Archive for September, 2013

The Thinker

Ducks in a row

The government may be shutting down on Tuesday, but this near retiree is still not too panicked. Shutdowns don’t last forever, although this latest group of Tea Party Republicans doesn’t seem very amenable to reason, so it could last weeks or longer. I’m not too panicked because not only is retirement on the horizon, my retirement now has a date, sort of: May 2015.

That’s what I told my management chain recently. “Eighty percent certainty.” Watching our dysfunctional Congress at work makes me want to speed that up to an immediate retirement, technically possible but not entirely advisable. The message from Republicans in Congress to us toiling in the federal civil service is kind of hard not to hear: we hate you. There are the constant threats of shutdowns; and this one looks like it is actually going to happen. To make sure you get the message that you are loathed, Republicans don’t seem inclined to compensate us for shutdowns they caused.

Then there are all the other signs, like the lack of anything like a cost of living raise these last four years. For four years inflation has eroded the value of my salary without even a penny in cost of living increases. And of course, there were furloughs. My agency was fortunate enough to escape them this year, but not without much anxiety. “Retire if you can and don’t mind us if we kick you in the pants on your way out the door. We don’t give a shit about all your hard work during your career. Just get the hell out. If we make your life miserable enough, maybe you will just quit and do the taxpayers a favor.”

Message received. But retirement, if you can even afford to retire, is not something to do on impulse. You have to have some confidence that you can actually afford to retire. There are so many factors to consider. In our case, there’s the remaining debt on our house, which ideally should not be carried into retirement. There is also the pension amount. The longer you wait, the higher the pension. Since my pension is based on my highest annual salaries, the lack of a cost of living raise for four years has effectively cut my pension. Thanks, Republicans!

Then there is the larger question of what the heck I am going to do in retirement. The research shows not doing anything cuts your mortality significantly. It also increases your risk of Alzheimer’s. Apparently, the brain is something like a muscle. If you don’t challenge it by giving it obstacles, it tends to atrophy. Anyhow, there are lots of puzzle pieces to consider. There is also our daughter, now age 24, who presumably should move out and be able to support herself independently before we retire. But I must say that being retired is looking quite appealing, if for no other reason that I don’t have to feel like a piñata anymore. Instead of Congress giving me the finger, I can give them one back.

My boss’s retirement in June had the effect of making me more than a little jealous. At least she is out of the mess. I am still in it. My glide slope to retirement though seems a little sad. My employer, the U.S. Geological Survey, is such a terrific employer. It’s doing everything it can possibly do to maintain morale and let employees know their work matters. But it can’t keep us from being furloughed except for the handful whose work is deemed “excepted” from furlough. That depends on a Congress that actually cares about the laws on the books and values its mission, rather than the anarchistic boobs we have instead.

So May 2015 is about right. My service computation date cranks into another year, which increases the pension to a marginally more satisfying amount. And I still have twenty months to keep putting income into retirement accounts. I do care enough about my job and the people who work for and with me to make my transition out as reasonably painless as possible for those who will pick up my slack. I’d like to have most of my projects complete and to do whatever mentoring I can to those who might assume my position. Twenty more months should allow all this to happen.

I am hopeful that Democrats will regain the House in the 2014 elections and that sanity will return to Congress then. It would be nice to retire with a government that again values rather than scorns its employees. It will be an uphill fight with House districts so crazily gerrymandered, but it is potentially doable. A shutdown that lasts for more than a week might be the animus that tells voters it’s time to escort these bulls out of our national china shop.

I can thank Republicans for one thing: giving me the animus to call John, our financial adviser, and run through the scenario where I would retire earlier and, if necessary, take the rest of my life off. What would our retirement parachute look like? We ran through all sorts of scenarios based on pension estimates, investment income, savings and probable expenses. I asked him to project all sorts of unlikely scenarios, including a cut in my pension and mediocre stock market returns on our portfolio over the thirty or so more years I hope to be alive. It all looks doable if I stay on the plan. It is made better by relocating to a less expensive area of the country, which is part of our animus at looking at retirement areas. Our financial adviser, like most, likes to use Monte Carlo simulations to make portfolio projections. It is sort of like throwing random die on a table over thirty years, and using those numbers to project investment returns. Even in the most unlikely scenarios, we should do fine. We can maintain our standard of living without needing to earn a dime after retirement.

Retirement, if you can do it, can be more of a door opening than one shutting behind you. I will be glad to put the federal rat race behind me. I don’t know what my future will look like beyond inevitable aging and death. But I do know I am up to the challenge.

Twenty months to go.

 
The Thinker

Republican anarchists try to shut down the government

Seven years back, I wrote about a simple truth: that the government of Iraq was not a real government because it could not govern. It’s no less true today, with sectarian warfare in Iraq about as bad as it was when we occupied the country during the worst of it. Iraq is a country in name only.

Here’s another simple truth: a large number of Republicans currently in Congress, perhaps a majority, are anarchists. Just to make sure, I checked the definition of anarchy on merriam-webster.com:

a :  absence of government

So here is what will happen on October 1st unless Congress passes a bill to fund the government and the president signs it (or it is overridden by both houses of Congress): the government shuts down. In that event, there will be an absence of government, i.e. anarchy. Granted, not all government will shut down. “Essential services”, whatever they are defined as, keep going on although the people who carry them out will not be paid, at least not until after the shutdown ends, which could take months. The way some Republicans are talking, a shutdown lasting months is fine if that’s what it takes for the Senate and the president to stop funding the Affordable Care Act. This despite that it is a valid law largely upheld by the Supreme Court.

Here is the oath members of Congress take when they are sworn into office (emphasis is mine):

“I, (name of Member), do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God” (5 U.S.C. §3331).

If you haven’t read the U.S. Constitution lately, it says that all laws passed by Congress and signed into law (or where the president’s veto is overridden) are legal. They remain legal unless the law is repealed or a court declares all or part of a law unconstitutional. The Affordable Care Act meets these criteria. By swearing to uphold the U.S. Constitution, senators and representatives implicitly are swearing that they will uphold the laws of the land “in true faith and allegiance”. They are required to fund these laws until such time as they are overturned or amended.

