one of those.
Producer #2: I don’t know. It’s been done so many times. It’s impossible to find a new premise. Maybe we should make an old fashioned western instead.
Producer #1: Nah, not a good idea. Cowboys are assumed to be gays these days. I mean, what about Brokeback Mountain?
Producer #2: Man, I got a ton of people with deep pockets itching to say they produced something. We got the means; all we need is the movie, man!
Producer #1: Wait a minute: what about cowboys and aliens? I don’t think that’s been done before.
Producer #2: Great idea! It’s box office gold!

The movie Cowboys & Aliens sure seems like a producer’s amalgamation. As for producers, it has a ton: six executive producers, four co-producers and seven regular and boring producers. All but one or two of them were needed for one important reason only: as a source of cash for financing the film, which was doubtlessly expensive, the price for which was their names in the credits. Just to make sure it didn’t quickly flame out, it was released as a Dreamworks project, and thus comes with Stephen Spielberg’s imprimatur. Long gone from theaters, but available on DVD, the movie is as good an excuse as any to pop a bag of microwave popcorn and sink into the loveseat in front of the wide screen TV for a couple of hours.

Selecting director Jon Favreau must have seemed a safe bet. After all, he directed both Iron Man movies. To improve the odds even more, the film includes the new James Bond (Daniel Craig, as Jake Lonergan), Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford, as Woodrow Dolarhyde) and the original Kung Fu man himself (Keith Carradine, as Sheriff John Taggart).

Creating a screenplay must have proven quite a problem, as no less than five authors claim credit for it, and three others claim credit for the story. Scott Mitchell Rosenberg, who is also listed as one of the producers, apparently was the creator of the comic book on which the movie is based. In short, Cowboys & Aliens shows all the signs of being an imperfect amalgamated work of art. You will probably feel the same way after completing this 119-minute movie.

I bet you can guess its plot: cowboys will encounter aliens, and not the peaceful The Day the Earth Stood Still kind, but the mean, ornery kind. The kind that likes to kidnap Westerners and lusts after gold the way vampires lust after fresh blood. They are suitably creepy and slimy and come with two sets of appendages, including extra slimy inner arms that open up from inside their chests. They have a mother ship busy mining for gold and fighter jets that like to go around a blow up western towns while kidnapping local townies, generally the more attractive ones.

Jake Lonergan finds himself waking up on the Arizona steppe like he had been in a bar fight to end all bar fights, with a wound in his side and with a funky contraption around one arm made of metal and which flashes when aliens are near. He conveniently cannot remember his name or anything else, but he does manage to stumble into a troubled western town to clean up. There he encounters Percy Dolarhyde (Paul Dano), the hotheaded son of the local cattle baron, who knows his pappy (played by Harrison Ford) will bail him out no matter how much he abuses the townies. Yep, this is the meanest part of the Wild West, or at least territorial Arizona, and the local sheriff has his hands full, in part because Lonergan is a wanted man.

The good guys and bad guys would be content to beat up on each other but instead they have to clumsily deal with space aliens, who seem to be target practicing on Dolarhyde’s cattle. Needless to say everyone is pretty freaked out, but Dolarhyde the senior (Ford) finds the timing bad for doing what he really wants, which is beating the crap out of Lonergan for past grievances. Instead the two make common purpose to find the aliens, free the townies that were captured, hopefully kill all the aliens and blow their spaceship to bits as well. Fortunately, they have Ella Swanson (Olivia Wilde), a younger and shapely woman who seems to dote on the unavailable Lonergan, and whom we eventually discover is actually a being from another planet. She knows what these aliens are all about and, more importantly, where their Achilles Heal is. She needs Lonergan, Dolarhyde and their assortment of ruffians and posses (not to mention a local Apache tribe) to defeat them. Fortunately, the aliens are not immune to gunfire, and their spacecraft doesn’t react well to dynamite.

Did I give away too much? Not really. The title of the movie largely gives the plot away. And since conflict is implied by the title, it only remains to be seen if your interest can be sustained. Favreau does his best with the material, as do Craig, Ford and the rest of the cast. The special effects certainly are really nice, if par for the course these days. Unfortunately, acting heroics cannot substitute for a plot that is not terribly interesting and for characters that you don’t care about very much.

So the answer to the question: is a movie with cowboys and aliens together a good idea? Well, not so much, at least not this iteration. Perhaps it will be tried again someday and it will work. It doesn’t work here. If you want to say you’ve seen every movie with space aliens in it, you had better see this one. Otherwise, Cowboys & Aliens is more likely to have you wanting to slip your ten-gallon hat over your eyes for a two-hour siesta. It won’t take you long to figure out how this movie will play out, which means that they should have added your name to the list of screenwriters too.

2.8 on my four-point scale.

