Archive for March, 2012

The Thinker

The Trayvon Martin homicide: a series of unfortunate and preventable events

What can I possibly say about the Trayvon Martin homicide that hasn’t already been said? Likely very little, but that won’t keep me from trying. In case you were living on another planet these last couple of weeks, Trayvon Martin was a 17 year old black teenager from Sanford, Florida who was visiting relatives a month ago. He went to get some junk food and was accosted by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer, while returning to his relative’s house. Martin had the audacity of being black in a predominantly white neighborhood, and was armed only with iced tea and Skittles. Zimmerman, who is half white and half Peruvian, carried a loaded gun on his neighborhood watch rounds. Some sort of altercation ensued after Zimmerman accosted him. Somewhat before Zimmerman shot and killed Martin he phoned local police, who advised him not to harass the teenager. The altercation allegedly left Zimmerman with a broken, or at least a bloody nose. It also definitely left Martin dead. Police refused to file charges against Zimmerman because Florida is one of a few states with a stand your ground law that gives people the right to shoot other people without first retreating if they reasonably perceive their life is in danger.

The incident went unnoticed by the press for a couple of weeks until it suddenly emerged and consumed the whole country. Nobody seems to occupy a middle ground. Most people (including me) are aghast but not wholly surprised by the homicide. Others think Zimmerman was within his rights based on what appears to be an assault by Martin as evidenced by the injury to Zimmerman’s nose. Of course, had Zimmerman not challenged Martin in the first place, no altercation would have occurred.  Martin would be alive and eating more Skittles, and the press would be covering more mundane stories like the tacit end of Newt Gingrich’s presidential campaign.

I think it is more than likely that Zimmerman is not an overt racist but like many Republicans is overly concerned with the notion of the sanctity of property and the preeminence of community values. A black guy wearing a hoodie in a predominantly white neighborhood looked like potential trouble to this resident of The Retreat at Twin Lakes. I also believe it is quite likely that a white teenager from outside the neighborhood wearing a hoodie and sporting iced tea and Skittles would probably not have drawn much attention from Zimmerman.

A small part of me empathizes with Zimmerman. I live in a predominantly white neighborhood that is about ten percent Asian. Some weeks back I saw a trio of black teenagers hanging out on the local street corner in my neighborhood around the time I got home. I don’t recall if they had hoodies on or not, but their attire was definitely not what most of the teens in the neighborhood were wearing. If I recall correctly they were in gray sweats and wore sweatbands. And I felt a wee bit concerned simply because their presence was odd. I haven’t seen them since and I never went for my gun (I don’t own one) or bothered to call the police. But simply because their presence was unusual, I filed away the incident in my brain under some vague and potentially suspicious behavior category. Frankly, the only time you see three or more people in our neighborhood hanging around a street corner is when they are waiting for a school bus. Usually a handful of mothers are nearby. That was not the case here.

I also doubt that Zimmerman was hoping to shoot Martin. If I had to infer what happened during the encounter from the obviously sketchy known facts, it would go something like this. Zimmerman flagged Martin because he was from outside the neighborhood and was also black. He accosted Zimmerman, asked him his business and Martin probably told him to insert his erect male sex organ into his anal canal. Zimmerman probably then phoned the police, who did not tell him what he wanted to hear, and so he went back to accost the boy again. This time his words likely got harsher and his voice reached a higher octave. He came inside Martin’s personal space. Martin probably felt threatened and either lunged at Zimmerman or threw his bottle of iced tea at him. It is unlikely that Zimmerman gave himself a broken nose, although it is possible he slipped on some spilled iced tea. As is often the case when you have a loaded gun and your emotions overtake your sense of reason, he felt threatened and used what he had readily available: his gun. Reports that he felt remorse over the incident are not surprising, because most human beings would feel remorse once their momentary hot temper recedes and reason resurfaces. For all but a handful of psychopaths, killing anyone is an abhorrent act.

It’s clear to me that the State of Florida aided and abetted this homicide. Its stand your ground law was enacted primarily to make the NRA happy, and since the NRA helped put many of them in office it was an easy law to pass. Nonetheless, rational legislators are supposed to think through implications of bills before voting them into law. They could have asked any local cop on the beat how the typical homicide happens. Rarely is it premeditated. Almost all of them are spur of the moment decisions, decisions made when overpowering emotions momentarily overrule rational thought. There appears to be no requirement in Florida for neighborhood watch volunteers to get any sort of training. However, police officers get plenty of training to think before shooting and make sure that shooting someone is justified by the nature of the incident and the law. A combination of events including probably Zimmerman’s temperament made him a short fuse.