By shutting down the government then, large parts of the government simply cannot govern. You’ve seen some of these in past shutdowns. What usually gets the press is when national parks are shuttered. But there are more serious issues. Not paying the military is a very serious issue: we expect the military to defend our country but will leave them and their families without income even while they risk life and limb for our country? Small business loans are not made. New drugs are not approved. The Security and Exchange Commission stops investigating securities fraud. Much of the work of the judiciary stops. And members of congress who publicly swore that they would uphold the constitution and its laws from all enemies, foreign and domestic aided and abetted this.

It’s amazing that our domestic enemies include many Republican members of Congress. By taking an oath of office, they are taking upon themselves the duty to work in good faith toward legislation to fund the government. To the extent they do not, they are being anarchists. By taking the oath of office, they are essentially required to follow the legislative process in order to fund the government. Compromise is not negotiable. It is required if that’s what it takes to “bear true faith and allegiance to the same” and it needs to finish before authority runs out for the government to execute its laws.

What is even worse is that many of these same legislators are threatening to not extend the nation’s debt ceiling unless their demands are met, putting the good credit of the government in jeopardy. Most experts believe that if default did occur, it would introduce catastrophic financial consequences for the country, likely plunging it into a recession or depression. If you were trying to kill a government, this would certainly go a long way!

It may be against their ideology, but when members of Congress take actions that shut down the government, and do so as a matter of principle because they think the government is too big or they don’t like a particular law, they are practicing anarchy. They are also being unfaithful to their oaths. Their acts are essentially treasonous. At a minimum they should be removed from office. More likely, they belong in prison.

Republicans, if you want to reduce the size of government, you have to do it the constitutional way. You have to repeal these laws. There is no shortcut, no escape clause, no Corbomite Maneuver, at least none that are constitutional. The closest escape clause is a constitutional convention, which would need two thirds of the states, because Congress is unlikely to call for a convention. Shutting down the government by refusing to fund it is not only unconstitutional; doing so violates their oaths of office and is arguably illegal and treasonous.

Republicans, why do you hate America? Why are you such lawbreakers and oath breakers? Would you break your vow with your wife for a floozy? Why would you do the same for the country you love and the flag you salute?

 
The Thinker

Review: Miss Saigon at Signature Theatre

Time flies. When the musical Miss Saigon first appeared in London and New York City in 1989, the Vietnam War was still a painful wound on our national psyche. We dealt with it mostly by not thinking about it. Miss Saigon made us look back at the war, specifically the end of that war, and relive a lot of that hurt. It was done in the context of yet another retelling of Puccini’s opera Madama Butterfly. Now, here it is nearly a quarter of a century later. More than one generation has been born with no memory of that war. Today, Miss Saigon, when it is performed, serves many purposes but one of them is simply to present that raw time in our national life to new generations in an engaging and realistic way. America as the country that always won and always did right died as those helicopters pulled away from our embassy in Saigon in 1975.

As staged in the tight quarters of Arlington’s Signature Theater, this musical from the team that brought us the more successful Les Miserables is not quite what I recall seeing on stage in the Kennedy Center sometime in the 1990s. For one thing, there is no helicopter dropped from the rafters, although there is what looks like the underbelly of a helicopter. There is also a new song, “Maybe”, that bridges the introductions of the two women who love Chris and a confrontation scene.

Popular musicals fortunate enough to get restaged in Signature Theater’s intimate setting are always worth seeing. This was our fourth show at Signature, and all of them have been impressive. Happily, their staging of Miss Saigon was no exception. Theater buffs will be impressed not just by the quality of the show, but if you have not been there before also by the intimacy of the theater. There is not a bad seat in the house. Signature spent a bundle on this show. This production cost over a million dollars, which made me feel better about the ticket price I paid, which was over a hundred dollars a seat when you include taxes and surcharges.

There is one surprise in this musical: the understudy plays the pivotal role of Chris. A Washington Post article has the details if you are interested. If there is a defect in this performance, it is that the understudy Gannon O’Brien’s performance while competent is not on quite the same level as other pivotal players. In particular, Thom Sesma as The Engineer and Diana Huey as Kim get to suck out most of the energy on the stage instead. Of the two, Huey is the more impressive, but she is also blessed with a role that calls for manifesting extreme emotions, so it is hard not to focus on her. Arguably, Sesma’s role as the creepy and slimy host of the Saigon strip bar Dreamland, which thinly masquerades for a house of prostitution, is the more challenging. It is actually the better role, as evil characters are generally more fun to play, and The Engineer is certainly as slimy as they come. Dreamland depends on U.S. Marines for its income, and there are few of them around in Saigon in 1975 except at the American embassy as the Vietcong encroach on Saigon and the Americans plan a hasty retreat.

Our seats were on the wings of the Dress Circle (upper level), which were both good and bad. The good were that we were close to the actors but the bad were that our view of actors and the set was obscured from time to time. This is the price you pay when you wait too long to get tickets. The extra intimacy though was quite nice at times. We could watch Kim’s face drain when she learns that Ellen is Chris’s wife, for example. Huey as Kim is an inspired choice because she brings intensity and complexity to the role that traps her like a vice between impossible forces.

The music tends to be quite dramatic with little in the way of comic relief, except the Engineer’s soliloquy song “American Dream” toward the end of the show. It is also quite engaging and impressive music. Its only failure is that it isn’t Les Miserables. This is not so much a failure as it is an impossibility. Les Miserables hit an impossible to dislike story with impossibly great music. Miss Saigon is a tragedy. Les Miserables is a story of both tragedy and redemption.

Still, there are similarities between these brother musicals, products of the same creative team. They were not obvious to me until last night, mainly because I had not concentrated on the contrasts and similarities before. Thenardier and The Engineer are definitely two peas from the same pod, both disgusting and fascinating at the same time. They both provide comic relief and sustain interest over the two plus hours in the theater. Both shows have tragic dying scenes that are eerily similar: Kim’s at the conclusion of the show and Eponine’s in the arms of the man who does not love her, Marius.

Signature delivers high impact emotional scenes, which are many. The emotional highlight should be the ending scene, but that’s only if you don’t know the plot. If you do know the plot, you wait for the helicopter-less scene. It may be sans helicopter, but it is not sans excitement as Vietnamese with close American ties try to board the last helicopters out of Vietnam. Kim is one of them pressing against the embassy gate that separates her from her lover Chris. It was smart to put this scene as a flashback toward the end of Act Two. It would have lost much of its emotional impact if it had been put in Act One.