Rating: ★★¾☆ 

The Thinker

Aging: this ride is not an E ticket

Another birthday rolled in today. Curiously, what also came in my mailbox on my birthday was my new drivers license. Before I shredded my old license I looked at its picture, taken ten years earlier. Comparing the two photos was rather shocking. I was ten years older and I looked ten years older. Maybe I looked older.

Drivers’ license pictures have this knack for making you look old and/or ugly. The DMV gloriously succeeded with me, making me scrunch down to get into the camera’s frame. The new photo is in black and white, which by itself is guaranteed to make you look older. It also gives prominence to my receding hairline, something I had not noticed before. I seem to be developing a sag under my chin. Perhaps its worst feature is the dark looking circles under my eyes, something I never see when I look in the mirror, but which a black and white picture adds. I look grandfather-like, sort of like Grandpa from The Munsters. The horror!

It’s a brave new world that I inhabit as I cross a boundary in time between my lower fifties and my upper fifties. In the novel Brave New World, it seemed everyone was on an antidepressant known as soma, which made life feel blissful. Thankfully, I am not on an antidepressant but slowly over the last ten years my medicine cabinet expanded with a host of prescription medications. In order to keep my aorta from getting too big I am on two heart medicines: Flecainide and Simvastin. (The men in my family have enlarged aortas, an effect of Marfans-like symptoms.) To control cholesterol, I am on a statin, specifically Simvastin. To reduce high triglycerides, I was put on a pricey drug that is encapsulated in fish oil called Lovaza. Then there is the nasal spray (Nasonex), which seems to help with the chronic stuffiness and nasal discharge. Plus there is one optional medicine: Terbafine, which is supposed to kill toenail fungi.

So I take six prescription medicines in all, plus a couple of supplemental ones if I need them, including a muscle relaxant for the sciatica. And speaking of supplements, I take a daily Vitamin D supplement because we middle aged people just don’t absorb much of it naturally, no matter how much time we spend in the sun. There is also a silver multivitamin, because I’m over fifty. There are also fiber capsules to make certain things move more predictably. I also take a baby aspirin to reduce the likelihood of blood clots as well as a daily Zyrtec, which I may give up.

Here is a list of the medicines I took at age twenty: nothing. I didn’t need any but that’s because my body mostly worked like clockwork back then and, of course, I had no health insurance. Now, it gets crankier and I feel creakier, resulting in really annoying conditions like sciatica and numerous trips to my chiropractor. All this plus you try to exercise as much as you can with a sedentary job and mind your doctors’ insistent urgings (only partially successfully) to refrain from all the foods you enjoy and eat all the stuff that vegans love but leave you taste deprived.

However, nothing says “old” better than using a BiPAP machine. A BiPAP machine is a close cousin to a CPAP machine, and is used by the millions of Americans like me with sleep apnea. After two sleep studies, the doctor of sleepology sort of knows what’s going on with me, and she is insistent that every night when I sleep I must wear an ungainly facemask and attach it to my BiPAP. What it does is make my breathing regular while sleeping. Thanks to the power of durable medical equipment it pushes air into my lungs while I sleep, preventing snoring and (hopefully) sleep apnea. If you have sleep apnea, you have lungs that like to sleep along with you. They can’t be bothered to provide all the oxygen you need and will even shut down, until your unconscious brain realizes something is wrong, shoots some adrenaline into your blood and you abruptly start breathing again.  This should wakes you up, although most of the time you are too sleepy to notice. Instead you usually arise in the morning feeling tired and tend to want to nap during the afternoon.

If I had been prescribed a CPAP machine, a steady stream of air would go down my windpipe all night, but that’s not the best fit for an old coot like me. Instead, I get the BiPAP machine, which works with my natural breathing. It knows when I am inhaling and pushes extra air into my lungs in a scientifically controlled and measured manner. To accomplish this I wear a large tightly sealed mask over my face and nose all night. The air is delivered through a sealed plastic hose attached to the BiPAP machine. The mask does not seal perfectly because a couple of years back I broke my nose, making wearing the mask somewhat uncomfortable and with some loss of pressure due to mask leaks. But hopefully while I am tethered to this machine the sleep apnea is gone but at least so far my sleep is not comfortable. I hope that I will get used to it in time. It seems I have no choice. Yet, something must be working, as I run to the bathroom in the middle of the night much less than I used to. I have yet to wake up feeling refreshed like a baby after a night on my BiPAP machine, something I hear happens, but perhaps that is coming.

In any event, all these medicines, minor ailments and durable medical equipment simply reinforce the obvious fact revealed in my drivers license: that I am aging, I know it, people who know me know it, and that the black and white camera at the DMV has documented it in its database and on my license. A much different future than my youth awaits. I’d best settle in for the ride. It sure won’t be an E ticket.


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