We all want to protect what is ours and live in safe neighborhoods, preferably surrounded by neighbors who share our values. Home is a place where we should be able to relax and let our guards down. Some, like apparently Zimmerman, are more territorial and paranoid than others. Zimmerman may also have found some satisfaction as a neighborhood watch volunteer, because it let him place his values into direct action. This seems to be the case; given that the Sanford police department has a log with dozens of calls from Zimmerman about suspicious incidents in his neighborhood. Zimmerman’s values apparently are shared by Florida’s legislature and governor. It is likely that as a gun owner Zimmerman knew about the stand your ground law, and this marginally affected his behavior in this incident. It may have fed a feeling of justification that he was doing right by the law and his community.

It is likely that even the Florida legislature did not envision this law applying to neighborhood watch volunteers, and will likely amend or repeal the law under the pressure from so many diverse interest groups. Still, the right to use deadly force to ensure your imminent safety is already recognized, providing you first retreat if safe to do so. Given that Martin was armed only with iced tea and Skittles, he likely was not much of an imminent threat. Something must have been envisioned by the Florida legislature that precipitated the passage of this law, although it is hard for me to understand what circumstances could possibly justify murdering someone that was not already covered by law. My inability to figure out these scenarios simply amplifies the meme among most people that these laws are really a statement of some sort, probably that some citizens are or should be more equal than others, particularly property owners. “They” would be the George Zimmermans of the world and not the Trayvon Martins. It is also curious that six of the ten states with these laws have had long histories of institutional lynching.

These laws strike me as legislation designed to assuage perceived fears rather than real ones and that rather than breeding more communal safety they simply fan the flames of intolerance and bigotry instead, flames that we seem unable to wholly put out. Tragically, Trayvon Martin is its latest and most prominent victim.

The Thinker

You’re dying. So what else is new?

The inescapable implication of being alive is that you will die. Most of us accept our mortality in a kind of abstract way. We are aware of it but choose not to dwell on it. Fortunately, life offers us plenty of reasons to ignore it. For most of us, simply surviving is a full time struggle. Contemplating your eventual death is easier to ignore when you are young but less so as you age.

Retirement is one way I grapple indirectly with death. I am fortunate enough to be able to retire this year at age 55 if I choose to do so. I coped with this fact by assuming I would pick up some other job. It so happened that an instructor position opened up at the community college where I teach as an adjunct. However, when they finally offered me an interview, I turned them down. I had my reasons but one of them was that I wasn’t ready to kiss a demanding but enjoyable full time job I love goodbye, at least not quite yet. Retiring, even if it is to another job, made me feel old. Being employed and well moneyed makes me feel needed and validated.

A terminal illness should make you confront your mortality at last. My mother in law was diagnosed as terminally ill last week. She has stage-four lung cancer and her prognosis is four to 6 more months of living. There is some hope that a $6000 pill might extend her life another year, but its success rate is marginal. Operating is out of the question. Her heart is operating at twenty percent of normal and she had part of her left lung removed a few years ago in a previous attempt to get rid of lung cancer.  She still gets around but now needs supplemental oxygen day and night. Her blood oxygen levels are now so low that she will need a blood transfusion this week.

She seemed to have an inkling that the biopsy would give her this terminal news. Even without the lung cancer, her life is precarious because of her heart disease. A combination of factors that come with age and poor choices earlier in life (like smoking) have caught up with her. However, she has managed to live into her eighties. Given her health history, this in itself is remarkable.

Long time readers know that I lost my mother in 2005, but spent about five years witnessing her decline. The whole experience was wrenching for me, my family and of course my mother. (Her eulogy however has proven to be immortal, since six years later it is my most frequently read post, averaging about thirty five page views per day.) Now I get to watch the process indirectly and somewhat more dispassionately, as she is my wife’s mother, not mine and she lives two thousand miles away instead of thirty miles away.