Signature Theater may have gone a bit overboard with the dry ice. The idea is to recreate the mist and humidity of Vietnam but of course the theater is cool instead of tropical. It makes the set a bit hard to view the set and actors at times. And as with Chess that we saw there, there is some smoking on stage, but only in the first scene, which will be painful to chronic nonsmokers like us.

The show has been extended through October 6. If you like the musical and can afford the three-digit ticket price, you’ll find it money well spent providing that you can snag a remaining ticket. It’s worth the effort to find out.

 
The Thinker

Leap of faith

This blog scratches my writing itch, but most of us writers would rather be published than place our writings in a blog. Being published still means something. Today it means one or more authorities singled you out as worthy of being published, usually on paper. Publishers are not in the business of wasting money. They only publish content they believe will earn them a profit. Coincidentally, published authors earn actual money.

Being a published writer is hard and breaking into the ranks is the hardest part, which is probably why I blog. I may be a good writer, but I am not a great writer and probably will never be. I write because I must. In retirement I may have the leisure to pick up electronic pen and try writing a great novel. But I have little illusions that after it is done that it will be published.

This is because potential authors are a dime a dozen. Publishers are inundated with unsolicited manuscripts, many of them quite good, but most of them trash. At best, an author’s unsolicited manuscript will get a cursory read of the first couple pages by some low level staffer and if it doesn’t meet a niche or market or a quality standard, it is quickly rejected. Even if it meets all of these criteria, the odds are still that it will get rejected, mainly just because. Authors send out their manuscripts anyhow. A few rejection letters will crush the egos of most authors. They will assume they don’t have the “write” stuff and shuffle along disheartened toward more productive but less enthralling careers.

Writers that take the time to research what it takes to get published usually discover it’s a waste of time to send unsolicited manuscripts to publishers. Instead, they try to find a literary agent to represent them. It’s the difference between getting an automated response from a firm and talking to a human being. A literary agent is a trusted broker. If a true literary agent accepts you as a client then your manuscript is virtually certain to get published.

This means that both book publishers and literary agents get inundated with manuscripts. In both venues there are the flakes out there. Vanity publishers are glad to print your book as long as you are willing to pay for it and market it yourself. Similarly, there are literary agents that probably don’t deserve the title but may be interested in critiquing your work, for a fee, or passing it on to an editor who, for a fee, will be glad to edit it, but with little likelihood that it can actually be marketed. A real literary agent is on a first name basis with editors at key publishers and knows what they are looking for. You are not charged any fees at all until a work is published. The agent typically collects fifteen percent of the royalties.

So getting a real agent is a hard bar to reach. I did have a literary agent briefly out of college. I set my expectations low for breaking into the field. CBS Radio Mystery Theater was on the air in the 1970s. I asked an agent to submit a couple of scripts for them. She agreed but they were quickly bounced back. Apparently staff wrote all their scripts. I gave up the idea of writing a great novel or screenplay and went to work instead because I was broke.

My wife, actually a better writer than I am, also wrote all sorts of stories in the science fiction, children and fantasy genres. She sent them out to various publications to see if they might publish them. Her heart was broken time and again. She too gave up. When she chooses to write today, it is for a genre called slash that appeals to the fan fiction community. Needless to say there is no money in it, but there is the occasional fan mail and recognition at a convention.

Our daughter (almost 24 years old) took up the pen naturally. Arguably, if a budding writer had to be born anywhere, she picked good parents. We provided a nutrient-rich literary soup for her. Our house is full of books. There is a newspaper on the kitchen table every morning, and various magazines to read. In addition, we exposed her early to the arts. Just last night we took her to see Miss Saigon at Signature Theater (review to come). She saw her first musical at age six but by now has seen more theater than most people do in several lifetimes. We encouraged her writing but warned her that, like us, she probably couldn’t earn a living at it. I encouraged her toward journalism, which at least pays something resembling a living wage. But no, she set her mark impossibly high. She wanted to write fiction. Worse, she chose fantasy novels, which with the exception of J.K. Rowling is a pretty limited market. We warned her that she had set herself up for a bigger failure because it was a highly saturated but limited market. It was best, we counseled, to do it on nights and weekends. You are going to need a full time job at a desk somewhere to get by.

But still she plugged away, while we fretted over her grades and her slow but measured progress in college. She did earn her bachelor’s degree in English this spring. She is still looking for a job. We did give her credit for doggedness. She finished her book, first of a trilogy, and kept shopping it around to literary agents that seemed interested in this stuff. She endured lots of rejection, crushed spirits but also occasional notes of encouragement. And somehow she kept plunging ahead. We cheered her on while grimacing privately at the probability of the brick wall she was about to hit. It was our experience that life was unfair, and no matter how good you were, most of us writers were fated to be unpublished. We certainly were. We just gave up.

Spring turned to summer, summer headed toward autumn. She seemed doomed to the fate of Sisyphus. It hurt to watch and it felt counterproductive sometimes to encourage her perseverance but gosh, she sure was good. Both my wife and I agree her writing was far better than anything we ever wrote. Meanwhile she went on job interviews far beneath her talents and wrote into the wee hours.

On Wednesday, Lowenstein Associates, a New York literary agency, sent her a contract to sign. Look for her book, Godbinder, first part of a trilogy to be published by some lucky publisher in 2014 under the pen name of J. M. Saint.

J.K. Rowling had better watch out.

 
The Thinker

Circles of shame

It’s been a long while since I wrote about shame. I come back to it after so many years because of a book I have been reading, which I alluded to a month or two back. In that book the author provides a fascinating, if somewhat dense insight into white privilege. The root of white privilege comes down simply to shame and how we cope with shame.

Shame is basically toxic guilt. Shame is the result of our inability to acknowledge the dichotomy between who we actually are and who we project ourselves to be. When we cannot acknowledge our failings to ourselves so that we are causing ourselves to suffer dysfunctionally, shame becomes toxic. Shame cannot be seen but is very real. Moreover, shame is extremely powerful. Shame even made the news recently when a 12-year-old girl was cyber-bullied to the point where she took her own life. Twelve-year-old children of course are not equipped to deal well with threats by their peers about their worthlessness. Her peers projected an image of what a child her age should be like and Rebecca Sedwick was judged as incapable of living up to it. She was a projection of their insecurities. Moreover, she could not handle the dichotomy, so she took her peers flawed advice, who basically told her to kill herself, and leapt to her death from a concrete plant.

From the book I am reading, I am learning that shame is an outcome of child development. A certain amount of shame may actually be unavoidable and probably is necessary. To survive, an infant is completely dependent on his or her parents. The infant senses this, and thus does everything possible to live up to their expectations. This of course pleases the parent. In real life most parents have no one that see them as role models, so it is flattering that their children do by instinct and gives them a feeling of self worth. This serves an evolutionary purpose, at least for a while. It keeps the infant alive and gives the parent incentive to take care of them. The child though is not the parent. Over time it senses that who it is is not the same as its parents. The dichotomy at some point is either expressed as rebellion or is buried deep within where it can grow cancerous.

Good parents will accept these differences and find ways to discipline their child that do not involve hurting them physically, mentally or spiritually. Good parents though are human beings, and are the product of being imperfectly raised too. Raising a shame-free child is probably impossible. Even if it were possible, most of us live such shame-based lives that such a person would probably be outcasts among us.

The root of shame though is really the feelings associated with our inability to be perfect, however we choose to define the word. We all measure ourselves against some gold standard, usually a parent. In my case, I measure myself against my thankfully still alive and active 86-year-old father. He set a particularly high standard since he has always been highly moral, highly religious and patient, basically a grown up Boy Scout. To the extent I cannot meet his standard, I feel ashamed because I feel that if he could do it, I should be able to do so as well. And yet my father too is a projection. There is no way I can say with certainty who he is on the inside and what inner demons he may be dealing with. I assume he is the man he projects, but that is almost certainly a false assumption.

Arguably it is much more mentally healthy to project the person you actually are rather than a false image. The person I actually am would probably be a lot less likeable than the one I project. This blog is a good example of my projection. For the most part it projects the person I aspire to be. Occasionally a less inspirational side of me creeps through, as witnessed by occasional vitriolic attacks on Republicans and lampooning of posters on Craigslist’s casual encounters sections. Arguably, my blog would be more faithful to the real me if I had more posts like the latter, and fewer posts like this one.

One thing is clear from the research: shame is toxic by definition. We all carry around certain amounts of shame, some more than others. If you have to look for a meta-explanation of why our world is so messed up then shame will do it. Since we know innately that we are internally inconsistent, but few of us can state their inconsistencies publicly, we tend to project this anger at people we don’t like. In the case of Rebecca Sedwick’s Colorado peers, they projected their feelings that maybe they were not on quite the same level as their peers onto Rebecca. She is dead and now those who bullied her are dealing with their own feelings of shame. They will likely feel shame because their actions are now exposed to public view. They would probably do better in the long run to acknowledge their failings publicly, because if shame can be acknowledged publicly, it can go away. But it’s more likely (particularly since they are children) that it will be hushed up and come out to clinical psychologists if it is expressed at all, and not to their peers. As they move into adulthood and have children of their own, it’s likely they will project some of this shame on their children, who will have to instinctively try to navigate around it in order to survive. They will probably carry their shame forward too although they may not be able to articulate the shame simply because they cannot name it.

If shame will not go away, it’s not clear how society can minimize it. Certainly good parenting should help. Parents can also let their children know that they too are imperfect and it is not only okay to be imperfect, but imperfection is also a product of being a human being. Perfection is an ideal, and no ideal is ever completely achievable, which in some ways suggests it is folly to try. My sense though is that income inequality promotes rather than defeats shame. Republicans in particular want poor people to feel ashamed of being poor. This in turn promotes a feeling of self-righteousness, because they are (generally) not poor, and thereby must be doing something right. This attitude promotes more shame. Tragically, people seem to live up or down to how they believe society judges them. It might also help if we as a society could stop insisting on measuring worth based on impossibly high standards, such as how much money you make or how well you model the perfect politician/actress/basketball player.

There is a powerful antidote to shame: compassion. If we could all learn to be more compassionate, we would also spread the value that it’s okay not to be perfect, that we all stumble and fail from time to time, but even when this happens it doesn’t mean that we have less inherent dignity and worth. Unfortunately, it’s not easy to be compassionate. It is easier to be compassionate with people in our peer group, but much harder with those that are not. For example, I find it hard to be compassionate toward Republicans. Most of us find it excruciatingly hard to be personally compassionate toward the very poor and homeless. To the extent though that we can say regularly and to all kinds of people “you are my brother” and “I feel some of your suffering and I am so sorry,” I believe we can make significant strides toward building that world and ending the multi-generational poison of shame.

 
The Thinker

Why do we want to put Edward Snowden in prison?

That’s the question that I have been asking myself lately. Okay, perhaps shortly after his arrest, I thought that he deserved to be locked up, maybe for life. He was, after all, a contractor working for the National Security Agency. He took an oath that he would not disclose any classified information. He knew what the penalties were for disclosing the information, and the penalties for treason could not be more severe. Moreover, shortly after giving his interview to the German magazine Der Spiegel, he hightailed it from his staging area on Hawaii to Hong Kong to evade justice, even though he never hid his identity from the paper or the press. That’s pretty cowardly. Case closed, right? Try him, send him to prison and probably throw away the key.

I will grant you that he did disclose a lot of sensitive information, and quite likely a lot of information that puts our national security in some danger. If nothing else, foreign governments now know what the NSA can do. It sure surprised the hell out of me, so it must have been a wakeup call to governments everywhere. The KGB in its glory days could not begin to envision this level of intimate knowledge about citizens and visitors that the NSA now routinely collects and files.

With every new revelation, the more grateful I am to Edward Snowden for his deed. Thanks to Snowden we now know the true size and capabilities of our surveillance state, and it is more than Big Brotherish than even those of us who are technology savvy could imagine. It is truly frightening. The NSA can record pretty much all email communications within the United States and much of it outside the United States as well. It can and is capturing much of our browsing behavior (metadata). It also has the capability of capturing phone records, text messages, tweets (well, at least those are public) and instant messages. It can record our phone calls. It can trace our behavior over a long period of time. It can see three or more levels of relationships deep, and see which friends of our friends might be chatting with someone they think is suspicious, which makes us suspicious to them.