My wife is discovering that it makes a difference when your own parent is the one who is dying. To say the least she is distressed and feels pulled many ways. Should she immediately fly to Phoenix where her mother lives? What would she do there that is not already being done? For now she has the lifeline of the telephone, an imperfect way of communicating concern, until she figures out an optimal time to fly across the country to see her. So far they have not really talked about the elephant in the room.

What can you really say to someone who is dying that does any good? There is really nothing you can say or do that will change the fact that her death is staring her in the face. You can say you love her, which is undeniably true, but love by itself is not strong enough to repel death. You ache with all your heart to take this millstone off her neck, but there is no way to do so. You want to be a positive presence in her life but at the same time you are wracked with turmoil. It’s useless to pretend otherwise, but some amount of pretense seems to be required in order to keep you from becoming a weeping, sobbing mess. If you are brave enough, particularly in their last weeks, you hover by their deathbed as they slowly slip from this world and maybe hold their hand and stroke their forehead as they pass.

That comes at the very end. Meanwhile there are months of a slow decline, with small triumphs and setbacks. The whole family stays on edge. Tempers are likely to flair; this is our mother we are talking about. And yet there are conversations that need to happen. Is there a living will? Has Power of Attorney been granted? Where does she want to be buried? Is she okay with cremation? It seems uncharitable to bring up these topics, but they really need to be discussed. The American way of dying is often laborious and filled with paperwork.

My wife won’t go alone to Phoenix, at least not for all of her visits. I plan to visit at least once, likely as she moves closer to death. Just as my wife’s perspective of my mother was vastly different than my own, so is my perspective of my mother in law different than my wife’s. To me, she was mostly a kind-hearted sweetheart, deserving of my love and respect. From the day of our marriage I called her “Mom”, for she became an honorary mother in my life as well as something of a substitute mother after my own mother died. I enjoyed calling her on Mothers Day, and chatting with her on the phone and even sending her cards on birthdays and holidays, particularly after my mother was gone. It was easy to do and heartfelt. Before she dies she certainly deserves to hear from my own mouth my love for her, and my appreciation for having her in my life. To the extent she wants me and I have time available, I can be near her and simply listen to her. My role may be invaluable, because I do not come with the baggage of a biological relationship. I can serve as an independent reference of her self worth and validate her existence on this planet. In short, I can act sort of as a minister and will be glad to do so. And should she want to confess her fears and failures to me, I will be glad to listen with an open heart.

My own mother departed this world with some baggage not resolved between us. She alluded to it before she died but we never quite had the conversation we should have had. We all must meet death, but death must be a little sweeter and easier to endure if your heart is not troubled by sorrow for past mistakes.

In the end, helping her reach this stage honestly is probably the best use of my time, and hers.

The Thinker


Winter never really arrived this year. Typically we don’t get much in the way of snowfall in a given winter, but the snowplows tend to come out at least a couple of times during the season. And they were out a couple of times this winter as well, but they were mostly sitting by the side of the road waiting for conditions to worsen, which they did not. Most of our snow this winter, to the extent we had it, was flurries. None of the snow that we received lasted a day or exceeded an inch. To the extent we saw snow, it was on the top of cars that had driven in from the Shenandoah Mountains or points further north and west.

Temperatures also were moderate. There was a cold day here and there. I only recall temperatures dipping into the teens once. I usually go through six to eight weeks of scraping the frost off my windshield most days. This year I performed the chore only a half dozen times. Technically it was winter, but in reality it was some new amorphous season for which we have no name. Neither fall nor spring but feeling not at all like winter, it was full of short days, with highs mostly in the fifties but sometimes in the seventies. March brought a couple of days with temperatures creeping into the low eighties. The grass in my yard started growing in early March. The wild onions were peaking up in January. The cherry blossoms around the Tidal Basin bloomed over the weekend: a surreally early start to spring that was (and still is) winter.

Thanks to climate change, we are likely to have to come up for a new name for winter because it no longer fits. On the plus side, our heating bill was manageable. No need to worry about frozen pipes, or being stuck in a snow bank. Only twice did I put on the heavy winter coat. A light jacket and some gloves were all I needed.

My wife wants to move further north to some place like Boston where winter is still cruel and still bites, and where you spend most mornings relocating snow off your driveway and digging a path to your mailbox. I’m pretty sure Bostonians did a whole lot less of that this year as well. Ski resorts spent much of the winter hunting for snow and customers. They created ski slopes loosely packed with artificial snow, which mostly vanished shortly after application. Out west, the usual mountain snowfalls largely never appeared. Westerners are already anxious about the probable drought they will be facing this summer.