And just when you think it can’t get worse, most recently we have learned that the NSA has figured out how to read most of our encrypted communications. A lot of it is done with backdoors to encryption algorithms that apparently allows them to easily decrypt a message, which means they were involved in setting encryption standards and twisted the arms of vendors publishing these algorithms to give them surreptitious backdoors. Moreover, they must have invested in huge numbers of supercomputers to quickly decrypt those remaining algorithms they could not easily crack.

There is no way that this could possibly pass constitutional muster, but it was aided and abetted by a secret court which agreed (in secret) that it could not possibly police the NSA’s conduct. It depended on the NSA to tell it when they had slipped up, and that’s the only way we’d even know about some of this unconstitutional behavior, and only then because someone blabbed. The inference is hard to miss. There is probably a lot more we don’t know about the NSA that Snowden didn’t know about. The NSA has implemented eighty percent of a perfect intelligence state, it just hasn’t told the public or most of Congress. We would likely never have known any of this had Snowdon not decided to reveal the truth.

Snowdon is technically a criminal, but he is also a hero and a patriot. He has exposed the truth to the public, which is justifiably outraged by the NSA’s actions. If there is one thing I have learned as a federal employee, it’s that whistleblowers rarely get off scot-free. The whistleblower law is routinely ignored. If you are a federal employee and blow the whistle on illegal behavior, you certainly won’t be rewarded. Almost certainly you will be cut off at the knees. The Washington Post ran a recent story of some of these whistleblowers, some of who have had their pensions stripped from them, pensions earned over decades of federal service for which they contributed much of their own money.

Snowden was not a federal employee, but a contractor, but he was definitely a whistleblower. I don’t blame him for going on the lam, because even if he wasn’t dealing with classified information disclosing something similar to this would mean the bureaucracy would go after him in ways legal and illegal. Because he did have access to classified information, it becomes a criminal matter. It’s clear that the national security establishment from the president on down wants to try him and give him the severest form of punishment. Since his behavior is considered treasonous, he could be executed.

Snowden knew all this but chose to disclose the NSA’s illegal behavior anyhow. For those of us who value our lives, it was an irrational thing to do. Still, that he chose to do it strikes me as the actions of a man of deep principle. He strikes me as someone who takes our constitution at its face value and realized these actions by the NSA were unconstitutional. This was not the act of an evil man; it was the act of a man with a profoundly moral conscience. Snowden realized that the greater evil was suppressing this unconstitutional behavior. He hasn’t made a dime from his revelations.

So now we know. I for one am glad to know and thus grateful to the man. It was not our national security that was damaged. It was our constitutional democracy that was damaged, and this secret surveillance court is a sham. Moreover, our national security means nothing if our constitutional democracy is a sham. Our government is not being governed in accordance with the clear intent of our constitution. In particular, the NSA is riding all over the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures. There is simply no tortured reasoning of the NSA’s behavior that can possibly make this behavior constitutional. And through a secret surveillance court packed with pro national security judges, no way to address this behavior because simply doing so publicly endangers national security. It was a classic Catch-22. The only way out of it was to be technically unlawful but adhere to the meaning of the law, which is what Snowden did.

Now at least we have the opportunity to tell Congress and the president to fix this. We now can demand accountability and transparency, something even President Obama seems willing to do to some degree. None of it would have happened without Snowden’s daring and many would argue reckless act.

Edward Snowden is a hero. He should not be tried. The president should issue a blanket pardon for his actions. He should be provided with Secret Service protection when he comes back to the United States so he can live the life of a free man because there will be a target on his back for quite a while. We should hold parades to honor him and he should even get the Medal of Freedom. President Obama should admit he was wrong to authorize this behavior. He should invite Snowden to become part of a group of citizens that monitors the NSA’s behavior. This would be true justice. Then those of us who take our constitution seriously might actually begin to trust our government again.

 
The Thinker

Craigslist casual encounters weirdness: September 2013 Edition

(Warning: this post is rated R.)

Last month’s look at my area’s kinky needs was a cornucopia of perversion. This month: not so much. It’s more the usual: lots of guys posting for other guys, and lots of horny men posting for women. Women of course will find much better things to do on a Saturday night than read these hormone-laced and desperate cries for kinky or even not so kinky sex. These guys will take pretty much anything they can get. It’s not easy being in your high hormone years, as I can attest. Of course, in my day we didn’t have Craigslist, so I was out of options except for bar hopping, which I was too shy to do. Somehow I survived.

Apparently I don’t have anything better to do on a Saturday night except post about weirdness on Craigslist. I was hoping to watch an episode of Ask the Midwife with my wife. This is a great British series that I will review if we can actually finish it. I may have to finish watching it by myself because, at least for tonight, my wife won’t be pulled away from watching hours of mindless TV about cute animals. So here I am.

It remains to be seen if this attention to Craigslist will improve my page hits. I ran a Google Analytics report for August and documented about a hundred and fifty hits for these posts. They remain popular but I get a lot more hits for dated eulogies and, surprising, for my nine-year-old post on emotion versus reason. Still, I figure my blog should mirror the breadth of human nature from the erudite to the trash. So here is a sampling of the trash in the Northern Virginia Craigslist Casual Encounters section for this night in September:

  • A black dude is hanging out in the Fauquier High School tennis courts. He is not there to play tennis. But if you’re a guy needing some relief, well, I bet you can figure out what he will do for you with his mouth, at least until it gets dark. I wonder: does the Fauquier sheriff’s department read Craigslist? If so this guy may now be in the county clink.
  • Here’s a guy hoping an amorous couple is looking for a third and will choose him. He’ll tag team but of course he (and this is important!) is not the least bit bi, although he is not amiss to double penetration of the female. Hmm.
  • An alleged woman (warning: explicit picture) is looking for a couple that will put oddly shaped toys into her wet place where the sun don’t shine, and tape the experience. The odder the toy, the better. This wins my award for the weirdest post of the month.
  • It looks like the two guys from last month that are double-teaming are still looking for an available woman. Will some woman out there please give them a break?
  • Some guys figure multiple postings will get them what they want. This 37-year-old guy from Woodbridge is obviously the same guy with six posts (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6) in a row all hoping to find a woman into tall boots who also wear corsets. Sounds like he needs some time with a local dominatrix. But he’s only available Monday thru Friday, 8:30 AM to 3 PM, which probably means he is married and works second shift, and his wife is not into boots, corsets and domination. As an incentive he claims he is at least eight and a half inches.
  • Life is unfair if you are not especially endowed between the legs. Here’s a guy thinking he is small because he has “only” five inches (I am so sick of this fixation on penis length) but he is thinking large in one respect: he’s not looking for a woman, but a couple.
  • Hotel rooms can be so lonely, which is why this guy in Tysons hopes to entice a local woman to drop by for a casual hookup. At least he has a comfortable bed. How this will play out is not hard to figure out. To the extent he makes love tonight, it will be with his right hand. If I were him, I’d wander down to the bar and start buying the lady barflies drinks.
  • Here’s a gay guy who can’t seem to hook up with anyone, despite the plethora of male for male ads on Craigslist. Maybe it is because he is 56, or more likely, just a jerk. So he is forming a club for gays including cross dressers, transsexuals and hermaphrodites, all because of his humanitarian instincts. What a guy! It’s not too hard to figure out his club in South Riding will max out at one person.
  • Now this is weird: a gay couple is hosting a “boy/son/younger”. It is pretty creepy and anyone with any sense, if they can actually get a young man to show up, had darn well better check his ID closely to make sure he is of legal age. If I were the “boy” I’d run a police check on the couple before entering the house.
  • It’s always touching when a guy posts because he wants to lose his virginity. But I feel sorry for this man because he is 27. Only thirteen more years and he can be the forty-year-old virgin. Call me skeptical, but I doubt that he is a virgin. I suspect this is the latest play by horny young men desperate for a little action, going for the sympathy and cougar angle. Good luck with that.

More next month, maybe, if the Google Analytics tells me it is worth my time.

 
The Thinker

Republicans can’t kill Obamacare

One of the ironies of the Affordable Care Act is that Republicans were the ones to derisively name it “Obamacare”. So when it works, as it is going to, President Obama is going to get all the credit. This will make the Republicans look particularly stupid, not that they need a whole lot of help looking stupid lately. It might kill them as a party.

Perhaps it is the fear that it actually will work which is having them go into overdrive with desperate, last minute attempts to make it fail by convincing people not to enroll. They are doing so by refusing to set up state health exchanges but more recently by placing burdensome state regulations on Obamacare “navigators” (people paid to promote the insurance with uninsured communities) that effectively keep them from “navigating”. These tactics likely won’t work and worse are unconstitutional because of the supremacy clause to the U.S. constitution, not to mention the right of free association. Their hope is that by throwing sand into its engines before the courts tell the states their laws are invalid that it will cause the program overall to fail.

Good luck with that Republicans, because it won’t work. Granted, there may be some fits and starts to get the Affordable Care Act fully in gear. Whether or not navigators promote the law or not, it’s a straightforward matter for anyone who wants to get health insurance to acquire it: just get on line and sign up! On the national or state health exchange they can sign up for health insurance regardless of preconditions. If they don’t make a lot of money the government will subsidize some portion of their premiums.

The only ones to truly get screwed by Obamacare will be the working poor in red states, at least those red states like Texas which won’t accept Medicaid subsidies to expand the insurance pool. This is only possible, of course, due to the Supreme Court’s decision earlier this year that gave states the right to opt out of this part of the law. Now that decision definitely threw some sand into the Obamacare engine, but it was not fatal. It just meant that the poor, as usual, would continue to get screwed over in many red states. That will change with time.

So many ironies! It turns out that red states are essentially screwing themselves. By turning away free money to pay the medical expenses of their poorest citizens, these people will simply clog emergency rooms for costly “free” health care. This unofficial tax will be added to the price of health care services for the insured of these states, making their premiums proportionately higher than in states where Obamacare goes into full effect. This, in effect, makes blue states more desirable places to live because there is less health care cost shifting going on: health care expenses become more predictable. “Live free or die,” is the state motto of New Hampshire and by inference much of red America. But of course “freedom is not free”, as states like Texas will discover to their sorrow. The only interesting part of this exercise is how long they will hold out before they realize the futility of their own pigheaded stubbornness. There will be a whole lot of money that could have been used to build bridges and fund schools that will be needlessly squirreled away into higher health care costs instead.

This is because the whole point of insurance is to spread the risks, and thus the costs, lowering costs for everyone and thereby providing services that would otherwise be unaffordable. I don’t expect my house to burn down this year, so in the eyes of red America I am probably wasting money sending $600 a year or so to USAA. Essentially I am giving my money to someone else who will use it to rebuild their house when they have a fire. Of course should I have a fire, I’m out $600 in premiums and likely some costly but not catastrophic deductibles. But I am not left to rebuild my house with money from my savings account or using some loan that is based on my creditworthiness. $600 seems amazingly cheap for this investment of $500,000 or so. Essentially I pay .12 cents per dollar of the house’s value so I don’t have to pay to rebuild it in the event of catastrophe.

The same idea works with health care costs, of course. Only a very stupid wage earner when they measure their potential financial shock without health insurance will pass it up if they can possibly afford it. And with subsidies, they will be able to afford it, well, unless they make so little they count as working poor. If the states won’t take the federal money to insure these people then these low-wage workers will get screwed if they develop a costly condition. Many of them will die prematurely, but most will linger in pain and in poverty while racking up huge hospital bills that they cannot pay, but whose costs will simply be passed on to those who can: the insured.

Anyone who can possibly afford insurance is going to want to get it, and if they think they cannot they will find the cost of dodging it will increase every year with fines collected on their federal income taxes. At some point they will say, “If I am going to spend this much money not to be insured, maybe I should just be insured.” For now, these red states are hoping that ignorance will kill Obamacare. Keep the cheap to insure out of the market and it raises premium costs for the rest. In short they are betting on ignorance, hence their obsession with keeping “navigators” from navigating. It may work for a short while, but not forever, and if it works it will be locally, not nationally. Eventually some peer is going to tell them that they are insured now and it only costs X dollars and they are being subsidized with Y dollars of free money. It’s like a 401K employer match. Free money will get their attention, so let’s hope those navigating the navigators tell them to pitch it like this.

Despite attempts by some states to “overturn” Obamacare, it cannot be overturned by a state’s fiat. It is a done deal, a law largely upheld by the Supreme Court. It can only be repealed through an act of Congress signed into law by the president, or by a Congress that overrides the president’s veto.