One year does not a trend make, but one trend that is unmistakable is the rise in average global temperatures. There is about a one in three chance that this summer will be the hottest on record, again. It clearly won’t be much longer before the last of the Arctic sea ice melts during the summer. Much of it will reappear in the winter, but its gradual disappearance will lead to the extinction of many species that depend on the ice, like the polar bear. It is likely that extinction driven by climate change is already very much with us but we are simply not looking for it. Like a horse running a race with blinders, most of us simply choose to ignore the evidence all around us. The planet is fundamentally and rapidly changing, and not for the better.

You would think conservatives of all people would be alarmed. You cannot go back to those mythical good old days when the climate is so radically different. Instead, they are the ones aiding and abetting climate change. They do it through well-practiced and obnoxious denial of indisputable facts. Science is irrelevant because if you can acquire power you can legislate the science you want, such as they are doing in Texas where teaching “creationism” and a six thousand year old earth to public school students is considered on par with teaching evolution. Facts simply get in the way with the way you want things to be. Ignoring facts gives you the opportunity to not only keep climate change going, but to make it worse. Gas prices are approaching record levels and naturally it’s all Obama’s fault. It has nothing to do with demand worldwide by a wealthier and overpopulated planet that is taking off, as predicted, exceeding available capacity. $2.50 a gallon gas if you elect me, promises Newt Gingrich. Yet doing more to stimulate demand simply raises prices higher.

Acknowledging what is happening at least lets you ponder what can be done about it. Natural gas is not a long-term solution, but it can be a bridge that can move us to a carbon free energy future. It is plentiful and cheap as well as clean, but with the exception of some city buses, it’s hard to find any motor vehicles using it. No automaker that I am aware of is working to create cars powered by natural gas. Why should they when it’s so hard to get a fill up? Presumably Republicans think the free market will solve the problem but no one in the free market seems to be stepping up to the plate. Those few Republicans that acknowledge the problem know what is really required: government regulation and the (horror!) spending that comes with it. We need to require carmakers to build cars powered by natural gas. We need natural gas filling stations along all our major interstates. In populated neighborhoods, there should be a requirement that you should not have to drive more than five miles to fill up your tank with natural gas. Require it and Americans will start to drive cars powered by natural gas. Why wouldn’t they when natural gas will cost half as much, or less, than gasoline? Moreover, there are few things we cherish more than our mobility. If we can reliably fill up our cars with natural gas, we’ll take to it like a duck to water. But to do so requires the hand of government, and that must be socialism or something.

We are saying in effect that we are okay with our extinction, in spite of our so-called reverence for human life. I’d say in retrospect we’d have to say we saw our extinction coming. However, there won’t be any of us left to ponder these preventable mistakes. One thing is for sure: we cannot change the future until we acknowledge the present and let the facts instead of uninformed prejudices drive our policy.

The good news for the planet is that our extinction is likely to come sooner rather than later. Then maybe the planet can recover. We seem to be incapable of being stewards of our planet. Indeed, we believe it is our job to rape it. It’s in the Book of Genesis, and we must let nothing like inconvenient facts contravene our sacred scripts.

Our sacred scripts are also destined to disappear into the dust with our extinction and will thus ultimately mean nothing, except that our species was a foolish accident of nature whose extinction, fortunately, we hastened. We will have painfully destroyed ourselves as well as much of the species we depend on. That which we claimed to conserve and cherish, we will ultimately squander on the altar of reckless human selfishness.

Unless, very improbably, we take to heart the lesson of The Lorax now in theaters. Unless. The hour is very, very late.

The Thinker

And the award for the world’s most annoying program goes to…

Granted there is a lot of stiff competition out there for annoying programs. But to me it’s an easy call. Adobe Acrobat Reader is the world’s most annoying program.

It’s annoying because it fulfills an important need: rendering and printing documents. Because no matter how hard we try, we can’t kill the page. We still need pages and since we now live in an electronic world we need to render legal electronic documents perfectly on paper in an efficient manner. Lots of programs can put content onto pages but only Portable Document Format (PDF) and its ubiquitous Acrobat Reader companion can arguably display WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) page content onto virtually any device or operating system.