It’s just like that scene from the movie Lincoln when, after the passage of the 13th amendment Lincoln meets with the vice president of the Confederacy who is making peace overtures. “Slavery,” President Lincoln informs him, “is done. Finished.” Check and mate! The Affordable Care Act is finished too. It can’t be overturned because it wasn’t overturned. Certain red states will screw themselves for a while as they try to make it not work in their states, but it won’t work nationally. Obamacare is done. It is potentially possible to repeal it, but it won’t happen without a Republican House, Senate and White House, and only if there are sixty or more Republican senators. In reality, at this point it can only be amended, and by amending it, it will only be strengthened, not weakened.

Obama may screw up his legacy by sending missiles into Syria to avenge the use of chemical weapons by its government. But he won’t screw it up through Obamacare. Ten years from now most people even in red states will be scratching their heads wondering why they opposed it in the first place. They probably won’t like paying their health insurance premiums and copays too much. I don’t like paying mine either. But I do like knowing one costly illness won’t wipe me out financially. So will millions of Americans simply trying to reach old age in a state resembling solvency.

Perhaps the most ironic part of Obamacare is that Obama will get credit for something he largely did not contribute to. He basically said he was for the idea of national health insurance but left the details to Congress. The Affordable Care Act was what emerged. Republicans named it “Obamacare” to tar it to President Obama, who they obviously loathe, and the frame stuck. Even the president now calls it Obamacare. It will be seen as the major accomplishment of his term of office. At least President Franklin D. Roosevelt truly instigated the New Deal. Obama, the man Republicans love to hate, will be gratefully remembered for Obamacare in the generations to come. He will wear laurels placed on his head by Republicans, who thought they were putting on a crown of thorns.

The real credit for the legislation though should go to the Democrats who controlled Congress at the time. Senator Harry Reid and Speaker Nancy Pelosi should be wearing those laurels, but also the sixty Democratic senators who, as a block, held themselves accountable when push came to shove and overcame cloture in the Senate. It was an improbable act of great bravery. Sadly, their contributions and these moments will be largely footnotes.

 
The Thinker

Review: The Way

The Way, starring Martin Sheen, was perhaps made by his son Emilio Estavez to keep his father busy. If so that was unnecessary. Seven years of playing President Bartlett on the TV series The West Wing never slowed Sheen down. He is still an actor in high demand. However, not many sons get the opportunity to direct their father. This movie was only Estavez’s second attempt to direct a motion picture, so he is still getting his moorings as a director. More likely this movie was a reason for father and son to spend a lot of quality time together. Martin Sheen is not getting any younger, and looks his seventy-three years.

In real life Sheen is a devout Catholic, so a movie that has his character walking the Way of St. James, a path through Spain and France in the Pyrenees and Basque regions of Spain blazed by the saint of the same name, must have felt right. In addition to allowing us to see a very pretty part of Europe, the movie gives us opportunities to visit various Catholic shrines, churches and cathedrals along the path.

Sheen’s character Tom is not there for sightseeing. He is there to grieve, because his headstrong son Daniel was found dead on the Way, just one day into his journey. Tom’s good life of ophthalmology and golfing with his fellow physicians in California comes to an abrupt end when he receives news of the death of his only son. The news is more tragic because he earlier lost his wife. This leaves Tom bereft of family. He is crushed by his son’s death and he flies to France to retrieve his body. With possession of his son’s backpack, he impulsively decides to complete Daniel’s walk along the long pilgrimage route, carrying his son’s cremated ashes with him to scatter in places along the route.

Walking the Way is like walking the Appalachian Trail, only not quite as long (about 800 kilometers) and with fewer boulders. For most people it takes a month or two to walk. The reasons people walk the trail vary, but few do it solely for recreation. While religious reasons are typical for walking the trail, the trail is also used by troubled souls to escape from real life for a while. The trail is often bucolic, but it can be cold in the mountains. Fortunately, there are usually hostels and a few hotels along the route for walkers.

Tom walks deliberately and methodically but he is clearly a grieving and angry man. He prefers his own company, but the trail is heavily traveled. Invariably he bumps into other solitary walkers, each of them carrying their own issues. The Dutchman Joost (Yorick van Wageningen), on the trail to lose weight so his wife will sleep with him again, is the first to befriend him. While they share some meals, their relationship is cool at best. It’s clear Tom would prefer to walk the trail mostly by himself. Fortunately, he is not the only prickly person on the trail, and he quickly encounters the Canadian Sarah (Deborah Kara Unger), who has more than a few chips on her shoulder and who mercilessly needles Tom. She is clearly working through her own anger management issues. Lastly is Jack (James Nesbitt), an Irish writer with an inconvenient case of writer’s block. The four form a loosely affiliated group of hikers that much of the time can hardly bear each other’s company. While all are bearing some personal pain, Tom is in particular the dourest. It seems he walks the Way mostly to find a reason to keep breathing. Whatever ashes of his son’s that don’t find their place along the trail he never finished will end up in the Atlantic Ocean when he finishes the walk at the coast of Spain.

This movie is really not a religious movie, although clearly it has a religious frame. This movie is really more about the spiritual ordeals of four troubled souls, each struggling with their issues, each dodging and parrying with each other uncomfortably but necessarily, for their own mental health. They do manage to at first simply accommodate each other, and later develop a sense of camaraderie.

The movie succeeds by keeping its scope narrow. There are no grand revelations in this movie, just a lot of metaphors of purgatory, made perhaps most explicit along the trail when we watch a devotee dragging a cross while two monks next to him flog their backs with a knotted cord as punishment. The truth is most of us live our lives in purgatory. Happiness, when we can find it, tends to be fleeting. The Way of St. James offers a real life path where people in pain can spend weeks simply walking and thinking. In Tom’s case, it does not offer a guaranteed means to heal his broken heart, but it proves a path that helps him move forward through his grief.

The movie also works as a metaphor for the larger world. People from disparate backgrounds can walk side by side, perhaps not happily, but grudgingly, and get glimpses into the burdens that each other carries. Our world is simply the Way of St. James, just a much longer path with endless trails and branches. But our lives turn out to have similar starts and similar ends. At the macro level, The Way simply teaches us this simple truth in the form of a story.

This modest, low budget movie is unpretentious with no grand message, but it is a rather effective journey into the souls of four people who started out as strangers to each other, and grow a bit by walking together and awkwardly sharing their grief. This makes it actually a rather rare film, with modest aspirations that simply give us windows into our own souls. Yes, it’s a modest film and a modest journey, but one worth a modest two hours of your time.