Technically the Microsoft Word format is an open standard, but in principle if you need to do word processing, you will uses Microsoft Word instead of its few competitors like OpenOffice. We use Adobe Acrobat Reader because the Adobe Corporation works hard to make Reader free and ubiquitous. It was first to market and has worked relentlessly to keep it there.

However, it manages to do so in a way that is not just obtrusive, but obnoxious. It feels like it constantly wants you to upgrade it, generally because hackers regularly find new security holes in the product. So Adobe patches the particular security hole and pushes out an urgent upgrade announcement that you will encounter. Chances are it won’t be long before the next upgrade announcement. If you are curious, then check out this link. Acrobat Reader Version 10 alone had eight security patches released in 2011. Version 9 had nine security patches in last year. And those are just the security patches. Each version of Acrobat introduces new features to the product and into PDF. If you receive a PDF that uses these features, Reader will detect this and urge you to upgrade Reader. It is hard to go more than a week without getting an annoying request to upgrade Reader on your device.

Enterprises do their best to manage these security patches for you, as does the organization where I work. Even so, I get version upgrade alerts, typically on my status bar in a pop up when I log in. Reader thoughtfully gives me a link to where I can download the upgrade. Unfortunately, most of us working in the enterprise don’t have permissions to upgrade the software. Adobe should be able to detect this and suppress the pop ups for us unempowered peons, but they can’t seem to be bothered to program around it. Which means you get an upgrade pop up every time you log into your machine until your service desk manages to push out a change.

Lots of products these days come with the silent upgrade capability. Google Chrome is a prominent example. Firefox is working on a similar feature. I am not sure why Acrobat cannot do the same thing. It may be because it requires more operating system permissions than browsers, which triggers security policies in the underlying operating system, hence the annoying pop ups. Or it may be that because it is so buggy, the operating system won’t trust its silent upgrades. However, I secretly suspect that Adobe likes being able to nag us via the upgrade process. It’s a way to tell us, “We’re alive! And we are still relevant!”

When you finally succumb and decide to upgrade, there is a decent chance Adobe will use the opportunity to market to you, principally to purchase their full-featured Adobe Acrobat product. If you are not careful, you might install Acrobat Air as well, which is usually bundled in the upgrade, and possibly upgrades to other Adobe products as well. You will probably be required to sit through a slew of these ads during the upgrade. Adobe sees the need to upgrade Reader as a back channel and free marketing mechanism.

You can in theory purge Reader from your computer. Of course, if you do so you won’t be able to read any documents in a PDF format, unless they come off the web and a PDF emulator is built into your browser. There are third party alternatives out there and here are a few. It’s likely that these alternatives will annoy you to upgrade less often, but it’s unclear if they can handle PDF documents that embed newer Acrobat features or if these products also have security holes or are even trustworthy. There are be plenty of security holes discovered in Reader, but at least you know that when found they should get patched.

There doesn’t seem to be a way for the computer user to win here. To escape Adobe Reader upgrade hell, you either have to give up the ability to see and print PDF files at all on your computer or use a potentially untrustworthy third party PDF reader that might not be able to handle new features being introduced into Acrobat by Adobe. Or you can continue to use Reader and put up with its constant annoying notices, upgrades, patches and advertising.

Of course, Adobe could engineer a solid product and give us a few years without security bugs or new features. But that would require solid software engineering and probably affect their bottom line. So there is little likelihood that this will happen.

Which means that it’s likely the Adobe Acrobat Reader aggravation will continue for years to come.

The Thinker

Review: The Help

The Help succeeds in leaving the viewer feeling quite appalled. After all, fifty years was not that long ago. Yet it was a time when racism was very much with us. For example, two miles down the road from where I live at Frying Pan Park one can find what is now a country store. What it was until 1964, when Virginia was brought kicking and screaming at last into the modern age, was the Floris Colored School. That’s how racist my state still was in the early 1960s.

The Help takes place further south, in Jackson, Mississippi but things were not too different here in Virginia. Blacks largely did menial work. Few blacks could even begin to dream of attending college, and almost certainly not black women. Women found employment as maids for white families. Maid does not really describe their full range of duties, which included childrearing, cleaning and cooking. They made a relative pittance and did not even qualify for social security benefits. Jim Crow laws made it hard for many of them to vote. Blacks were kept in their place, by violence if necessary. Maids servicing the homes of white families even had to use separate colored restrooms; they were considered unsanitary.

All these indignities and more are painfully borne out in The Help, a heart wrenching and excellently acted film that was unsurprisingly nominated for a number of awards at the Oscars this year. Octavia Spencer deservedly won best supporting actress for her role as the maid Minny Jackson. Surprisingly, Emma Stone did not get an award for her terrific performance as Skeeter Phelan. Stone brings spunkiness and humanity to her role as a budding writer who feels compelled to secretly write a book about the lives of those who serve Jackson’s white community, while earning a modest living writing a housekeeping column for the local paper. Her role is quite challenging to carry out convincingly, yet she brings it off deftly. Skeeter managed to stay inside an insular white ladies social circle while upset by the plasticity and overt racism of the young Stepford wives around her. They are women she has grown up with, but are an overall annoying bunch ladies. It is all they have known.

As the film details, the early 1960s, particularly in the Deep South, were an age when proper white girls grew up to be housewives. They lived in meticulously maintained suburban homes, largely maintained by the labor of others. One thing they did well was popping out children, who were raised by the maid and were largely ignored by their mothers. These wives all look so impossibly young, and they are by today’s standards. It was an age when you married young and those proper white girls with connections got the upscale houses, a secure place in society and beautiful homes. They had little to do other than play bridge with other wives, meet at the local diner for lunch or invest their time in dubious charitable work, which mostly involved donating money and not getting their hands dirty. They looked more like models than women. They are portrayed as a largely hopelessly catty community with little depth or personality.

Director Tate Taylor amazingly breathes life a whole cast of memorable characters, none of whom you can forget as you are brought deep into their most intimate spaces. There is Hilly Holbrook, played by Bryce Dallas Howard, who epitomizes everything that is wrong with southern society. There is Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain), the poor white trash girl who marries a rich socialite and tries desperately to be accepted into the ladies’ clique, but cannot gain acception. She finds herself having much more in common with Minny, the disgraced maid that she hires. There is Constantine (Cicely Tyson), the loyal family maid who raised Skeeter who is suddenly and abruptly discharged. There is Charlotte Phelan (Allison Janney), Skeeter’s mother, who has been consumed by her status in society all her life but cannot reconcile her required racism with her feelings for her maids. All this happens within the context of racial change that pervades the 1960s: the assassination of John F. Kennedy and of Medgar Evers, who is killed right in Jackson. Civil rights are topical, but in this deepest of the Deep South they are being covertly and overtly resisted by a white populace that has known nothing but racism, and is comfortable with it.

What you get is an excellent and unflinching film about our racial past, which probably deserved more academy award nominations than it received. It may be the finest movie about racism in America since To Kill a Mockingbird. At its center though are Skeeter and Minny, two memorable characters, and a story that feels painfully authentic and is at times sad, appalling and poignant. If the film has a problem at all, it is likely that with the exception of Skeeter, Celia and maybe her beau Stewart (Chris Lowell) it paints the young white wives of Jackson with too white a brush.

In short, it’s a movie well worth renting and is guaranteed to move even the most stoic among us.

3.4 on my four-point scale.

Rating: ★★★½ 

The Thinker

A sudden Rush to judgment

Thank goodness at least some people you would think would not bother continue to listen to Rush Limbaugh. The conservative radio host says so many outrageous things that it is hard to keep from being inured by his latest rants. At least one person in the progressive blogosphere must tune in, because otherwise his outrageous comments on Sandra Fluke, a 30-year old Georgetown University student might have gone wholly unnoticed.

Ms. Fluke, as you doubtlessly heard, was called a “slut” and a “prostitute” by Rush on his radio show last week. Once was apparently not enough for Limbaugh, who double downed his assertions the following day on his show, suggesting her every sexual encounter should be filmed for the benefit of her sponsors, the American taxpayer. Over the weekend he had a sudden change of heart, likely because his advertisers starting withdrawing their sponsorship of his show en masse. Limbaugh sort of apologized without really apologizing, and like the whiny liberal stereotype he likes to lampoon, blamed much of his behavior on liberals. At least forty of his sponsors have pulled the plug so far and more are likely to join the parade.