3.1 points on my four-point scale.

Rating: ★★★☆ 

 
The Thinker

In a comic frame of mind

Since retirement is on my mind, what to do next is also on my mind. Here’s what I won’t be doing:

  • Playing golf. I never tried, but it’s expensive and since it requires agility then I am likely to do as well at it as I dance. (I have little sense of rhythm or balance.) So I figure I would prove to be spectacularly bad at it.
  • Ski. See playing golf. Plus I imagine myself in casts and walking around for weeks in crutches.
  • Sitting around the house all day. I get cabin fever after a few days. I figure I need a dog in retirement. They always want to go outside. And while I love my spouse, too much togetherness is not good. I saw what it did to my parent’s marriage. They would have been much happier if they spent much of their days apart.
  • Not working. I don’t want to work full time, but I want to do something productive at least part time. Teaching at a community college, which I have done off and on for many years, is doable but it doesn’t pay much. I’ll want to supplement my retirement income by more than teaching at an adjunct’s salary.

Ideally you spend your retirement doing things you like to do, but doing it on a schedule that suits you and hopefully making some money at it. I’ve done IT management for fifteen years or so. It’s not the most interesting thing to do, but it could be worse and it pays great. In retirement I’ll be glad to put that behind me. It seems a shame to waste my IT skills, because I still think IT is fascinating. So I am thinking of writing some mobile apps, once I learn how to do it. It’s not an easy market though. You have to find a niche plus everyone and his brother is doing the same thing and selling them for ninety-nine cents on Google Play. The vast majority of apps have no buzz and languish in obscurity.

I am obviously a political creature, given the nature of this blog. So combining social action with something I enjoy sounds like a good way to spend my time. If it can be profitable, it is even better. So I am thinking of creating a comic strip.

I have noticed that being able to draw doesn’t matter much anymore. Dilbert is a great example. Scott Adams is a millionaire and he cannot draw worth a damn. What he had was a clever idea and he was fortunate enough to work it until it took off. Dilbert is an example of a comic strip that is minimalistic and this type seems to be more popular these days. The online strip xkcd is a better example. If you are creative enough and hit a new and emerging market then the ability to draw is irrelevant.

Based on my research, creating a comic is a lot like selling a first novel. Many try but few succeed. Also, the market is declining, at least for comics on newsprint. Still, there is something about being a creative force behind a comic that appeals to me. I like that, when successful, you can get paid a lot of money for doing so very little. (At least that’s the way I perceive it.) I’ve come up with two comic ideas and curiously both arrived in the middle of the night.

Going with the existential, minimalist, “I don’t need to actually be an artist to write a comic” theme, my first idea for a strip was “A Pile of Ants”. Three frames for every strip during the week of course. All you see is a pile of ants represented by a lot of dots on a surface. One ant talks to the other. It’s an ill-formed idea, but it occurred to me that ants could articulate things that humans cannot and get away with it. Like Monty Python, most people would not “get” it, but those who did would find it hilarious. That you actually never see any of the characters would make it singularly unique, sort of like radio was when you had to picture the action and characters in your mind. However, after a few days I realized I doubted I could sustain this idea for very long, and it was unlikely to be marketable. And it probably wouldn’t do much for social action.

The second idea, and one I am considering pursuing with a friend that can at least draw, is a strip about life in the retail world. It has the virtue of never being done before. Most of us have had the retail experience in our careers, and found that it sucked. So it would be a strip that most could relate to, which might make it marketable. Of course, it would be all about life in retail, probably a fictional big box chain that seems like some amalgamation of Walmart and Target. In my days it was a Montgomery Ward, now defunct. The experience though does not change much from decade to decade. Clerks and salespeople are used, more often abused and occasionally recycled. Customers frequently act pissy, managers thrive on exploitation and staff turns over so frequently you can’t keep up with who is supposed to be working on a given day. In general, in the retail business every effort is made to keep costs low primarily through the infliction of pain on retail employees. At least, that was my experience in about two years working retail after college but before landing a government job. And from reading sites like Not Always Right, which documents customer abuse in the retail world, stupid customer syndrome has not abated.

I don’t have a working title for the strip yet. I want to keep details private until I find out if this thing can fly, and given the odds it probably won’t. But I am a decent writer, and I can write good characters. While artwork is less important than it used to be, I don’t want to embarrass myself, so I am hoping I can find an artist who might take it on. My friend Tom from childhood gets first dibs, if he has time for the project. We worked on comics together as teens and he has a lot of natural talent plus he works in advertising. If I need inspiration there are plenty of places online to find it, but also plenty of material to dreg up from thirty years ago as well.

The main task right now is to flesh out the strip, sort of the way screenplays are done: with a treatment. I need to set up the whole thing, the main characters, the big box, the staff, the managers, how they interact, etc. When I find an artist, we’ll prototype the characters until we have a set that we both like. We’ll then create a month or so of strips and shop them around to various syndicates. There they will likely get ignored, but you never can tell. And if I find it doesn’t seem marketable in print but is still interesting enough to spend time on, like xkcd it may be an entirely on-line thing. Any income generated from publishing it solely online is likely to be marginal at best, with most income coming from merchandising.

In any event, the strip will be there to entertain but like M*A*S*H on TV it will have a surreptitious purpose. For the first several years the idea is to keep it light. Have characters interact and generate a lot of humor. Once it is established, or when I get to the point where there is not much to lose, I’ll give it more of a social action focus. I’ll highlight just how marginal life in the retail world actually is. I imagine a character that sleeps in his car and runs his social life from sitting in a McDonalds parking lot. He has with a flaky laptop plugged into his cigarette lighter and accesses the Internet using their free WiFi.

Dilbert has sort of plumbed this material for the tech world through characters like Asok and Tina the Tech Writer. However, their pain does not begin to match those who inhabit the retail world. We are getting a glimpse of it from the scattered strikes at fast food restaurants and Walmarts across the country. It’s clear to me that these employees have their backs to the wall and simply cannot endure it anymore. It is actually even harder today than it was when I worked retail, and it was soul crushing then, just paid marginally more. The right comic can help broadcast the injustices faced by these vital but abused workers. If I can market it, the timing seems right as well because the subject is topical.

We’ll see if I can get it together. Wish me luck.

 

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