It’s curious that these obviously false assertions should get him in trouble when so many others have gone, if not quite unnoticed, at least unchallenged. Limbaugh coined the term “Feminazi” to describe feminists. He’s been using the term for decades but like so much other slander and filth out of his mouth, we tuned it out. You would think equating the tens of millions of peaceful but assertive American feminists with a group of fascists that were responsible for the deaths of millions of Jews, homosexuals, and other minorities might have triggered advertisers to bow out from supporting his show long ago. But almost all advertisers are glad to keep sponsoring a show to reach a target market unless it suddenly becomes politically expedient to drop them.

If only there were some tiny speck of truth in his allegations. Fluke “testified” before an unofficial panel of House Congressional Democrats, only because the six male members of the requisite House committee wouldn’t let her or any woman testify on the need to have birth control covered in employer-based health insurance contracts. Fluke wasn’t even talking about herself, but about a friend at Georgetown who needed birth control, not to sleep around, but to control PCOS. Lots of women need birth control for reasons other than to prevent pregnancy, such as for PCOS and to control periods that would be dangerously heavy or excessive. Even when women take birth control to prevent pregnancy, it doesn’t mean that the government is subsidizing birth control. The issue is whether employers should be required to offer birth control as part of their health care coverage, as is required in a majority of states already. That’s it. No government subsidies involved.

And clearly few of the 99% of women who use birth control at some point in their lives are sluts. Some have legitimate medical reasons why their periods need to be regulated. Others are happily or otherwise married women who just don’t particularly want a bun in their oven but want the freedom to have a sex life with their husband. I am not sure how you define a woman as a “slut” but I do know that since Rush cheated on his wives he was putting his dipstick into places where people like him would argue it should never be. However, Rush can avoid the “slut” label because he is a guy. Guys can’t be sluts. There’s not quite an equivalent word for a guy, because it’s okay for guys to sleep around. Granted I don’t hang around men’s locker rooms very often these days, but in my day those guys who bragged about their multiple exploits in locker rooms tended to be envied by the rest of us virgins, who would have been happy to get an opportunity to have sex with something other than our right hands. In any case, when Rush takes vacations alone in the Dominican Republic without his spouse, caught entering with illegal Viagra and is cited for the offense, this sounds like a guy who was aching to be a male slut.

Maybe it’s just me, but I hate the “slut” word. Plenty of women have high sex drives, and I’ve been fortunate to have known a few of them in the biblical sense. Having a high sex drive means you really enjoy sex, which is entirely fine and natural. Having many sex partners at the same time is probably not a wise choice if you are trying to avoid sexually transmitted diseases. It is possible to be sexually active with multiple partners and be reasonably safe at the same time. Undoubtedly some women do put out for reasons other than having a high sex drive, but the same is true with men. Whether a woman chooses to live a life of celibacy, refrains from intercourse until marriage, sleeps around before marriage or has multiple sexual partners at the same time is a choice she must live with. The same is true with men, but for some reason we don’t dwell on satyrs except possibly to envy them. It’s something about being a woman that makes being sexually active with multiple men (or women) at the same time especially morally reprehensible. Maybe its because Mary the mother of Jesus never slept around, or so we assume. Apparently Mary Magdalene did, and Jesus considered her a close friend.

Insurance companies of course are glad, even eager, to provide free contraceptives to its insured women. Entities like the Catholic Church don’t have to compromise any of their cash on principle, an accommodation that was recently granted by the Obama Administration. Fifty dollars a month in birth control pills and paying a couple of hundred dollars a year for the woman to see a gynecologist is infinitely cheaper than the costs of bringing up an unplanned child.

What really annoys the Limbaughs of the world is that many women won’t choose to live the stereotypes they would prefer they live. At the root of Limbaugh’s anger is a frustration that people like him cannot always control the intimate lives of women. They get angry when women choose to exercise their right to be free and liberated human beings. People like Limbaugh want to exert power over women, but really power over any person whose morals they object to. Democrats simply want to put freedom of choice into the individual’s hands, particularly women who otherwise could not afford $50 a month for pills and hundreds of dollars a year in doctor and lab fees to ensure their reproductive health. Let women decide whether they want to use birth control or not, since it is safe and effective. Because it is almost universally used by women, simply make it available as a health choice for them like any other treatable health condition. Because health insurance is all about maintaining personal health and by extension happiness, the same happiness our founders talked about in our constitution that we are all supposed to crave. It appears that the Limbaughs of the world very much want to take away such freedoms from anyone they don’t like while inconsistently and furtively giving themselves license to indulge.

The Thinker

Speculations on the new computing paradigm for the 21st century

Last September I speculated that the introduction of the iPad might mean the death of Microsoft Windows. Microsoft seems to have gotten the iPad message. Last week it gave a preview of its newest incarnation of Windows, Windows 8 Metro that according to reports is looking very iPad-ish. In fact, apparently it’s hard to find the windows in Windows 8. Microsoft seems to be betting the farm on portable computing and a next generation of tablet computing in particular. The mouse is out. Using your fingers by touching the screen of your device is in. Windows are out. Sliding from application to application, like on the iPad, by simply moving your finger side to side on the touchscreen, is in.

At least that’s as best as I can figure out from press reports. I haven’t tried Windows 8 personally. But I have been using my iPad for a couple of months now and understand it quite well. Indeed, for a change I was prescient last September when I suggested Windows was in the early stages of its death throes. How we will compute in the 21st century is now fundamentally changing, driven largely by the late Steve Jobs and his singular vision of how portable computing should work.

Microsoft seems to be making it official in Windows 8: the desktop era is soon going to be history. Windows 8 is being careful to be backwards compatible, allowing mouse movement, windows in a desktop environment and 100% compatibility with its Microsoft Office suite. It has to be this way. One of the reasons Microsoft sucks at innovation is that they have backwards compatibility as a core part of its business strategy. Windows 3.1, later Windows 95 and even today in Windows 7 made sure that the DOS command prompt remained, and that you could still (largely) run all those text-based DOS applications. Microsoft must now make sure that Windows 8 maintains backwards compatibility with Windows 7, while fundamentally changing the user interface so that it is primarily a pad-based operating system. The price Microsoft pays as a result is a serious loss of agility and innovativeness as a company. Their business model essentially requires them to always play follow the leader.

The mouse seems destined for the trash bin, just like the five and a quarter inch diskette. Also going: the humble monitor. In the future the monitor you use will be the one built into your pad computer. As I suggested in September 2011, you might plug your pad computer into an external monitor at work, or might not. The larger screen is needed now because the windows metaphor requires lots of display real estate. When one application gets sole focus on the screen, and you effortlessly slide between them through simple finger gestures across your touchscreen (which by definition must be within a comfortable reach), the windows metaphor becomes obsolete, as does the need for a lot of screen real estate. The modest screen size of a tablet computer becomes usable and more productive.

Perhaps it was inevitable. As computing became increasingly portable, it becomes untethered from wired connections like mice, power cords and even keyboards. As batteries retain charges longer and CPUs get better at conserving power, we can work off our pad computer’s battery for an entire day, if needed. Integration adds value; components keep you tethered to a clunky past.

What will replace the desktop computer? Last September I envisioned a world where you carried your pad computer with you everywhere, and maybe plugged it into a keyboard and a larger monitor when you got to work. Now I see it differently. The desktop computer will effectively be consumed into the pad computer. Instead of having a computer monitor facing you, you will look down on your desk or at a forty-five degree angle to the screen of your pad computer. You will probably prefer a wireless keyboard, at least if you are a certain age. For those now in school, keyboards too are likely to become obsolete. Your keyboard may appear on a translucent area of your desk when needed, or for many tasks you can use the on-screen touch keyboard built into your pad computer instead. More likely, the latest generation will consider a microphone built into their pad computer as their new keyboard. They will simply say what needs to be put into electronic words. Unlike the voice recognition software we have today, this new class of software will be much more sophisticated, understanding context, adjusting for your style and retaining a natural fluency. Most of the time you will talk instead of type. To navigate, you will use finger movements. The combination of finger movements and voice will make you far more productive.

And what about the venerable Microsoft Office suite? It too is going to evolve and eventually may be subsumed into the operating system. In ten years it may have evolved into a product that we simply will not identify today. The whole notion of a document may be undergoing a fundamental shift. Like documents have sort of evolved into web pages, in the future how we communicate may no longer rest on a page metaphor at all. Documents will almost be alive. They will not be considered primarily textual anymore, but inherently multimedia creations where words, pictures, movies, animations and simulations all exist comfortably side by side, and all communicate information much more richly than they do today.

Whoever builds that (and it likely won’t be Microsoft) will be reinventing our concept of useful and structured information. It will be exciting to see it emerge.


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